Un-slung Hero

Well it is known that ambition can creep as well as soar
                                                                                 -- Edmund Burke

         After nearly nine years of teaching physics at an obscure mid-western college, Glen Myerson had nearly given up on the idea of a distinguished academic career. For the first time he was seriously considering joining his father in his insurance business, and while it held no appeal for him, at least it would get him out of the corn fields and back to the New England area that he loved. Peddling car and homeowner policies in Providence was preferable to serving as a member of a faculty for which he held little affection and respect. The coup de grace for Glen had occurred in the most recent faculty meeting when the football coach made a statement in support of the teaching staff that underscored for him just how embarrassing and pitiful things were at Noloc College and how desperately he needed to leave.

         “These kids don’t know how good they got it with such great professors. You guys are Noloc College. You’re the un-slung heroes of this place. You kick their glutes to make them perform, and you got to do that because they’re lazy and don’t care about learning stuff. They just want to drink and go on booty calls,” proclaimed Arnie Boslin during the dean’s monthly conclave wherein he chided his faculty for a recent increase in the student failure rate that had caused enrollment to drop precipitously.

         Coach Boslin was no friend of Dean George Carpin and he seized every opportunity to make that known to the world. No one knew for sure why the schism existed between the two men, but rumors had it that the coach’s contempt for Carpin had to do with cuts in the football team’s equipment budget that resulted in embarrassingly faded and worn uniforms and a curtailed travel schedule that forced the team to forfeit certain away games. Another rumor had the coach’s wife sleeping with the dean, but this struck most people as unlikely since it was a widely held view that Carpin was gay.

         “That’s unsung hero, Arnie. . . unsung,” corrected Dean Carpin, prompting the coach to wave him off as if he were a gnat. “And,” continued Carpin, ignoring Boslin’s dismissive gesture, “I would be the first to thank our good faculty for maintaining high standards, but we find ourselves in lean times, and if our numbers continue to fall it may well affect faculty salaries and even positions.”

         This remark caused a stir among the faculty, because like Glen most had been at the college since receiving their degrees, and, again, like Glen few had any prospects beyond the small and increasingly rundown rural campus. Once well-tended and maintained, the college campus was slowly turning shabby due to a downturn in the school’s financial fortunes inspired by a number of factors, not the least being the devastating economic recession. In fact, several members of the grounds crew had been laid off since the start of the current fiscal year, and their absence was in sad evidence as the grass was left to grow higher than it should and the trash barrels were allowed to overflow. After weekends of student partying, parts of the campus looked like a third world slum.

         “Not to name names, Glen, but you’ve done more than your share to slim down our student numbers by failing four students for plagiarism this semester alone. I’m not suggesting we turn our backs on such an egregious infraction of academic ethics, and I praise you for your rigor and high standards, but maybe a little more vetting of these kids would prevent this from happening,” said Crispin with a measure of censure in the tone of his voice.

         “I spend all the time I want with them,” snapped Glen, shooting a look of contempt at the dean.

         “Well, four students adds up to a hundred thousand dollars, and that’s a lot of money out of the coffers. We can’t let these kids leave unless there’s no choice, and I don’t think copying a term paper warrants their failure and dismissal.”

         “Stealing, not copying,” countered Glen. “It’s an act of theft to take someone’s work and claim it as your own, and it does warrant failure and dismissal . . . academic dean.”

         “Be that as it may, Glen, we have to consider the practical impact of such action, and losing sorely needed tuition and housing dollars will soon put this place under, and I think most of us here don’t want to lose our jobs,” replied the dean scanning the audience for approbation and receiving it in spades.

         Coach Boslin was the only one in the room to side with Glen and he did so with two chunky thumbs held high and by trying to high-five Glen across a row of annoyed professors. It was he and Coach Malaprop against the world, thought, Glen, who sank down into his seat and took a mental leave from the proceedings. Lately there was seldom a faculty meeting that held his attention for very long, and he would drift off within minutes of the dean calling the group to order.

* * * *

         Being an un-slung hero at Dry Gulch College, as Glen had come to call it, was not what he had imagined for his life. Long ago it had occurred to him that in order to get out of his career cul-de-sac he had to publish something that would catch the eye and inspire the admiration of the scientific community, and that is what he had set about to do but with little success. His work on the Supercavitation Theory published in two journals had not exactly launched him into the academic stratosphere. Now, however, he felt he might have discovered a way to jump-start his atrophying career.

         For years he had been looking and praying for something that might set his work apart from the rest of the field but he never expected to come across it in his own backyard. On occasion Glen had gone through the collection of papers donated to the college by Dr. Owen Richards, an alumnus, who had achieved a degree of acclaim for his research in astronomy. In the bottom of one of three boxes crammed with notes and articles by the long-dead scholar, Glen had come across a manila envelope containing a carefully handwritten document. He removed it and read it with great curiosity. It was only on his second reading of the five-page text that it struck him that Richards had drafted a unique take on the Core Theory as applied to the formation of planets.

