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Saturday, June 26, 2010


Volume Three Chapter Four
Free at Last! Free at Last! Thank God Almighty, Free at Last!

Although my deepening involvement with South Africa gave me some outlet for my energies, and began what would be a twenty-year long engagement with the world, I was still trapped in a hostile department. The Deanship at Amherst had not worked out, but a likelier prospect opened up closer to home. Murray Schwartz left the Deanship of Humanities and Fine Arts at UMass to go to Emerson College in Boston, and Provost Richard O'Brien, who was on his way to becoming Chancellor, decided to conduct an internal search for someone to take over the position. A bunch of us in 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 made it onto 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. We both had interviews with O'Brien, who then picked Lee. So far, I was 0 for 4.

I had had my turn as momentary GPD of Philosophy, and Bob was having his, but all the life had gone out of the department as far as we were concerned. Against all odds, we had created a hugely successful, intellectually exciting doctoral program, and after six years, it had been killed. I can forgive my colleagues for their treatment of me in the early years of my time in the UMass Philosophy Department. They had never wanted me in the first place. But I have never forgiven them for destroying a successful, productive academic program merely out of spite.

My dark night of the soul was not to be long-lived. Apparently, I had made a good impression on my colleagues during the Dean search, and when Lee was chosen, some folks behind the scenes decided that something should be found for good old Bob. Happily, something came up just then. Loren Baritz, during his time as Provost, had created a little operation with a big name: The Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, or IASH, as everyone called it. Baritz had little or no money for IASH, giving it just enough to underwrite a secretary. But he did have the power to release senior faculty from one course of their required teaching load, so he conceived the idea of Faculty Seminars. Each seminar was conducted by a member of the faculty, who got a course reduction, and was attended by other members of the UMass faculty, by faculty from the Five Colleges, and even by independent scholars living in the Valley. These seminars turned into one of the intellectually most exciting activities on the campus. The long memorandum from Ann Ferguson that I quoted verbatim earlier was a response to one session of just such a seminar.

Baritz put two people in charge of IASH as co-directors. The first was Jules Chametzky, a senior member of the English Department and an expert on American ethnic literature who had helped to start, and then had edited, the extremely widely respected Massachusetts Review. Running IASH in tandem with Chametzky was Esther Terry, Chair of the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. Esther, who had spent time as Associate Provost under Baritz, had been a member of the Dean's Search Committee. Just at that moment, Jules decided to accept an early retirement deal and step down, leaving open the Co-Directorship of IASH. The folks looking for something I could do with myself decided that I should step into his shoes. At the beginning of the Spring semester of '91-'92, I was asked whether I would like to take on IASH. I jumped at the chance, so at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, April 10, 1992, Esther and I met with the new Acting Provost, Glen Gordon, lately Chair of Political Science, to discuss the possibility of my appointment. It may have occurred to the careful reader that there seem to have been an awful lot of Chancellors and Provosts and Deans at UMass. Late in my long tenure at UMass, I undertook, as an exercise in memory, to recall the name of every Chancellor and Provost under whom I had served. After ten Chancellors and Acting Chancellors and fifteen Provosts and Acting Provosts, I gave up defeated. I knew there had been more, but I simply could not call them to mind.

Glen was not a fan of IASH, and as usual there was a budget crisis on, so he said flatly that he had no money to give us. He agreed to keep funding our secretary, an indispensable woman named Nancy Perry, but that was it. "No problem," I said grandly, "I will raise the money." That was fine with Glen, so he approved the appointment. I had not the slightest idea how I was going to raise money, or for what.

Two weeks later, Esther Terry and I had lunch at the Lord Jeffrey Amherst Inn in the middle of Amherst, Massachusetts, to discuss IASH business. Esther and I sat next to a big window, looking out on the picture postcard New England Common, drinking wine and talking. Esther Terry is a tiny black woman with a radiant personality that fills any room she is in and makes everyone she meets believe that she is their best friend. When she walks through the halls of the Administration Building, Vice-Chancellors and secretaries come out of their offices to throw their arms around her and greet her. Being with her makes me feel as though I were in the train of the Queen of Sheba as she entered King Solomon’s court. She is the daughter of North Carolina share-croppers, the descendant of slaves, and has, I think, the shrewdest political mind I have ever encountered.

As a young woman at Bennett College in the Fifties, Esther was one of those brave students who launched the modern Civil Rights movement with their sit-in at the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter. Esther was there at the counter with the young men from NC A&T on the very first day, and she has earned the right to show her scars when veterans of the Movement gather to tell war stories. Esther came to UMass from North Carolina to do a doctorate in Literature and Drama, and stayed to become a founding member in 1968 of the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. Her life has been devoted to educating, caring for, and fighting for the rights of Black students both on the UMass campus and elsewhere.

