Ethnic Warfare

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

"I was no longer able to carry out my duties in the productive, effective way that I wanted to," he says. "The opposition was so orchestrated and so unrelenting that it was just in the best interests of the college for me to step aside. Everything I was trying to do was met with opposition. Sponsoring the colloquium was met with opposition. Hiring positions was met with opposition. There was not one thing I could do that wouldn't be immediately misread, misinterpreted, be completely twisted and turned around and become a source of tension. It got to be almost paralyzing."

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 College of Ethnic Studies sits dead center on San Francisco State's Lakeshore campus, in the outer orbit of academic buildings along the school's emerald quad. In the building it shares with the psychology department, the college accounts for a couple of dimly lit hallways. This was formerly known as the Psychology Building, but last year a small group of ethnic studies students began to push for a more inclusive name. They succeeded, and in April the new name could be found in white, 2-inch-high capital letters on the building's front doors: "ETHNIC STUDIES & PSYCHOLOGY." In the college's newsletter, Almaguer was quoted as saying: "We now feel that the College of Ethnic Studies has full citizenship in the university. This is very symbolic and it is also quite an honor."

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

As a field, ethnic studies has always had a tortured self-identity. It was a discipline born out of a revolution, yet midwifed, and later baby-sat, by the very people whose offices were being picketed. As an area of study, it borrowed the tools and methods of the social sciences, then tore into those very social sciences as part of the problem. The result was an unsure and defensive discipline, assailed from within and without. Indeed, in explaining the conflict over his tenure, Almaguer partly blames the "ongoing dilemma of ethnic studies trying to reinvent itself and be more than what it was in 1969."

And what was it in 1969? A solution, for starters. The College of Ethnic Studies was forged in the crucible of the late '60s -- of the civil rights movement, in particular -- and today its history is still told with that era's tone of triumphalism and inevitability. (The university holds up its campus strike the way Berkeley does its sit-in.) A brief synopsis: In November 1968, on an already tense campus, George Mason Murray, an English instructor and Black Panther minister of education, was suspended after allegedly encouraging black students to carry guns on campus as protection against racist administrators. Students protested, and just days later, led by the Black Students Union and the newly formed Third World Liberation Front, they went on strike.

By the end of the month the university's president, Robert Smith, had resigned, and by December his replacement, semanticist and future U.S. Sen. S.I. Hayakawa, was clambering up a striking student's sound truck to disconnect the speakers. According to one history of the strike, written by a former San Francisco State librarian, the crowd yanked Hayakawa's tam-o'-shanter from his head; Hayakawa turned to author and teacher Kay Boyle and yelled, "You're fired!" -- prompting Boyle to call him "Hayakawa Eichmann."

It wasn't until March 1969, three months after the San Francisco State local of the American Federation of Teachers had joined the strike, that a settlement was reached. Assenting to the Third World Liberation Front's demand for a "School of Ethnic Studies for the ethnic groups involved in the Third World," the university established what would come to be the College of Ethnic Studies. The hope, at the onset, was that ethnic studies could correct the imbalances of America's Eurocentric academy -- that new perspectives could be taught from the inside out, says James Hirabayashi, the school's first dean. Today the college's Web site states, somewhat dreamily, that its "curriculum is designed to foster both a comprehensive understanding of the unique experiences of American Indians, Asian Americans, Blacks, and Latinos in the United States and comparative analysis between them."

"The irony of the strike is that the very people who were forced to recognize us still sat in judgment of what we did," Hirabayashi says. "You look at the structure of education, who has control? It's the board of trustees. And who's on the board? Without naming names, you know that basically, the people on the board are old, white, male, and rich. If some ethnics come along and say, 'Hey, I wanna know about my own history,' what's their response? It takes a strike."

(Administrators have perhaps learned that lesson. Ross Frank, an associate professor in ethnic studies at UC San Diego, calls the creation of his own department in the 1980s "a rear-guard measure" by the university -- a sop to minorities to pre-empt any sort of unrest. "It's been a win-win situation," he says.)

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