The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Monday, February 07, 2005


A long and fascinating article on backbiting at San Francisco State University's College of Ethnic Studies, in SF Weekly, contains much food for thought. The short version: the College's Dean, Tomas Almaguer, unwillingly resigned amid much criticism from his professors.

The funniest part comes at the beginning, as Mr. Almaguer defends his calling one lecturer a "bitch":

"As a gay man, in the Castro in San Francisco, and camp such as it is, we refer to ourselves in very gendered terms," says Tomás Almaguer, who spent 4 1/2 years as dean before resigning this past fall amid accusations that he created a hostile work environment within the college. "You might notice that my e-mail address is 'tomasa' -- it's a play. Have I ever referred to myself and my friends as bitches? All the time! I've been referred to as Queen Bitch of the Universe! Megabitch! That's one of my identities."
The amazing fluidity of offensiveness -- so that "bitch" is sometimes sexist slander and sometimes "one of my identities", and the word I may not write [our culture's only remaining obscenity] is repeated perhaps 100 times in August Wilson's [excellent] Fences -- is a natural cover for any sort of charlatan. Now we turn to the College's home page:

The Ethnic Studies field is unique as an educational experience that redefines the lives of people of color from their own perspectives.
The focus on perspectives here is a crucial step. It enshrines the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem into the foundation of the institution's mission. Those with the appropriate "own perspectives" are authorities, while others can never become so. The same "perspective" is used to defend them from attacks from the outside.

But in an internecine struggle, this Super Power can no longer serve to stifle criticism. Almaguer's description of the situation when he arrived, if valid, is highly damning:

So when people don't show up to class, when people don't turn in a syllabus, when people don't do course evaluations, when people are teaching a subject matter that leads to a ton of student complaints about perspective, basically arguing there was racism, it's my responsibility to talk to those people. You had a Wild West situation where everyone did what they did with impunity, without any accountability."

At least some of the staff were displeased with the Almaguer administration, so they immediately complained:
According to an officer in the California Faculty Association, the union representing academics in the California State University system, a grievance involving Almaguer was filed during his first semester on campus -- and at least seven were filed during his first two years. Almaguer says that "every one of the union's formal grievances and complaints that they moved forward -- not one of them was ever, ever validated or affirmed." Indeed, none of the grievances went to arbitration, according to Edwin Waite, the university's director of employee relations. They were resolved with no admission of liability.
The complaints seemed to center on Almaguer's personality...
... when Dong approached the dean to complain about the reallocation of the access-and-retention money, Almaguer waved her off. "He said something to me that shows he's fallen into the trap" of believing that Asians represent a model minority, Dong says. "He said something along the lines of, 'Well, you guys are doing fine. You don't need help. You're victims of your own success.' That made me very unhappy -- to hear that from the dean." (Almaguer counters that Asian American studies had received a disproportionate share of the money in the past, especially considering that Asians are overrepresented at the university. "We didn't get enough Koreans," Dong says. And so on.)

Later, a complaint was filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Mr. Almaguer finally resigned in October 2004.
Today, faculty members insist that the discord over Almaguer's term centered on management style and policies, not on race or racial discord. But it's hard to see how this was not, on some level, about race. As Okutsu says, "Race really matters in a college like this." Here in a college built atop America's biggest fault lines, where academic and political aims converge, is there anything -- a new hire, an uncouth remark, a line item in a budget -- that isn't ultimately about race?
The lesson seems to be that anything is about race if you are sufficiently determined to make it so. Ms. Dong's positioning is particularly instructive. She would like to criticize Mr. Almaguer for reverse racism, in that he would be less willing to help Asians if they were less in need of help; but she must realize that charges of reverse racism are an attack on the foundations of her College. So she falls back on an underrepresented minority. If not Koreans, possibly North Koreans will be underrepresented -- or fat North Koreans. There is always someone.

The College has faced down threats before, as shown in former Dean D. Phillip McGee's obituary [June 1999]:
In the mid-1980s, the Academic Senate at S.F. State turned back a plan that would have lowered the status of the College of Ethnic Studies and in 1990 President Corrigan reaffirmed his support to the College of Ethnic Studies in the wake of allegations it was being threatened.
Under McGee's tenure, S.F. State's College of Ethnic Studies, the only such college in the country, has grown from less than 200 undergraduate and graduate students taking classes to approximately 10,000 students. More than 200 students are currently pursing undergraduate or graduate degrees in ethnic studies at S.F. State. More than 80 faculty members teach in the college's departments and students earn bachelor degrees in Asian American Studies, Black Studies and La Raza Studies. And just recently the college developed a Vietnamese American Studies component in its Asian American Studies Department. The college began offering a master's degree in ethnic studies in 1992 and there are plans to offer a master's degree in Asian American Studies.

This is a big business -- a college larger than Princeton -- and those who would lead it must fight hard, but always with one eye on the hostile outside world. Complaints about unrelated issues are one weapon; withdrawal of the protective shield that makes offensive statements permissible when they come from the right "perspective" is another. The latter tactic becomes more useful as the varieties of offensive speech become more plentiful, in the same way that a corrupt state creates many laws to make selective enforcement easier.

On another note, this gem is from a 2001 interview:

[Q]: The last question, your prediction for the left. What does the left need to do to become more relevant outside the academy?
Tomas: They need to retire!! Those old white boys and girls just need to cash in their IRA accounts and just get out of the way. That would be the very best thing they could do. And I say that to the degree that many of them have become obstacles and impediments to us rather than natural allies that help promote and shepherd folks of color through the academy.

Emphasis mine.
[Hat tip: Glenn Reynolds. I do not wish to be construed as sympathizing with Mr. Almaguer; my intent is only to illuminate the means used against him.]