Professor H was a formidable, brilliant, intimidating, and impossibly rude professor and I’m sure he was the model for the notorious Prof. Kingsfield in the movie The Paper Chase (which was about Harvard Law).
Under normal circumstances I’d never have had the nerve to approach the man, but two things made him the obvious choice as my thesis advisor. First, when federal revenue sharing first became law, Prof. H’s fingerprints were all over the bill. He’d written a law review article about it, authored many memos, and testified before a House subcommittee, excoriating the bill’s opponents.
On top of that, I knew the man slightly. Years earlier I’d worked on the staff of the Mayor of New York and Prof. H had been a (very expensive) consultant to New York’s Model Cities program. I’d been in meetings with Prof. H back then, though I doubted he’d remember me.
He didn’t, but it didn’t matter, because he was delighted to be my advisor. He’d made huge bucks consulting to Congressional committees before FRS passed the first time, and he was fondly looking forward to making even more money on the reauthorization.
But there were problems. One of them was the fact that, while there was apparently no rule about it, it was simply expected that third year students would write their third year papers during their third year. Mine was already written. I decided the less said about this, the better.
More worrisome was the fact that Prof. H was an aggressive proponent of FRS, while I’d been a skeptic from the beginning. Proponents argued FRS would “strengthen federalism” by allowing states to do more. But this was surely nonsense. Whatever revenue the Feds shared would come with so many strings attached the states would be little more than puppets.
It also occurred to me that America couldn’t be the only federal-type government that had flirted with FRS, so I checked around. Sure enough, Canada, Australia, and Switzerland had all adopted FRS at some point and all had abandoned it because it had weakened the peripheral units (provinces, states, cantons).
I would occasionally mention some of these objections to Prof. H, but he dismissed them out of hand: this objection was “stupid;” that objection was “beyond idiotic.”
Eventually, I tired of the charade of pretending I was writing my thesis and decided to just turn it in. I made an appointment to see Prof. H and headed up to his office, carrying my thesis before me reverently, like it was the crown jewels.
But when I got there he’d been “called away to Washington.” Deflated, I dropped the thesis off with his secretary, who said, “My, but isn’t that the tome!”
A week later I opened my student mailbox and found a handwritten note from Prof. H reading as follows:
C – See me immediately – H
Uh oh. I swallowed hard and went up to his office, where his secretary was nowhere to be seen – probably hiding under her desk.
I stuck my head in the door and Prof. H roared, “Sit down!” I sat down. “What the hell is this?” he shouted, launching my thesis across his huge desk so that it landed in front of me with a loud splat.
“It’s…, it’s my thesis,” I stammered.
“It’s garbage!” he hollered. “It’s a disgrace! You’ve misunderstood all the issues and come to all the wrong conclusions!”
Prof. H continued in this vein for quite a while. At first I was horrified, but gradually I got angry. When he came up for air I said, “You may not like the paper, but lots of other people do. In fact” – okay, this was a slight exaggeration – “it’s been accepted for publication in a prestigious journal.”
It was a shot in the dark but it hit the bullseye. Prof H jerked like he’d been punched and the blood drained from his face. And I knew why – he was watching all those consulting fees going down the drain.
Still, he demanded, “What do mean, published? Published where?”
I shook my head. “I’d rather not say, as I’m in delicate discussions with the editors. But the paper will appear in their spring issue – I’ll send you a copy.”
Prof. H’s eyes went wide and I thought he might faint. But then, furious, he rose from his chair and walked slowly around his big desk toward me.
I got a brief jolt of adrenaline – was he going to attack me physically? Clamp his hands around my neck and throttle me until I admitted he was right and I was wrong? Didn’t the guy know I’d been a combat MP and could toss him out the second floor window without breathing hard?
But he was headed for the door, which he closed and locked, then returned to his chair and said, “Let’s come to an accommodation.” I raised my eyebrows. “I could refuse to accept this…, this thing.” He was waggling his finger at my thesis. “You couldn’t graduate.”
“Or, you could withdraw the paper from publication and I…, I could see my way clear to giving you an A on it. Do you understand the implications of what I’m saying?”
Prof H rolled his eyes, as though to say, why am I surrounded by knaves and fools? “Look here, young man,” he said. “I looked up your GPA. No matter how well you do this year, you will graduate in the middle of your class. But any student who receives an A on his third year paper – which is very rare – automatically graduates with honors. Need I say more?”
Dawn finally broke over Marblehead and I got it. If I graduated with honors every top firm in America would want to interview me. If I published the paper I’d have to buy a bus ticket to Pocatello.
Prof. H stood. “Do we have an understanding?” he said.
I stood. “We do,” I said.
I left the office and never laid eyes on Prof H again. My paper didn’t get published, but I got an A on it. I graduated with honors, was interviewed by fifteen of the best firms in the country, and had my pick of jobs. I didn’t have to scramble for legal work in Pocatello.
Next up: Antitrust Is More Interesting than You Think
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