Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
— Shakespeare, words spoken by Malvolio in Twelfth- Night
There is more than one way for a university to receive national recognition. One is to employ a faculty member who receives a Nobel Prize for his discovery. The other is to be governed by a Chancellor who proposes a folly. The University of Colorado, has done both. It makes a citizen proud.
Thomas R. Cech was a professor at the University of Colorado in 1989. That was the year that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to him and Sidney Altman for their discovery, as stated in the press release announcing the award “that RNA (ribonucleic acid) in living cells is not only a molecule of heredity but also can function as a biocatalyst.” Dr. Cech’s receipt of the prize was accompanied by the usual favorable publicity that accompanies such an award and redounded to the credit of the University of Colorado where he had been a distinguished member of the faculty since 1978. (Dr. Cech left the university in 2000 in order to become the president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., a post he recently announced he was leaving in order to return to the University of Colorado.) Stories of his receipt of the Nobel Prize were published, as one would expect in all the major newspapers in the world including the Wall Street Journal. Now, thanks to the discovery of a solution to a problem that does not exist by G.P. “Bud” Peterson, its Chancellor, the University of Colorado has returned to the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
In mid-May it was reported that the Chancellor had concluded that what the University of Colorado needed was an endowed university chair for a Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy, Conservative Thought he apparently believes, being somewhat different from normal thought, a belief in which he may be correct. Hoping to bring the university accolades similar to those brought by Thomas Cech when he received the Nobel Prize, Chancellor Peterson announced that he was hoping to raise $9 million to fund such a position. His proposal did not go unnoticed. It appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and was accompanied by an actual photograph of the Chancellor on the second page of that paper, a sign of greatness bestowed on but a distinguished few.
The University of Colorado is 49th in the country in terms of per student state funding which accounts for less than 10 percent of the university’s total budget. Some may wonder whether a better use could be found for $9 million than the creation of a chair that is described as the first of its kind in the nation and the topic of which could easily be covered within the existing course curriculum at the university. The answer is not hard to find. It could. And its discovery would remove from the conversation the mockery to which the Chancellor and his proposal have been subject.
Tom Tancredo, one of the more amusing examples of the sort of mindless wonders that inhabit the halls of Congress and, briefly, a candidate for the president of the United States, dislikes things intellectual as much as the next man. In a letter to the University he offered to become the first occupier of this chair if it is funded. He was, of course, only joking. In that same letter he suggested that a 20-foot high fence be built around the university, similar to the fence he has longed to see built on the border between the United States and Mexico. That, too, was a joke.
On a more serious note, other conservative commentators have criticized the idea. David Horowitz, who lives in mortal fear of liberal professors and has identified the 101 most dangerous academics in the country, is quoted in the W.S.J. article as saying that creation of one token chair will brand the individual like “an animal in the zoo.”
One name that has surfaced as a candidate to fill the chair is columnist George Will. Upon learning of the new position he said: “Like Margaret Mead among the Samoans, they’re planning to study conservatives. That’s hilarious. I don’t think it would be a good fit.”
Bud Peterson did not intentionally play the fool and probably doesn’t think it’s hilarious. He was just looking for a way to leave his mark. There are almost certainly better ways. Perhaps some of his advisors will suggest them. And all is not despair in the academy. Tom Cech is returning and his return will bring good cheer to its denizens. Sadly, the consequences of the Chancellor’s folly will have many returns, all of them less felicitous than the return of Mr. Cech.