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Book Report: Examine university financial woes, grammar use in a new light

What if Harvard went broke? What would happen? Would the government bail it out? Would its assets be sold to pay back investors?

Would China buy it?

Think that's impossible? Most folks thought that General Motors was bankruptcy proof.

That's what Mark C. Taylor points out in his fascinating new book, "Crisis on Campus," (Knopf, $24).

Taylor, a former president of Williams College and currently professor of religion at Columbia University, brings up some frightening scenarios in his new book and proposes some answers that won't please the academic community.

Taylor tells the story of Yale University whose investment guru broke some of the rules and invested the school's money in high risk investments (hedge funds, etc.) and made big news when Yale's endowment jumped to an unprecedented $22.9 billion.

So other high profile colleges followed suit. Taylor says that at first it looked like a dangerous trend because it amounted to an unbalance of power and gave the Ivy League schools an even bigger advantage than before, leaving Podunk State University in the dust.

But wait!

That wonderful bubble burst in the latest recession. By 2008, Yale's endowment declined 25% to $17 billion.

Harvard fared worse. Its endowment, $36.9 billion, dropped by $8 billion in just a few months. The situation became so desperate that Harvard cut out coffee and cookies for the year's first faculty meeting. Savings: $500.

By 2009 Harvard's debt had risen to $6 billion. Servicing this debt alone would cost the college an average of $517 million a year through 2038.

Other colleges are in similar trouble. Former Franklin & Marshall College President Richard Kneedler recently concluded that two-thirds of the country's 700 private colleges are at risk of financial failure.

So what's to be done, short of selling our system to China?

Oh, make a few changes, says Taylor, and this is where the rubber hits the road: Abolish tenure; force retirements; change requirements; and on and on.

It's not a pretty picture, but one Taylor insists must be dealt with before his scenario plays out.

Roy Peter Clark began his professional life as a medieval lit professor, but was soon hired by the St. Petersburg Times to help its reporters write better. He's still at St. Petersburg, as vice-president of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank.

He's written several popular books about writing. His latest is "The Glamour of Grammar," (Little, Brown, $19.99). That title is pure Roy Peter Clark, a fellow who can make the most mundane subjects lively and interesting.

So if you're a writer -- and with e-mails and texting these days, who isn't? -- you should pick up this book, which is chock full of good advice about words, sentences, paragraphs, pitfalls to avoid and advantages to take.

His primary message is that writers should not view grammar as onerous burden, but as a handmaiden to success. He rejects the old prescriptionist view that all reviews must be followed (don't end a sentence with a preposition), but that attention to such rules can help a writer communicate effectively.

So Clark is what we call a descriptivist, recognizing the language is in constant flux. He cautions the reader to respect the oldtimers like Quiller-Couch, George Orwell and E.B. White and thanks them for their contributions.

He also thanks modern day prescriptionists like Lynne Truss "for serving as convenient targets" of his wit.

That's pure Roy Peter Clark.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.