More Academic Fun

Although Daniel S. Greenberg’s Tech Transfer is ostensibly about the spurious ways that professors at major research universities hype their discoveries and sell them to industry (Big Pharma, for example), Greenberg’s satire is so broad that his rambunctious story is as applicable to the humanities as it is to the sciences. His focus is on the promotion of major scientific breakthroughs that universities–with coordinated help from both professors and administrators–rely on to generate royalties from discoveries once they have been transferred from the institutional research laboratories to industry, i.e., tech transfer. No one who has ever taught in higher education will fail to be amused by Greenberg’s hilarious romp.

When Kershaw University’s doddering and beloved president finally dies, the faculty fears that their days of neglectful oversight will come to an end. Obviously, there has to be a search for a new president. All of the applications for the position are left unopened because the search firm has its own short list. Then, the head of the firm warns the trustees that it’s virtually impossible to find a candidate who is totally clean. “Consider that with computer hacking and the cell-phone camera and other intrusive devices now universal facts of life, derogatory information can be just a few clicks away. And once it’s found, anything about anyone can be displayed on the Internet, including presidents of universities.”

Then, the clincher: “There was a very admirable young man—Harvard, Rhodes Scholar—running in a Congressional primary last year. Just the kind of person we’d all like to see in politics. I won’t say where this happened, but somehow a video of him picking his nose and then a minute later shaking hands with voters showed up on the Internet. And it was all over for him. That’s the new digital world for you.”

The problem, then, is how to find an untainted person to be the next president of Kershaw University. In a wonderful scene involving the board of trustees and the search firm, all the outside candidates are eliminated, including the candidates chosen by the firm itself. Never fear. There has to be some candidate from within the university, some nebbish professor who is so undistinguished and so unimaginative that there is no blot on his past. Enter Professor Mark Winner of the economics department, the Chauncey Gardiner of Kershaw University. Though he’s been at the university for years—his research is described as “above mediocre” and he’s an expert on vending machines–hardly anyone knows anything about him. He has, in fact, left no mark on the university. In other words, he’s the ideal candidate for the job.

Of the economics department itself, Greenberg writes, “The department, like others at Kershaw, had a geriatric tilt because of the federal law against age discrimination, which restricted forced retirement. In the absence of incontestable dementia or other disabling infirmities, professors were assured life-long employment, as long as they could get to the campus. The department housed multiple sects of economics: Keynesianism, mercantilism, monetarism, Henry George single taxing, libertarianism, and neo-Marxism. There were Friedmanites, as well as gold and sliver nostalgists, flat taxers, and a non-repentant bi-metalist. Randomly present among these adherents were various personality disorders, including hair-trigger, uncontrollable tempers, chronic sulkiness, and irremediable grudge-bearing. In combination, the beliefs and the personalities had long ago spawned bitter conflicts, both in the columns of learned journals and in face-to-face encounters at scholarly conferences and chance meetings, on and off campus. Many of the economics professors, like their colleagues in other departments, were months, sometimes years, late in delivering articles and reviews promised to professional journals, and many were years overdue in fulfilling book contracts. Nonetheless, conflict took priority.”

That utterly delicious passage is applicable to university politics everywhere. I am in awe of Greenberg, who has never held a full-time academic appointment yet is dead center in his understanding of the pettiness and the excesses of university faculties. There are dozens of equally revealing passages about academia’s worst excesses in Tech Transfer, many of them so brief you wonder if the narrator (and probably Greenberg himself) wouldn’t make a good stand-up comic. Of one faculty member with a whiz-bang reputation for getting federal grants, he observes, “He was notable for acquiring research grants, because he was notable for acquiring research grants.” And of the sorry state of post-docs he quips that a time will probably arrive when there will be the designation “post-doc emeritus.”

The central plot concerns a celebrated professor at Kershaw who discovers a formula that—when fed to rats—transforms them into a state where sleep is no longer necessary. The Army has surreptitiously funded the research under the hope that once the drug is used on soldiers, it will keep them fighting forever–with an “unexpected bonus of [never] eliminating human waste.”

The secret research (and its implications for warfare) can only have negative ramifications for the university’s image. Once Kershaw’s new president gets wind of the research project, Tech Transfer becomes a gut-splitting page turner.

Sit back and enjoy Daniel S. Greenberg’s wicked roller-coaster ride through the halls of academe. The satire is woven throughout every scene in this clever academic novel—the most engaging I’ve read in many years—but like all good humor, the sharp edge is just below the surface, barely hidden, but capable of cutting deeply if you grip the book too tightly.

Tech Transfer: Science, Money, Love, and the Ivory Tower
By Daniel S. Greenberg
Kanawha Press, 270 pp., $11.45

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.




Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.