Higher education's lows

The Education Beat

Author: UB law professor Kenneth Lasson takes aim at law journals, which he calls `unintel- ligible' in his new book.

December 10, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

KENNETH Lasson is that rare bird: a law professor who writes well and amusingly. What's more, the University of Baltimore professor uses his considerable skill to skewer fellow academics. He does it delightfully and delightedly, relishing the howls of protest from those on the receiving end.

In his new book, Trembling in the Ivory Tower: Excesses in the Pursuit of Truth and Tenure, Lasson takes aim at the hundreds of law journals -- more than 800 at last count -- that exist primarily to publish abstruse, overly long and overly footnoted essays by junior faculty seeking tenure in the publish-or-perish world of higher education.

"Most of these journal articles go unread," said Lasson, 60. "They're unintelligible, by and large, and they waste a lot of paper."

In his book, Lasson also takes on radical feminist professors who "distort the meaning of liberal education" and the "political correctness" that he says has infected the "entire academic enterprise." Lasson says professors these days are afraid to say anything that might be taken the wrong way, lest they be accused of sexual or racial harassment -- or of failing to embrace "multiculturalism." Higher education, he writes, "has become a decidedly unwelcome nesting place for those with different points of view."

Readers who have paid attention to the political correctness issue will recognize many of Lasson's examples. Some have been making the rounds for years and may be urban myths. Lasson draws heavily from Internet searches and acknowledges that he hasn't checked all his hair-raising stories for accuracy.

Other examples are personal. A friend of his who teaches at a small women's college in New England was put through several years of harrowing litigation, Lasson writes, for suggesting at a search-committee meeting that a lesbian candidate "might not be a good role model."

Thus far, he hasn't been sued, Lasson told me, though one University of Michigan law professor threatened him in a letter responding to a law review essay titled Feminism Awry: Excesses in the Pursuit of Rights and Trifles.

"Contemplating a response," wrote the offended professor (described by Lasson as "the radical feminists' most arched-back cat"), "one begins with using it to wrap fish and ends with the `cognitive therapy' of a fist in the face."

Lasson writes with such good humor that it's easy to overlook his occasional rhetorical excesses. Besides, there's dire need for humor in the higher-education enterprise that former University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins once said must provide three things, according to Lasson: "sex for the students, parking for the faculty and football for the alumni."

The irony here is that Lasson is a tenured professor at UB who has written for several law reviews, and his 250-page book (published by Baltimore's Bancroft Press) contains 493 endnotes on 47 pages, plus uncounted informal notes scattered in the text. Many of them are the author's asides and second thoughts: "The Good Reader who has gotten this far is kindly requested to pardon the polemics: It's merely meeting ire with ire."

Lasson acknowledges that biting the hand that feeds him is easier with the job protection of tenure. I asked him how this book and previous writings about higher education's sins and excesses have gone over at his primary place of employment.

"Most of my colleagues have been more than gracious," he said. "Some even agree with me. Besides, I'm mild-mannered even in class, and I like not to offend people. I state my opinions as matters of fact, but I seldom use a four-letter word or anything offensive. I think people appreciate that."

More women than men are earning doctorates

A sign of the times: Last year, for the first time, more American women than men earned doctorates.

According to an annual federal survey, the change is not so much because more women are earning higher education's highest degree but because the number of doctorates awarded to men has declined 15 percent since 1997. Just a decade ago, women were earning 3,000 fewer doctorates a year than men.

College investment plan a good gift for a grandkid

Want to give your grandchild a holiday gift that's not another toy to be quickly abandoned?

Invest in a federal education savings account or savings bond. Open or contribute to an account in the Maryland College Investment Plan. You'll be investing in your grandchild's future, and there are tax benefits for you to boot.

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