Affirmative Action and Me: A Tale of an Old Boys’ Network, Teaching and Politics

Photograph Source: Stepheng3 – CC BY-SA 3.0

In the late 1980s I felt guilty about using an old boys’ network to secure a teaching position at Sonoma State University (SSU), a branch of the California State University system. I even discussed my sense of guilt in therapy with a psychiatrist at Langley Porter Psychiatric Hospital and Clinic. He suggested that I had done a lot of good in academia after I was hired for a tenure-track position in the communication studies department at SSU. I suppose I did.

I served as the chair of the department for 16 years, coordinated the internship program for students, taught three or four classes a semester and wrote and published three books, as well as dozens of book reviews for newspapers and magazines. I tell my story now because of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning affirmative action.

I do not support that ruling and I also do not mean to boast that I found a loophole and used it to be hired. I might be an exception, though that’s not clear. Others will have to come forward to tell their stories before we know the big picture. Like the military, corporations and the White House, academia breeds secrets and secrecy.

I turned to an old boys network because I had been unable to secure a tenure track position, though I had a Ph.D. and had been a lecturer at SSU for six years, teaching composition and literature, though the chair of the English Department told me, “You’re overqualified.” Bull shit. As a Fulbright scholar, I taught American literature at two Belgian universities for a year and lectured in France about the novels of Alice Walker. When I returned to California I learned that I was no longer in the pool of applicants eligible to teach at SSU and had lost my seniority.

I was hurt and angry, but I didn’t hire a lawyer and go to court. Instead, I called my friend Mark Rosenberg, once a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and then a movie producer at Warner Brothers. I told Mark my story and asked if he could help. He promised to contact his friend, Stanley Sheinbaum, a regent at the University of California.

Soon after my conversation with Rosenberg, David Benson, the president of SSU, called me into his office and offered me a tenure-track position in communication studies. “We can’t hire you in English because the department is top heavy with white males, but if you’re willing to move to communications the job is yours,” he said.

The university advertised the position. I was interviewed by a committee of three faculty members. I was hired and at the police department on campus I was fingerprinted and swore to uphold the constitution of the State of California.

I jumped at the opportunity, reinvented my academic career and taught journalism, film, and the history and theory of communications with lots of help from the writings and the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and Malcolm Gladwell. When I met Sheinbaum at a Hollywood party and thanked him for helping me. He smiled and said “You owe me big,” though he never asked for anything in return.

Victor Garlin, a member of the California Faculty Association at SSU, insisted that no one on the campus was ever hired through any old boys’ network, but rather because of one’s academic record and achievements. “We’re a meritocracy,“ he said. Most of my friends outside academia told me, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” or as they said, “who you blow.”

I like to think that in my case it was some of both. For years, what I knew and what I wrote hadn’t worked for me.

Because of affirmative action the SSU English Department hired women and some members of minority groups, though no Blacks. Students told me that they were inspired and given confidence when a teacher looked like them and had come from a similar background or ethnic group.

Through an old boys’ network, the university also hired controversial figures such as Mario Savio, who had been unable to find a teaching position on a college campus, perhaps because he was white and male and perhaps because of his notoriety as one of the leaders of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. Some qualified candidates seem to be discriminated against, not because of gender, ethnicity or class, but because of political beliefs and actions. Savio is a prime example of that.

Academic freedom is supposed to mitigate against discrimination, but academic freedom has never worked perfectly in the U.S., especially during McCarthyism. It was no “ivory tower” then and it’s no “ivory tower” now.  It’s also under attack once again and in need of defending. I’ll go to bat for it and for affirmative action, too, though for the time being it looks like a lost cause.

Until 1964, the Free Speech Movement also looked like a lost cause. Lost causes are the kind of causes that need to be embraced now as much as ever. May the playing field be equal and may every student in California and elsewhere have the right to an education. Back doors will always be open, and will always provide a way into academia as a teacher or student. But let’s hope qualified teachers won’t have to do what I did.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.