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Ethnic Warfare 

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

Wednesday, Jan 26 2005
The story of San Francisco State's College of Ethnic Studies, the first and still the only program of its kind, is a sort of shadow history of America's latter half-century. In it you'll find all the familiar blips of the past 40 years. There is student radicalism and campus rebellion; there is hopped-up idealism, followed closely by compromise and a struggle against an encroaching obsolescence. And today, the cold, gray Wednesday after the November election, there is this: the school's recently deposed dean, sitting in a Castro coffee shop, offering a postmodern sociosexual justification for using the word "bitch."

"As a gay man, in the Castro in San Francisco, and camp such as it is, we refer to ourselves in very gendered terms," says Tomás Almaguer, who spent 4 1/2 years as dean before resigning this past fall amid accusations that he created a hostile work environment within the college. "You might notice that my e-mail address is 'tomasa' -- it's a play. Have I ever referred to myself and my friends as bitches? All the time! I've been referred to as Queen Bitch of the Universe! Megabitch! That's one of my identities."

Almaguer, 56 years old, is a thin man with short white hair and a fastidious mustache. Soft-spoken and tentative one moment, animated and effusive the next, he has an academic's tendency, in the face of a scandal, to retreat into cautious generality -- an individual, for example, becomes a sexless, anonymous "they" -- lest he wind up in someone else's lawsuit. As described by his constituents at the College of Ethnic Studies, he is either a monster or a titan -- either a sexist and possible racist who played favorites, called a lecturer a "bitch," and only further calcified the rifts in the college; or a visionary who whipped a flabby program into shape. "It's this Rashomon thing," says Jim Okutsu, the associate dean and a friend and supporter of Almaguer. "There's not one story that fits."

"The truth and context," Almaguer goes on, "are the first things to evaporate from any retelling of the situation. I've been accused of using the b-word. I've been accused of using the n-word, only to have that be proven a total, total, total lie. There's nothing I've not been accused of having uttered. So when the PC patrol comes in and tries to paint me as this woman-hating, gay, macho Latino, it makes me sick. It's repugnant to me. ... If the truth were known, and what the politics were, and what the lay of the land was, and what I had done, and what people wanted to revert back to, it would be a very different story. It may sound like some arrogant, elitist, woman-hating gay man from the Midwest comes in and runs roughshod, but it's repugnant. It's really ugly."

People within the college like to point out that this sort of dispute -- about a new dean and his vision and management style -- is not unique to Ethnic Studies, but that argument ignores a big difference: It's not in the mission of, say, the philosophy department to remedy two centuries' worth of social injustice. And because this is the College of Ethnic Studies -- a bellwether in its field and the only program in the country that's structured as an autonomous unit, rather than a department within a college -- the "stakes are higher, and the battles are messier," Almaguer says. There are pillow fights elsewhere in the academy, yes, but few are set so starkly against the backdrop of America's racial past. So an odd situation arises in the field of ethnic studies: The people involved -- the very Ph.D.s who are supposed to think about race in the most elevated and enlightened way -- are beset by the same sort of racial strife that plagues the world outside the ivory tower.

"It is ironic, on the one hand," Almaguer says, "but it's perfectly consistent and understandable, in perhaps an unfortunate or disquieting or disappointing way. You would hope that ethnic studies would be able to transcend all that reality, but it doesn't because it lives it and reflects it. It's a messy business. It's inherently problematic."

It is, indeed, a real bitch.

There isn't a lot of willingness, on either side, to discuss Almaguer's stewardship -- what some call, discreetly, "the situation," as if it were a relative's illness. There is, however, a lot of talk about "healing" and "not dwelling" and "letting things die," which isn't to say emotions have cooled at all. When I approached black studies chair Dorothy Tsuruta in her office recently and asked her about Almaguer, she refused to comment at length, saying any story about the college's predicament would be "inexcusable" and "unethical." She added that I should go home and pray for myself, only to backtrack and say I should take that "as a metaphor, rather than a glib statement."

In addition, Marlon Hom, chair of the Asian American studies department and one of 18 signatories to a "no confidence" letter sent to the university administration, wrote in an e-mail: "Tomás Almaguer is a hatchet man now passé. It's time for us to look forward to the future; and I am not interested in dwelling on such a low life in past tense." He quickly sent a second, slightly less ill-tempered version, explaining that he had experienced a "computer operational problem": "Tomás Almaguer is now passé. It's time for us to look forward to the future; and I am not interested in dwelling on him in past tense."

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.

About The Author

Tommy Craggs


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