We all know that Great Effects can arise from Small Causes. Consider the following case. A few weeks ago a small announcement appeared in ALMANAC to the effects that departments wishing to be featured in supplements make their desires known at once. I had read this blurb without giving it a thought. Not so one of my colleagues, who strode into my office and suggested crisply that I get a nether portion of my anatomy in gear so as to insure that our department get its glories into print. Easily intimidated, as always, I telephoned ALMANAC, only to learn that department "profiles" are special supplements that are prepared and paid for by the departments themselves; paid for, moreover, at a rate that would cause our minuscule and already porous operating budget to founder completely.
My announcement of these facts to my colleagues was greeted with consternation (the range of my colleagues' reactions to my announcements is uncommonly narrow, oscillating as they do between consternation and contempt). It was pointed out to me that it was manifestly unfair that only affluent, probably grant-swollen, departments should be featured in a publication like ALMANAC, and that, if I were any kind of chairman at all (much derisive laughter), I would pry loose from the Dean sufficient money to provide the University community with ample proof of our multifarious existence. Seeing the last shred of my leadership about to disappear like SAMP, I loudly vowed to inundate the Dean with coruscating prose, and added that, if memos failed, I would conduct a sit-in in the Dean's office, during which I would read selected sections of my dissertation through a bullhorn. This is no idle threat, since I had kept my two sons in line during their boisterous and cavity-prone years by merely hinting that I might read to them from my dissertation, but it was greeted with contempt, probably because consternation had been used up.
This tonic scene left me with thoughts that, for once, should be of general interest. Obviously, the continuation of department profiles represents the most serious threat to the survival of the University since the promulgation of OBM's infamous A-21 regulation. If the administration is to operate in this regard in its usual even-handed way, funds must be found to insure that each department gets its supplement, with financial chaos as the inevitable result. But even if funds could be obtained for this purpose from some outside source, such as the American Advertising Council, serious, even distasteful problems would still exist.
For example, it is relatively easy for departments in the sciences to dazzle readers with esoteric terminology, descriptions of complicated and incredibly expensive apparatus, and promises of great breakthroughs in areas that affect each and every one of us in this great country of ours. The inability of smaller and less flashy departments, especially in the humanities, to score such easy points will lead to orgies of puffery that might make the most hardened flack on Madison Avenue flinch and gag. With no machinery to describe, professors will submit absurdly idealized descriptions of their research activities, probably accompanied by 8 x 10 glossies of themselves in their book-lined studies. We will be treated to profiles beginning with assertions that there are departments in this university whose contributions to knowledge are in inverse proportion to their size and budget. Specific invidious comparisons will follow. Paranoia will predominate. The mind, to coin a phrase, boggles at the prospect.
Instead of this madness, I asked myself, would it not be better for ALMANAC to scrap the profile business and simply insert in each number a short and flattering reference to one of the University's departments? Something like: "No flies on our entomology people," or "Dead languages jump up and boogie in Williams Hall," or, more soberly, "Decision Sciences never hesitates."
When I broached this suggestion to some of my colleagues, the result was a definite first: a mixture of consternation and contempt! I guess I'll just let the next chairman worry about our department profile.
Clifton Cherpack, Chairman,
Department of Romance Languages
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Originally published in Almanac January 24, 1980