It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrongly proclaimed that there are no second acts in American lives. Quite to the contrary, it seems to be what Americans are best at. This coming Sunday, one of the nominees for an Oscar for best original song is Jamal Joseph, a former Black Panther who served time in several prisons for being implicated in many different crimes including robbery, murder and harboring a fugitive. Most recently, Mr. Jamal has been employed as Chairman of the Film Division at Columbia’s School of the Arts. Mr. Jamal earned two degrees while he was imprisoned and lest you think, as I did initially, that this is an unusual story, you should know that there are many ex-cons and former terrorists who find a second life in the welcoming groves of academe.
Bernadine Dohrn, the sixties radical who spearheaded the Weathermen and was a fugitive with her husband Bill Ayers, is currently the director of the Children and Family Justice Clinic at Northwestern University’s School of Law. Though Dohrn eventually did some time, her husband escaped punishment and is a distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois. Ayers proudly recounted his terrorist activities in an autobiography published just after 9/11, an event which he considered to be justified. Susan Rosenberg, another weatherperson, served seventeen years for her participation in terrorist acts; she was pardoned by Bill Clinton and went on to teach writing at Columbia, Brown, Yale, Hamilton and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Tom Jones, the militant black student who was one of the leaders of an armed takeover of Willard Straight Hall at Cornell in 1969 currently serves as Trustee Emeritus of that same university.
More intriguing than the motley slew of individuals who have gained academic distinction is an entire group of “convict criminologists” who argue that ex-con criminology professors are preferable to the law abiding breed of academics because they bring their firsthand knowledge and experience to their craft. By this reasoning, pedophiles should be operating day care centers and rapists should be counseling battered women.
Considering how expensive tuition is for college and graduate school and how competitive admission has become, convicts have a distinct advantage over ordinary students. In addition to their free tuition and unlimited time for concentrated study, they have the added spice of redemptive behavior to garnish their resumes once they are paroled. Prodigal sons are cherished in our culture - celebrities claw over each other attempting to be the biggest miscreant to grace the covers of tabloids and get their own reality t.v. shows. We are a nation in recovery - from alcohol, drugs, pills, tobacco, OCD, depression, divorce, obesity, promiscuity - you name it, there’s a self-help group to join and talk about it. Presidential wives have added luster to their husband’s credentials with their own confessionals. Betty Ford is revered most for having been a reformed alcoholic with a substance abuse center named after her. Can you imagine Eleanor Roosevelt being pleased with that heritage?
This past week, Columbia University disclosed that it would not fire Madonna Constantine, a professor at Teacher’s College who has been found guilty of rampant plagiarism. Though a student would be expelled for this, Ms. Constantine is a tenured professor and will stay on. Is it any wonder that ex-cons feel so comfortable in such a setting?
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here