As we ate, Esther talked more and more animatedly about her dream of establishing a full-scale departmentally based doctoral program in Afro-American Studies. At that point, there wasn’t but one such program in the whole country – the Afro-Centric program created at Temple University by Molefi Asante. Esther and her colleagues were not at all sympathetic to Asante’s approach, so the program of which she dreamed would be the first of its kind in the world. She talked about how difficult it had been simply to keep Afro-American Studies alive in the quarter century that had passed since the uprisings of the late Sixties brought the Civil Rights Movement to northern campuses. After the initial enthusiasm of the early Seventies, Black Studies was sharply cut back across the country, with five hundred programs or more dwindling to two hundred. The UMass administration had been supportive – much more so than at most other schools – but repeated budget crises had taken their toll, and the Department was now only half as large as at its height. Finally, after the second glass of wine, Esther looked up at me and said, “How would you like to come over and teach philosophy in Afro-American Studies?”

You might imagine that I would be an obvious recruit for Afro-American Studies -- a senior professor who had created a doctoral program in Philosophy and now was deeply involved in the education of Black students in South Africa. You might imagine that, but you would be wrong. In fact, it was astonishing that the members of the Afro-Am department would even consider asking me to join them. This will take a little explaining.

In the middle seventies, UMass was in the remarkable position of having both a Black Chancellor and a Black Provost. The Chancellor, Randolph Bromery, was a widely respected geologist who had been a member of the UMass faculty for some time. The Provost, Paul Puryear, was a political scientist who had been recruited in a national search from his position at Florida State University. As i have noted, up to this point, the top administrative positions at UMass had been controlled by a small group of senior science professors, who more or less rotated Deanships, Provostships, and Chancellorships among themselves. Although the Chancellor was a scientist, he was not a part of that circle, and they actually formed an ad hoc “advisory” group to keep an eye on him [a group into which I was invited, I am now embarrassed to admit.]

Shortly after arriving, the Provost launched an attempt to shift resources and faculty lines away from Arts and Sciences and toward the professional schools. This was hardly unusual; indeed, it was merely part of a national trend that had been going on for some years, and continues to the present day. But he wanted to move quickly, without the elaborate consultations of the sort preferred by faculty. Almost immediately, he alienated large segments of the campus by trying peremptorily to carry out a rather far-reaching restructuring. In the late Spring of 1977 things came to a head, with a call for an extraordinary meeting of all of the faculties of the University, for the purpose of issuing a vote of no confidence in the Provost. I was asked by a group of professors opposed to the Provost to give a public speech to the hundreds of professors gathered in the campus’s largest lecture hall.

This effort was unprecedented at UMass, and was fueled by a variety of motivations, some of which were racial. I registered none of this at the time. To me, this was just one more opportunity to attack authority, something I had done at Harvard as an undergraduate, at Chicago as an Assistant Professor, and at Columbia as a senior professor. I loved nothing better than to stand before a crowd and call for the resignation of a Dean, a Provost, a Chancellor, or a President. Indeed, my very first publication was a letter to the Harvard Crimson written when I was barely seventeen, calling on President James Bryant Conant to resign.

The members of the Afro-American Studies Department knew better. Regardless of the Provost’s administrative style, which some of them had serious doubts about, they saw a concerted attack to get rid of a Black Provost, in the name of academic collegiality and due process – shibboleths that had for generations been invoked to keep Black men and women out of positions of authority.

I was in hog heaven. I like nothing better than joining with my colleagues to rail at the powers that be. Here was another chance to make a big public splash by denouncing someone in authority. My opponent in the public debate on this occasion was Michael Thelwell, a tall, elegant, eloquent Jamaican who was a senior professor in the Afro-American Studies department, and had been its first Head. Thelwell is a graduate of Howard, a comrade of the late Stokely Carmichael [whose authorized biography he wrote], and during the Sixties the head of the SNCC office in Washington. He is a genuine hero of the Movement, and one of the most brilliant orators I have ever heard.

