A college buddy of mine relayed a juicy bit of gossip about our alma mater recently.

Before I describe the gossip, I should explain that this buddy of mine is a sociopath whom I finally socialized, I guess, over the winter. I’m tempted to use a verb more specific to animals, such as “housebreak” or “train” or “tame,” but I can’t think of one that does the process justice. Since I’ve already obliquely called this fellow an animal, I’ll refer to him from this point forward as “Junior Bear.” Junior Bear is an incredible social climber and follower and leader of cults. That last statement is not a paradox: I’ve known him to simultaneously lead one cult and follow one or more others.

One of the cults that Junior Bear slavishly follows is the cult of our Alma Mater, Tried and True. (Those who are willing and able may read between the lines, but I will neither confirm nor deny the location of this institution, which is in Virginia. Or not. Translation for esteemed members of the bar: all SLAPP-happy attorneys are hereby cordially invited to fuck off; you’ll get as much money out of me as Benjamin Rush got out of upstanding rapscallion and defender of sound medicine William Cobbett.)

Junior Bear loves Alma Mater. Junior Bear loves Alma Mater’s president, hereinafter called “Billy Fish.” (Billy Fish was a minor but archetypal character in “Streets of Fire,” probably the best B movie of all time and an indisputably better B movie than “Indiana Jones,” which was violent, implausible bullshit with a hackneyed soundtrack. “Streets of Fire” was violent, plausible bullshit with great special effects and a brilliant score by headcase Jim Steinman. The screenplay was written by Tenderloin crackheads, but you can’t have everything.) For reasons that will soon be explained, I do not love President Fish, even though Junior Bear finds this disappointing, to say the least. Junior Bear is almost always disappointed when he discovers people who have consistent scruples.

Junior Bear was a high-ranking member of student government. Though I’m ashamed to admit it, I also spent an entire year as a lower-level member of student government, all but the first two months of it against my better judgment. I consider myself somewhat more introspective than Junior Bear about my past stupid mistakes, but enough self-promotion for now.

A good example of a mass delusion was the popular understanding of Alma Mater’s student government. For a variety of reasons, most of them absurd, “service” in this “government” was widely considered “leadership.” Like many student governments, ours was called a “Student Senate,” a name that invoked venerable traditions going back to Republican Rome. In truth, it had the powers and function of the Chinese People’s Central Committee but the structure and outward appearance of the Chicago City Council. So as not to unduly smear the latter mob den, I should be more specific: this “Senate” had approximately the same headcount and signal-to-noise ratio as the Chicago City Council, as well as an excessively flattered Mayor Daley father figure (Billy Fish) and the occasional Chicagoland backbencher, but none of the utility. When our aldermen delivered the goods to their “constituents” (yes, we called them that), the “goods” were never anything as useful or popular as street repairs or a law-abiding police force (eh, Chicago hasn’t gotten that, either). Unlike the real Senate, these jokers didn’t even build a subway system for their own use. The usual “good” was a small pile of money dumped into an organizational rathole that maybe two dozen students considered relevant to their lives. Our Student Senate was a senate in precisely the same sense that the Salvation Army is an army. It was the Land of Make-Believe, but without the reassuring adult supervision of Fred Rogers.

Junior Bear’s juicy morsel of gossip concerned a fellow Senator whom I’ll call “Miss Money.” Junior Bear and some of his friends have taken to referring to her by a more personal nickname to the same effect, a nickname that I won’t reprint since I need plausible deniability. I was never formally introduced to Miss Money, and as far as I know the two of us never spoke, but I often saw her around campus, including at Senate meetings. She barely made an impression on me, as a senator or in any other capacity. In the time that I gave a damn about the sorry proceedings of that joke of a body (because as a member I was expected to show up), she seemed to engage in somewhat less discernible leadership than the average senator, which, contrary to the consensus of the fools who found self-pseudogovernment relevant, was a good thing. Most of what passed for “leadership” was either groveling sycophancy to the administration with malicious intent towards the student body, or else eloquent but pointless eruptions of hot air, usually from the same people who proceeded directly from Senate meetings to meetings of the main campus debate club.

After gradutating, Miss Money eventually became a noted beneficiary of the Lionel Ritchie Effect: “You can rely on the old man’s money….” (My insincere apologies for exposing my readers to bad pop music.) At least that’s Junior Bear’s story. He told me that she was given an administrative sinecure at Alma Mater after her parents made a very sizeable charitable donation. He claims to have it on good authority that this was no innocent coincidence but a true quid pro quo.

In Junior Bear’s warped world, this reflects badly on Miss Money and the Money family but not on Billy Fish or anyone else in Alma Mater’s administration. This is because Miss Money and her parents are disposable bit players in the cult of Alma Mater, but President Fish is the Big Kahuna. The giver of the money and solicitor of the sinecure are culpable, but the solicitor of the money and awarder of the sinecure are blameless. That’s the way it is because they are who they are.

That is to say that Junior Bear believes in the rule of men, not the rule of law. Ask Glenn Greenwald if you don’t believe that this leads to dark places. But as I said, Junior Bear has some mighty fucked up ideas about the world. I’ve only scratched the surface.

