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Steve Hochstadt: Review of Lawrence S. Wittner's "What's Going On at UAardvark?" (Solidarity Press, 2013)

Steve Hochstadt teaches at Illinois College and blogs for HNN.

What if the trend toward commercialization of higher education continued and accelerated? What would the fully commercial university look like? Lawrence Wittner presents UAardvark: every building named after a corporation; TV sets that can’t be turned off, broadcasting commercials in classrooms, dorms, and offices; and a president negotiating to store radioactive waste in the New Technology Center.

Wittner taught history for thirty-six years at the State University of New York at Albany, and has widely published on peace movements and nuclear disarmament. His recent memoir, Working for Peace and Justice, identifies him as an activist intellectual; he serves on the national board of Peace Action. This is his first novel.

Administrative malfeasance, corporate greed, and faculty passivity spin out of control at UAardvark, when a burnt-out, hard drinking, lone wolf, formerly radical English professor, Jake Holland, decides to take on the military-industrial-academic complex that is ruining American education. Defending academic integrity and the liberal arts ideal is crucial in an age when private charity replaces public investment in higher ed. The danger of commercialization is real. Therein lies the attraction and the weakness of this parody. In What’s Going On at UAardvark?, commercialization is a simple story of good versus evil.

The bad guys are mercilessly lampooned by Wittner. UAardvark boasts the Fox News School of Communications and Hilde’s Beauty Salon Department of Women’s Studies. A Vice President for Surveillance sends spies into classrooms. The Joint Chiefs of Staff discuss their newest weapons system, CRUD, the Complete and Robust Underground Destroyer, designed to tunnel underneath Mexico to end the threat to U.S. national security posed by Costa Rica.

As these examples show, the humor is broad and obvious, often too obvious. Former presidents of UAardvark are named Halfbaked and Schicklgruber. The current president watches porn in his office. The scheming head of the faculty union is inspired by Mussolini and Stalin. J. Edgar Beria heads the FBI. All of the villains are cartoonishly stupid. UAardvark’s administration is “remarkably clueless about intellectual life,” and wants to get rid all of the liberal arts. The student spy in Jake Holland’s class reports, “This dangerous perfesser is a comernest or a socialite or mebbe a libral,” who is “defanitly anti-Amerrikan.” J. Edgar worries about DVDs of the Marx brothers. The Christian Patriots who plan to attack the university are shocked to discover that foreign languages are taught there.

Against the mindlessly racist and antisemitic scoundrels behind corporatization, a handful of radical faculty, custodial staff, students, and poetry-writing Hells Angels mount a campaign of disruption and truth-telling which brings down the university administration. Yet Jake, who is right at the center of the action, needs a faculty Marxist to explain why the university maintenance workers have joined the movement: “It’s the class struggle, Jake. Right here on this campus. It’s the rebirth of the #@$#(*&^+ wonderful class struggle.”

I’m not being demure. Although many of the characters apparently use quite salty language, it is always rendered in similar typographical symbols. Sal the Bear, one of the Hells Angels, exclaims, “Right now, we’re deep into &^%*&^)*# feminist poetry.”

The intrusion of commercial values and anti-intellectual corporate practices is a serious threat to American higher education, and thus ripe for parody. The novel is written for easy laughs, and there are funny moments in this book, notably the portraits of warring Marxist factions misinterpreting the revolt at UAardvark. But the plot is corny, the dialogue is wooden, and plausibility is sacrificed for obvious satire. If the threat of commercialization were really represented by the dopes in this book, faculties could breathe a sigh of relief.