What’s Going on at UAardvark? (Solidarity Press, 2013) is in some respects within the tradition of satire on a political and social issue that goes back to Aristophanes, the Roman writings of Juvenal and Petronius, through Gulliver’s Travels to Catch-22. But Lawrence Wittner’s stinging critique of what is happening to the “Corpaversity” plunges the novel into farce. Although it has the bite of satire, the author goes over the top, or so it initially seemed to me, with a Marxist (Groucho) sense of the ridiculous. The plot hinges on a scheme by UAardvark President Dwight Hopkins III to secretly store radioactive nuclear waste in the center of his university campus in order to help one of his corporate buddies cover up a recent nuclear weapons explosion at a U.S. missile base that a U.S. Army general had won in a poker game.
The plot’s seeming improbability still serves well as a vehicle to expose the increasing influence of the corporate world on public higher education. Wittner’s satire is almost satanic given its targets: the sinister presence of the military which is spending millions of dollars on recruiting college students); corporate influence on curriculum; university, faculty and union collaboration; the professoriate’s fear or indifference while 75% of college faculty are now part-time, untenured and woefully underpaid; and student political dysfunction despite the promise of the “occupy” movement. All of these trends serve as a warning to the academy that it is being taken over by the military-industrial complex.
Although initially What’s Going on at UAardvark? might seem far-fetched in its highly entertaining way, it’s beginning to seem both timely and prophetic in view of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s program to entice businesses to relocate to SUNY campuses with a tax-free status. The program began as “Tax-Free NY” and was later re-named “Start-Up NY.” Governor Cuomo said in support of the bill: This legislation would “transform SUNY campuses and university communities.” The corporate mentality Cuomo reveals mirrors the fictional President Hopkins. As the Governor said: “you’d be a better academic if you were actually entrepreneurial.”
What’s Going on at UAardvark? is inhabited by colorful characters who finally engage in real class warfare when Hopkins goes too far and plans to abolish the positions of the liberal arts faculty and is pranked into resignation by the “real” union members: the working-class. Included in the whacky cast of characters are “poetic” Hell’s Angels, an alcoholic “hero,” a witch of a union leader, and an FBI boss who seems cast from the same malodorous mold as the late J. Edgar Hoover. Through his skillful weaving of the seemingly absurd with the probable, Wittner concocts a telling indictment of what is happening to public higher education.
Governor Cuomo’s “serious proposal” of transforming academics into merchants of “products” for the “student-consumer” should make us take notice that the author has good reason for his concern. Anyone reading this book will be shaken from complacency about the future of higher education, not only by its warning, but its prophetic view of what is happening to what once was “the world of the mind.”
Coincidentally, a recently published novel I wrote, Option Three (Blue Thread Press), reflects Wittner’s concerns. It is also written in a satirical vein and is loosely based on Catch-22. That Wittner and I both wrote these satires at about the same time reflects what we hope is a growing awareness that higher education is continually being lowered for the benefit of the corporate hegemony we still like to believe is a democracy.