Web Exclusives: Inky Dinky Do
a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary

January 30 , 2002:
While academic worlds totter, the real world goes on

By Hugh O'Bleary

This was going to be a column about the Cornel West brouhaha (mainly so I could use the word "brouhaha"), and, who knows, it may yet turn out to be. After all, the high-stakes academic power struggle that has played itself out on the pages of the New York Times in the past month or so has all the ingredients necessary for real hot-button columnizing: money, ego, race, Harvard-Princeton feuding. The issues in the case-had Harvard president Lawrence Summers dissed West by telling him in a private meeting that he wanted West, the holder of one of 14 prestigious University professorships, to produce more actual scholarship? Had Summers made a strong enough public commitment to affirmative action? Would West abandon Harvard and return to Princeton, bringing with him the biggest names from Harvard's celebrated Afro-American department? Just how much does Cornell West make?-were the subjects of debate and, let's face it, breathy gossip in every coffee shop in Princeton.

Of course, there have been other things going on as well. (Here is where this column starts to be less about the West brouhaha.) On New Year's Eve-right in the middle of when West and Summers were brewing and ha-ha-ing all over the national press-a grim incident took place in Trenton. I read about it in the local papers; I don't think it made The New York Times. It seems a 23-year-old aspiring boxer named William Davis had an argument with the mother of his infant child. The woman, reportedly, had taken out a restraining order against Davis, but-"lost in love," in the words of his coach-Davis confronted her anyway on that last night of the year. The police were called and came. Davis had a gun. He wounded two officers. Two other officers shot and killed Davis. It was all over in an instant.

I found the story very sad-a troubled life ended in violence, a tragic moment that will leave other lives scarred and troubled. Yet what also struck me about the incident was how remote it seemed, how utterly foreign to the university community I live in or the commuting/corporate world in which I work. In Princeton, we worry about anthrax (after all, our post office was closed down for a matter of days!), or about whether our Christmas flight to Paris will be safe. We tend not to worry about gun-toting ex-boyfriends. We get all worked up about people shooting deer, not each other. At Davis's funeral, held at the Union Baptist Church in Trenton (and reported in the Trenton Times), the Rev. Simeon D. Spencer spoke of this profound and troubling separation. "Look at Trenton and look at Princeton," he said. "We are not 15 miles apart. We are worlds apart."

Spencer offered no solution, and goodness knows I have none to offer here. The question of just what Princeton's-or any university's-place in the community should be is far from a Dinky one. It occurs to me, though, that as we natter on about the Cornel West and Lawrence Summers and faculty raids, we would do well to remember that such affairs, no matter how heady or high-powered, are not exactly issues of life or death.

You can reach Hugh O'Bleary at "Hugh O'Bleary" paw@princeton.edu