On the Attack

Bob King opposes autonomy, collegiality in Liberal Arts

By Scott Henson and Tom Philpott
September 1991; pages 3, 15-16; Volume 3, No. 1

Since UT President "Dollar" Bill Cunningham appointed Robert King Interim Dean of Liberal Arts, King has consolidated his hold on the position by forcibly exerting his regressive political agenda over the college. King previously held the deanship throughout the 1980s. Although King has only been appointed interim dean, after the abrupt resignation of Standish Meacham last spring, Cunningham has also named him chair of the search committee charged with finding a new dean, and has asked King to keep the post through the 91-92 academic year. In addition, despite the University's much-ballyhooed budget crunch, Cunningham granted King a $21,000 pay raise - boosting his salary to $124,000.

Reporters tell us King says, off the record, that he hates his job and doesn't know why he ever took it back. We hope this article will confirm and further that sentiment. Of course, not every controversy in the Liberal Arts College can be traced to King - for example, the attempt to place the Department of Spanish and Portuguese in partial receivership was initiated by his predecessor. And it must be stressed that King, under UT's hierarchical structure, technically has the authority to hire and fire administrators, and institute or abolish departmental governance, at his pleasure. But although he is only an interim dean, King is definitely not simply maintaining a holding pattern - his actions toward the English department, the Middle Eastern Studies Center, Women's Studies and the Humanities reveal a clear pattern of heavy-handedness, cronyism, and reactionary conservatism.

The King's English

In June, just after his ascension to the deanship, King sent a memo to the chair of the English department declaring his "inclination" to reject the department's previous governance structure - an "Executive Committee" elected by department faculty. Instead, King has installed a "Budget Council," made up of all full professors (leaving out associate professors, who are also tenured, and the junior faculty).

Dean King on the Attack

The department in February voted, with only one dissenting vote out of 80 English faculty, to continue its present system of governance. King's refusal to honor their wishes constitutes a fundamental violation of faculty autonomy. English Department Chairman Joe Kruppa says that junior faculty are "pretty confused" by the intent of the proposed changes, and that "morale is rather low" among English faculty in general.

While under UT's intensely hierarchical structure, King is technically allowed to singlehandedly reconstitute departmental government, his actions violate both tradition and written guidelines for faculty governance formulated by national organizations of which the university is a member. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in a stern letter dated July 24, informed Dean King that, "Absent compelling reasons for not providing ... approval, such as evidence that a department has become disfunctional in its operations, generally accepted principles of collegial government would call upon the administration to respect the decision of members of the department to continue the mode of governance under which they have been operating." Copies of this letter were sent to President Cunningham and Chairman Kruppa.

Days after receiving his copy of the AAUP letter, Chairman Kruppa offered King a compromise, whereby a committee would be set up outside the department to study the governance question, until the current Executive Committee terms expire in February. That would allow time, Kruppa reasoned, to proceed in an unhurried fashion, and to switch to a new governance system, if necessary, at a convenient juncture. Kruppa argued that eight faculty promotions are coming up in September, and that a new governing body would have to make decisions on an issue that the Executive Committee had been studying since March. Kruppa sent a copy of his compromise proposal to President Cunningham, with a cover letter saying he wanted the president to know that he had offered a compromise.

Six days later, without responding to Kruppa's compromise offer, King announced in an open letter to the department that the existing faculty government would be abolished as of September 1. Although the AAUP sent King another letter, dated August 27, chastising him for ignoring Kruppa's compromise offer and reasserting its support for the department's autonomy, at press time King had not responded.

For What Cause?

As the AAUP letter implies, King has provided no compelling evidence, in fact no evidence at all, that the current faculty government in the English department has become disfunctional. King at one point made vague references to problems in faculty hiring in the department, but gave no details as to his concerns. Many English faculty, including the chairman of the faculty recruitment committee, feel that King's concerns stem from the department's success in minority recruitment, which King has historically opposed.

Bolstering this argument is the fact that the English department has been the most successful in the university in fulfilling the UT administration's explicit mandate to hire more qualified minority faculty, as established in UT's 1987 Minority Faculty Recruitment and Retention Action Plan. In that plan, the administration stressed "the need for aggressive action to recruit minority faculty." In the past two academic years, the department hired eight women and three men. Of these, three were Hispanic and two were black. The chair of the English department's faculty recruitment committee, Kurt Heinzelman, told Polemicist, "King's actions will make recruitment of anybody, but especially of minority candidates, virtually impossible."

