Friday, August 12, 2011

Political Correctness Run Amok

I stumbled recently on this British novel, A Campus Conspiracy, by Anonymous, published by Impress Books in 2006, and the front-cover blurb made me decide to have a go at it:
I charged through the opening chapters with a growing sense of horror, paranoia Рand recognition. This is a rattling read, and a chilling expos̩ of political correctness on campus. РBoris Johnson
(That's Johnson up there, looking like the son of Donald Trump.) I decided it might be entertaining to get a look at an English academic's version of this myth. Johnson, I later learned, was the Conservatives' Shadow Minister for Higher Education, as well as the current mayor of London, but whoever he was, he hadn't really read the book.

A Campus Conspiracy is narrated by the protagonist, Harry Gilbert, professor of Christian Ethics at St. Sebastian's University. Sixty and overweight (he keeps noticing and complaining that his clothes are too tight), Harry is mostly content with his life. He produced a textbook on Christian ethics that was well-received and is widely used, and his newest book, Paradox of Selfishness, is about to be published. He's happily married to the beautiful and classy Victoria, the daughter of a baronet. He's financially comfortable and doesn't really need his job, but he likes teaching, likes research, and likes writing. As the novel opens his main concern is the "Research Assessment Exercise" or RAE:
Over the last decade this ordeal has plagued all university departments. Each person's four best publications are evaluated and scored every few years; government money is then allocated on the basis of the result. In the past, departments were ranked depending on the income. Those academics who were left out of the exercise altogether were humiliated, and their careers severely damaged [4].
But it quickly turns out that the RAE is the least of Harry's problems. Lisa Gold, "an attractive blonde undergraduate" who seems to share Harry's "problem of bursting out of her clothes" (1), appears in his Christian ethics class and visits his office for tutoring. A transfer student, she hands Harry a paper she wrote for a previous class and asks if she can get course credit for it. "I can make it worth your while," she tells him, crossing her legs and "exposing her thighs" (9). When Harry reads the paper, he recognizes that it has been plagiarized, and when he refuses to give her credit for it, Lisa files a sexual harassment complaint against him. The University Chancellor can't act against him for lack of evidence, but he hints that Harry should consider early retirement, which Harry refuses to do.

Harry then gets a phone call from Lisa Gold's rabbi, who tells him that Lisa had been involved in a similar incident at at the synagogue, where her wealthy father is very influential, having pledged a hefty sum to the building fund. "Though I have to say," the rabbi tells Harry, "they tend to promise more than they deliver" (33). The assistant rabbi Lisa accused was fired, though he got a new job in Florida. This reassures Harry a bit, since he emerged pretty well unscathed from Lisa's complaint against him, thanks partly to his tenure and partly to support from his academic union.

But another incident occurs, over Harry's having to keep reminding the college librarian to order more copies of his textbook for the students in his class, enrollment having jumped as a result of his sudden notoriety. The librarian, it turns out, is the Registrar's wife. The Vice Chancellor reports that he has received a letter from Lisa Gold's father, who says he'd been considering making a generous donation to St. Sebastian's until Harry "molested" Lisa. Harry is urged once again to consider retirement; again he refuses.

And so it goes. Harry's problem isn't "political correctness," it's the highly nepotistic administration of St. Sebastian's, combined with decreasing government support for higher education. As the regional union representative tells Harry,
“You know, he said, “your Vice-Chancellor is not as evil as you think. He’s entirely at the mercy of the government who have starved universities of funds for years. He is forced to take more and more students, and he has to educate them on less and less money. So he puts his managers under pressure. All Vice-Chancellors do it. He can’t afford to train anyone properly and, in any case, most academics are not natural managers. They’re too much like prima donnas. So it ends up a mess. It all comes down to money in the end. Universities simply don’t have enough of it. They’ll do anything for cash, like getting involved with that shark Gold. And there you are. Everyone suffers …” [178].
"Political correctness" is explicitly mentioned in A Campus Conspiracy only near the end. Harry benefits as much from the old-boy network (helped by his wife's family and class connections) as he suffers from it. As his troubles at St. Sebastian's mount, he's invited to give a guest lecture at Sweetpea University in South Carolina, where he and Victoria are such a hit that Harry is offered a distinguished professorship, and Victoria is offered a job writing about antiques for the Washington Post. The only blemish on their triumph is their meeting with Harry's department chairman Joel Perley and his wife Mimi, who reveal that Sweetpea U isn't Eden either. The Perleys are Baptists, which for some reason baffles both Harry and Victoria (there are Baptists in England, you know; surely a scholar of Christianity like Harry has heard of them, even if he's never met any). Joel tells Harry some of the gritty realities of American universities: legacy students, for example (also part of the English landscape), and
We're under political pressure to have about twenty percent of our student body black and chicano. But every college in America wants these students if they're any good. So we've got to finance them generously if we want them to come here. We've also got to have scholarships for football and basketball stars. ... What it comes down to is if you happen to be a straightforward, studious, white kid, there isn't a great deal of scholarship money available" (200).
Mimi Perley's even more overtly racist, and Joel explains, "She sometimes forgets that we've all got to be politically correct on the modern college campus" (201). The Perleys also "don't feel that the college chapel has very much to do with Christianity" (198); I bet they even let the homosexuals in. Must be rough.

The depiction of the Perleys and the conclusion of the novel suggest (to me, at least) that Anonymous might be more sensible than his protagonist. I rather hope so.