THE BLOG

An Elephant in the Classroom

08/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In 1957, Harvard University considered offering a faculty appointment to the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. In opposition, the eminent linguist Roman Jakobson asked his colleagues: "Gentlemen, even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?"

This fall, students at Texas Tech University will have an opportunity to gawk at one of the most infamous elephants of the last Republican administration. On July 7, 2009, Kent Hance, a former GOP politician and current chancellor of the university in west Texas, announced the recruitment of Alberto Gonzales to his faculty. Though Gonzales served as general counsel and then attorney general under President George W. Bush, he will not be teaching in the university's School of Law but rather in its Department of Political Science.

The fact that he has only a B.A. in the subject must be weighed against his success in politicizing the Justice Department more thoroughly than any other attorney general in American history. Ongoing criminal investigations into his actions could reduce the new professor's contact hours with students. But it is clear that Gonzales will bring something unique to the college campus -- an international reputation for incompetence and deceit. "I think I provide a perspective that very few people teaching at Texas Tech University can provide," Gonzales told the student newspaper, The Daily Toreador.

Since resigning as attorney general on September 17, 2007, Professor Gonzales has reportedly been unsuccessful in securing a position with any law firm. A Republican pachyderm, he is a white elephant, something hard to dispose of whose costs are disproportionate to his usefulness. In his new academic career, for which he will be paid approximately $100,000, he is responsible for teaching one junior-level course, "Contemporary Issues in the Executive Branch," and helping Texas Tech recruit minority students. About the latter, he told The Daily Toreador: "Sometimes it's as easy as seeing a mentor or a role model and being encouraged and inspired, motivated."

As a role model, Gonzales can inspire students with a stunning example of how not to behave while entrusted with high office. In blithe disregard of the United States Constitution and the Geneva Conventions, he rationalized and authorized torture, facilitated domestic wiretapping, violated habeas corpus, and hired and fired federal attorneys based on their willingness to prosecute for partisan purposes. He was reprimanded by the Justice Department's inspector general for misuse of classified documents. In testimony before Congressional committees, Gonzales was an embarrassment and a disgrace, setting new standards for evasion, obfuscation, and deception under oath. Professors need to be capable of recalling pertinent information and responding to legitimate questions, but Gonzales feigned an astonishing inability to do either. Legal proceedings in the United States and Europe could still result in his indictment for offenses ranging from perjury to war crimes.

At most accredited universities, new professors are chosen through searches conducted and vetted by credentialed faculty in the relevant field. Chancellor Hance's unilateral hire constitutes academic welfare for a government wash-out. It is even more brazen than Texas Tech's decision, in 2001, to sign Bobby Knight as its basketball coach, six months after he was fired from Indiana University for "uncivil, defiant, and unacceptable behavior." Before his invitation to lead the Red Raiders, Knight had repeatedly abused players, fans, and furniture, but, unlike Gonzales, the temperamental coach did not do violence to the authority and impartiality of American jurisprudence.

If universities filled their faculties not with certified experts but with the objects of their expertise, children would be teaching pediatric medicine and psychopaths social psychology. Now that Texas Tech has stocked its menagerie with an errant elephant, what other species are next? Bernard Madoff is otherwise occupied, but he might have been hired to teach business ethics, and Reagan assailant John Hinckley, Jr., a former Texas Tech student, is not available for a course on presidential history. However, because of her perspective across the Bering Strait, Sarah Palin would make a perfect professor of Russian studies. Barry Bonds could lecture on sports medicine.

Situated on a large and lovely campus in Lubbock, Texas Tech, with its rich tradition of training engineers, is not an ivory tower, though even if it were it would not do to poach from the tusks of a Republican flunky. Wherever they are, elephants leave behind enormous piles of fetid droppings. The legacy of Alberto Gonzales' appointment to Texas Tech University is cynical contempt for the nature and mission of higher education.