         Wanting to spend more time with the document, Glen managed to slip it out of the library and return to the small apartment he had leased since separating from his wife a year earlier. Over the next several hours he poured over Richards’s paper, and with each inspection he became more excited by the dead scientist’s astute speculations. He had clearly been about to make a significant contribution to the field of astrophysics. A date in the corner of one of the pages revealed that Dr. Richards had been working on his hypothesis just a few days before he died, and it occurred to Glen that it was almost a certainty no one had seen the document he now held in his hands. Since the writings were over twenty years old and had never appeared in published form to the best of Glen’s knowledge, he figured Richards had never revealed the nature of his final work. Surely, if anyone had been aware of the research, it would have appeared by now, reasoned Glen. It was that important.

         Over the next few days, Glen searched the Internet for anything resembling Richards’s novel theorems and as expected he found nothing. Indeed, the work was original in every way, and he pondered what to do with the surprising find. He knew its unearthing might benefit him, but he also knew his involvement would only constitute a footnote to Richards’s groundbreaking study and not enough to make a genuine difference in his own career. He would be the rube who stumbled upon another’s profound insights, not the guy who originated them, and that would mean little in the world of high science and scholarship. For all his efforts and aspirations he would remain a mere shadow figure in the panoply of academic luminaries.

         Slowly entering his thoughts, however, was an idea so alien to him that it struck him at once as both absurd and disdainful. That it had even occurred to Glen caused him shame. Yet the notion kept asserting itself and deprived him of sleep until he reluctantly decided to embrace it. His soul be damned--he would claim the research as his own while giving ample credit to Richards for his initial formulations, but still essentially presenting it as his own scholarship. The material would need polishing to ready it for publication, as Richards had not been the best of writers, but editing was something Glen did well. He justified appropriating the work by convincing himself he was giving it life and in doing so honoring the memory of the late scientist. He and Richards’s would be collaborators . . . indeed, coauthors. Had he not found and rescued the piece, Richards’s brilliant work would have been forever lost. In his view, he was providing an invaluable service to the field of scientific inquiry. These thoughts helped ameliorate the guilt that arose in him, especially when he was reminded of his reputation as Noloc’s foremost anti-plagiarism crusader.

* * * *

         It took Glen a few weeks to put the Richards research into publishable form and then months passed before he heard back favorably from the prestigious journal to which he had submitted it. The day he received notice that the article would appear in what was regarded as the top scholarly venue for research in astrophysics was a day of wide-ranging emotions for Glen. On the one hand he was thrilled by its acceptance and the recognition it was about to bring him and on the other hand he was apprehensive about the possible discovery of his unscrupulous act.

         Glen said nothing about the article until it appeared and when it did publish, the news of it swept the scientific field like wildfire and quickly became the buzz of the campus. Reaction by his fellow Noloc colleagues was mixed but mostly reserved, but Glen attributed this to envy. There were no superstars on faculty at the small college and his sudden notoriety clearly was a thorn in the side of those who also had harbored dreams of escaping the mundane and lackluster existence of life at the no account institution. It was a bitter pill for many of them to take and one Glen enjoyed administering.

         In the weeks following the publication of the article, Glen had been the subject of considerable attention by the scholarly community and had been invited to speak in a number of conference venues. This sudden renown did not escape the attention of Dean Carpin, who had become very solicitous of Glen’s sudden celebrity. A cocktail party ostensibly to mark the semester’s end was really a guise to showcase Noloc’s academic super nova. It was obvious to Glen that the dean wanted to exploit his newly found eminence for the benefit of the institution. The school’s publicity director had been working overtime to get press in both local and national venues and had succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations landing stories in Newsweek and the Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as other widely read publications.

         Glen’s anxiety over filching Richards’s research was eclipsed by the attention he received from the academic world and the deep satisfaction he derived from the obvious jealousy it generated in many of his senior colleagues, whom he had long disliked and who had long disliked him. These were the same people who had tried without success to keep him from tenure in order to validate their narrow existences and feed their toxic agendas. However, given his handful of publications, albeit in secondary journals, he was more than qualified for the distinction. Compared to the meager research vitas of those judging him, he was a worthy candidate for promotion and the job for life that came with it. His only weakness had been his less than stellar student evaluations stemming from the rigor in his courses and his determination to root out cheaters and fail them. Though this cost him points he still managed to score above many of the old timers who were intent on doing him in. In the end, he had effectively neutralized their malicious intent, and it was something they held against him now more than ever in the wake of his achievement.

* * * *

         The excitement over his groundbreaking article continued into the summer as Glen learned he had been short-listed for a prize by the National Astrophysics Council. He expected all the recognition would soon result in a job offer and was making plans for his departure when he received a call from the dean to meet. It was obvious to Glen that the school was eager to retain his services but there was little it could offer to keep him. In fact, Glen had already decided to resign his position fully confident that he would soon be asked to join a major university, and even if it meant taking a semester or two off before selecting the right post, he was determined to leave Noloc right away. At the meeting, he would take the opportunity to inform the dean of his plan and that would provide him with incalculable pleasure. He had long looked forward to this day and still had trouble believing it had arrived.

