Professorships in Scandal?

Unknown-1On page 1 of the New York Times yesterday was an article, “The Last Refuge From Scandal? Professorships”:

The traditional path to an academic job is long and laborious: the solitude and penury of graduate study, the scramble for one of the few open positions in each field, the blood sport of competitive publishing. But while colleges have always courted accomplished public figures, a leap to the front of the class has now become a natural move for those who have suffered spectacular career flameouts. At this point, the transition from public disgrace to college lectern is so familiar that when Mr. Galliano merely stepped foot on the campus of Central Saint Martins, an art and design school in London, speculation rippled around the world— incorrectly — that he would soon be teaching there.

I guess this shouldn’t surprise anyone. Sexy course titles and “novelty academics” are pretty old-hat; power and scandal, even if on the sleazy side, attract students; and if students are buying, universities can’t be blamed for selling. Or can they?  Here are some examples they cite:

After a sex scandal forced Eliot Spitzer from the governor’s mansion in Albany, he turned up at City College, teaching a course called “Law and Public Policy.” …

More recently, Parsons the New School for Design announced that John Galliano, the celebrated clothing designer who lost his job at Christian Dior after unleashing a torrent of anti-Semitic vitriol in a bar, would be leading a four-day workshop and discussion called “Show Me Emotion.”

And David H. Petraeus, the general turned intelligence chief turned ribald punch line, will have not one college paycheck, but two. Last month, the City University of New York said he would be the next visiting professor of public policy at Macaulay Honors College. On Thursday, the University of Southern California announced that Mr. Petraeus would also be teaching there…

Despite a petition objecting to Galliano, there seems to be little public concern that offering such courses threatens a university’s ethical standards, especially, perhaps, if “only” sexual transgressions are involved.  Still, while I can see students wanting to enroll in a course taught by a Petreaus or a Spitzer, I doubt the same would be true for one run by a Deiderick Stapel*.  Is it because in the former cases the scandal does not directly touch on their accomplishments? Is there a justifiable principle of distinction operating?**   (Or might it depend on the course?)

….Though they rarely pay much, arrangements like these have obvious benefits. For the new professors, the jobs offer a chance to do something positive rather than sitting home with their regrets, and to begin rehabilitating their image by associating themselves with intellectual pursuits. The students get to learn about history from people who made it — though the lessons generally steer well clear of the professors’ less noble accomplishments. And the colleges get to hire someone who might otherwise be out of reach…

But if scandal presents these schools with a bargain, it can also carry a cost. Mr. Galliano has apologized for his remarks, but an online petition opposing his arrival at Parsons has nonetheless attracted more than 2,000 signatures. Joel Towers, the executive dean of Parsons, has called the class a chance “to learn from positive and negative examples.” Mr. Galliano is volunteering his time.

Anthony D. Weiner, the former congressman who had a new kind of sex scandal played out in 140-character Twitter posts, said he had had “very preliminary discussions” about a teaching role somewhere but decided it would create “too much of a commotion.” He is now contemplating a run for mayor of New York, but says he has not ruled out teaching.

Aside from offering avenues of rehabilitation for fallen politicians, ex-powerful men, and celebrities, it may be argued that these courses offer valuable learning opportunities for students. Yet apparently they deliberately steer clear of their particular scandals.

For Mr. Spitzer’s weekly seminar, which he taught from fall 2009 to spring 2012, he was paid slightly less than $5,000 a semester, which he donated to the school after other professors said it was on the high side of what adjuncts earn. ….Ms. Lynch [one of his students] recalled classroom discussions as intense and wide-ranging — with limits. “He would never let us get to a point, obviously, where we were going to address him stepping down,” she said…

Mr. McGreevey, who resigned as New Jersey governor after announcing that he was gay and had had an extramarital affair with an aide on his payroll, said that teaching offered a way “not merely to be engaged in the backwash of the recent past but to look forward.” He has taught since 2007 at Kean, a public university in New Jersey, earning $3,600 a semester.

He said he hoped his story might encourage others to teach, adding, “We need teachers and adjuncts who bring from their own private life a wealth of experiences to share with America’s future leaders, however flawed those experiences may be.” But Reina I. Valenzuela, who took his class in 2009 and still raves about it, said the class was structured around case studies, none of which were his own. “It was never a topic of discussion,” she said.

David A. Paterson, who stepped in to finish Mr. Spitzer’s term as governor, ended his campaign to win his own full term after revelations that his administration had intervened on behalf of an aide who was accused of assault. Rather than try his luck in the voting booth, he headed to New York University, where he led a seminar called “The Teachable Art of Governing.” (“I wanted to teach history, and they looked at me like I had three heads,” he recalled, saying that N.Y.U. responded, in essence: “‘You kidding? What do you think we brought you here for?’ ”)

The full article is here….***

*But my April fool’s post turned out not to be so very far from true, as I had assumed. Search this blog for Stapel, if interested.

**Even so, it might be awkward for a Spitzer to charge a student for plagiarizing.

***Catching up on blogs since the conference, I note too that Gelman has something on “cleaning up science”.

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4 thoughts on “Professorships in Scandal?

  1. anonymous

    Some would be fascinated to attend seminars with Stapel as instructor. “Ethics and Data analysis”?

    • Well they say he was a meticulous designer of experiments, down to the last detail—except carrying them out of course. So maybe he could teach experimental design?

  2. Someone e-mailed to say that obviously these scandals do hurt the disgraced person’s accomplishments. I was suggesting, however, that in some cases the relevant accomplishments might be thought to be largely (?) intact. At any rate, if this is not so, then the justification for such courses would seem questionable, at least on academic grounds.

  3. Update (7-15-13) declared ( matter “a veritable second Petraeusgate”, when it was discovered he was to receive $200,000 for teaching a small course with the help of graders and other assistants. It was allegedly reduced to $1.

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