Ethnic Warfare

A bitchy academic fight within SFSU's College of Ethnic Studies puts the future of the program in question

Even today, the circumstances of Almaguer's resignation are murky. What's clear is that he arrived on campus in 2000 with a mandate to shake up the college, and almost immediately provoked a visceral loathing among a certain segment of the faculty. By fall 2004, as the drama within the college played out in the pages of the student newspaper, Almaguer was appealing "for calm and an end to the escalating political frenzy." He resigned in early October, saying he needed time to work on a book.

What's not clear, however, is why he fell out of favor with some of the faculty. There seem to be at least three causes: his style (abrasive); his scheming ("divide and conquer," as one professor put it, and allegedly racist); and his vision for the school ("Very progressive, very forward-thinking, very visionary," says Almaguer, "and that came with a lot of collateral damage").

Everyone seems to subscribe to at least one of the explanations. "They were all in play," Associate Dean Okutsu says. "I'm not saying they were correct or not. What people believed depended on where they were coming from."

Former Dean Tomás Almaguer says he was a 
"change agent." A colleague calls him a "hatchet 
man."
James Sanders
Former Dean Tomás Almaguer says he was a "change agent." A colleague calls him a "hatchet man."
Then-S.F. State President S.I. Hayakawa unplugs a 
demonstrator's loudspeaker during the 1968 student 
strike.
Then-S.F. State President S.I. Hayakawa unplugs a demonstrator's loudspeaker during the 1968 student strike.

In June 2000, Almaguer was brought in as what he calls "a change agent," someone who would return the school -- in flux after the death of the previous dean -- to national prominence. In a press release, the then-university provost cooed, "Dr. Almaguer is the ideal candidate to lead the College of Ethnic Studies into the new millennium." He seemed an apt choice: A published scholar in Chicano-Latino studies, as well as race, gender, and sexuality, Almaguer brought a breadth of experience that spanned the lifetime of ethnic studies. He taught in American studies at UC Santa Cruz and in sociology at UC Berkeley, and served at the University of Michigan as the director of both the Center for Research on Social Organization and the Latino/Latina Studies Program. In the 1970s, as a graduate student at Cal, Almaguer lectured in the newly formed department of ethnic studies. Above all, he counted himself a part of a growing movement within ethnic studies toward a more comparative approach (as in the college's graduate seminar "Theories and Issues in Ethnic Studies"), as opposed to the traditional, compartmentalized model ("Introduction to Black Literature"). He envisioned a college more along the lines of the former. (Since its inception, the College of Ethnic Studies has been split into four departments -- Asian; black; Raza, or Latino; and American Indian studies -- with a graduate unit added in 1988.)

From the onset, Almaguer says, he felt like a "new sheriff in town." "One of the staff people referred to the college as the Wild West before I got there," says Almaguer, now a visiting scholar at Berkeley, though he plans to return to San Francisco State after an extended leave to work on his book. "It's an interesting metaphor. I was brought in as a change agent, which is really kind of a gunslinger, a sheriff with new expectations. ... 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." (Told of Almaguer's description, Okutsu, after a long pause, says, "I wouldn't use that characterization.")

Almaguer says his plan for the college was "bold and provocative and very hard-hitting," with a management style to match -- a "shock-and-awe approach," he says. He pushed for mixed-race studies, as well as a larger gay, lesbian, and transgender presence in the curriculum; he staffed the graduate ethnic-studies program with full-time faculty; he says he "resurrected" American Indian studies, which "had imploded"; and he reallocated money for recruitment and retention of minority students, infuriating Asian American studies but delighting Raza studies.

"It was done, administratively, in a very savvy and astute way," Almaguer says. "I think some folks would've far preferred me to have consulted and gotten their permission and approval to do these things. That would've been a huge mistake for me, because it would've only led to paralysis. I transformed that place under their very noses. They didn't even realize fully what had happened, and by the time, in my fourth year, when it was very clear that the place was completely transformed, people became increasingly alarmed and dismayed at what had happened.

"It led a coalition of people who, at one moment, would never deal with one another, to come together and try to come after me."


That's one version. In another, Almaguer began offending certain faculty members -- especially those in the black and Asian American studies departments -- the moment he settled into his chair. 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.

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