I can’t particularly blame the Money family. What they did was wrong but understandable. I do blame Alma Mater because what it did was appalling for an institution of its wealth, influence and avowed values, but I’ve come to expect worse of Alma Mater because I’ve seen worse. Much worse.

This quid pro quo is Tammany Hall graft. Not to put too fine a point on it, there is no more apt way to describe greasy power brokers providing jobs to the underqualified in exchange for cash payments. The offense is compounded by the administration’s noisy declarations that Alma Mater strives to inculcate civic virtue in its students, while at the same time it thumbs its nose at the very foundations of good government as manifested in the civil service system, among other places. At least the mob doesn’t pretend to be so fucking virtuous.

That said, I should clarify the Tammany Hall statement. The quid pro quo for Miss Money was very effective graft on the part of Alma Mater, but inept graft on the part of the Money family. One of the watchwords of the new millennium is “name your own price,” and if my understanding of the amounts of money involved is accurate, the Money family did a terrible job of naming their own price. The price of admission to the Tammany Hall machine included innumerable opportunities for all but officially sanctioned featherbedding. Miss Money’s sinecure comes to about $30k a year plus evenings snarfing Yuengling, wine that looks better than Franzia but isn’t, and fatty munchies borne on effete trays in the midst of grandees. Only an idiot greased Boss Tweed’s palms for perks like these and an official salary.

It’s safe to assume, however, that this fringe benefit is contingent on the employee being more bashful around the artichoke dip than I like to be and being a less open lush than most of the “student leaders” I’ve known. One doesn’t want to give the impression that one heartily and gratefully enjoys free hot food or cold beer. Rich people consider that vulgar and unbecoming, in contrast to spending an evening groveling to rich people for money.

Miss Money’s sinecure has what petroleum geologists call low energy return on energy invested. The idea of kickbacks, just like the idea of oil drilling, is to get back more than you put in, preferably a lot more. That graft could have any scope or take any form, but the underlying principle is the same.

Let’s say you like to rip off public transit agencies. Maybe you do this because you’re a stingy, freeloading bastard, or maybe you’ve had enough experience with SEPTA to do so out of principle, but in any event, you want to evade fare intelligently. Jumping turnstyles is a high-risk petty con for dumb pikers. Scrapbooking train tickets or strking tokens at home might work, but this takes more diligence, effort, and competence than you probably have. Besides, if you’re a crook with a forge, you’re an idiot to use it to counterfeit anything with a top street value of $1.45.

What you need is an inside connection. If you’re able to stick to the Main Line, you might be able to get free passage by wining and dining a bunch of R5 conductors, but that’s an expensive pain in the ass that doesn’t offer any flexibility. What you really want is a dipshit buddy in the ticket office who is willing to slip you a monthly all-zone Trailpass for $25 under the table. Or even for $100. If you can pull that off, you’ll be riding all over hell in style, and the beancounters will be too busy counting onboard surcharges from airport passengers to tell the difference.

Ripping off a public transit agency, even a terrible one, is a sleazy con. It’s damn petty to make a personal effort to defund a transit agency for any reason, even if that reason is a complete lack of customer service or a purposeful five-zone rope-a-dope scam played on disoriented out-of-towners arriving at the airport, where the heavily trafficked train station just happens to be unstaffed. The sort of cynicism that inspires people to repay fraud with fraud edifies no one. But anyone operating in the parallel universe of Alma Mater’s administration quickly passes the point of worrying about moral edification. It’s useful to be schizoid enough to believe that moral lives are at stake, or at least to be disingenuous and pretend, but in point of fact it isn’t about morals. It’s about money.

Let’s be clear, though: it isn’t about petty cash. It’s about mad cash. Crazy money. Ten-dollar-a-pop train fare shakedowns on tourists who just went through the Customs wringer, purloined monthly passes, tussles between transit cops and fare-jumping hoodlums—such things are for the little people. These are trivial pursuits for the sort of people who are caught enjoying the artichoke dip too much. An alumnus of Alma Mater who commits fraud for sums of $181 or less is like a high-rolling poker player who takes a crowbar to the penny slots. Ça ne ce fait pas.

Of course, one wouldn’t want one’s precious child to get involved in dodgy underworld scams. Better to get her a sinecure from the academic equivalent of Pat Robertson than to let her get mixed up with shady Italians in South Philly, the sort of unpretentious criminals who see their rackets as straightforward matters of money.

This attitude might have been prudent in the days when the Philadelphia mob regularly killed people, but the current generation finds it prudent to keep a low profile. Offing people over business disputes is not conducive to keeping a low profile. And they appear to be comfortable with underlings who name their own price. Being in the underworld and trying to stay a step ahead of the FBI, they aren’t inclined to flip out when a staffer resigns to pursue a higher skim rate at City Hall or to shake down casinos in Atlantic City for freelance “consulting” fees. It’s business, nothing personal, and they’re not idiotic enough to make it personal. In fact, they’ve helped send at least one family knucklehead upstate for making it personal. They’re scumbags, but they’ve toned it down. They enforce common sense on gangsters who don’t have it, but they don’t enforce loyalty on gangsters who don’t feel it.

