||Two Harbors Press
||June 1, 2009
This is a tale of academic politics, occasioned by the resignation of a faculty member, touching off a fierce battle in his department over his replacement either in the same role as a traditional scientist or as a molecular biologist. The issue is complicated when two other departments file proposals to fill the vacancy, and the new university president’s desire to make his presence felt, leading to the shedding of much bad blood before the issue is resolved.
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The reader will detect the whiff of familiarity in the various stories recounted in “The Departments”, stemming from the author’s over fifty years of experience studying agricultural sciences in college and graduate school, followed by a long career in genetics and breeding research with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hopefully, the reader will absorb some of the aspects of the somewhat esoteric sciences lurking as background to the stories.
The political maneuvering and intrigues of academia’s politics can be as fascinating and as brutal as those on the national stage. In this book, the games begin with the resignation of a plant breeder with the Plant Sciences Department of the College of Agriculture in a fictional state university. Two factions form immediately with the planned recruitment of a replacement, one wishing to hire a traditional breeder as before and the other to create a new position for a molecular biologist. The conflict quickly becomes nasty, threatening to tear the department asunder. Meanwhile, two other, non-agricultural departments file proposals to fill the position. Enter the new president of the university, who perceives the chance to make a statement: influencing the choice of the new faculty member will be the opening move in his plan for the future of the university.
Can one mild-mannered faculty member in Plant Sciences prevent disaster? Will the bad blood shed be in vain when the president lays down his heavy hand? A final conflict involving the Board of Trustees is necessary before the issues are settled.
Katherine and Elias took a few minutes to stand to the side and observe their friends at play.
“It seems to be going well,” said Katherine. “Everybody looks happy.”
Elias nodded. “I was really worried, when things got so bad in the department, that the day would be ruined.”
“Are people still annoyed with each other?”
“Oh, yes. But you know, in a strange, ridiculous way, the trashing of Howard’s plot may have had a salutary effect on all of us, even the ones who have been at their nastiest. It kind of brought everybody up short. Well, not everybody. Rex and Griff are still pretty cool towards each other. And I think the molecular people are still pretty unhappy. But it isn’t as personal as it was.” He sighed. “On the other hand, Ted and Howard are still pretty crushed by the vandalism. Especially Ted. I don’t believe the planting was critical to his thesis, but it was going to yield some important data, and now he’s going to have to wait a year to recoup. And it’s an affront you take personally. Remember, in graduate school, how we felt when our car was vandalized.”
“I’ll never forget that. It was like being violated. Oooo!” She shivered.
Ted Jackson and the other graduate students formed a little group in a corner of the yard. At intervals, a faculty member would come over and commiserate with him. He smiled, nodded, and thanked each one, but rather wished they would leave him alone. He felt more comfortable talking with his fellow students, but was constantly aware of the hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. It had been there since he discovered the damaged plot, and he fervently wished that it would go away. He wondered whether a cancer might feel this way. Or an ulcer. Or depression.
“This is ridiculous,” he thought to himself. “It’s not the end of the world. Take hold, man. Get back to being angry.” He joined the conversation between Jerry DeCanio and the others about her new major professor.
“I think I’m going to like Dr. Woo a lot. She seems very bright, and she’s young, not much older than we are. She just got her Ph.D. a few years ago, so she remembers what it’s like to be a graduate student.”
“Does she know anything about onions?”
“Yes, actually. She did a little work with them in graduate school, and also as an undergraduate.”
“So, Ted, how are you doing? You still look kind of down.”
“Yeah, of course. It’s only been a few days. But, you know, it’s not so much the loss of the plants and the data that bothers me. It’s the meanness. It’s terrible to believe that some people hate me. I feel as if someone has spit in my face or punched me in the stomach. More the punch in the stomach, I guess. I’ve had this hollow feeling here ever since it happened.” He patted the solar plexus area. “I can’t seem to shake it. I’m trying to be angry, but it…it just won’t go away.” Tears welled up in his eyes.
Almost as one, the others moved closer and put their arms around him.
“They don’t hate you, Ted,” said Mary Rowan. “I’m not sure what they do hate. They probably don’t know themselves. They just have this murky idea that something is wrong and want to do something, anything, to strike out at somebody. Writing a letter to the editor doesn’t do it. It has to be an action, and that usually means something violent. They could have picked any plot on the farm. Who knows why they picked yours?”
“I’m just lucky, I guess.” Ted grinned bravely. He looked around at them. “Thanks, guys.”
Jack and Howard had moved together and noticed the grad students’ attempt to comfort Ted. They looked at each other.
“Been a rough year on graduate students,” commented Jack.
Howard sighed. “Yeah. How is Jerry doing?”
“Pretty well, I think. Elizabeth has been especially attentive to her and has been making a great effort to become familiar with her thesis work. She’ll be fine. It should be better after I leave. She’ll be able to concentrate more on the future.”
“Well, I hope Ted can get past these days. He took the vandalism pretty hard.”
“Any word from the cops? Do they have any leads?”
