My property professor, Sam Fetters, used to say that the politics of academia are so vicious because the stakes are so small.
A week or so ago, I went up to see a longtime friend at his camp in the Adirondacks. We’d been to the same law school some twenty-five years earlier.
At one point, when most of the people went outside to be by the lake, we started to talk about law school. His daughter asked me, “How’d you like going to Syracuse?”
“I liked it,” I told her.
She looked closely at me. “My father always says he hated it,” she said.
“That’s your father,” I told her. “He always hated it.”
At least my friend is consistent.
In law school, I was quite busy. In addition to carrying more than a full schedule of courses, I worked for a downtown law firm and engaged in student journalism.
In my second, or 2L year, I wrote art and music reviews for the university’s main newspaper, the Daily Orange.
But during some controversy, which I don’t remember, the dean of our law school made an outrageous public statement. He said students were telling him such and such on something, and I knew that students would not be saying such things. The dean’s statement was out of touch with reality.
I decided then to revive the law school’s newspaper, and that way keep tabs on the school’s administration. A woman student who is now the county executive of my county was in charge of this newspaper in my second year. Under her leadership, not one issue was published.
With the help of a guy from the school’s right-wing coalition, I revived the newspaper. Without his contacts with the student senate, including his girlfriend, I would not have been given the newspaper. We quickly became a politically-divided newspaper, but one that put out several issues nevertheless.
After we’d put out an issue or two in the fall, my friend, who now has the camp, expressed interest in writing an article. He wrote an essay discussing the cutthroat competition rampant among students in the law school.
This brought him to the dean’s attention. Apparently the dean walked about the law school for days after that snarling, “Who is this student?! I’ll have plenty to say to him!”
The meeting, I don’t think, ever took place. The dean apparently lost interest in my friend. He had enough to do with his other interests, such as Victorian literature and tax law. He had come to the school with the reputation of a brilliant scholar.
I never did keep tabs on this dean, despite my original intention. The first invasion of Iraq by the Bush family made enough fallout. Perhaps.
I did interview the dean in the spring semester with my co-editor. It was the worst experience of my law school career. We went into his office, where I could see brandy decanters.
He motioned for us to sit down. So we sat down in miserably low chairs. His chair, however, was quite high. So when we looked across his desk at him, we had to look upward.
It all seemed like something out of a bad college movie. Which one? I wondered. Animal House? Scared Straight?
Without quite looking at us, the dean leaned over his desk toward us. “I review this interview before you publish it,” he said. “This is a private school. You have no first amendment rights.”
All true. But it seemed out of place in higher education. Not to mention a school where lawyers are taught to defend rights.
He then proceeded to tell us how his presence had benefited the law school. He inferred that some students failed to appreciate this. When my co-editor gave him a transcript of the interview, he made a number of changes.
But this wasn’t enough. The dean hadn’t done himself enough justice. My co-editor was called back to do a second interview, in which the dean further extemporized on all he had done for the school.
I kept telling myself that it didn’t matter that I didn’t go after the dean. I would soon be graduating, and out practicing law. The right wingers in our class had selected some judge named Clarence Thomas to speak at our graduation.
This was months before Thomas was named to the Supreme Court, and the sexual harassment controversy arose. All I knew, from the ceremony, was that he was some guy with a weak handshake. At our graduation, Judge Thomas spoke about family values.
I knew, in school, that a number of students were unhappy with the dean. What I hadn’t counted on was the faculty’s anger. The professors were close to mutiny when, three years after my graduation, the dean announced that he that he was leaving to become dean of a Midwestern law school.
A few years after that, he was listed simply as a faculty member there. He was no longer a dean.