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Wednesday, June 16, 2010


As we took possession of our dream house, there were darker storm clouds gathering than merely an under-appreciated book. In keeping with standard UMass procedures, the Dean appointed an outside Visiting Committee to evaluate the department. Robison, Gettier, Feldman, Sleigh and the rest got the Dean to appoint a committee dominated by their buddies, who apparently subscribed to G. E. Moore's theory of organic unities. After a careful examination of the departmental doctoral program [which was pretty much all anyone cared about], the Committee announced that the "analytic" program was a distinguished operation, deserving of its splendid national reputation, but that the mere presence of the Alternative Track diminished the overall value of the program and threatened so to discredit the entire department as to undo the magnificent work the majority were carrying out. Bob Sleigh had put in some time in Loren Baritz's office as an Associate Provost, and he must have learned enough to know that the original threat to place the department in receivership had been a bluff. Since the existence of the AT was the product of nothing more than a departmental vote [albeit one taken under duress], it could be terminated by nothing more than another vote. By now, Baritz had moved on, to be replaced by Richard O'Brien, a scientist who neither knew nor cared about what was happening in Philosophy. So the boys called a meeting and summarily voted the Alternative Track out of existence, effective the end of the academic year 1987-88.

The program was grandfathered, of course. Any students who had started in the AT would be permitted to finish in the AT. Furthermore, in an effort to avoid bloodshed, they threw Bob and me a bone. Each of us would be permitted to serve for one year as GPD of the entire graduate program. Apparently, Fred Feldman had concluded that we would not be able to do irretrievable damage to his carefully managed operation in that brief a time span.

I was beside myself with anger, and uncharacteristically depressed both by the abrupt murder of a program into which I had poured so much energy and by the lack of response to my latest book. I reacted by turning away from scholarship and teaching, making a series of efforts to channel my energies into various forms of administration. My first move involved HRAAA. The organization was falling into debt, and though the amount was not very great -- sixteen thousand dollars or so -- we had always run on a shoestring. Dot Benz, the wonderful young woman who had served for some years as a paid Executive Director [and as my co-defendant in our show trial], wanted to do graduate work under Frances Piven at CUNY. During one of our many Board conference calls, I volunteered to serve as unpaid Executive Director and see whether I could turn things around.

I threw myself into the job with all the energy that now had no other outlet, and pretty quickly managed to put us in the black. Since I was running the organization out of my home without salary, our only expense would be the annual write-in campaign for the Board of Overseers. While I was in our circular shower one morning, it occurred to me that Archbishop Desmond Tutu would be the perfect HRAAA candidate. To be sure,Tutu's degrees were all from UNISA, the huge distance learning university with its headquarters in a large brooding building on a hillside in Pretoria. But it is an odd thing about the Harvard Board of Overseers. It is rather like the Vatican. Just as you don't have to be a priest to be Pope [or to be a Cardinal, for that matter], so you don't actually have to be a Harvard or Radcliffe graduate to serve on the Board of Overseers. The rest of the HRAAA board thought it was a great idea, and as you can imagine, it was going to be no trouble at all to collect signatures on a petition to nominate Tutu. The trickiest part of the whole operation was getting Tutu's agreement to stand as a candidate.

Tutu had won the Nobel Peace Prize four years earlier. After Mandela, who was, of course, still on Robben Island, he was the best known South African in the world. You didn't just call him up. I made some calls to South Africa, and managed to get the name and phone number of his assistant, a young Episcopal priest. I explained what we were proposing, and after a few days, he called back to say that His Grace would be pleased to be a candidate. I swung into action and started working to elect Tutu to the Overseers. How could Harvard say no if Archbishop Desmond Tutu made a personal appeal to the Board? We thought we had found the secret to success. After an all-out campaign in '88-'89 that combined mailings, phone calls, and as much publicity as the name Tutu could get us, we succeeded in electing the Archbishop. When the new academic year started in the Fall of 1989, he would officially be a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers. Harvard did not react by divesting, unfortunately. Instead, The Harvard Alumni Association changed the rules for electing Overseers in an effort to guarantee that nothing like that would ever happen again.

Meanwhile, I looked around for any administrative job I could find. I certainly did not want to leave the house we had just built, but the Pioneer Valley is unusually well endowed with institutions of higher education. Hampshire College was looking for a President, so I threw my name in the hat. A student called me from Wesleyan University in Connecticut to ask whether I would consent to be a candidate for the Presidency of that institution. I hope I am not shocking any of my readers when I report that neither of those ideas went anywhere. But Amherst College was looking for a Dean of the Faculty, and I thought I might actually have shot at that job, so I applied. Somewhat to my surprise, I made the first cut, and was asked to meet the Search Committee for a formal interview. Things seemed to be going pretty well until someone on the Committee asked me what new ideas I would like to bring to Amherst, if I were chosen.