Heinzelman resigned his chairmanship on August 27 as a result of King's actions. In a lengthy resignation letter, Heinzelman argued that "[a]lready this acting dean's injudicious actions are becoming a scandal and a source of ridicule by colleagues around the country. This University is in danger of being denigrated by those very graduate institutions from which we draw our best assistant professors." He also writes that by imposing a budget council, "King has virtually stripped the women in this department of any representation. Of the 35 full professors in our Department, only four are women and two are on leave all next year."

One of King's few supporters in the English department however, cites other reasons why the dean might derail departmental governance. Norman Farmer, a full professor who last year along with King signed a "statement of academic concern" that led to the rejection of the revised syllabus for English 306, said he felt the English department "had become overly politicized, that it had become more of a political situation." Farmer fears that radical methodologies practiced by some junior faculty have subverted and "politicized" the governance process, because "members of the executive committee were all elected, and it led to increased politicking in the department." He argues that the "budget council is comprised of only full professors," who "have no specific constituency." Under the budget council, he says, "issues can be discussed on their merits without political interference."

Leaving aside for the moment the question of how elections or for that matter "governance" might be carried out apolitically, Farmer's criticisms are not borne out by the recent history of the executive committee. As Tom King reported in the July Polemicist, more than three quarters of full professors currently in the department have served on the executive committee, which changes its composition every year. Representation on the committee cuts across every philosophical and methodological difference in the department. The most recent executive committee was made up of six full professors, two associate professors and two junior faculty. Even so, in the past two years no executive committee vote has been closer than 8-2, and most have been unanimous. The argument that full professors would somehow govern the department more efficiently seems unsupported at best.

Dean Bob King's tactics threaten to rend traditional collegiality asunder.

But Farmer's critique does point up another possible reason for King's actions, which the dean doesn't mention in his memoranda: crushing the department's autonomy, Farmer's testimony implies, will somehow purify the governing structure of what has been portrayed in the press as a department wildly out of control, run by radical leftists, feminists, minorities, lesbians, etc. An inflammatory May 1990 Texas Monthly article, using only undocumented rumors from anonymous sources, accused the department of radicalism and flag burning. Then, last summer, the department became the subject of statewide and national attention after the local chapter of the right-wing National Association of Scholars successfully engineered the blocking of a new syllabus for English 306. (See Polemicist. September 1990.) In the case of E306, the administration struck its first blow against the department's autonomy when President Cunningham strongarmed then-Dean Meacham into cancelling the course.

Many think that Cunningham struck his second blow by rehiring King, whose regressive history is well known, and turning him loose on the department. Certainly Cunningham's silence in the face of the AAUP inquiries supports this claim. But whatever his intentions, Cunningham has only watched passively as King's iron jackboot has squashed the collective intentions of the largest department in the University.

Human, All Too Human

One of the patterns that has emerged during King's short tenure as acting dean is his refusal to honor commitments made by his predecessor, Standish Meacham. A prime example of this tendency came when King appointed Norman Farmer (quoted above) to head the Humanities program, an interdisciplinary honors degree. Stoff refused to comment on the incident, and told Polemicist to rely on the Texan version of the story for the facts of the case.

According to the Texan, Meacham had offered the position to Michael Stoff, promising a small pay raise and a reduced course load if he took on the added administrative duties. Despite King's sizable recent pay hike, he retracted these conditions, and offered the job with no perks and a full course load, Stoff told the Texan King had given him a July 15 deadline to decide if he wanted the job.

King, however, had other plans. On July 10 he penned a letter to Stoff, informing him that he'd already given the job to Farmer. Farmer says he had no idea Stoff was still considering the job. He learned of it in the Texan, he said, just like everyone else.

Still, Farmer's appointment by King was not a complete surprise. Farmer, as noted above, has been one of the only English department faculty to support King's demolition of the department's chosen structure, having written a personal letter to the interim dean supporting the budget council just prior to his appointment. And last summer he joined King and the Texas Association of Scholars in their bitter opposition to English 306. Farmer was one of only seven English faculty to sign the TAS's "Statement of Academic Concern" opposing his colleagues' E 306 syllabus.

