Dining on gin and consommé

Thornton really got started. “One of the first things the new university president did was to establish the All Campus Organizing Council. All-COC—which it is not—has many mandates. For my part, I chaired The Interdisciplinary Team milked for an interdisciplinary seminar here, a cross-disciplinary conference there, you know what I mean.

“Now, it was my turn on behalf of TIT to attend an event we funded. Peter, you remember the oldest unit on campus? Well, the seminar series I’m talking about took place in there in the College of Agriculture, Resources and the Environment. CARE, which it did not, has produced, among other distinctions, the stay-soft (all-mush) peach, the BetterLife (Bet-her-life!) household insect sprays, and the workerless irrigation technologies (WITless to critics).

“If we are to believe the College, a dollar of their research leads to more than two dollars return on investment in terms of increased agricultural productivity and blah, blah, blah. What the research actually has done is immiserate farmworkers, help obliterate family farms, and concentrate wealth into corporate infamies. The media eventually sniffed some of this out and went into its Brownian motion, the legislature hemmed, a court case was decided, and CARE found itself having to.

“What were one day CARE’s long-standing departments of insecticides, farm technology, industrial forestry, and crop production become the Department of Life Sciences. Programs were ‘rebranded’ environmental. Sotto voce cries of ‘we want evolution, not revolution!’ were heard from faculty. Meetings found their social scientists hectoring insecticide faculty, ‘Well, at least our research doesn’t kill farmworkers!’ The economists, ever their own, shouted back, ‘When was the last time you lot published in Mathematica?!’

“Time passes, the College publicized its ever-so socially and environmentally responsible initiatives, including—no joke here—its Smallholder Land Access Program (SLAP). With these diddles as the front-door, the College repositioned itself to continue its back-door research in genetic engineering, agricultural biotechnology, pharming and the like. A win-win for College banditti. . .”

“Thornton. . .,” Dick cautioned. “My dear boys, believe me, you can’t make this up! So,” Thornton pressed, “TIT was asked to come through the front-door and sponsor the Dean’s Seminar Series: “What are natural resources?” The idea was a simple one, as you might expect. Ask members of the College’s departments to answer from their own discipline’s perspective.

“Whatever, they expected us to fund the Series, and we did. No, Peter, I brook no criticism. None. You two had to have been there. The sight of any kind of money, well, it was like shining deer at night.

“Now, I found myself at their seminar, ‘What are natural resources? The perspective of a humane biotechnologist.’ Acedia thickens. Four people in the room. I ask the perfectly obvious question, absolutely no malice intended, so I put forward, with the obligatory preamble of not being a scientist, correct me if I’m wrong, etcetera: ‘. . .but let me ask you this, just what is natural about agricultural biotechnology?’ I mean, it is the title of the seminar. The presenter was gobsmacked—had I cursed?—and responded: ‘But. . .what’s more natural than a gene?’

“I was unnerved. Enough said. I knew then and there these people needed surveilling.

“So, when out of nowhere, the university president taps me to chair a very hush-hush committee on the scandal involving CARE’s new dean, I accepted posthaste. The president needed, how to say, a man of singular disposition to make sense of the unholy mess into which the dean had gotten himself and the College.

“I now introduce CARE’s Dean Pitt Maxwell. You may have met him when you were there, Peter. He was a senior faculty member—from one of those prairies that still calls itself a state. Before becoming dean he had held The University Walters’ Grapefruit Chair in Anti-Communist Political Economy.”

Peter snapped his fingers: “Not the Max?” “The very one.” Peter rushed on, “His first proposal as dean—right?—was to privatize the College’s entire agricultural extension faculty into ‘the second generation e-business solution’ at—omigod—we_CARE2.edu?”

Distaste flashed across Thornton. “Where to start? During CARE’s reorganization wars, the earlier dean tried to create a new Department of Social Studies by merging College faculty for park and nutritional sociology with CARE’s existing department of economics. It had only been Maxwell’s abrasiveness that saved the latter. ‘You can’t do that,’ he stormed. ‘They’re economists, for Christ’s sake, not social scientists. . .’”

Thornton paused. “Actually, one of his award-winning articles argues that the solution to the lack of government transparency is to auction off government’s right to tax. That way, there’d be little left for government to be transparent about. To this man, it is transparency this, transparency that—Maxwell said it so often it was the surest sign that here was one, very bored man. If ever we needed proof that a culture is in decline when everyone says it’s at its height. . . I mean, I do have my own defects, but his transparency, this bubble of thin consommé and straight gin? Never!”

To be continued as it hasn’t ended

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