A year ago, Cornel West, the charismatic social critic and famed Afro-American studies professor at Harvard University, took a break from classroom duties and his busy speaking schedule for a brief turn in a Sacramento recording studio with his brother and a childhood friend. Their CD, Sketches of My Culture, was on music-store shelves by September. Over hip-hop beats and a dash of R&B, Mr. West speaks of the black experience. . . .

Just a few weeks after the CD was released, Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard's new president, called Mr. West into his office for a private meeting. But it wasn't to congratulate him on his foray into hip-hop. Instead, the president told Mr. West to get busy on a major scholarly work . . . .

--The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 18, 2002

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From Doo Wop Days: the Inside Story of 50s Rock n' Roll

. . . the astounding number of Fifties rock legends who went on to become members of the Harvard philosophy department.

A search through Harvard records shows that it was Nelson Goodman's role as backup singer on At the Hop that swayed a tenure committee in his favor at a time when Goodman's great work on counterfactuals and the "grue" problem still lay years in the future.

"Without the Oh Baby interjected in Goodman's inimitable bass," wrote one member of the committee, "At the Hop would never have been more than a mindless repetition of an utterly vacuous refrain: Let's go to the hop (hop,hop,hop), Let's go to the hop, etc. But with Goodman's inspired addition -- Let's go to the hop (Oh Baby), Let's go to the hop (hop,hop,hop) -- the song became a work of genius, one easily worthy of tenure even in a department of philosophy as distinguished as our own."

Years after his publication of Ways of Worldmaking, Goodman would reminisce fondly with colleagues and students about his days as a backup singer with Danny & the Juniors. "In a way," he recalled on one occasion, "I'm almost sorry that the tenure committee was compelled to take into account the few papers I'd given on counterfactuals and the problem of induction. There was something more 'pure' about coming up for tenure on the basis of my Oh Baby interpolation in At the Hop. It represented a peak of inspiration that I'd never, in a certain sense, reach again."

Much the same sort of regret may be heard in notes taken at the tenure proceedings for Willard V. Quine, whose lyrics for Be Bop Alula not only carried Gene Vincent's rendition of the song to the top of the national charts, but earned Quine an associate professorship at Harvard when he was barely 30 years old. Though surviving records deal mainly with Quine's famous "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" -- "perhaps the major breakthrough in twentieth-century epistemology," as one anonymous memorandum puts it -- it was the extraordinary artistic risk taken by Quine in repeating the opening couplet of Be Bop Alula that, for at least one committee member, was a deciding factor.

"There was no sign of future philosophical greatness in the simple decision to repeat the key phrase Be Bop Alula at the opening," recalled this committee member. "That's something that any standard-issue Tin Pan Alley type could have done: Be Bop Alula, Be Bop Alula, Be Bop Alula, Be Bop Alula. What Quine saw was that the rhyme of baby and maybe, and then the repetition of the opening lines, gave the entire song a whole new dimension. Anyone who has listened carefully to the opening -- "Be Bob Alula, she's my baby, / Be Bop Alula, don't mean maybe, / Be Bop Alula, she's my baby, / Be Bop Alula, don't mean maybe," -- can see that the royal road from rock n' roll to Quine's great work From a Logical Point of View already lay wide open."

For the tenure committee sitting on the case of John Rawls, it was the narrative drive of Tell Laura I Love Her that was decisive. "Looking back now, from the impact later made by Rawls's A Theory of Justice," recalls a Harvard philosopher who served on Rawls's committee, "it's clear that he was moving all along toward becoming one of the major social theorists of our time. But that was far from evident in the 1950s, when the tentative papers Rawls had published on the concept of the veil of ignorance' didn't seem to any of us in any way remarkable. As one of my colleagues at the time remarked, Rawls was very obviously trying to tell some sort of story about distributive justice, but it wasn't clear that the story was going anywhere."

For two members of the university tenure committee, it was Rawls's lyrics to the tremendously popular Tell Laura I Love Her that showed that he knew how to move powerfully toward narrative closure. The tearstains still visible on the notes kept by one member show how profoundly the committee was moved by the sense of tragic inevitablity already evident in the song's opening lines:

Laura and Tommy were lovers,

He wanted to give her everything,

Flowers . . . presents . . .

And most of all a wedding ring.

He saw a sign for a stock car race,

"A thousand dollar prize" it read,

He couldn't get Laura on the phone,

So to her mother Tommy said:

"Tell Laura I LOVE her

(boom, boom, boom)

Tell Laura I NEED her," etc.

Yet not every rock n' roller who came up for tenure at Harvard during these years made it over the hurdle. This was the case, for instance, with Grinnel East, whose early work on pragmatism was judged by committee members to have shown promise, but whose bid for tenure was fatally weakened by what one colleague called the "mindless vacuity" of his lyrics for Venus in Bluejeans. "One must admit that there are signs of real intelligence in the opening lines," reads a note that survives in Harvard's tenure archives: "She's Venus in bluejeans, / Mona Lisa with a pony tail. But then -- and oh how quickly! -- the lyrics trail off into a vapid banality. The Harvard philosophy department does not need, at least at this point in its history, someone whose idea of a major contribution to American thought is "She's a walkin' talkin' work of art / She's the girl who stole my heart."

In this case, the joke was on Harvard. East, who then moved to a tenured position at Princeton, would not only go on in later years to give several conference talks on Emerson and American pragmatism but to pen the lyrics for Bobby Darin's chart-busting Splish splash I was taking a bath. "East's impact on Princeton," a key administrator there remembers, "was immediate and long-lasting. Within a month of his arrival, you could hear people bopping along the corridors of the University Center for Human Values humming Splish splash I was takin' a bath / Along about a Saturday night. Then, she recalled, "somebody else would join in from around the corner: Rub dub just relaxin' in the tub / Thinkin' everything was all right. The intellectual excitement of those days won't return anytime soon. It was a great day for us when Harvard decided to turn down Grinnel East for tenure -- how could they have known that he was just coming into his prime as . . .