         Dean Carpin greeted him with considerable warmth directing him to a chair and offering him a beverage.

         “Thank you for coming right over, Glen. I wanted to have a little chat with you before the paparazzi took up all of your time. How are you dealing with the tremendous attention?” asked Carpin, pouring coffee into a piece of delicate china and handing it to Glen.

         “I’m dealing with it just fine. You heard about the NAC prize?” asked Glen, already certain he had.

         “Yes, congrats on that. Quite the honor, and I bet you get it, too,” responded the dean, settling into his seat.

         “Well, it would be something,” commented Glen sipping his coffee and gauging the dean’s reaction.

         “Yes, it would, and it would be very meaningful to Noloc as well, and that’s why I wanted to talk with you, Glen. I suspect other institutions may be trying to lure you away, and I wanted to see if the college might do something to keep that from happening. We’re prepared to give you your own program, and I’m sure with your growing reputation, we can generate enough funding to make it a worthwhile venture for you and the school. With your blessing, we thought we might call it The Myerson Institute of Astrophysics Inquiry, and we already have some rich alums willing to provide startup money.”

         “Sorry, George, but I’m leaving. This is not the place for me any more, if it ever was. I appreciate your offer, but I think I’ll be happier elsewhere,” replied Glen feeling something akin to euphoria.

         “Would you at least consider the possibility? This could be good for you and Noloc,”

         “Frankly, I think what is best for me is to leave Noloc, and I don’t really care what is good for this gloomy institution, George,” replied Glen rising from his seat.

         “Well, Glen, I think you may want to reconsider, because, frankly, it would be better for you to accept the offer,” said the dean looking at Glen intently.

         “No, I will not reconsider. Goodbye, George,” said Glen turning to leave.

         “I know what you’ve done, Glen,” said the dean in a tone that reminded Glen of the way his mother spoke to him when she caught him fibbing.

         “What do you mean?” replied Glen trying to appear at ease but feeling otherwise.

         “Your famous article is not really yours, Glen. Imagine you, the great crusader against plagiarism, stealing someone else’s work. I know that research was Owen Richards’s,” said Crispin smugly, his thick eyebrows arching imperiously.

         “What are you talking about?” replied Glen beginning to feel light-headed.

         “Being a naturally curious fellow, I examined the contents of the Richards’s collection closely when we first received it, and I came across an envelope containing the notes on something called the Core Theory. They didn’t mean much to me, of course, not being a scientist, but I certainly got an idea what was in there. Did you know I’ve always had a pedestrian interest in astronomy, Glen? Even minored in general science in college. When I read your article I made the connections pretty quickly because I remembered some of Richards’s assertions about, what was it, ‘the polarization in coupled-cluster theory’?”

         Dean Carpin read from a lined pad that he held before him like a psalm book.

         “Yes, I think that’s what it was, right, Glen?”

         “That’s ridiculous. What do you know about my work? Sure, I drew on Owen’s study. That’s what it’s there for. We all rely on existing research to take our own to the next step,” refuted Glen, rubbing his sweaty palms against his trousers.

         “You did a good deal more than simply draw on Richards’s research, Glen. You copied the whole thing and put your name on it. You stole it just like all those students you failed. I couldn’t believe it when it began to dawn on me that you had done that. Not you of all people. I was shocked.”

         “I’m leaving,” spat Glen moving toward the door.

         “I don’t think so, Glen. If you do, I’ll be forced to take this public, and I don’t think you’ll be a candidate for any award or job. On the other hand, if you agree to remain here at Noloc College, you can head your own program, and no one will ever be the wiser. Our little secret, right? It’s really the best outcome, Glen, if you think about it, and I really think you’ll want to think about it very seriously. Let’s meet again tomorrow, okay? Have a good day,” said the dean escorting Glen from his office.

* * * *

         When Glen returned to his apartment he found a call on his answering machine from the chair of the astronomy department at Stanford inviting him to visit. He erased the message and sat at his desk scanning the article that was about to change his life but not in the way he had dreamed it would. By the time he had left the campus he already knew he had to remain at Noloc, because the alternative was unthinkable to him. Being exposed to the world as a plagiarist was by far the worst of the two options presented to him. As time passed he conceded that his punishment was appropriate for the crime he had committed and he accepted his fate. A career in academic purgatory was the price he would have to pay for his major lapse in moral judgment.

         At the modest ceremony launching the new Myerson Institute, Coach Boslin threw his arms around Glen and exuberantly announced to all within earshot that he was truly the greatest of all the college’s un-slung heroes.

         “Thank you,” responded Glen, as graciously as his deflated pride would allow, “I don’t deserve your good words.”

         “Of course you do,” interjected Dean Carpin, patting Glen on the back. “You’ve earned them.”

Michael C. Keith is the author of several books, articles, and stories. He teaches Communication at Boston College.

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