Why would a retired general, Fox News Military Analyst and father of two very high performing professional daughters have sympathy for the slow death being suffered by the President of liberal Harvard University? Glad you asked. In spite of coming from two different cultures we share one thing in common: we both have been victims of nutty faculty from elite universities. His story is well known. Now I can tell mine. Thanks, Larry, for giving me the excuse to bond by sharing….
My reward for surviving the Battle of Hamburger Hill was graduate school. The Army offered me two fully paid semesters away to study a subject of my choice and my choice was military history. My dad was a professional soldier and veteran of three wars so I grew up listening to war stories from a colorful and rich collection of war veterans. I walked battlefields in places we lived overseas like The Philippines and Germany. My mother told me that I read The Red Badge of Courage when I was eight and Grant’s Memoirs at twelve.
I arrived at Duke in the summer of 1971 on what was a pilgrimage to the Mecca of war studies. Something like sixty generals have advanced degrees from Duke. Two chiefs of service, Ron Folgelman, Air Force, and Rick Shinseki, Army, earned master’s there before me. Second year officer students greeted me with the warning that Vietnam had changed the atmospherics at Duke mostly for the worse. Their advice to the new guy was unambiguous: take courses only from that terrific cadre of esteemed professors who joined the faculty after serving in World War II. Men like Ted Ropp, I B Holley and Richard Preston quite literally invented the discipline of war studies during the fifties.
I chose one. Unfortunately shortly before Labor Day, he died. In his place marched into the classroom the first of the History Department’s young Turks hastily tenured in fear after the student riots in the late sixties. Professor “X” was about four years older than me. He was a Marxist on the make when Marxism was the rage on campus. His first group of graduate students would be the clay that he would mold to become an edifice to his brand of dialectical scholarship. He changed all the pedagogical rules. Only one four hour session per week; each would be a student’s hell with brutal show and tell exercises during which we would learn just how stupid we were. We would get a grade every week. Immediately, half the students bolted. But not me. After all I’d survived an AK -47 in my face. Could this be any worse?
Well, actually, yes it was. My first grades were very good, all As. Then about mid October my As turned suddenly into Fs. I panicked but persevered. But studying harder seemed only to make things worse. At mid semester at my wife’s urging I decided to see Professor X in his office on East Campus. It was a stately room for one so newly tenured, covered as they all were with walls of books intended I think to intimidate graduate students. I guess the weight of paper signified wisdom.
I remember things pretty well. But this session on that October afternoon is seared in my memory and it’s just as fresh today as it was almost thirty years ago. Professor X was courteous to a fault almost obsequious at times. “You’re a good student,” he said, “You read everything, you write well, and you argue your case with some skill.”
“But what about my grades?”
“Ah, grades, they don’t mean much, really.”
“Well they do to the Army. If I fail here my career is over.”
Then he became solicitous. “Well, Mr. Scales, I will confess that this situation is partly my fault. I was only recently told that you’re in the military.” At that I froze but kept my composure. Then came “the justification”. “You see, Duke is a great research institution. Our task as faculty is to produce scholars who will expand the body of historical knowledge. By that I mean produce serious scholarship. (At that point he made some moronic allusion to planting corn. I forget the details). “Frankly, I don’t believe the army is a place where serious scholarship is done. Your being here really robs the profession of a place that a deserving scholar should be occupying.”
All I could think to say was….” Do I have any recourse?” To which he answered in a pleasant and modulated voice: “I don’t think so.” And the Fs kept coming. That was it. I was screwed. But I persevered. Over the next few weeks, like any good soldier, I went up the university chain of command to no avail. All of them lectured me on the sanctity of academic freedom and the prerogatives of tenure. Only when I threatened to go to the local Durham newspaper did they came up with a novel compromise: I would go to trial. ( I’m not making this up!)
Talk about surreal. There I was defending myself alone against a group of hostile professors who really wanted to exploit the occasion to inform me of how immoral it was to be a soldier. I made the case that even if they didn’t like my profession the ethos of the academy should allow even those from degenerate backgrounds the right to learn and be heard. The final ruling was a curious blending of cowardice and obfuscation. If I earned an A on the final exam they would give me a gentleman’s B for the course and allow me to change out of Professor X’s course for another. Holding out until finals week, of course, was their way of keeping me quiet.
I kept my mouth shut and passed. But the whole sordid episode made me so angry that I decided that the surest revenge would be to earn a PhD instead of a master’s. First I petitioned the Army for a third year. They wouldn’t give me the traditional four necessary for a PhD. I calculated that if I doubled up my course load for the next year I would (just) have enough credits. I would use whatever time I could find to learn a second language and study for the preliminary examination, which I had scheduled just three days before I was to report to my next duty station.
The next year was both exhilarating and debilitating. But by February 1973 I was approved for my prelims. In those days a student chose his “committee” of faculty members with the help of the faculty advisor. I was pleased with my mine. However, just a week prior to the exam I happened to open the latest “crack and peel” computer printout that showed one of my choices had been scratched and in his place was, you guessed it, Professor X. Again, back to the mats. I confronted him with the print out.
“Why did you do this?”
“Because I told you that you shouldn’t be here. If you don’t deserve a master’s I assure you that a doctorate is out of the question.”
“Will you black ball me?”
“Of course, you don’t belong here.”
Again up the chain of command. Fortunately one of the gray haired faculty, Professor Ted Ropp, came to my rescue and made polite mince meat of X. I passed my prelims.
So, Larry, we do share similar experiences. The lesson for both of us is that a university should value all opinions. The academy should relish not only diversity of race, gender and sexual choice but also diversity of opinions and ideas. Professors should be the last ones to abuse their power in order to fulfill their own ideological agendas. But it happens, doesn’t it, Larry?