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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Once More Into The Fray, Dear Friends

All politics are local, as Tip O'Neill would have said had he been a bit more punctilious about his grammar. Hence, while the nation has been fixated on Iraq, Gonzalez, Goodling, and the proposed halving of Paris Hilton's jail sentence, we in the Hampshire County region sometimes referred to as "happy valley," have been caught up in a parochial struggle over the future direction of the University of Massachusetts -- a bit like events in the Shire, with Mordor looming in the far distance. To be sure, there have been echoes of a larger evil -- the mostly Republican university trustees, appointed by fomer governer Mitt Romney, chose with perfect tone-deafness, to award an honorary degree to Andrew Card, thereby uniting the university community in opposition and mobilizing our politically engage graduate students. But the real action has focused on the efforts of the university president and the Chair of the Board of Trustees to pull off a covert, imperial reorganization of the university that includes the unceremonious firing of the Chancellor of our flagship campus in Amherst, the reshuffling of the chancellorships of the other four campuses, and the imposition of a new model of organization that would merge the presidency with the Amherst campus chancellorship.

Assuming that I have not lost my three or four readers at this point, their eyes glazing over with boredom, I shall give a summary account of these events, and then struggle to find a larger meaning in them. [My mind wanders, in Tristram Shandy fashion, and I am reminded of the anxious televsion producer in Hard Day's Night, who moans in desperation. when Ringo is late for the final run-through, that if the errant Beatle doesn't show up in ten minutes, he will be consigned to doing "the news in Welsh."]

The plan seems to have been for Jack Wilson, the President, to keep the reorganization secret until a June 21st Trustee's meeting, when the faculty and students would be dispersed for the summer. The assumption, surely, was that by September, it would all be old news and a fait accompli. A press leak three weeks ago revealed their machinations, and all hell broke loose on the Amherst campus. Fifteen days ago, at a meeting of the Faculty Senate, Wilson showed up and was excoriated by the faculty [including yours truly. The next day I walked into a local restaurant with Susie's son, daughter-in-law, and grandson, who had come for a visit, and was applauded by a table of administrators -- my first Standing O, and needless to say catnip to my ego, which no one has ever accused of being undersized.] Perhaps the most remarkable moment in that first Senate meeting was a fifteen minute assault on the President by our long-time State Senator and most faithful university friend, Stan Rosenberg. Stan is a rather mild-mannered little man, who lives in a modest apartment in Amherst, and no one had ever heard him raise his voice before. Since the principal job of the University President is to appeal to the Legislature for money, his success in alienating our best legislative friend was prima facie evidence of utter incompetence.

The flaying of the President was cut short by the fire marshall, who announced that the horde of non-senators who had attended the meeting, along with the regular members of the Faculty Senate, exceeded the safety limits for the room.

Immediately after the meeting, several of us in Afro-American Studies [Michael Thelwell, Ernest Allen, Jr., and I] launched an effort to call a special meeting of the entire faculty for the purpose of voting no confidence in the President and Board of Trustees. After some complex negotiations [too tedious even for this parochial account], the meeting was called, and the President agreed to attend. Two days ago, perhaps a third of the entire faculty showed up [in a room quite large enough to hold us all without ruffling the feathers of the marshall], and in good order we voted no confidence in the President and in the Board of Trustees, with only one negative vote. [Amherst is a bit like Brigadoon -- it is permanently trapped in the Sixties, all sandals and candles -- and during my thirty-six years here, the university has rarely sported more than one, or perhaps two, right-wingers, which is to say conservative Democrats. Every two years, someone throws in a few votes for Republican candidates in elections, but I do not know anyone who can claim actually to have met the folks who do that.]

The very next day [yesterday] was Graduate Commencement, a festivity I had been anticipating with pride and pleasure, inasmuch as eight of our graduate students in Afro-American Studies would be receiving their doctorates. As always, the event was held in the Mullin Center, where two nights earlier Susie and I had attended a performance of Riverdance. [a bit disappointing, that -- highly professional, but without any real stage magic.] On an unseasonably hot day, we gathered outside in our academic regalia, while hundreds of graduate students protesting the Andrew Card degree handed out anti-Card decals, which we all attached to our robes.

When our Chancellor, John Lombardi, was introduced, he was cheered to the echo -- a first for him, as he has many opponents on campus. Then the President was introduced, and the huge hall erupted in boos and catcalls. It was the first time in half a century that I have seen a University president booed at a Commencement. This was followed almost immediately by the awarding of the degree to Card, and this time the booing and shouting filled the space. Many of my colleagues on the platform waved yellow signs that had been handed out as we marched in. I was in the front row [so that I could greet our doctoral students and give them roses as they walked by to receive their degrees], so I chose to stand in my bright crimson Harvard robe and turn my back on Card, exhibiting a quiet and dignified disdain during the awarding of the degree. Then, as quickly as it had erupted, the demonstration stopped, with an astonishing discipline, so that the students receiving degrees would once again be the focus of attention.

My friends know that I am not sentimental about young people in general -- it has been pointed out to me that I am not the first seventy-three year old radical to think that the younger generation has gone soft -- but I was proud of those students yesterday. They managed to stage a demonstration that was both boisterous and absolutely disciplined.

Well, what if anything can we conclude from all of this for the world beyond the happy valley? Another old leftie who marched out with me observed how dramatically the war in Iraq had changed the domestic political landscape, and I think she is right. There is no logical connection between the Iraq disaster and the events at UMass, but people are once again angry, mobilized, and ready to stand up to authority, whether at the national level or in our own neighborhood.

For some while I have had that slight tingling in my scalp that I first felt as the Sixties heated up. The great slumbering American public is stirring, and although we have seen very little of the anti-war marching and protesting that preceded the invasion of Iraq, we have had one small electoral revolution, in 2006, and I think we may be on our way to a second next year. All of this is of course quite unscientific [although, as my old friend Herbert Marcuse pointed out in One-Dimensional Man, one of the functions of quantitative social science is to rob protest of its liberatory potential], but I have a feeling something is happening in America.


Ms. Bronx said...

Bob, your account is right on the money! Graduate Commencement 2007 was amazing. I was proud to be there. I only wish we could have read Mr. Card's mind during the ceremony.

Keep fighting the good fight.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Many thanks for the comments. It was grand fun, once mattacking the powers that be.