“They’re not saying much. The fence was cut. It was near a small wooded area, where you can hide a vehicle. So either the gate was closed, or they didn’t want to check it out and risk being seen. I guess the best chance of catching them is if they dropped something or left a really good fingerprint somewhere. I don’t have too much hope for that. I don’t think the track record is very good for catching vandals.”
Jack grunted. They both stood quietly, absorbed in thought, for a few minutes.
This concise novel about university politics in Western University, a fictional Land Grant institution in the United States, is a first in many ways in that the action centers on plant breeding and the author is a horticulturist! The plot line revolves around the resignation of an onion breeder in the Plant Science Department in the College of Agriculture (created from combining Agronomy and Horticulture Departments) and the ensuing struggle between the plant breeders and molecular biologists for the new position. The issue soon envelops the 26 other members of Plant Science as well as some faculty in two other departments in another college which compete for the empty position, various deans, and the new president of the university, who is drawn into the problem. The protagonists will be readily familiar by all members of academe. Non-horticulturists and non-scientists will receive an education in the science and art of plant breeding as well as an introduction to molecular biology. The plot has interesting twists and turns and I will not give them away except to say that the issues are current, the characters recognizable, and the read was enjoyable.
This novel follows a long tradition of immersing the reader into the confined world of a tightly wound institution. My favorite is the comic Victorian novel Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope that draws us into a cathedral community where the Anglican clergy struggle over the appointment of a new bishop. A closer comparison is The Masters by C.P. Snow where university dons connive and compete in the election of the new Master at Cambridge college. More recently, and on point, is Moo by Jane Smiley, where the strange world of a U.S. Midwestern landgrant university and its cast of characters are hilariously presented. I suspect Ed Ryder, my good friend of many years (we were fellow students at the same high school as well as at Cornell University), is most interested in expressing his thoughts on the role of plant breeding, but I must say I found the portrait of the new president incisive and accurate. I await the sequel to see if President Clifford survives.
Jules Janick, Purdue University
About The Departments
Western State University is the setting for “The Departments,” specifically the Plant Science Department that is made up of faculty from the former Horticulture and Agronomy Departments. Sound familiar? There are still some scars from the merger, but most faculty are at least civil to those in the other disciplines. That is, until Jack Crampton, a plant breeder specializing in improved germplasm for the state’s onion producers, announces that he is leaving to accept a position in the seed industry. That’s when the plant breeding and molecular genetics faculty draw a line in the sand for continuing the onion breeding program or creating a new position in molecular biology. After numerous faculty meetings and meetings of those on either side of the issue the Department is no closer to agreeing on either position.
Meanwhile, the University has selected a new President, John Clifford, recently arrived from Landon State University. Traditionally, vacant positions are returned to the Department where they originated even with minimal justification. But, what will the new President do? To make matters worse for the Plant Sciences Department competing well-justified requests are being submitted by the Government Department to focus on environmental law, policy and politics and by the Sociology Department to create a new position on urban sociology of the inner city.
The stage is set for a battle within the Plant Sciences Department and within Western State University for the right to fill Jack Crampton’s position.
How will it turn out? Will the Plant Sciences be able to mend hurt feelings to once again become a productive and collegial department? You must read the book to answer these and other questions.
Archivist Note: “The Departments” is a good read—one that ASHS members can relate to as similar departmental mergers have occurred in many Land Grant Universities across the country.
Donald N. Maynard
This is a story of a battle in a university over how and where to use a newly vacated position in plant science. Within that department, one group wants to retain the tried and true methods of plant breeding, and the other wants to explore and develop bioengineering techniques for improving plant production and quality.
The battle heats up when two other university departments, government and sociology, decide to try to obtain this position for their own disciplines.
Since academia's battles are fought only with words, there is little blood. Even so, feelings are bruised, lovers quarrel, and friendly acquaintances stop speaking.
The story slows down when the various factions are trying to convince the opposition to change their points of view. We hear the same arguments several times, which brings the action almost to a standstill. Things warm up again when the protagonist, Elias, who up until now has yet to openly take sides, not only voices an opinion but also presents a creative solution to the problem.
Elias and his supporters meet opposition, however, when the new president, who appears to be a strong and effective leader, decides to show what he can do. He makes a unilateral decision that irks the university's board of trustees (hitherto unheard from) and galvanizes the quarrelling factions to rally behind Elias' plan. Therefore, the battle is joined again. As the excitement grew, this reader became caught up in the dispute and was rooting for one of the losers. However, it was not to be, and now the battle is over. But it leaves in its wake the detritus of conflict.
But wait - there's another chapter. This one centers on the scientist whose resignation opened up the position. From his action, all else ensues, like the pebble that's tossed into the lake. This final chapter, however, feels as though it should be in another book. Is it a prelude to a sequel? We'll have to wait and see. I would like one because this is a quietly written story with some engaging characters. It is reminiscent of C. P. Snow's The Masters, one of my personal favorites.
The redundancy and the last chapter prevent a 5-star rating from this reviewer.
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