Thursday, February 03, 2005

Thursday Pig Blogging Salutes the Super Bowl: Memories of Janet

If you click here, you will be directed to a picture of Muppet diva Miss Piggy in the midst of suffering her own wardrobe malfunction. It is quite enough to imagine it. I daresay none of my regulars will click through.

May I suggest this magnificent bundt cake instead?

Late Night Addendum: I'm afraid there has been a misunderstanding. What I am trying to do is employ one of the great moral truths that lie at the very essence of the internet -- that you have the ability to link quickly to additional information but you really don't have to -- to move us all along toward virtue. The necessary point is that you have the opportunity to ogle Miss Piggy. How can wood be brave in the absence of fire? To be deprived of that opportunity is to possess mere "fugitive and cloistered virtue," to quote Mr. John Milton.

That was why Janet Jackson's behavior at the last Super Bowl was such an affront. There her bosom was, bang! But before you had the opportunity to cease your seeing, it was snatched off screen making you twice the victim. Where was the opportunity to decide? Where was the opportunity to knock your children to the floor and sit on their heads?

There "it" was and there "it" wasn't, as if something that wasn't supposed to lasted an instant too long and rose to the level of perception. It makes me wonder how much subliminal filth we are being exposed to every day.

Barbara Boxer: Flashing her bosom at Frist and Santorum in less than a blink of an eye. Barbra Streisand: Dress up over her head every split second. Hillary Clinton cutting the ribbon at the opening of some new grammar school: I'm feeling mooned. Are you feeling mooned? Look there right now!

Too late.

But I digress. Here is your chance to don't look now, to not look back and see what's gaining on you.

Maybe it's bundt cake. Maybe it's not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is very important:


Former Dean Tomás Almaguer says he was a "change agent." A colleague calls him a "hatchet man."

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Things we were obsessing about on 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.

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."

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.

The complaints seemed to center on Almaguer's personality; he admits he could be blunt, and perhaps even tactless. Once, frustrated with a lecturer who hadn't shown up to her class (after several warnings), he turned to his associate, Okutsu. Almaguer recalls: "I said, 'That bitch didn't show up again? She knows! She's been reprimanded!' But did I say, 'You, Professor X, are a bitch'?" He shakes his head. (At a meeting with faculty and the union, Almaguer wound up defending his use of "bitch," tracing the word's etymology and allegedly citing his own work. "The defense of it was so incredible," says Lorraine Dong, a professor in Asian American studies and the wife of Marlon Hom. "You should've seen the faces. They just dropped." Almaguer insists that he did not quote his own research -- something about Latino gay men adopting the sexist attitudes of heterosexual men -- but that it was brought up to be used against him.)

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.


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