Alma Mater does the opposite. It is exceedingly easy to provoke Alma Mater’s boosters to show open offense at signs of disloyalty. It’s a bloody well schizoid thing. Philadelphia mobsters have what Rick Warren might call a purpose-driven life: their purpose in life is to run rackets, and they organize their lives in a clearheaded, rational manner around that purpose. Alma Mater’s purpose is the moral and intellectual formation of young people, but its other purpose is to dumb down these same students, along with their parents, in order to milk them in extortion rackets that usually take the form of something between a PBS pledge drive and a prosperity gospel sermon.

It’s important to couch this crassness in high-sounding pseudoacademic rhetoric so that the rubes don’t catch on to the real, thinly disguised message: “This school is the only reason you aren’t working in a goddamn coal mine like Tennessee Ernie Ford! Ingrates! But you’ll be in hock to the company store if you don’t keep giving us money, because that’s the only reason US News & World Report hasn’t shitcanned us like they did to Lehigh. Is it that hard to pony up a measly fucking twenty dollars? What kind of stingy Appalachian white trash are you?”

Some of President Fish’s pitches really are secular versions of tithing screeds, idolatrous and cult-like in their absolutism and sheer crassness. For a stick, he channels Pat Robertson: “You know, Debbie, that hurricane was God’s punishment of idolators, homosexuals and Democrats. As the Bible says, none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God…As Jesus said, blessed are they who bless ministers of the gospel by capitalizing their blood diamond mines.” For a carrot, he channels Joel Osteen: “Remember, God repays your tithes and offerings tenfold. When you write that check, when you put that money in the offering plate, God sees it, and he gives you that Ephesians 3:20 life. I encourage you to do the math, get in a good Bible-believing church, and make sure it’s this church, Lakewood, if you’re within an hour’s flying time of Houston. If you don’t know how to balance your checkbook, we’ll balance it for you.” I’ve taken some poetic license, but I have not exaggerated the rudeness, righteous anger, condescension, manipulativeness, greed, ingratitude, fraudulence, or anti-intellectual tenor of President Fish’s worst financial pitches.

Alma Mater’s schizoid attitude towards money is very useful for recruitment. It’s a wordless way of saying, “We have the ethics of the Philadelphia mob, but we dress well enough and speak a polished enough form of English that only perceptive people conflate us with greasy Oregon Avenue Italians!” Alma Mater and its students talk a good game about civic engagement and public service, but most of it’s a bunch of hot air. These kids want to become rich, and more than a few of them want to become powerful, too, but not at anything as openly crass as prostitution, extortion or racketeering. They care about image. They want to win their money and influence in ways that simpletons and cultists consider honorable.

To the moronic follower of higher ed cults, being a financial pitchman at a toney college is honorable. The thing is, the pay sucks. Staff peon jobs lack the protections of tenured faculty positions, which are usually somewhat better paid as well, and the salaries rarely hold a candle to those of similar for-profit or public sector jobs. To compensate for the lack of cash money, these jobs offer a chance to prolong adolescence even further (sometimes and sort of), hobnob with the rich, and be manipulated for considering leaving: “Are you really the sort of traitor who would abandon your dear Alma Mater over something as crass and pedestrian as money? Personal riches are no substitute for an association with Alma Mater!”

Of course, an association with Alma Mater is no substitute for not being broke. Alma Mater knows a thing or two about not being broke. Alma Mater has positive cash flow and well over $100k in endowment funds per enrolled student. But alas, that’s not enough because Swarthmore has more! Williams has more! Alma Mater needs to keep up with these “peer institutions” because otherwise you, the students, will be working with Tennessee Ernie Ford in that coal mine I warned you about because the employers only wanted Swarthmore and Williams grads, all because their schools had larger endowments! Of course, other peer institutions, like George Mason, have smaller per-student endowments, but that’s really just a reason for us to gloat at those sorry pikers and feel snidely superior.

To recap, when alumni compare themselves to the Joneses and name their own price to the imperceptible detriment of Alma Mater’s finances, they’re traitors and crass materialists. When Alma Mater engages in a crude endowment measuring contest against its peer institutions and berates its students and alumni for more money, that’s educational excellence. It’s about the rule of men, not the rule of law.

Alma Mater’s administration has gone over to the dark side; not the Guantanamo/Abu Ghraib dark side, but still, applied ethics has left the building. To anyone considering consorting with people like them, and especially to any students or young alumni considering doing so, I say this:

You’re going into the business of shakedowns. Shake them down good and hard. Name your own price. If they don’t meet your price, bring in William Shatner and that Polynesian defensive lineman with the rings and the tacky fur coat. That’ll teach ’em. Actually, it won’t teach them, but it will help explain why you’re taking a lateral transfer within the administration’s moral plane to some position shaking down casino pit bosses, deli owners, the Philadelphia Streets Department or whatever. The Name Your Own Price Division has come to help you clean out your office, and maybe a neighbor’s office, too. And to grab some hors d’oeuvres on the way out.

There’s no reason to be bashful. Finish your artichoke dip; there are starving children in Castroville.

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