Now, I need to explain something about the curious relationship between faculty members of UMass and Amherst College. Since we all worked in the same little town, lots of us knew one another and showed up at the same parties. On almost any subject of conversation you could imagine, we were quite compatible, and as this was well after the Sixties, when dress codes went all to hell, if you didn't know who was whom, you probably couldn't have told us apart. Except when it came to gossiping about salaries. UMass is a state university, so all the salaries are public. You can actually go to the UMass library and take a look at a big computer printout that lists the salary of everyone from the Chancellor on down to part-time secretaries. But Amherst College is a private institution, and people do not know what their colleagues are making. At one of Shulamith Oppenheim's parties, if the conversation turned to who was making what, the UMass folks there would rattle on happily while the Amherst types would fall silent. It always seemed to me that the UMass way was healthier.

When the Search Committee asked me what innovations I might like to introduce as Dean, I thought of that curious fact and said that I thought it would be a nice idea to make everyone's salary at Amherst College public. The temperature in the room dropped abruptly about ten degrees, and I realized that I had lost any chance of becoming Amherst's next Dean. They picked a nice man named Rosbottom who taught French Lit. His wife wrote cookbooks.

An even likelier prospect opened up closer to home in '90-'91. Murray Schwartz left the Deanship of Humanities and Fine Arts at UMass to go to Emerson College in Boston, and Provost O'Brien decided to conduct an internal search. A bunch of us from HFA put our names in. A formal Search Committee was named and each of us got to make a pitch to our colleagues. [Since the search was internal, it would have been tacky to make a first cut, so everyone who expressed an interest had his or her day.] In the end, two people were on the short list that the Committee forwarded to the Provost. One was Lee Edwards, a Professor of English who specialized in nineteenth century British fiction and had played a very important role in the creation of the quite successful Women's Studies Program. I was the other one. We both had interviews with O'Brien, who then picked Lee. So far, I was 0 for 4.

While this search was going on, however, we all got the joyous news that South African President de Klerk had agreed to release the Robben Island prisoners and lift the ban the African National Congress. A bit of background is called for here, including some things that even careful readers of the news may not have picked up on. The original manifesto of the South African liberation movement was a document issued by the ANC called The Freedom Charter. This document contained an extraordinary vision for a new South Africa. In addition to proposing the complete elimination of all distinctions and legal disabilities based on race, the Freedom Charter called for a sweeping return of agricultural lands to the displaced and disinherited Black majority and at the same time for State ownership of South Africa's industrial means of production. Land Reform and Nationalization, more than racial liberation, were the truly controversial elements of the ANC program.

Land reform was a direct attack on the economic base of the Afrikaaner population, because it was the Boers who had seized the good farmland and built their wealth on it. Nationalization was a threat to the economic base of the English segment of the White elite, for all that a good many of the most important companies [such as the diamond giant, De Beers,] were in Afrikaner hands. Some of my friends in the Mass Democratic Movement [the wing of the Liberation Movement that had stayed in the country rather than go into exile] had bootlegged to me a copy of a revision of the Freedom Charter then being circulated in the leading circles of the movement. The key change in the revised document was that land reform and nationalization had been dropped in return for full-scale democracy, one person one vote. Secret negotiations had been going on between de Klerk and the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. The revised charter was the basis of the deal being struck.

In left circles in South Africa, there was considerable dismay over a deal of this sort, and some of the people I had come to know in the Natal Province area believed strongly that it would be better to reject the deal and continue fighting than to bargain away what they [and I, I must confess] believed to be central to the Movement's vision for South Africa,. But leaving to one side the fact that I had no skin at all in this game, and was quite free to return to my comfortable home in Pelham after each brief trip, there were facts on the ground that dictated the compromise. For all the brave talk about "one Boer, one bullet," the armed struggle being carried on from neighboring states was not going at all well. The liberation forces were totally outgunned and outmanned by the South African military, and nobody thought there was the slightest chance of an armed overthrow of the Pretoria regime.

But why would de Klerk even consider one person one vote, which, whatever else it might accomplish, would certainly bring to an end White control of the state? I puzzled over this quite a lot, and finally, with the help of my friends in the Movement, achieved at least some insight into what might be the thinking of the de Klerk government. Briefly, the Black opposition was split. In the Black areas of Natal Province north of Durban, a Zulu-based organization called The Inkatha Freedom Party, or IFP, had been for a long time engaged in a struggle with the ANC for supremacy in the Black community. The leader of the IFP was Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who had entered into a devil's bargain with the de Klerk regime in return for supplies of weapons. de Klerk deliberately fomented violent confrontations between IFP and ANC supporters in the single-sex hostels, on the trains bringing workers from the townships, and elsewhere. He then figured to position himself as the neutral party able to maintain peace between the warring factions. Implausible though it may seem in retrospect, de Klerk seems actually to have believed that he could prevail in a three way electoral contest over Mandela and Buthelezi.

