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Academic diversity, beavers, etc.

From the Scrapbook

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40
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Moving to the Center

There's a splendid controversy brewing at the University of Chicago--at least we'll consider it splendid so long as it has a happy ending, which now seems likely. The U of C may be best known these days as home to the law school where Barack Obama used to lecture on constitutional law (twice a week!), but in simpler times it was most famous as the academic perch of the great free-market economist Milton Friedman, who died in 2006.

So when a prestigious university wants to name a research center after its most celebrated (Nobel prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom, etc., etc., etc.) professor, who could object? Well, lots of people--less celebrated professors mostly. Last week 101 full-time faculty members sent a letter to the university's president, Robert Zimmer, protesting the newly endowed Milton Friedman Institute, an on-campus think tank that will welcome visiting scholars doing research in economics and law. The committee that proposed the center, including three Nobel-winning economists, expects to raise $200 million for a permanent endowment.

President Zimmer met with a group of the objecting profs, but so far he's refusing to back down, as might be expected of a college president who suddenly finds himself within sniffing distance of $200 million. He and his allies insist that the Friedman center will have "no particular ideological slant," and we believe him. It's hard to imagine it will have anything as pronounced as the ideological slant of the vast majority of the school's other departments, where the standard-issue, off-the-shelf liberalism of the American professoriate holds sway.

Yet the profs show no sign of backing down either. Their letter last week was a loopy masterpiece of its kind, objecting that allowing the Friedman center on campus will reinforce "a perception that the university's faculty lack intellectual and ideological diversity." An interesting objection, isn't it? A university where all but a handful of professors are on the cultural and political left risks losing its "ideological diversity" if it endows a center named after a non-leftist. It's been a while since we've seen such a lovely expression of the topsy-turvy worldview of the people who teach our sons and daughters.

Nature News

Despite our lack of an engineering degree, THE SCRAPBOOK feels a particular affinity with beavers--Castor Canadensis--and so was pleased to learn last week that a pair of European beavers are reported to have built what is believed to be the first beaver dam in England in hundreds of years. Beavers were hunted to extinction in England and Wales as long ago as the 12th century--both for their pelts and for castoreum, a secretion of their scent gland which was believed to have medicinal properties--but a dozen or so have been imported from Germany in the past few years, and with encouraging results.

Most live on lakes and have no need to build dams, but two were deposited at a private estate on the Tale River in East Devon last year, and according to its owner, "A year after they came ... they have built a dam and we think they are breeding. ... It really is a superb structure--quite a feat of engineering for two small beavers."

Perhaps "affinity" is the wrong word for THE SCRAPBOOK's attitude; it's really more like admiration. Beavers are the second largest variety of rodent in the world--the champion of the order is the capybara, native to South America--and easily recognized by their waterproof coats, shiny flat tails, and buck teeth.

But it's the beaver lifestyle that inspires respect. These quiet nocturnal creatures are industrious to a startling degree, friendly to humans, resourceful and versatile on land and water, and monogamous in their private lives. Natural conservatives, perhaps? And of course, they are the Frank Lloyd Wrights of the animal world: Introduce beavers to a river or stream, and soon a wooden/earthen dam appears, and then a multilevel lodge of mud and sticks, above and below the surface, housing infinite beaver generations. Beaver dams are beneficial to the ecology--creating wetlands, nurturing growth--and balm to anyone who strolls in the woods and stumbles on evidence of beaver habitation.

After hovering near extinction a century ago in North America, beavers are plentiful now and, as this latest report suggests, on the comeback trail in Europe as well.

Sentences We Didn't Finish

'Yes, there may be individuals in positions of great authority who call themselves 'conservatives,' and who have been accepted as such and even cheered on by the conservative movement for years. But now that their numbers are in the tank, it is plain that they are nothing of the sort. We know the right will respond this way because ... "

--Thomas Frank, Wall Street Journal, June 18