Monthly Archives: March 2005

Churchill and the issue of race in very white places

The battle continues to rage over Ward Churchill’s future at the University of Colorado: Regents balk at Churchill deal – Plagiarism allegation stalls buyout proposal…

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking lately on the question of how the hell this ever happened in the first place. As the Denver Post notes in an editorial from this past Tuesday, “Ward Churchill is a political figure, not a scholar,” and they go on to suggest that “[e]ven if he survives CU review, he ought to pursue his interests in a non-academic environment.” I’m not intimately familiar with Churchill’s publication record, but some credible sources have criticized the merit of his academic record, and the Post seems to be on pretty safe ground in its politician vs. scholar assertion.

The very piece that ignited this whole firestorm is a perfect example. The truth is that, whether you agree with the premise or not, there is a defensible way to make the argument Churchill seemed to be getting at about the critical role played by the technicians of a political economic system in maintaining the order and course of that system. In fact, conservative political and economic leaders make similar statements on a daily basis, the only difference being that they’re praising those people for what they see as a positive contribution whereas Churchill excoriates them for what he sees as propping up an evil system. I say defensible – by this I mean you can formulate and evidence such an argument and bring a broad body of critical theory to bear. Again, I’m not asking you to agree with the premise – I’m not saying I agree with it, either. I’m merely pointing out that it can be done.

Or, you can instead take the same basic premise and spin it out as a vitriolic political rant that’s designed not to inform or spark intelligent debate, but to inflame and outrage. This is the route Churchill chose, and to his credit, if controversy was the goal, he’s been remarkably successful.

But – here’s the question some folks are asking – how does a guy who’s perhaps not much of a scholar get tenure at a major Research 1 institution like CU? Trust me, tenure is hard to come by in places like Boulder, and we’re justifiably curious when legitimately bright lights get passed over and a somebody with suspect credentials gets tenured out of nowhere.

As it turns out, I might have some insight into this question, although I’ll begin with a caveat: this is an analysis of a general dynamic and not a comment on the Churchill case specifically, about which I have no more information than is available in the pages of the Post and Rocky.

A few years back, while a Ph.D. student at CU, I was invited to serve as a member of a faculty search committee. We were looking to hire a couple positions, and conducted a thorough national search for the best the field had to offer. Curriculum vitae (that’s the technical term for those thick, heavy long-form academic résumés – none of that one-page crap here, folks) flowed into Macky Hall by the wheelbarrowfull, and we saw applications from a lot of seriously talented people. But as we winnowed wheat from chaff, a disturbing trend started to emerge. All of the best candidates we were seeing were white. We had a decent number of minority applicants, but frankly, they just weren’t as qualified (at least on paper) as the white applicants.

Now, my initial reaction – the reaction of the entire committee, in fact – was that something wasn’t right here. We know damned good and well that there are plenty of talented minorities out there. Each of us knew talented minority scholars and professionals around the country who’d have been fantastic candidates. So the problem wasn’t that they didn’t exist, it was that they weren’t applying.

I was baffled. Boulder is amazing. It’s one of the most beautiful places in America and it’s a cultural mecca. Who the hell wouldn’t want to live there? A couple conversations with minority faculty members, though, showed me something I hadn’t really thought about in any detail before.

Dramatization

Minority Faculty Member: Sam, look around you – what do you see?
Me: I see white people.

Right. If you didn’t count CU’s scholarship athletes, there were roughly six black people in Boulder, and a couple of black faculty members in my program explained to me that no matter how cool I thought Boulder was, the school was always going to have trouble recruiting talented minority faculty because there was nothing there for them. No black people. No black neighborhoods. No black churches. No black clubs. No black culture of any sort.

In a place like Boulder, a town that’s just overrun by what we might call “salon liberals,” we liked to tell ourselves that we were largely past racial divides in structuring our personal lives and our communities. While that’s admirable, it’s also not terribly realistic, is it? When push comes to shove, it’s easier to be magnanimous and open-minded on these issues when you’re surrounded by people who look like you and come from places where they mostly share your cultural experiences and assumptions and practices. In truth, though, regardless of how open the minds are all around you, it’s going to be hard living and working in a place where you’re a novelty. It may not be properly enlightened of me to say these things, but the truth is that while I feel like I have a pretty clear head on the issue of race, I’d be uncomfortable living in a town where white folk constituted less than 1% of the population.

That’s the context in Boulder. Very white. But what does this have to do with the Churchill case? Well, universities – especially state universities in places like Boulder – are brutally conscious of diversity issues. It’s a legal mandate, yes, but it’s also a lot more than that. This is a community that understands the inherent value of diversity in promoting a healthy educational environment and that feels a moral obligation to fairness in hiring.

So the committee decided to get proactive on the question by actively soliciting applications from specific minority candidates we knew or knew of and thought might be well-suited to the jobs we were hiring, and this process did turn up a couple people that the committee and the faculty at large were quite impressed with. I remember sitting in The Sink up on the Hill talking with one of the guys, a rising superstar from a major Midwestern newspaper who struck me as the sort of guy we’d be lucky to land, and I recall trying to feel out his interest in coming to CU. He was nice, he was complimentary, he said all the right things, but I think I knew right then and there that he wasn’t coming to Boulder.

We wound up hiring a white candidate – a good one, too. But as good as she was, our search made Boulder one person whiter than it had been the day before.

I keep insisting this has some possible relevance to the context in which Churchill was hired and tenured. At CU, you have a place that’s way too white to suit it. The very composition of the place is an impediment to change. The community knows it has a race problem, but chasing whites out of town and forcibly importing minorities isn’t an option. So what tools does the school have at hand to address its horrific diversity situation?

My search committee went the extra mile, actually hunting down minority applicants, and that offends some part of you that thinks race should play no role in hiring or recruiting or promotion, fine. I’m telling you how it is, and I’m also telling you that this is a process engaged in by good people acting in good faith. I know these people. I was one of them.

Meanwhile, across campus, you have a guy – a minority candidate (although now they’re going after him on that claim, too, I hear) getting tenure despite what a lot of folks see as a wholly undeserving record of scholarship. It has been asserted by people close to the case that corners were cut, and the impression that emerges is that CU promoted Churchill not because of his qualifications, but because of his race. Do I know that this was the reasoning? No. Based on my knowledge of the racial dynamics of the institution, can I believe this is what happened? Yup.

And I empathize fully with those who made the decision to do so, even as a part of me is appalled at the decision. But what do you do when a) you’re committed to a diverse community, but b) qualified minority candidates often say no thanks?

I can’t always defend the decisions that get made under these circumstances, but I can understand the complexity and conflict of the environment in which they occur. In the micro, these kinds of “demographically aware” decisions may strike us an unjust when we examine them out of context, but if you argue that we have to think about the big picture, and that perhaps there are cases where you have to seed the clouds if you want it to rain, well, I have some sympathy for that position. Maybe the only way to evolve a Boulder, Colorado into the sort of place that a top-tier minority candidate would see as a desirable destination long term is to cut a corner or two in the short term. Maybe.

There is plenty about this argument that bothers me, so save your breath yelling the obvious and prefabricated at me. I’m also aware of the laughable naïveté of talking about Americans thinking or acting in the long term. I didn’t write this because I have any kind of moral certainty in my head or an acceptable policy in my heart. It is what it is – I’m not happy about the Churchill affair, but knowing Boulder as I do, I can imagine how it might have happened.