All of that was in the future, however. First, Mandela had to be released and the ANC unbanned. In early February 1990, the news broke that Mandela was to be released. As luck would have it, Archbishop Tutu was in Cambridge for a meeting of the Board of Ovcrseers. The Board meeting was scheduled for Sunday, February 4th. I was granted a meeting with Tutu at the Charles Hotel in Brattle Square on Saturday, February 3rd. It was my one and only meeting with one of the great figures of the modern age.

Tutu was warm and quite informal. He thanked me for my work in getting him elected to the Board[he had been briefed], and then went on to speak movingly about the need for reinvestment in the new South Africa that was about to be born. Reflecting on the meeting during my drive back to Pelham, I realized that the divestment struggle was over. Once Mandela was released, an entirely new stage in the evolution of South Africa would begin. I was not sure what all of this meant for HRAAA, save that we could not simply go on reflexively doing in the future what we had been doing in the past.

As luck would have it, just at that time, the new Chair of the Philosophy Department at Durban-Westville, Mala Singh, wrote to me with an urgent appeal. Her graduate students had no money to pursue their studies. Was there anything I could do to help? Very quickly, I sent an appeal to some hundreds of philosophers at American colleges and universities, and managed to raise enough money to enable Mala's students to continue their studies. It occurred to me that this might be the shape of my new effort. I had learned how to raise money by mail, using my computer. Perhaps I could start a charitable organization to offer scholarship aid to poor Black students going to historically Black universities in South Africa. The idea would be to support them there, not bring them to the United States [which would have been prohibitively expensive.] If I worked out of my home and paid myself nothing, I could send virtually everything I raised to the students.

To create a scholarship organization that could help poor Black students in South Africa to get a university education, I needed to do four things: Choose a name for the organization, get it declared a tax-exempt charitable organization by the IRS, find someone in South Africa who was willing to select the scholarship recipients and look after them, and then RAISE SOME MONEY. Susie and I mulled over a good name for the new organization. During our trips to South Africa, we had noticed that many of the pro-liberation groups had similar sounding acronyms, because they all had the letters "SA" in them: NUSAS, COSATU, SASCO, and so forth. We finally came up with University Scholarships for South African Students, or USSAS, which had a very South African ring to it. One of the lawyers who had given us informal advice during our Fogg Art Museum trial led me through the paperwork involved in applying for tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Tax Code [hence the familiar phrase, "a 501(c)(3) organization."] I intended to do all the work myself, but the law required that I list a Secretary and a Treasurer, in addition to myself as President, so I put down Susie's name as Secretary and an old HRAAA comrade, Joel Krieger, as Treasurer. Very quickly, I received a letter from the IRS granting USSAS provisional status as a tax-exempt organization. Permanent status would not come for several years.

It was clear to me that I needed someone in South Africa to select the students and look after them, someone who would also do this pro bono. On my next trip, I decided to travel around the country, looking for an academic who would be willing to take on this essential, but rather burdensome, task. I made a grand circle of the country, starting in Johannesburg, and moving on to Cape Town, Alice [home of Fort Hare], Umtata, Durban, and back to Johannesburg. It was in Durban that I found my in-country coordinator, Prem Singh. Prem, a slender Indian man of forty or so, was deeply committed to the well-being of his students, and he was willing to take on the responsibility of managing the South African side of USSAS, assuming that I could raise some money. Prem died some years ago, very suddenly, of a heart attack, and I have not, until now, had the opportunity to testify publicly to the absolutely essential role he played in the growth and success of USSAS. It was not merely a matter of choosing the scholarship recipients, although that was obviously crucial. Prem had to negotiate the Byzantine complexities of the South African banking system to set up the account into which the money would be transferred, and --equally tricky -- to get it out again at the appropriate time and transfer it to the proper account at the University. Prem served as the unofficial Mentor and Advisor to the student bursary recipients, who quickly came to number well over one hundred a year. He put me up in his home each time I came to Durban, and took me in charge as I visited the students, the new Rector, Jairam Reddy, members of the faculty, and also the townships surrounding Durban. My relationship with the students, inevitably, was distant and episodic, but Prem's was intimate and daily. As my story unfolds, it will become clear how central his role was over the early and middle years of USSAS.

USSAS has played a central role in my life for twenty years now, and I would like in these Memoirs to render a full account not only of how it came into existence but also of how it has evolved over two decades. To do that, I need my readers to know a good deal more about South African higher education than they are likely to have been able to learn from the occasional newspaper or television report. Rather than scatter information intro the narrative of my life and career as it unfolded year by year, I have chosen to gather all the information into a coherent story and set it here, in my Memoir, even though much of what I say will relate to events still many years down the line. The best way to do this is to devote a separate chapter to USSAS, which, if anything in my life, qualifies as "my onion."

1 comment:

兆以 said...