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Book About Waste and Fraud in Higher Education

May 25, 2010

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/science/25scibooks.html

Tech Transfer” is the deceptively mild title of a mordant satire about scientists and universities and how they do business.

Patricia Wall/The New York Times

 

The best scene in this hilarious first novel is a meeting of the trustees of Kershaw University, an elite research university only 200 years younger than Harvard. The trustees have to select a new president. They listen with mounting dismay as the professional headhunter in charge of the search reads out the polished résumés of each candidate, but notes in each case the fatal flaws revealed by background checks, ranging from spousal abuse to bestiality and, even more fatal, plagiarism.

As the trustees hasten to leave for the airport, they agree on a nonentity, Mark Winner, an economics professor with a thin résumé and a clean rap sheet.

The author, Daniel S. Greenberg, is a leading science journalist with a deep knowledge of the academic world and science policy. He edited the news section of Science magazine for many years and then a newsletter, Science and Government Report. Seeking to add an extra dimension to the waste, fraud and abuse he was reporting, Mr. Greenberg from time to time would run “interviews” with an increasingly celebrated scientific entrepreneur, “Dr. Grant Swinger” of the Center for the Absorption of Federal Funds.

Dr. Swinger’s specialty lay in instantly redirecting his center’s activities to whatever scientific fad was highest on legislators’ priority list. He would have been first to set up a stem-cell research institute and get the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to promise him a building.

“Tech Transfer” is the world of Dr. Swinger writ large, populated by scientific entrepreneurs who have learned how to absorb federal funds, suppress charges of malfeasance and live high off the hog. When Dr. Winner assumes the presidency of Kershaw University, he learns the folly of challenging the tenured faculty on any of their sacrosanct, non-negotiable issues:

“These included annual pay increases, lax to near-non-existent conflict-of-interest and conflict-of-commitment regulations, and ample pools of powerless grad students, postdocs and adjuncts to minimize professorial workloads. As a safety net, the faculty favored disciplinary procedures that virtually assured acquittal of members accused of abusing subordinates, seducing students, committing plagiarism, fabricating data, or violating the one-day-a-week limit on money-making outside dealings.”

As background to a pleasantly light-hearted plot, “Tech Transfer” includes delicious riffs on the hollowness of the Harvard mystique, on the idleness and self-indulgence of the student body, and on the necessity of marketing a $50,000 a year college education as a luxury good, similar to those newspaper advertisements for $15,000 watches that work no better than a Timex. And there is a fine parody of a New York Times editorial thrown in for good measure.

It probably is not giving away too much of the plot to report that Dr. Winner, after his eventful presidency of Kershaw University, fails upward and is nominated to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate. Readers will hope that the author is laying the ground for a sequel and that Dr. Winner has many more undeserved triumphs ahead of him.

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