A Woman's Work

King's snatching the Humanities position out from under Stoff might be seen as an aberration, except that he repeated the pattern in Women's Studies. The Women's Studies Center has never received significant support, and is really just a vehicle for cross-listing courses from many different disciplines to allow a concentration in Women's Studies.

Last spring Standish Meacham offered the position of director of the Women's Studies Center to Susan Marshall, an associate professor of sociology. As with Stoff, Meacham promised Marshall a lightened course load and a pay hike. Also as with Stoff, Bob King refused to honor these conditions, asking Marshall to consider taking the position without them.

While Marshall mulled over the new terms, however, King again made other plans. According to English professor Carol Mackay, "I was offered the position while Marshall thought she was still negotiating with Dean King." Mackay turned down the offer, although she didn't know at the time that Marshall was considering it. She wanted more monetary support for the center as well as more physical space (currently the center shares a secretary and an administrative assistant with several other programs).

After Mackay had turned him down, King went back to Marshall, and they negotiated a compromise, whereby she maintained a full course load, despite her administrative duties, but received an adjunct to her salary. The program's funding, however, will remain "at the same insignificant level as last year," according to Mackay. And Marshall's compromise with King was a cutback from what she had negotiated for the directorship under Meacham. Since the program's funding is so paltry, cutting support for the director amounts to cutting support for the center, said Mackay.

Observers say King's distaste for the center date back to his first tenure as dean. One professor close to the center, who asked to remain anonymous, pointed out that, "King has never conceived of womens studies in the serious way that many women scholars on this campus do." "At another university, a womens studies program can he a strong, viable resource," she said, but at UT, "our active growth is being curtailed."

The Merits of Cronyism

The case of the Middle Eastern Studies Center perhaps best illustrates King's high-handed style and his propensity to place his political agenda over accepted principles of academic merit. While we interviewed several individuals knowledgeable about the center for this article, none, including the principle actors, would agree to speak for the record. In addition, the Texan has completely ignored King's actions affecting the center, printing not one story the entire summer. Thus the following account, while perhaps incomplete in some respects, represents the information we were able to confirm.

The story began in January when former Middle Eastern Studies Center Director Ian Manners decided to resign his post as of this fall. According to sources close to the center, Meacham sent a letter to all the faculty connected with the center asking for advice or suggestions on who should he the next director. In addition, Meacham spoke personally with all or virtually all of the senior faculty. This consultation process took almost two months.

By March, Meacham had discovered a strong consensus within the center that Elizabeth Fernea should be its next director. Fernea, an English professor and well-known Middle Eastern scholar, is the only member of the center ever to have been president of the Middle Eastern Studies Association, the most prestigious national group for Middle East scholars. Fernea has been closely associated with the center. She has served as its undergraduate advisor and as a member of its executive committee. She has lived in the Middle East for years at a time, and travelled widely throughout the region. She has an international academic reputation, and her Orientalist memoir, Guests of the Sheik, has enjoyed international acclaim and multiple printings.

At the time, Fernea was on leave in Israel helping produce a film about the Israeli peace movement. According to knowledgeable sources, Meacham phoned Fernea in Israel to ask her whether she wanted the job. She accepted informally. Meacham then forwarded his recommendation to Cunningham.

Afterwards, there was hiatus - no word came from Cunningham on the status of Meacham's recommendation. But at the last meeting of the department chairs in May, just before he stepped down, Meacham announced that he had forwarded Fernea's name to Cunningham, and that he was confident she would be approved.

King's opposition to multiculturalism has never been a secret in the Liberal Arts College.

After King formally assumed the deanship, however, he called a meeting with senior faculty associated with the center, and informed them that he felt, after consulting with (unnamed) faculty and examining her credentials, be could not support her for the directorship. According to sources, King gave no specifics as to his objections, but every Middle East scholar we talked to said that no one at UT was more qualified for the position.

Why then, given her credentials, would King reject her appointment?

First as a member of the English department Fernea had been a vocal supporter of the revised English 306 syllabus, which King, as noted, publicly opposed. She even at one point appeared on a television talk show defending the syllabus. In addition, Fernea participated in a committee appointed by Meacham to study and formulate multicultural curriculum proposals for the College of Liberal Arts. And she chaired a subcommittee which produced two books on multiculturalism proposals entitled, "Multiculturalism: Resources for Dialogue," which were released last summer. King's opposition to multiculturalism has never been a secret in the Liberal Arts College.

But perhaps the most important reason King might have to oppose Fernea's appointment is her position on the Israel/Palestinian conflict. A faculty member at the center describe Fernea's positions as "sympathetic to the moderate Arab/Palestinian position," although he stresses that she has "never let her sympathies affect her scholarship." Many faculty - as well as the authors of this polemic - speculate that King, an ardent long-time Zionist, allowed his own political sympathies to affect his decision.

In her stead, King installed as director a geographer, Bob Holz, who sources say is a long-time friend and hunting partner of the interim dean. Most faculty at the center we interviewed were dismayed by the appointment, since Holz speaks no Middle Eastern languages and his primary field of research is not the Middle East. Holz has been affiliated with the center in the past, but, says one professor, has never been "central to its role." Holz has taught courses on Middle Eastern geography cross-listed under the center, and once chaired the center's fellowship award program. He was once even hired by Fernea's husband, Bob, to help organize a summer teaching program in Morocco. But he has never served on the center's executive committee, nor in any administrative capacity connected with the center.

Holz in his research uses sophisticated technology to perform satellite mapping, mineral searches, etc. While he has used his skills with this technology in the Middle East, one can fairly say, judging from his vita, that his research doesn't reflect an interest in its culture or its politics. Most scholars in the center don't define "Middle Eastern Studies" as the study of how to exploit the region's resources.

Meacham Versus Spanish Department

The woes of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese differ from the other departments discussed in this article, because King, for once, did not instigate them. Toward the end of his tenure as dean, Standish Meacham raised the spectre of placing the department in either total or partial receivership, and apparently decided to make good on the threat. But because The Daily Texan has missed the story altogether, many faculty, relying solely on rumors, believe the department's problems stem as in other disciplines from the maneuverings of Bob King.

On May 8, weeks before he relinquished his position, Meacham issued a memorandum to the department, in which he named a new department chair, Lee Fontanella, abolished the previous executive committee, and named a new five member committee consisting of two professors from the department and three from outside. The memo gave no reasons for this action, and both Fontanella and his predecessor, Robert Brody, say Meacham never explained to them his reasoning. In fact, according to Fontanella, Meacham told him he would place the department in partial receivership at the time he asked Fontanella to become chairman. Fontanella also claims that he never asked Meacham the cause for this drastic action, and insisted that he accepted Meacham's appointment ignorant of the dean's reasoning.

Only Meacham could give the background as to why he made this decision, but, because he was away from his summer home in Maine temporarily, he could not be reached for comment before presstime. One faculty member who asked to remain anonymous, said the department had become "highly factionalized," but would not elaborate further. Neither Fontanella nor Brody would comment on this factionalization.

After Meacham left his position, a group of Spanish department faculty wrote a letter asking the central administration to review Meacham's decision. According to Brody, Cunningham asked King to review the situation and make his own recommendation. To date, King has not announced his decision.

This puts the department in the awkward situation of not currently having an executive committee. English professor Charles Rossman was one of the outside faculty Meacham asked to serve on the newly installed executive committee. He says that Meacham didn't tell him anything more about the problems that caused his decision. Since the announcement of his appointment - and a thank you note from Meacham for taking the job - he has received no word about when the committee might meet or what its agenda might be.

Fontanella insisted that "we do have an executive committee," but that it has "not met or worked on promotions." When asked when the committee would begin working on promotions, he replied, in an apparent contradiction, "the day after any committee is set up" by the dean.

Fontanella says he thinks King will overturn the receivership decision, but that no announcement has been made as of yet. The timing of this decision is growing critical, however, because the executive committee - either Meacham's or the old one - will have to review faculty promotions in September. He said that promotion candidates have "not been endangered" by the delay yet. But while Meacham certainly deserves the blame for instigating this affair, its final outcome depends solely on Bob King, and so far, on this issue, he has remained silent.

During last year's English 306 controversy, President Cunningham received numerous letters from alumni, some of them donors, demanding that he save the Liberal Arts College from subversion by feminists, Marxists, lesbians, etc. State Rep. Kent Grusendorf even mailed UT officials a copy of the infamous Texas Monthly article, demanding to know what UT planned to do to purge the radicals. If Cunningham did hire Bob King as part of a backlash against liberals in the college, he's certainly getting his $21,000 worth.

Portions of this article also appear in The Texas Observer.