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The Real Bottom Line

Victor Navasky '54

Murray Stedman, who taught political science my freshman year, told us that if we remembered nothing else, we should commit to memory Robert MacIver's definition of myth ("a value-impregnated belief"), contained in his textbook The Web of Government. I remembered something else: Murray's line about why the student-run Commons store, which dispensed hundreds of cups of coffee a day, nevertheless lost money. "Because," he said, "Swarthmore students have an anti-business bias. Put three City College business majors in charge of that store, and, in six months, they will be making money hand over fist." I told him the business about the anti-business bias was a myth, but in my case, at least, he was right. I split my honors major between political science and English literature and minored in philosophy. Economics was nowhere in sight. Business was not my business.

Forty years later, the publisher of The Nation, where I worked for 16 years as editor-in-chief (after a lifetime in journalism and book writing), made me an offer I should have refused and sold me the magazine for money I didn't have. For better or worse, I was now a businessman. What to do? Where to go? I remembered, from my service as alumni representative on Swarthmore's Board of Managers, that Sam Hayes III '57 was on the faculty of the Harvard Business School. He was also on the board of Tiffany & Co. Not only did he not have an anti-business bias, but he was one of the key managers of the College's investment portfolio, which that year was the No. 1 performer in the country. So I called Sam with my idea. Suppose I opened The Nation's books to one of Sam's classes of brilliant M.B.A. students. Was there a way that they could turn our little company into one of those famous case studies? The problem would be simple but challenging: how to take an enterprise that has lost money for 130 years (The Nation went into business in 1865, the year after Swarthmore was founded) and, without changing the magazine, turn around its economics.

Gently, Sam reminded me that although he didn't see The Nation regularly (or irregularly either, for that matter), he suspected that his politics were not exactly Nation politics. But he also thought that The Nation might make a fascinating case study, not for the M.B.A. program but rather for a special course given for small-business owners, presidents, and CEOs who met for three weeks a year for three years. He said that although the IQ scores of M.B.A. candidates might be higher, the OPMers (Owners, Presidents, Managers) were livelier, cockier, and more experienced. I would be invited on the day The Nation came up for discussion. Not quite what I had in mind, but who could object to 100 free consultants?

Sam explained how the course worked, and then a diabolical smile crept over his face, and his eyes narrowed. "You know," he said, "we can do this as a case study, but whether or not we do it, you ought to consider taking this course yourself." Only good breeding, one assumes, kept him from adding, "You don't know what you're doing."

In the end, Sam agreed to make The Nation a case study, and I agreed to enroll in the OPM course, where the palpable sense of intellectual self-discovery that reverberated among my classmates was reminiscent of nothing so much as a Swarthmore seminar. Although I had many spirited debates with my classmates about unions, the free market, and supply-side economics-for most of them, the bottom line was still the bottom line-in the process I learned all of the practical things that Clair Wilcox never taught us in Economics 101. But I was reminded, in case I had ever forgotten, that at the Swarthmore I remembered, doubts about bottom-line thinking were often illuminated by the inner light emanating from the student sitting in the next carrel, the year was divided into seasons rather than quarters, and whether the gingko trees were still standing meant more to me than whether the yen was falling.

Maybe another way to say it is that there is the bottom line, and there is the party line. But at Swarthmore, there were no lines, unless one counts the Media-Wawa local line. Instead, Swarthmore did its best to imbue us with a critical spirit that questioned all lines, as it encouraged us to seek the good, the true, and the beautiful; to speak truth to power; to put human values above financial ones.

There are no neat morals here, but I guess it's fair to say that business values and political values both seem to be trumped by Swarthmore values.

Victor Navasky is owner, publisher, and editorial director of The Nation; author of books and articles; and professor of journalism at Columbia University.