Charlie Wilson's Chair

August 27, 2008

He may not be Thomas Jefferson, but that does not seem to matter to his supporters. Charlie Wilson, the notoriously fun-loving former Texas Congressman, may soon have an endowed professor’s chair named in his honor, to the dismay of some professors at the University of Texas at Austin.

The T.L.L. Temple Foundation, a charitable organization based in Wilson’s hometown of Lufkin, Tex., has given $500,000 to the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas to establish what a press release asserts is the only faculty chair in the United States focused on the study of Pakistan. In response to the “challenge grant” given by the Temple Foundation, the college is planning to match this initial contribution with an additional $500,000. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that the institution is using a call center in Islamabad, Pakistan, to reach out to potential donors to meet this fund raising goal.

Wilson, now 75, is best known for his role in leading Congress to support the covert Central Intelligence Agency operation that supported the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Charlie Wilson’s War, the 2003 book about this military operation by the 60 Minutes producer George Crile, was turned into a 2007 Hollywood blockbuster starring Tom Hanks. The film, however, put particular focus on Wilson’s rocky personal life, including his well-documented drinking and womanizing.

Some critics of Wilson argue that American support of the Afghan mujahideen led to the Taliban takeover of the country. This failed foreign policy, some argue, helped cause the war in Afghanistan following September 11, 2001. Still, you would never know about Wilson's checkered past from the materials the university used to promote the creation of the chair.

“A strong Texan who supported Pakistan’s efforts to garner extensive aid for the Afghan fight against Russian Communism, Congressman Wilson serves as an example of true leadership and unfailing vision, the type of deeply human hero who is inspiring and challenging,” stated a university press release.

The new chair, which would be based in the university’s South Asian studies program, is not being well received by some faculty members. Twelve professors associated with the program sent a letter to Randy Diehl, dean of the college, and Itty Abraham, director of the South Asia Institute, expressing discontent about the university’s decision. The professors argue that naming a chair after Wilson sends the wrong message to the public and is an implicit endorsement of his ideological legacy. They also argue that it will be difficult to recruit a “credible” scholar of Pakistan with a chair named after Wilson.

“The cold war in South Asia, which saw the United States shore up decades of military dictatorship in Pakistan against the democratic aspirations of its people, cannot be construed as a triumph of ‘good’ democracy over ‘evil’ communism,” the professors’ letter states. “Mr. Wilson’s record as a key Congressman who sent monies and munitions to the anti-Soviet mujahideen groups underscores the worrisome role the U.S. played in escalating the Soviet-Afghan conflict, with devastating consequences for the peoples of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States.”

South Asian Studies faculty were not consulted by the program or university administrators about establishing the Wilson chair, said Kamala Visweswaran, associate professor of anthropology and co-signer of the letter. She said she was not aware of the chair until she heard about it through reports from local news media, and that the university’s news release was not shared with the faculty. If administrators had consulted with faculty before the announcement, Visweswaran said they probably would have been made aware of faculty disapproval. She said she was not surprised by the university’s lack of transparency, though.

“The University of Texas is an institution that has a very poor record of faculty governance,” Visweswaran said. “This is a longstanding issue. The university often proceeds with what it wants to do. Some people felt this was par for the course. Some of us thought it was important to speak up and say, ‘our opinion counts.’ ”

Dana L. Cloud, associate professor of communication studies, said the university should have known that naming a chair in honor of Wilson would have been considered controversial. Still, when major donations are involved, Cloud said all administration and faculty are not always consulted for direction. She said she, too, found out about the decision from local news reports.

“It was just outrageous,” Cloud said. “I thought it was a joke.”

As of press time, the dean’s office at the college had not yet received the letter from the concerned faculty, said Christian Casarez, a Texas spokeswoman, adding that Diehl could not respond as a result. She did note that the chair has been proposed for a “couple of years.” A June 2006 press release from then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, for example, makes note of the chair two years prior to its official announcement.

“We are pleased not only to honor Congressman Wilson, but also to further the study of a country of Pakistan’s stature and geopolitical importance,” Diehl stated in a prior news release.

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