Acanemia: A Memoir – In the Halls of Higher Learning

Acanemia cover image

by Ed Davis on September 12, 2017

Native Daytonian Lawrence Hussman’s new memoir contains fascinating revelations about Wright State University in particular and the state of higher education in general. It’s actually three books in one. Along with his critique of higher ed, Hussman includes his own academic coming of age story as well as a travelogue of his post-retirement teaching career in Poland and Portugal. These personal stories, omitted from the version of this review recently published in the Dayton Daily News, nicely humanize his indictment of academe. One of Wright State’s founders in 1967, Hussman has plenty to say about dreams gone awry, from the university’s idealistic beginning up to the scandal-ridden present.

Literary Coming of Age

 Hussman’s dissection of academia is the book’s main strand, but the author also highlights his own education, including sexual. Of even more interest to this reader, though, is his literary coming of age story:  while pursuing his doctorate at the University of Michigan, he purchased for fifteen cents a paperback copy of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, changing his life forever. He was instantly converted to the literary movement known as Naturalism, a school of thought so gloomy he eventually included a suicide hotline number on his syllabus.

Also, the memoir’s travelogue portions will appeal to those who wonder what it would be like to have visited Poland, recently-non-Communist, and Portugal in the 1990s, much less taught in their universities, as Hussman did between 1993-2007. The book’s an international romp moving effortlessly and entertainingly through the peripatetic prof’s early years to his retirement, and, at seventy-five, move to the Oregon coast.

What’s Wrong (and Right) with Wright State

Among the numerous shortcomings of higher education, Hussman considers corporate-style top-down management the cardinal sin. Time and again, autocratic administrators and boards composed mostly of businessmen ignore faculty who, to his mind, always know better how to best serve students and taxpayers. Hussman details administrators’ (and their boards’) obsessive focus on athletics over academics and favoritism toward technical and scientific fields over the humanities. The pursuit of truth, not jobs and careers, should be the real mission of universities, the author maintains, and such was the hope of fledgling Wright State in the beginning.

Daytonians will share Hussman’s pain when they learn how the “experiment in excellence” could’ve failed so often to live up to the ideals of its originators. He lays a lot of blame on the missteps of some of the six presidents, referred to only by the number of their succession; One and Three were awful, he says, Two and Five very good. Four died too soon to fully evaluate. Six, coming in the scandal-ridden period from 2007 to the present, gets special (and scathing) attention. Hussman asserts that promoting from within almost always produces better top administrators than recruiting from without.

Lest such a litany of sins be too depressing, Hussman gives hope when he can, citing exceptions at some colleges—even at Wright State when called for. Also, the author apparently loved his vocation and rejoices in recounting his students’ impressive accomplishments at home and abroad, such as Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, New York Times best-selling novelist and probably the best-known English Department graduate, whom Hussman mentored through a master’s degree. His Polish students typically wrote brilliant essays, often outperforming their American counterparts.

Sex & Guilt

 Hussman’s self-deprecating humor helps the reader handle his serious personal revelations. A graduate of Chaminade High School and the University of Dayton, the author was forever affected by the Catholic guilt he imbibed at such institutions. The result was an unsuccessful marriage that nonetheless lasted twenty years and resulted in the adoption of two children. Sex, Hussman confides with candor, was an issue not only with his marriage but also in his relentless pursuit of the “impossible she,” as his literary hero Dreiser called the elusive perfect woman.

Hussman confesses that, in sexual matters, “surely no man in Middle America had more experience taking NO! for an answer than I had.” By that time, we’ve seen ample evidence to support his contention. Fortunately, we’ve also seen the close friendships that often resulted from his pursuit of the opposite sex, for example, the touching one between him and Marguerite Tjader, one of Dreiser’s mistresses, and the literary collaboration with Felicia Lewis, with whom he ghost-wrote soldier of fortune Sam’s Hall’s memoir Counterterrorist.

Poland and Portugal:  Grit & Sunshine

As for the European teaching jaunts, I greatly preferred, as did the author, the “grit” of post-Communist Poland to the “perpetual sunshine” of Portugal. In the former, culture was readily available, as he could enjoy excellent classical concerts for free or the equivalent of a few American dollars. He thoroughly debunks the “dumb Polack” stereotype by reporting on this “extremely bright, highly educated people” whose dark history prepared them well to enjoy pessimistic Naturalistic writers. However, all good things must end, and in 2007, at age seventy-five, Hussman came back to America and retired to the Oregon coast.

Wright State:  The End of an Era

2007 also heralded Wright State’s fortieth anniversary, with the school at its zenith after the inauguration of President Number Six. Under Number Five, the school had experienced a faster enrollment increase than at any other in the Ohio system, with a parallel increase in research monies. Enrollment was at nineteen thousand and The Princeton Review ranked the university among the best colleges in the Midwest. Sadly (but accurately), the golden era did not last.

Acanemia’s last thirty pages detail the scandals and administrative mistakes that frittered away millions of dollars, reputation and goodwill during Six’s tenure, such as the Great Debate of 2016 fiasco and the H-1 immigration law violations that, two years later, are still under investigation. Thus, at a time when WSU should be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with pride, there is much cause for mourning and outrage.

By this time in the book, Hussman has convincingly discussed the causes, beginning with top-down governance, making the solution obvious:  reverse corporatization and privatization of our public colleges and involve faculty to a much higher degree. One sign of hope, he suggests, was the birth, in 1998, of a faculty union with meaningful membership and affiliation with the American Association of University Professors. Hopefully, the faculty now has the voice they’ve lacked for so long.

Lucky Seven?

Despite all the truth telling, I didn’t find the book a downer at all. If you read it with an open mind, I believe you’ll come to believe, as I did, that the author loved—and still loves—the institution to which he devoted nearly three decades of his life and which all of us in the Miami Valley and beyond have a stake in preserving.

Things at Wright State seem to be finally on the upswing if we take at face value the words of new president Cheryl B. Schrader in a Dayton Daily News article of August 9, 2017 (“In 2016, WSU saved more than expected”):  “We cannot and will not overspend the FY 18 budget . . . The trials of the last few years really is a stark wake-up call to the institution [sic].”

However, Hussman emailed me to point out that, days later in a subsequent DDN article,  Schrader said that she was going to apply best “business” measures to her reign and, worse yet, referred to the higher education “industry.” “Far from promising,” Hussman wrote, and I’d have to agree, even though I’m trying to remain optimistic.

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