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A Tale of Two Administrators

A story about what you are allowed to say today in universities.

By 3.17.05

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LISTEN, MY CHILDREN, and you shall hear the tale of two university administrators. It is a story about what you are allowed to say in universities today--or, more particularly, about what you are not allowed to say. But I promise a happy ending.

A couple years ago, James J. O'Donnell was elected president of the American Philological Association (APA), the professional organization for academic classicists. At the end of his term, January 2004, he delivered the customary presidential address at the association's annual meeting. The genre is conventional, with an Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end: nostalgic reminiscences followed by a scholarly discussion and, finally, a prediction or encouraging word. O'Donnell's address was wittier and better delivered than most, but followed the usual structure. He reminisced about his first APA meeting and then surveyed recent developments in his field of Late Antiquity. His suggestions for the future were a little unusual, however:

The traditional study of "classics" as a domain of study depends on a narrative.... We all know the story and use it and refer to it every day, and everybody else knows the story. The chain bookstores use the story to arrange their shelves, and we depend on it when we try to explain to strangers what we do. It's a good story: Greeks, then Romans, then the Middle Ages--and somebody else is responsible for the Middle Ages.... The message from Late Antique scholarship to the classical disciplines today is that the old story won't work any longer.... Dealing with the failure of that traditional narrative to sustain itself will be a central task, I believe, for classicists as well as Late Antiquers of the next generation.

The message was clear. The story of the West is false, and honest classicists will stop teaching it. It's a bit difficult, however, to see what exactly classicists would then do for a living. Strangely, other scholars of Late Antiquity -- the renowned Peter Brown, for instance -- do not seem to have noticed that recent research has disproved the importance of the Greeks. In fact, O'Donnell's notion of a falsified story of the West is not a dispassionate conclusion of scholarly inquiry; rather, it is a presumption of postmodernism, which denounces all "meta-narratives" as inventions told to oppress and mislead. And just as every child with a hammer thinks all the world is a nail, so O'Donnell with his handy deconstructionist tool proved eager to apply his efforts to other "meta-narratives" as well.

Roman Catholicism, like "classics," relies on its own grand narrative. Jesus made Peter head of the Church (Matthew 16:18). Peter was martyred in Rome on the site of the current St. Peter's basilica. His successor, Clement, wrote a letter to the Corinthians, which shows that the authority of the Bishop of Rome was already recognized in the first century A.D. This authority became theologically decisive during the great Christological debates of the fourth century. O'Donnell would have none of this, as he told his APA audience:

The "papacy" was created as a kind of avatar of Roman religious authority chiefly in the fifth and sixth centuries and spawned its own authorized narrative, the Liber pontificialis...to legitimate the line back to Peter.... The pseudo-Clementine Recognitiones purport to tell the story of the first pope Clement, who met and knew Peter while still in the east and eventually succeeded him in Rome. The account hasn't a prayer of being true, but it was as influential as only a historical novel can be in shaping consciousness and reassuring the uncertain.

I could quote more, but I'll refrain. Oh, and one more thing. O'Donnell was recently appointed provost of Georgetown University, a Catholic university in Washington, D.C. The good news, obviously, is that when a person has scholarly and administrative gifts, he is not denied a position simply because he believes that the founding story of the academic institution that employs him is false: in fact, "hasn't a prayer of being true." Welcome to the brave new world of academic tolerance!

WHILE O'DONNELL WAS ASSUMING the mantle of provost of Georgetown, another Catholic academic administrator had a different experience. Thomas Lindsay was provost of the University of Dallas, where he had filled many administrative posts. A new president was coming aboard and Lindsay figured that the new leader would want his own team, so he began to look for employment elsewhere. There were several good posts that seemed suitable to such a successful and experienced administrator. In fact, he was attracted by offers from two eastern schools, St. Joseph's in Pennsylvania and Seton Hall in New Jersey. He decided to take the offer from St. Joe's.

But then a problem arose. Someone at St. Joe's discovered that Lindsay was a member of the National Association of Scholars and, what is more, had written articles for the NAS journal, Academic Questions, questioning affirmative action. The entire story is worth telling, and Lindsay tells it well. I can't resist, however, mentioning that one objection to his appointment was the fear that someone who questions affirmative action could not be "fair" to minority students. George Orwell would have been amused. Once upon a time, in a different country where I used to live, judging people on the basis of their accomplishments, without taking their race or ethnicity into account, was what being "fair" meant. That was then, as they say.

I PROMISED A HAPPY ENDING. Today, Tom Lindsay is provost at Seton Hall, as Jim O'Donnell is provost at Georgetown. Still, ponder our tale. Georgetown had no problem with an administrator who rejects the historical narrative that is the foundation of the Church which built Georgetown and all the other Catholic schools and universities. Without belief in the antiquity and validity of the narrative behind the "papacy," there would be no Georgetown (or Notre Dame, or St. Joseph's). There would still be Harvard and Princeton, but not, however, Georgetown. If, however, you question a Johnny-come-lately notion like affirmative action, which forms no part of the intellectual and ethical tradition of any Christian denomination, you may be and, in one case, actually were found to be, unsuitable for employment at a Catholic university.

Americans used to be proud of the diversity of their educational institutions, which were founded by many different private, public, and denominational sources. In today's academy, however, they are all, or most of them, dominated by the same liberal mindset. This mindset is cut off from tradition, hostile to intellectual diversity, trapped in a presentist prison. Any questioning of its untested notions is interpreted to mean that the questioner lacks basic moral virtues, like fairness. I could tell parallel stories about other public, private, and denominational schools, in most of which there is no Seton Hall to provide a happy ending.

What can we do in this topsy-turvy world? Let me borrow a suggestion from someone who is unlikely to be found a suitable role model for a provost of a Catholic (or any other) university in the United States, Joseph de Maistre: We do not need a counter-revolution; we need the opposite of a revolution. We need to take seriously again the historical traditions that actually created the major institutions, educational and otherwise, of our nation. We also need to learn to view the fads of the past two generations with the same dismissive skepticism we now boast of when we face our most long-lived and creative traditions. This is the challenge we all face, whatever our denominational commitments, in Anno Domini 2005, as we used to say.

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