Wednesday, October 9, 2013


6. The Firm
A good reputation is more valuable than money.
—Publilius Syrus, from Maxim (first century B.C.)
An instructor says, “My worry is that you’ll become educated beyond your obedience.”
—John Rolfe Gardiner, in his review of Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple.
For Educational Purposes, every Employé should be taken into the Firm.
—George Ade (from The Fable of the Subordinate Who Saw a Great Light)

            Back in the late 1970s, a year went by during which I repeatedly photocopied 230 pages of a manuscript, took them down to the post office, and mailed them off to some publisher. I trusted, completely, in the wisdom of Writer’s Market, a book that I’d bought, believing with total naïveté what various publishers said about their commercial interests and feeling equally confident that the next one would snap up this piece of non-fiction literature I’d entitled The Fundulus Chronicles. After twenty-two rejections, a young man named Dennis Holler from St. Martin’s Press called and asked if the book had been sold. I said no, it was still available, and he replied that they were interested in publishing it. I was alert enough to not say something about the previous rejections, one of which had been with a letter asking “why do you waste your postage sending us things that don’t turn us on?” and tried to act calm, as he said that someone would call me back the next day. When Tom Dunne, the St. Martin’s editor who accepted the book, called later, he made the verbal offer, $5000 in advance royalties, but also indicated that St. Martin’s Press didn’t want to get into a bidding war. I told him to send me the contract and I’d sign it. That book eventually became Keith County Journal. A few weeks after it was published, I got a late afternoon phone call from someone at Time Magazine.
            “We’re reviewing Keith County Journal,” the caller said; “could you provide a photograph?”
            “Sure,” I replied; “what’s the address?  I can mail it.”
            “No need to mail it,” she said; “just put it in an envelope somewhere that we can pick it up.”
            I put the picture in an envelope, wrote TIME MAGAZINE in big capital letters on the outside, and put it on the floor outside my office door, leaning up against the wall. When I came to work the following morning the envelope was gone. The next time I saw that photograph it was in Time.  A few days later I was walking back from Bennett Martin Library, in downtown Lincoln, into the teeth of a bitter February north wind, when a colleague from another department yelled at me from across the street.
            “Hey, John!! What’s _______ saying about you now?!? Huh? What’s _______ saying about you now?!?”
            The individual referred to as _______ was my department chair. I tend to think about this particular set of events fairly often, mainly because they seem to characterize my business, namely, that of American higher education. In this business, reputation is currency, and it can be earned, spent, created, or destroyed, just like other kinds of currency, but the worst thing you can do with it is leave it in that metaphorical bank where it earns no interest, i.e., the files of your department chairman’s office. No, in this business, reputation needs to be put to work—invested—sometimes to bring you pleasure, like a deep intellectual conversation during a quiet meal with good friends, or to recruit a student with exactly the right kind of personality into your research lab. At other times it needs to serve as a weapon, like when you use it on purpose to make another university employee uncomfortable if not downright psychologically stressed out of his or her mind. Usually, but not always, your immediate supervisor is the target. And when you need such a weapon, your picture in Time is the rough equivalent of a nuclear warhead.

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