The Magazine

Learning Curve

The view from the front row of the academic follies.

Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By DAWN EDEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Diary of a Dean

Learning Curve

by Herbert I. London
Hamilton, 60 pp., $14.99

When I attended New York University during the late 1980s, reading about the school’s internal politics in the Washington Square News, Gallatin Division Dean Herbert London registered in my undergraduate imagination as a real “no”-it-all: He was against everything​—​at least, judging by the headlines. Whenever the WSN reported on a university senate vote, it trumpeted the tally as 77-1, with him the lone dissenter. In Diary of a Dean, an episodic collection of autobiographical essays, London tells how he became a voice crying in the wilderness of liberal academia. At the same time, he depicts the larger story of “the dramatic shift that has occurred in this society over the last four decades,” particularly how “political considerations have entered the Academy as an ideological tsunami.”

It’s a noble goal, to be sure​—​although, perhaps, a bit much for a book that clocks in at 60 pages. At times, the author seems like an eager undergrad trying to complete a double major in modern American literature and political science within seven semesters. Ultimately his micro perspective wins out over his macro perspective​—​which is just as well, as he has a gift for storytelling and a charmingly self-effacing wit. In describing one of his first positions in academia, as NYU’s ombudsman, he quotes a friend who quipped that the job made him a “high-grade hydrant.”

“Well,” he adds, “at least I can take comfort in being high grade, a point I could not make as a dean years later.”

A Brooklyn native who received his undergraduate degree from Columbia and his doctorate from NYU, London was, by his own admission, a “peacenik” until 1966, when an extended stay in Australia on a Fulbright fellowship opened his eyes: 

American power can appear to be quite different when viewed from a relatively weak state possessing modest defense capabilities. Having been taught a foreign policy view predicated on an aversion to brinksmanship and isolationism, it wasn’t too difficult for me to accept the idea of America’s international role in a “conventional war.”

More difficult was retaining his liberal credentials in the wake of his newly hawkish views. How he accomplished this is unexplained, but he does note that, after he returned to America in 1967 to take a teaching position at NYU, students felt they could trust him because he was “under thirty.” They voted him campus ombudsman, a position that gave him his first close-up look at “the fragility of faculty egos, the compensatory assertiveness of students, and the byzantine administration of the university.”

While London takes joy in chronicling the absurdities of his high-placed academic peers, he is at his most entertaining when recounting the colorful parade of hippie-era freaks and geeks who passed through his office seeking a sympathetic administrator. Among them was “a plain girl with very thick glasses and stains all over her blouse” who “wanted to know whether it was appropriate to give a professor a gift.” When the young ombudsman suggested she simply discuss the matter with her professor, she stared into space “for an extended minute” before the light returned to her eyes and she asked London to examine the proposed present:

She slipped a white card out of a carrying case and showed it to me. The card was constructed like a triptych, with each section having what seemed to be a globe and a fetus. “What is the significance of the drawing?” I inquired innocently. “Significance? Significance?” she replied, each word becoming more faint.

In that instance, he was able to restore sanity to the situation by reporting the coed to the university psychiatrist. However, once he advanced in 1972 to a deanship and a place in the university senate, the lunatics were running the asylum. On “almost every issue” he found himself “a minority of one.” But, he writes, “at some point, this minority position seemed suitable for me.” That’s putting it mildly. He positively reveled in his underdog status, regularly calling upon the senate president to put the inevitable 77-1 tally to a roll call vote​—​“since a voice vote would drown out my dissent.” One such lopsided decision was on a proposal to bar the Navy from recruiting on campus because of the military’s refusal to admit homosexuals.

Members of the gay community, who were well represented in this university body, were particularly adamant about this position arguing that the principle in the case, namely discrimination, had to be recognized and condemned. I argued that there was another principle at stake, namely the maintenance of an open campus, even for those with whom many disagree.

After the proposal passed over his lone objection, London mentioned the new policy to a colleague outside the university: Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, chairman of the federally funded Center for Naval Analysis, for which London served on the board. It didn’t exactly float his boat. The secretary responded that, in that case, the Navy would simply cut off the $10 million in research funds it had agreed to provide for NYU’s Courant Institute for Mathematics and Applied Science. London, “sensing an opportunity to hoist these self-satisfied ‘idealists’ by their own petard,” suggested the secretary raise those concerns with the university president. In swift order, an emergency senate meeting was called, with members changing their vote at the president’s behest. Once again, the vote was 77-1.

“This time,” London writes, “I was on the other side in what I can only describe as the most delicious moment in my thirty-eight years at NYU.”

The Gallatin Division had its genesis in 1972 when London, after working on a committee to develop a college alternative, was tapped to lead the school’s fledgling “UWW”​—​University Without Walls. He and his colleagues replaced the division’s 60-credit general education program with the requirement that students read a long list of great books and demonstrate their knowledge of the works by way of an oral exam.

Around this time, in the course of describing this experiment to skeptical colleagues at a Faculty Council meeting, the dean acquired an unexpected ally. The venerable philosophy professor Sidney Hook, mistakenly thinking the new division was an external degree program, asked London if a “great person” had ever graduated from such a program. 

So nonplussed was I by this question that I couldn’t think of a great person who had graduated from a traditional college program. .  .  . However, Professor Hook was waiting for an answer. Reaching into my memory bank, where trivia about everything from the etymology of “brouhaha” to George Kell’s career batting average swim aimlessly about, I blurted out, “Lenin.” 

A stunned Hook asked London how he knew that. “I said, ‘Lenin attended the University of Moscow extension division. I remember reading that fact in Bertram Wolfe’s Three Who Made a Revolution.’ At that point, Professor Hook noted, ‘Anyone who knows that deserves my support.’ ”

Readers expecting to learn about the actual operations of the UWW (renamed the Gallatin Division in 1976)​—​particularly the impact its Great Books curriculum had on students’ learning​—​will be disappointed. London is more interested in relating anecdotes about inside politics at a university where the sixties never really ended. As his Diary progresses, moreover, it becomes clear that his overriding interest is to show a way out of the “institutional confusion” of contemporary academia: the alternative provided by think tanks, which he calls “universities in absentia.” To that end, he provides an amusing sales pitch for the Hudson Institute as he describes the first job he did for Hudson after requesting a meeting with founder Herman Kahn in 1969:

[Kahn] wanted me to work on a project related to drug abuse in New York. He said that the street price of heroin reveals a great deal about the effectiveness of drug enforcement efforts. .  .  . “So,” he stated, “as your first assignment buy heroin on the streets of Harlem.” 

As the professor picked his jaw up from off the floor, Kahn assured him that the police were in on the project and would cooperate​—​which they did. When London says that the Hudson Institute was “more exciting .  .  . than any academic institution I had encountered,” it’s hard to argue with him. It would become an oasis for him during his early battles as UWW dean​—​so much so that he “jumped at the opportunity” to become one of its trustees in 1974: “I had emerged from heroin purchaser to trustee in a five-year period.” 

Alas, as Diary of a Dean frequently reminds us, when it comes to the state of contemporary higher education, there are no quick fixes. That is why, today, Herbert London continues to cast his vote against liberal academia​—​but from the outside: “I realize, like G.K. Chesterton, that the problem with pragmatism is that it
doesn’t work.”

Dawn Eden is the author of The Thrill of the Chaste.


Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers