First Person: Academic Journey—Two Crashes

By Marvin Chachere
Wednesday December 17, 2008 - 06:51:00 PM

One Friday in early March of 1965 I received in the mail two job offers: mathematics instructor at Diablo Valley College and Extension specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. 

At the time I was a high school teacher and, if there is a top tier in high school teaching, I had reached it. The year before an article of mine was published in The Mathematics Teacher. 

If I took the DVC job I’d have fewer classes, teach a wider range of math subjects and make a bit more money. The UC Berkeley job paid about the same but I had no idea what an Extension specialist did. 

I took the UC Berkeley job. 

My teacher friends tagged me a traitor; the incompatibility of administrators with teachers was pronounced, like that between dogs and cats. 

That was how my academic journey started, and as it progressed I encountered teapot-sized obstacles, adventures and surprises that I now recall with fascination and that form a souvenir collection in my memory bank, gathered here and there during the 17-year arc of my career. In particular I learned to appreciate F.M. Cornford’s cynical advice offered a century ago to the young academic politician: show “…just enough bitterness to put a pleasant edge on your conversation” (Microcosmographia Academica, 1908). 

Although I was ignorant of what it entailed, I was comfortable with my choice. I’d been on the receiving end of academia for a long time and felt familiar with its shape; I’d recently put the cap on my graduate work at UC Berkeley with an M.A. to go along with my B.A. and my M.Ed. Obviously, holding these degrees helped, and yet, as it turned out, they contributed only marginally and indirectly to the work that lay ahead. 

Extension’s motto was “Lifelong Learning.” I was assigned a desk, a telephone, given a collection of instructors on 3x5 cards ordered by academic specialty and told to schedule courses for the general public. So, my job was to extend the university’s reservoir of knowledge. Registered UC Berkeley students drank directly, Extension students from a straw, as it were. I was directed to use last semester’s Extension catalogue as a guide.  

My boss, eschewing the ivory tower metaphor, placed Extension on the growing edge of the university; the first course in Shakespeare was offered by Extension in the early years of the 20th century; the English Department followed years later. UCLA itself began life as an extension of UC Berkeley. 

By the time I realized that the Extension Department was near the bottom of the academic pecking order—the Physics Department was on top, followed closely by Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, etc.—I had also experienced the wide-ranging and invigorating challenges inherent in its entrepreneurial slant. 

Fees paid to Extension had to cover all expenses, including my salary. I had not, as it happened, become an administrative dog; I was a free-market entrepreneur who contributed to an exotic menu of Extension programs, marginally appended to the university’s state-funded mission.  

The challenge struck an enthusiastic chord in me that I never knew was there. I produced a lecture series, “Creativity and Discovery in Mathematics,” searched and found an instructor for a course in the history of mathematics, a course not offered in the Math Department. 

However, this article is not about my successes, such as they were. It is an account of a couple of crashes in which I failed to grow the margin—failures that reveal, I think, the tender hidebound core of academia. The first crash, illustrates the temerity endemic to academic institutions. 

I developed a multifaceted program titled “The Black Experience.” It was centered on a series of lectures, each sandwiched between discussion groups chaired by scholars and located at sites in different sections of Berkeley’s black neighborhoods. The Civil Rights Movement had by now grown contentious with disputes between the followers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and those of Malcolm X. I hoped to diminish the virulence, or at least introduce a distraction by casting an academic light on the plight of citizens, demeaned, belittled and second-classed because of their slave forebears. 

I was on the verge of sending the brochure to be printed when I was obliged to scuttle the entire project.  

I withdrew lecture invitations that had been accepted by such notables as Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor of Ebony Magazine, Dr. Price Cobbs, psychiatrist and co-author of the bestseller Black Rage, and Katherine Dunham, world renowned anthropologist, dancer and choreographer.  

Major social changes always generate a destructive wave that drowns compromise; anyone who stood in the gray area was either white-ed out or inked in, while individuals with rhetorical talent and dramaturgical instincts rose like sludge to the top.  

On campus Negro students (Colored, Black, Afro-American, African-American—no consensus existed regarding the label) formed a united but discordant group that marched daily outside the Chancellor’s office demanding that he establish a Black Studies Department. The leaders decided that my project, “The Black Experience,” subverted their purpose by giving the Chancellor a plausable excuse for inaction, i.e., Black Studies is already being launched in the Extension Department. Scatological language was used. Threats were made. End of program, end of story. 

The second crash involved a survey course in American music.  

Every program offered by Extension had to receive approval from an appropriate department within a dozen or so campus schools and colleges. If the course or program carried credit, additional approval by the Academic Senate’s Committee on Courses was necessary. 

Weeks after I routed the course title, description, instructor’s bio and three reference letters to the Music Department, I called thinking the documents had been lost or mislaid. The administrative assistant told me the chairman had the documents and transferred my call. The chairman said that he would not approve the course and when I asked why he told me, “There is no such thing as American music. All music composed here is derivative.” 

I was stunned, speechless. I took this to mean that musical works in “Old World” forms belonged to the “Old World” no matter where or who composed them.  

This was a tenured professor telling me, by implication, that Ives, Copeland, Grofe, Bernstein were pseudo-Europeans. 

Thus, I came to appreciate “…fully the peculiarities of powerful persons, which [was] sufficient to sicken any but the most hardened soul” (Cornford again).