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Disrespecting Whom?

April 6, 2010

Haki Madhubuti is by all accounts a key player in modern black literature -- a poet, novelist and essayist whose own works are part of the canon of African American studies. As the founder, in 1967, of the Third World Press, he was publishing people like Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka and Mari Evans in an era when establishment publishers were rarely open to such voices.

For more than 25 years, he also taught at Chicago State University, orchestrating countless visits by black literary stars, and creating and leading an M.F.A. program. But his career there ended suddenly with his resignation on Friday. Madhubuti charges that he was forced out in retaliation for being among the many professors who spoke out publicly against the selection of Wayne Watson as Chicago State's president. Watson recently told Madhubuti that he would no longer be able to keep his schedule teaching one course a year while also leading the Gwendolyn Brooks Center at the university. Instead, he would have to teach a 4-4 schedule.

Madhubuti announced his resignation at the annual conference of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center, before an audience of literary notables -- and word of the dispute quickly spread, sparking considerable debate. The issue is a sensitive one for Chicago State, which has been criticized in the past for letting poor management deny a quality education to its students, many of whom are from low-income minority populations.

Many at the university say that Madhubuti was devoted to the institution, and that the conferences and other events he organized there gave Chicago State a prominence and an identity in Chicago that stood in welcome contrast to the scandals that captured so much attention in recent years.

One thing that isn't in dispute is that Madhubuti was among the many professors who criticized the selection of Watson, who had a series of clashes with faculty members at the City Colleges of Chicago, which he led previously, and whose selection as president last year was greeted with boos on the campus. At the time, Madhubuti released an open letter to the university, questioning Watson's suitability for the job. Madhubuti was hardly alone in offering such criticisms, but his letter was much discussed on campus.

Watson, responding to questions via e-mail, said that his decision to demand that Madhubuti teach more courses each semester "isn't about personalities, and it certainly is not about ill will." He added: "It's about realigning the priorities and services of a vital institution with limited resources -- going back to the basics like spending more time in the classroom directly benefiting our students, which is the core mission of the university." Watson said that Madhubuti was asked "to do what we expect of every faculty member on this campus -- to teach students."

The university is going through a "cultural shift," Watson said, and that is difficult for many. But it's the only way to build the "right foundation" for student learning.

In an interview, Madhubuti argued that Watson was just putting spin on a retaliatory act. Madhubuti said that the president was trying to imply that he didn't care about teaching, when "I've been teaching for 26 years."

Madhubuti said that about a decade ago, he was approached about a job elsewhere and that Chicago State officials -- unable to compete on salary -- promised him a reduced course load. He said that it takes time to organize major academic conferences, to lead graduate programs, and to set up programs for elementary and secondary school students -- all of which he has done. Given that history, he said, he can't believe that a new president would question his productivity. The only explanation, he said, is his outspoken criticism of Watson's selection.

"This is punitive and it is directed against me," Madhubuti said. And he argued that all of the talk about how the president is trying to get more classroom time is just part of a campaign to denigrate him. "I don't think the president wants a strong black man there to question anything that he does," Madhubuti said. (Watson is also black.)

There are signs that Watson is winning the public relations battle. Mary Mitchell, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, has written about the dispute, sympathetically to Madhubuti. Her column on Sunday started: "Are you telling me that a black man can rise from pushing pamphlets on the corner to selling books across the globe, and still have to fight for respect?"

But she went on to note her surprise and disappointment that people were not defending Madhubuti. Mitchell wrote that readers were taking "a surprisingly narrow view" and she quoted from one such e-mail: "If he is a giant in the literary world, then the best people he can be influencing is students and the best place to influence them is to teach them in the classroom."

Laurie Walter, president of the Chicago State chapter of the University Professionals of Illinois, said that pledges made by Chicago State in the past to Madhubuti weren't part of the contract between the university and her union, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. She said that standard requirements for loads vary, based on a variety of factors. She said that a 4-4 load would have been fairly standard for someone in English if that person didn't have any release time.

Walter said that her sense of faculty sentiment, informally, is that many professors are frustrated by how Madhubuti has been treated. She said that even among faculty members who aren't literary experts, people know that Madhubuti has "brought positive attention to the university." She said that she was "sorry that they couldn't have worked something out," and that she didn't think faculty members had been upset that Madhubuti didn't teach as many classes as others.

Madhubuti said it was distressing, after long years of working for the university, that the president was talking about how he needed to have the same course schedule as every other professor. A professor known for writing needs to write, Madhubuti said. He said that the president was unfairly trying to suggest that every professor teaches the exact same number of classes, without regard to administrative duties or writing.

"All faculty are treated the same?" he said. "That happens nowhere in the universe."

 

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