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All the dark secrets of university life are known to insiders who subscribe to AcademoList. Scott McLemee reports, you decide...

April 1, 2009

Last month, the Washington, D.C., newspaper Politico revealed the existence of a secret online discussion group for left-tilting reporters and academics called JournoList. The article provoked a furor of denunciation among right-wing bloggers, who took the existence of an Obamaphile wonk cabal as proof that something darkly conspiratorial must be afoot. How different things are, now, inside the Beltway. How far things have declined since the golden age of transparency under the Bush administration.

One angry conservative published a list of known participants in JournoList -- revealing, among other things, that I am one of them. This was exciting news. I had no idea I was a member. That shows you just how secretive the group really is.

So you can imagine my surprise when, a few days later, I discovered the existence of an even more well-concealed e-mail group. It connects up the nation's most powerful academics. For the sake of this article we can call it AcademoList. That is not its real name, which escapes my memory now as I type these words in the cabin where I am forced to hide. I gained access to the list's archive for just over one hour when, it seems, the systems administrator caught me snooping and locked me out -- then changed the password.

The back story of how I gained access to AcademoList is perhaps needlessly complex. Suffice it to say that there have been rumors for some time now about a black market in VHS tapes of certain cable-access programs from the 1980s, including Camile Paglia’s brief but intense period as Christian televangelist.

For years I have been trying to locate copies of "In the Kitchen with Slavoj" -- in its day, the most popular cooking program in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, even though each episode ended with the studio audience refusing to eat the dish the host had prepared. This kind of thing you don’t find on eBay.

Anyway, a friend of the publicist of a friend of mine passed along contact information for someone who might be able to help. Following a mix-up in e-mails, I was forwarded information on how to subscribe to AcademoList.

To tell the truth, I was confused by what I read, at least at first. Most of the topics being discussed involved matters that have never been revealed to the public -- though there has been at least one close call.

Members of AcademoList are powerful enough to “solve” certain “problems” through "methods" that do not leave a trace. That is why I have gone "off the grid," as the survivalists say, and am now reduced to a diet that consists primarily of beef jerky and Mountain Dew that is slightly past its sell-by date.

With hindsight, it seems clear that AcademoList's cover was nearly blown in 2006, when David Horowitz published The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Professors in America. In spite of the subtitle, the book actually listed only 100 dangerous professors. At the time, scarcely anyone noticed this. And if they had, it would not have been too surprising, since it was obvious that considerable ingenuity had been required to get it up to that length.

For example, the evidence against three scholars charged with supporting jihadi groups consisted mainly of reports that they were known around campus for eating falafel and hummus several times a week. (Admittedly, footage of this looked menacing once the Fox News people dubbed in synthesizer music.)

The mysterious “dangerous professor number 101” turns out to have been one of the founders of AcademoList -- a truly sinister figure, and indeed the single most important player in the effort to subject the United States to both Islamic fundamentalism and the gay agenda.

S/he (long story: the pronoun situation here is complicated) teaches at an Ivy League university and has discovered a previously overlooked passage in Sharia law giving permission for “the blessed union of Adam and Steve.” The discussion on AcademoList suggests that the member of Horowitz’s staff who unearthed this secret was easily bribed into silence. One can only hope the responsible voices on America’s talk radio programs will start look into it now.

Around the time all that happened, a major academic organization was holding its national convention -- during which its radical caucus accidentally passed a resolution condemning itself for complicity with U.S. imperialism.

You didn’t read about this in the print media, or even here at IHE. But AcademoList subscribers knew all about it as it was happening. Likewise, they have the inside dope on the current economic free-fall. Everyone knows the familiar account of how the trouble began -- with a crisis in subprime mortgages. It turns out that’s only half of the story.

The whole meltdown really started in mid-2005, when the academic publishing powerhouse Elsevier doubled the subscription price for Studies in Advanced Topological Regression Analysis -- a journal known for its tiny but strangely devoted following among video game designers. (Go figure.) I am told that one of its articles was an important influence on Grand Theft Auto III.

In order to absorb the six-digit increase in subscription cost, several cutting-edge research universities were obliged to triple the size of most lower-division courses, thereby eliminating hundreds of adjunct jobs. Most of those adjuncts had subprime mortgages. The rest, alas, is economic history.

Which is not to say that the financial infrastructure of higher education was all that sound to begin with. Familiar complaints about how tuition costs are rising even at schools with vast endowments take on a new significance, given what I learned from the AcademoList digital archives. This is perhaps the best-kept secret of the past few years. Shaken by the implications, I now pause to gnaw on some sustenance before continuing.

Okay, here goes.... In 2002, the board of regents of dozens of leading universities got swept up in “March Madness” and began competing to see who could spend the most on (this exact quotation is burned into my brain) “cocaine, hookers, and really bitchin’ tattoos.”

The latter were custom-made and quite expensive -- though, to judge by the JPEGS circulated on AcademoList, the regents did get quality for their money.

E-mail exchanges from the early months of ‘02 show that members were psyching themselves up by saying, repeatedly, “If we don’t do this, the terrorists win.” A lot of crazy stuff happened back then. When tuition costs seem a bit high, keep that in mind.

Revealing though this documentation of the recent past may be, most discussion on AcademoList seems to be forward-looking. One president of a small Midwestern liberal arts college recently reported that he had been able to create an endowed chair thanks to certain business arrangements reached with a former government official in Nigeria.

I also got a very quick look at a document to be issued late this spring by a consortium of academic professional organizations under the title “Peer Review in the Age of Twitter: Towards a New Metric in Scholarly Citation.” It makes the Ithaka Report seem like something dreamed up by Mortimer Adler.

Not that all subscribers are gung-ho for such changes. One college devoted to the “great books” principle will soon be requiring students not only to avoid Kindle and its ilk, but to transcribe classic works as professors read them aloud to the class. Have you really read Aristotle, after all, if you haven’t copied the Analytics by hand? One thinks not.

Unfortunately my efforts to get back on the list have failed -- so who knows what dark transactions have occurred in the meantime. At the time, I failed to take notes. I have had to reconstruct all this from memory, and report it now with some trepidation. Just in case anything dire should happen in the wake of my exposé, let me close with a final request: In any movie based on this column, I would prefer to be played by Nicholas Cage.

In an age when stories from The Onion can end up being taken as soundly reported, Inside Higher Ed must make clear that it accepts no responsibility for the claims made in the column above, which goes to press on April 1, 2009.

For an account of the holiday known as “April Fool’s Day,” readers should consult this entry at Wikipedia, the world’s most authoritative scholarly resource.


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