Well, it was a warm Spring day, and I chose to wear a white suit, one of my few bits of reasonably nice clothing. I looked like one of the plantation owners in the ball scene from Gone With the Wind. The larger meaning of the event was not lost on Thelwell. In a long piece published in the Black Students’ newspaper under the heading, “The Savaging of the Provost: Ritual Murder Among the Humanists,” he used his quite considerable rhetorical powers to excoriate those who were calling for the head of the Provost. After ridiculing the pretensions of the attackers who had invoked the sanctity of the cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic traditions of Western Civilization in their assault on the Provost, he took dead aim at me. “It would all have been infinitely more moving had there really been barbarian hordes at the doors threatening to rape ‘the life of the mind,’ pillage ‘the spirit of a great university’ and worse burn the articles of governance. Or if one did not know that the most self-righteous, smug and unctuous of the lot was himself a failed candidate for the position of provost. I am talking about Robert Paul Wolff of the philosophy department, lest there be any doubt.”

It is nothing short of miraculous that, fifteen years later, I was invited to join the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts. What could possibly have prompted so unexpected a question? Somehow, I had managed in the intervening years to redeem myself in the eyes of the members of the department. They saw something in me that perhaps I did not even see in myself – something that persuaded this proud and accomplished group of scholar-activists that I deserved to be a member of the oldest free-standing Black Studies Department in America, and that I might be able to contribute something to their plans for a ground-breaking doctoral program.

I have turned this puzzle over in my mind for almost twenty years now, and I may never fully solve it. Perhaps it was my involvement in the anti-apartheid movement. Though I did not know it at the time, the Afro-American Studies Department and the Black Chancellor had spearheaded a successful effort to make UMass the second university in the country to divest. Almost certainly, the department decided that my enthusiasm for creating new academic programs could be put to good use in their own efforts. During her time on the Search Committee for a Dean of FHA, Esther had heard me speak about the great pleasure I took in working to establish new educational programs. Having roots in the traditions of the Black church, although none of them now is a believing Christian, perhaps they were simply moved by the parable of the prodigal son. But I may never know the answer, for the subject was never mentioned during my sixteen years in the Department.

At any rate, when Esther asked her question, without missing a beat, I said, “Sure.” Needless to say, not by the most generous stretch of the imagination could I claim the slightest scholarly competence in Afro-American Studies. But Esther’s enthusiasm was infectious, and I immediately began spinning plans in my head of ways that I might be part of the effort to create a new doctoral program. That night I wrote a three page single-spaced memorandum suggesting steps we could take to win approval for a doctoral program. My memorandum was appropriately tentative, because I was not sure I had really heard Esther invite me to join the department, but my excitement was obvious, and within days she called me with the news that she had won a unanimous vote of approval from her department for the invitation. It was only years later that I realized how delicately and carefully she had dropped that suggestion into the conversation, very much like an expert fly fisherman casting a Royal Nymph over a pool harboring a deep-lying trout. [My thanks to Mike Thelwell for this lovely simile.]

Ordinarily, moving a professor from one department to another is a bureaucratic nightmare. The biggest problem is "the line." Each department is assigned a number of faculty lines in the budget, and it fights tooth and nail to hold on to them. When a professor leaves or retires, the first question put to the Dean is always, "Can we keep the line?' In other words, can the department undertake to recruit a new member to replace the old one? The annual budgetary in-fighting for a share of the Defense Department budget has nothing on academic struggles over faculty lines. Esther knew all of this, of course, so her primary concern was what price she would have to pay for transferring my line from Philosophy to Afro-American Studies. Fortunately, both departments fall under the same Dean. Had it been necessary to transfer a line from Humanities and Fine Arts to Social and Behavioral Sciences, for example, even the Chancellor would have had difficulty.

But I knew how the majority in the Philosophy Department felt about me. They had killed our Alternative Track, and I was dead certain they would jump at the chance to get rid of me as well. So I said to Esther, as she set out to meet with John Robison, "See how much they will give you to take me." I could see in her eyes that she did not think she had heard me correctly, but I decided not to give her a little lecture on the economic theory of negative price. Ordinarily in the marketplace, sellers offer commodities and buyers pay something to take them away. This is called a price. But sometimes, the person holding the commodity wants to get rid of it, and there is no one willing to take it for free. Garbage is an example. So sellers must pay buyers to take the commodity off their hands. Think of it as a cartage fee. I knew that the Philosophy Department was so eager to unload me that, if played correctly, they might agree to pay something to Esther to take me -- a couple of TA-ships, maybe.

Esther returned, glowing. "John Robison has agreed to the transfer," she said delightedly. "How much did you get for taking me?," I replied dryly.


John S. Wilkins said...

How much? I'm dying to know...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Not a sou. She took me off their hands for free. They were so glad gto get rid of me, they didn't even bargain with the Dean for another line. I think it is useful in life from time to time to get an accurate assessment of one's true worth. :)