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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

Page 3 of 5

On another occasion, when Dong approached the dean to complain about the reallocation of the access-and-retention money, Almaguer waved her off. "He said something to me that shows he's fallen into the trap" of believing that Asians represent a model minority, Dong says. "He said something along the lines of, 'Well, you guys are doing fine. You don't need help. You're victims of your own success.' That made me very unhappy -- to hear that from the dean." (Almaguer counters that Asian American studies had received a disproportionate share of the money in the past, especially considering that Asians are overrepresented at the university. "We didn't get enough Koreans," Dong says. And so on.)

"Am I undiplomatic sometimes?" Almaguer says. "Perhaps. A little bit too straightforward? I used more vinegar than honey? Yeah, I would probably confess to that, but it's interesting: I looked at my job description a while back. I wasn't hired to be Mother Teresa. I wasn't hired to make everyone feel good and have us all sit in a hot tub and hold hands and sing 'We Are the World.' That's not what I came to San Francisco State to do. It was to put a vision in place, to move the college forward, to move it out of the '60s and into the current millennium."

Velia Garcia, the chair of Raza studies, goes so far as to call the complaints about the dean's style a "ruse." "There were elements within the college that did not want to change," she says. "They wanted to see things continue the way they had been, and that old way privileged certain folks, certain units. ... [Almaguer] is direct in his dealings. Some people can't handle being talked to directly; some people can't handle hearing the truth; some people don't want to hear criticism, even if it's offered in a constructive way. Maybe he could've been more touchy-feely with some folks, but that wasn't his job. Honestly, I think it was a ruse. It was the one place where they found a weakness."

By 2003, the forces that would eventually drum Almaguer from his post were well in motion. First came a climate survey, conducted by the union; then a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and finally, in June 2004, a report from a team of external consultants, led by a Berkeley group called Diversity Matters. That report, coming in at a thin 10 pages, was vague and largely obvious; it took a temperature, but didn't offer much of a diagnosis. Among its 12 "key findings":

"1. There is severe internal conflict and distrust in the College of Ethnic Studies at SFSU.

"2. The Dean is vilified or glorified, depending on how one is treated ....

"11. The atmosphere to explore differences respectfully is present in small pockets, but not present in any consistent way across ethnicity and gender.

"12. A climate of suspicion exists around the way budget and monies are perceived to be used to gain favor and silence opposition."

It concluded with separate sets of recommendations -- even outsiders couldn't agree on Almaguer. The first suggested the dean be placed on leave and the associate dean, Okutsu, be relieved of his administrative duties and returned to the faculty, and further urged the school to hire consultants to work with the college "around historical and current negative dynamics." The second opinion recommended that the college establish an "independent faculty oversight committee" that would ultimately decide the dean's fate.

Okutsu dismisses the report, which relied on faculty surveys and interviews, as "poor research" with "no scientific basis." Nevertheless, it was regarded by some as an affirmation of their complaints about the dean, and when the university didn't act on the report, 18 of the college's 80 faculty members sent a letter of "no confidence" in Almaguer to the university's president and its provost. By that point, the atmosphere within the college was poisonous. At a CFA-sponsored meeting with faculty in late September 2004, according to Almaguer, a black-studies professor "suggested that the situation in the college was a war zone." The teacher reportedly added that "they had learned in Vietnam what to do with superiors who were problematic," says Almaguer, who was not at the meeting, though the CFA officer confirms this account. "Basically, it was suggested they frag me," Almaguer says. (At the time, he took this as a death threat and passed the matter along to campus police. Now, however, he acknowledges that the comment was "done in an offhanded way." "People laughed," Almaguer says. "It was just a joke.") In October, facing "an untenable situation," Almaguer resigned.

"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."

About The Author

Tommy Craggs


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