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Literary Affairs

February 6, 2014

In recent months, two authors with long careers in academe have published campus novels. Les Cochran and William G. Tierney have very different backgrounds: Cochran was president of Youngstown State University from 1992 to 2000, and before that provost at Southeast Missouri State University; Tierney is University Professor and Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, where he also co-directs the Pullias Center for Higher Education.

As authors, however, Tierney and Cochran have much in common. Both are first-time novelists; both self-published their books; and both have made sexuality a central theme of their narratives (to the extent that two Amazon reviewers compare Tierney's book to Fifty Shades of Grey, though in reality that's making quite a stretch). The two books even have similar titles: Cochran's book is called Signature Affair: Love, Lies and Liaisons; Tierney's is Academic Affairs: A Love Story.

So what prompts a faculty member or an administrator, after decades in academe, to turn his hand to (explicit) fiction?

In Cochran's case, the idea started as a joke. As a sort of conversational game to amuse friends at parties, he said in an interview, "I developed over the years four or five little scenarios about this university president, so I'd talk about him, and fantasize about [his life]... My friend said, 'Les, you've got to write a book about this!'

"So I started writing, and I did it the wrong way -- I did not have an outline; I had this concept, and I wrote."

Six months later, Cochran had written a full draft of what would become Signature Affair -- the story of Steve Schilling, the charismatic and successful president of Eastern Arkansas University, whose spiraling sex addiction threatens to destroy his marriage and career. Schilling loves his wife, Suzanne, but he can't seem to stop falling in love with other women as well: an old girlfriend from graduate school; the widow of a major donor; a faculty member; a political contact; even the university's mailroom supervisor. Indeed, Schilling's affairs are so numerous that it becomes rather difficult for the reader to keep them straight; Schilling himself manages it only by giving them each a different color of stationary on which to pen him romantic missives, which all five of his paramours are apparently eager to do.

Cochran didn't set out to write a novel about sex addiction, he said, but as he was in the midst of writing the book, golf superstar Tiger Woods' now-notorious affairs began to make headlines. As Cochran read news coverage of the scandal, he started to notice parallels between Woods and his protagonist, and he found himself thinking, "This is the guy I wrote about!"

Is he not worried that readers will think that he's the guy he wrote about? After all, Cochran was a university president -- at a regional public university much like the fictional Eastern Arkansas University -- and many of Schilling's accomplishments, particularly in the realms of fund-raising and construction, are based on Cochran's own. The two even share specific personal tastes in headwear (a red fedora); cocktails (Tanqueray on the rocks with three olives); and the ideal gift for a woman (Trésor).

But Cochran laughed off the idea that anyone might think Schilling's more unsavory exploits were based on his own. "I did not have any affairs," he said. "My wife can vouch for that!"

Rather, he said, Schilling's story is "kind of a composite of 25 years of going to conferences and meetings and hearing people talking about these things."

And there's more to come: Cochran plans to publish two additional books about Schilling. He has already written the next one, Costly Affair, and plotted out the last, Presidential Affair, which will delve into the realm of education policy by sending President Schilling to Washington.

"I had never read fiction," Cochran said of his new venture, "but I always liked to write.

"When I started writing, it all just fell together."

An Ensemble Cast

Tierney, too, was new to writing fiction when he began his novel, although as an English major himself, he is a longtime fan of the genre. He had long ago written a handful of short stories, he said in an interview, "but they're few and far between."

During a sabbatical several years ago, he said, he read a number of academic novels -- including Moo, Straight Man and I Am Charlotte Simmons -- and while "some of them are hysterically, side-splittingly funny," he found himself thinking, "you know, this isn't what I've seen."

In too many campus novels, Tierney explained, "universities seem like crazy places filled with crazy people -- they're all sex-obsessed and power-hungry." Such depictions, he said, don't match his own experiences at all. (Although it's certainly fair to say that his characters do take a healthy interest in sex.)

So he set out to write a novel that would portray higher education as he sees it, populated by individuals about whom readers would feel strongly, and with whom they could identify. "I wanted the reader to care about these folks," Tierney said.

In contrast to Signature Affair, which centers almost exclusively around Schilling, Academic Affairs boasts an ensemble cast -- along the lines of Moo or On Beauty, but perhaps even more ambitious. The book's numerous major characters run the gamut from undergraduate to university president.

As the book opens, Smithfield University graduate student Jim Hagedorn -- who identifies as gay, and who is theoretically monogamous with his long-term partner, Kevin -- discovers that he has accidentally impregnated his classmate and rival, Sally. Meanwhile, Jim's thesis adviser, the successful but tormented sociologist Bill Massy, finds himself in the same boat with Smithfield's provost, Esmeralda Marcos. Marcos has other problems, notably the outrageous request made of her and Smithfield's president, Roger Turner, by Stanley Egbert, a would-be major donor who is willing to pony up $250 million in exchange if Marcos and Turner will adhere to his conditions. Turner would rather decline the offer, but he's pressured to accept by Smithfield's board chair, Peter Hagedorn -- Jim's brother. And that's just the beginning. (Academic Affairs runs to more than 500 pages, and they're densely packed.)

For readers who are in academe themselves, the book is intended to feel familiar: "I hope when they're done with the novel they say, 'I see this every day, these sorts of people I run into.' "

For those outside the academy, Tierney hopes the reaction might be, "'If this is what the university is, I give it more credit than what I see in the media' -- which is people who are unwilling to change and have temper tantrums all the time."

It would be fair, Tierney said, to describe his novel as a labor of love. For all the obstacles facing higher education today, he said, "the sky ... hasn't fallen yet."

"I think sometimes these problems can so overwhelm us that we don't recognize the rich environment we've got and the opportunities we have for relationships with one another," he added. And that, above all, is what Academic Affairs is intended to convey.  "There's so much tension and there's so much wrong with higher education, but at base it's a pretty noble undertaking." 

 

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