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Searching (fruitlessly) for intelligent life in Tampa

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Overheard in Tampa:

In a super-popular bread-and-lunch place near WestShore Plaza:

Clerk to woman ordering: "You've got a funny accent. What country are you from?"

Woman: "Britain."

Clerk: "Oh, what language do they speak there?"

Woman on cell phone in a chic Italian lunch place in South Tampa:

"What'd we do last weekend? Ummm, we saw Pearl Harbor. It was fun!"

In same chic lunch spot, 30ish woman to friend as they stand in line to pay their bill:

"I don't know why anyone hires someone who doesn't speak English!"

Maybe it's the heat (I wish), but it does seem like people here are getting stupider, especially people who should know better.

Certainly Tampa has never tried to make itself known as a haven for intellectuals. During the search for a USF president, Mayor Dick said he hoped no eggheads would apply, no one with an academic resume thick as a book.

And even as he pushes for the downtown Cultural Arts District, Dick makes no bones about the fact that it's not his thing. But, he says, CEOs considering moving their businesses to Tampa tell him our culture lag is a deterrent, second only to our public schools. He has even quoted some drummed-up equation Tampa can understand: In bucks, the arts in Hillsborough and Pinellas are equivalent to a Super Bowl and a half every year.

Oh boy.

As for USF, I don't know how thick Prez Judy Genshaft's vita is. She has a Ph.D in psychology but if she veers toward the intellectual she has been smart enough to hide it.

What exactly is going on here? If the president of a university isn't supposed to be an intellectual, who is?

Certainly not its board of trustees, if it's USF's new board. Real estate developers, a couple of lawyers, corporate bigs, TECO's prez _ just the kind of guys and gals you'd want to run a college.

In a letter to the editor of the Times, USF humanities professor Michael C. Milam pointed out that not one of them holds an advanced degree in an academic discipline. Law degrees, MBAs, masters in education, yes, but these are professional degrees that teach to a job. Academic degrees in the liberal arts and sciences teach broadly about the world, its history and literature, art and philosophy, geology and politics. This is where we learn to think, to question, to argue, to act in ways informed by what we've learned as well as to make good dinner party conversation.

There was a time when business degrees were for idle rich boys and dumb jocks; no one really thought they meant an education.

Today, at least here, business has become imbued with everything that is good in our society when the really good thing about business is it makes money.

Business should stay arm's length from a university. Give money and butt out.

It is not supposed to run a university. A university is not supposed to learn from business; it should be the other way around. A university should have the academic freedom to criticize and push our society forward, not to reflect it, or, heaven forbid, endorse or cater to it.

Unless, of course, we want a society of people racing around in luxury SUVs, buying 61-inch TVs and pool toys and bragging about their gifted kids, unaware that the rest of the world may have different concerns. Or that if they immigrated to another country, chances are they wouldn't speak the language.

_ Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at City Life appears on Saturday.