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Learning Curve

The view from the front row of the academic follies.

Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By DAWN EDEN
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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.

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