UMKC thrills our bones


Kansas City:



Kansas City holds a rather bizarre distinction. It is the largest metro in America to feature, as its most widely embraced institute of higher learning, a junior college.

With all due respect to Johnson County Community College, this should not be.

No, a major league city should have a large, well-functioning university, ideally one that heralds the city’s name. Think “ Berkeley” or “ Madison” or “ Austin” or even “ Louisville” or “ Cincinnati” or “ Tulsa.” This is not just a matter of civic pride or even show-off seats at the local stadium, it is an essential of economic development, especially in the high tech era. Everyone knows this.

As of now, no university bears our city’s name save as an afterthought: the University of Missouri, Kansas City. As we know, the “real” University of Missouri—MU, the one with the football team—is in Columbia. But unlike UMKC, MU doesn’t need to tell anyone where it is. Worse, we’ve boiled our university’s cumbersome name down to an unpleasant little nub, UMKC, an acronym that has little resonance beyond Muddy’s on 51 st Street.

When the high wire act called UMKC does make the news it does so in ways that everyone wishes it hadn’t. The most recent brouhaha— UMKC dean accused of plagiarism”-- represents the school’s first national headlines since—“UMKC professor questions preconceptions about pedophilia and lands in media storm”—three years ago.

As of the moment, the UM in UMKC would seem to stand for Un-Moored. The chancellor has been forced out. The Provost has resigned. And the aforementioned Dean of Arts & Sciences has been placed on leave. Given the drift, the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation could not have chosen a better time to search, if not for a helmsman, at least for a rudder.

The Community Foundation has appointed a “Blue Ribbon Task Force” to help the university right its course. Personally, I am more comfortable when a blue ribbon is awarded after someone does something worthwhile. But the Community Foundation has at least recruited an impressive group of people—if, of course, you overlook the snub of yours truly.

On the question of governance, the first part of the Task Force’s mission, the Community Foundation could have saved a whole lot of time and money had it merely rented a stretch limo, sent the Task Force out to College Boulevard, and had them ask Chuck Carlsen, “Hey, what have you guys been doing here for the last 20 or so years?”

In fact, though, the Task Force may have done something just as useful as its initial recommendations call for the kind of local control and empowered leadership that have made JCCCCCC work. Indeed, our Task Force has already defied the proud tradition of task forces everywhere by actually making recommendations that make sense.

The second part of the Task Force’s mission will prove a bit stickier, and that is “to increase higher education research capacity in Greater Kansas City.” The bookend headlines referenced above suggest that this will take some doing.

As it happens, the most recent mischief at UMKC was unfolding just as I was launching my newest book, Hoodwinked: How Intellectual Hucksters Have Hijacked American Culture. In researching the book, it shocked even me to see how academics have been plagiarizing, fabricating, and spinning nonsense out of whole cloth for a century and getting away with it. By national standards, UMKC isn’t half bad.

The weird thing, on the personal level, is that the plagiarizing ex-Dean Bryan LeBeau is well liked and respected, a rarity among deans anywhere. This makes his performance in December 2003 all the more incomprehensible. Bryan, my man, what could you possibly have been thinking?

In the way of background, LeBeau gave a short commencement speech at a mid-term graduation. “I had only just begun as dean,” he would write on the national History News Network (HNN) in the way of explanation, “I received the assignment quite late and scrambled to get it done.” In fact, he had been dean since July. And even if he had been given the assignment ten minutes ahead of time, it would still not render what he did any less goofy. In 2001, for instance, I gave fill-in speeches on September 11 and September 13 (Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers had other priorities that day). I would never have thought to plunder the Internet for material, and I’m no dean.

LeBeau did most of his swiping from a 1993 speech by well known Princeton professor of African American studies, Cornel West. Any one example is enough to indict:

LeBeau: A realistic sense of history “will allow you to see ambiguous legacies in the past, to accent hybrid cultures, because every culture that we know — including our own — is based in part on fragments of antecedent cultures.”

West: A tragic sense of history ““would allow you to see ambiguous legacies in the past, to accent hybrid cultures, because every culture that we know is based in part on fragments of antecedent cultures.”

On his HNN posting, LeBeau twice refers to his pilfering as a “mistake.” He elaborates, “This is not a case of plagiarism in that there was not intention of deceiving anyone.” Please!! LeBeau then plunges into all too familiar hooey about overlooked attributions and misplaced notes and tries to purge it all with an apology to Cornel West.

LeBeau did not, however, apologize to Russell Baker. He should have. He swiped the beginning of his speech from a 1995 commencement address given by the veteran columnist. Again, any one sentence is enough to hang him:

LeBeau: “Unfortunately, we do not live in a sensible world. Instead, we live in a world far more slavish in its obedience to ancient custom than we like to admit . . . “

Baker: “Unfortunately for the Class of 1995 we do not live in a sensible world. We live in a world far more slavish in its obedience to ancient custom than we like to admit.”

LeBeau may have been thinking, “Hey, other academicians do this stuff, and they get away with it.” Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, for instance, made “mistakes” too. When caught neck deep in the quicksand of plagiarism a few years ago, she wrote it all off to “mechanical problems” and scrambled back on to TV a week later, all cleaned off and ready to pontificate on presidential ethics.

University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill has plagiarized his very identity. When he was criticized for his September 11 essay calling the 3,000 9/11 victims “little Eichmanns,” his colleagues rallied to his defense. He was an American Indian after all. He knew something about genocide. The fact that Churchill built a career on being at best 1/64 Indian and that he has either fabricated or plagiarized much of his “scholarship” does not seem to trouble anyone. In fact, Colorado promoted him to chair his academic department after he publicly praised the “gallant sacrifices” of the September 11 madmen.

All the big name universities—“ Boulder” comes quickly to mind—are riddled with clowns like Churchill. In some, they dominate and intimidate. These people and others have gotten away with their nonsense because they have either noisy constituencies or political value. Our clowns, fortunately, have neither, and we have fewer of them.

Herein lies the Task Force’s real opportunity. If it can set up a mechanism that rewards real, honest, useful, sane research, the new Kansas City University will stand alone and resplendent among American universities of size. The Task Force that pulls this off will deserve its Blue Ribbon.



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