Book Reviews: Life Journeys in Academia

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by Angela P. Dodson

College professors spend a lot of time preparing others for careers but may have little time to pursue their own development or look back on their own journeys. This selection of books is intended to offer a chance to reflect on the long haul and to consider new options. Sometimes academics take jobs as a short-term option, only to find that it turns into a career. That first step becomes a lifelong commitment to a field or a single school. That is what happened to the author of this first book.

Race and the University: A Memoir, by George Henderson, $24.95, University of Oklahoma Press, September 2010, ISBN-10: 0806141298, ISBN-13: 978-0806141299, pp. 272.

Shortly after completing a Ph.D. at Wayne State University, Dr. George Henderson, assistant superintendent for Detroit Public Schools and an adjunct professor at three colleges, told his mentor he had accepted a job as a full-time professor at the University of Oklahoma. He was taken off guard by the reaction:

“You won’t like it there. It’s a small redneck school in a backward state,” said Dr. Leonard Moss, chairman of Wayne State’s Department of Anthropology and Sociology. “If you want to go to a suburban school and live a nice, quiet life, let me find you a better place. You shouldn’t begin your career in a second-rate university in the boondocks of Oklahoma. Besides, it’s not a place where your social values and professional abilities will be appreciated.”

Moss was wrong about the last part, and in any case, Henderson was undeterred.

The year was 1967, and Henderson, born in Alabama and reared in East Chicago, Ind., was soon to get his first taste of what going to Norman, Okla., to be an associate professor of sociology and education would mean for his family. The Hendersons were rebuffed with lame excuses when they pursued their first, second and third choice of housing. The family secured a barely suitable place with potential after a White department chair accompanied Henderson’s wife, Barbara, to inspect a fourth property. The colleague, as he disclosed decades later, led the sellers to assume that he was the buyer who just brought his maid along to see how much work her boss’s home might require.

It was a mere foretaste of the kind of racial isolation and animus that was common in the community and the university. On the one hand, it was an era of hope as the university sought — and some within the academic body welcomed — a new African-American colleague who would be one of three Black faculty. The situation in the wider community, on the other hand, was more dire than Moss predicted.

At home, the Hendersons put up with “obscene and threatening telephone calls, garbage and a makeshift cross thrown on our front yard, raw eggs splattered on our cars, and epithets yelled at us by strangers in cars speeding past our house” — not to mention unwarranted stops by police asking why the professor was traveling in his own neighborhood. The White-owned real estate firm that had the guts to sell the home to Blacks was also harassed and eventually driven out of business.

Even that was not as troubling to Henderson as the conditions the Black students at the university endured. In addition to the blatant hostilities and biases in the town, the young scholars quietly bore the brunt of discriminatory practices on campus in dorm assignments, athletics, grading, employment and other matters. Few in number, the Black students were physically and emotionally isolated within a huge university and had few places to turn for support. The students and the community quickly made it known that they looked to Henderson to help right the wrongs.

“We Negroes in Oklahoma City are counting on you to help the Negro students at the University of Oklahoma … to improve things for themselves and their friends down there,” a community leader told Henderson after a speech Henderson gave to a statewide organization. “And when you get some extra time, we have a few projects in Oklahoma City and throughout the state that we want you to help us with too.”

Henderson rose to the challenge. More important, the Black students shed an almost universally passive silence to coalesce and empower themselves, forming an Afro-American Student Union in 1967 that soon drew up “demands” to present to the university president.

Eventually, with the help of a faculty adviser and Henderson, the students won many battles and, of course, lost some. The strength of his book is Henderson’s detailed account of a tumultuous period in the university’s history — a history that parallels that of other majority-White institutions wrestling with integration and student agitation in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Along the way, Henderson let himself be talked out of leaving after only two years and instead accepted an endowed professorship that allowed him to work full-time on programs to improve race relations. More than 40 years later, he is still at it, as a professor emeritus at Oklahoma and through this book.

Especially enlightening is the recollection of how the Oklahoma students, under his guidance, applied the philosophies of great thinkers such as Saul Alinsky, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X and Mohandas K. Ghandi, to their protest strategies. Henderson also often helped support the students’ demands with research and hard data, for instance, using Black and White testers to prove housing discrimination in town. The author is even-handed, giving university administrators of the era the credit due for the role some played in bringing about real change in the university. Henderson also allows a few student leaders of the period to offer their recollections in sidebars to the text.

The book is more than a memoir of one person, as the title suggests, but is the story of how a united people can bring about change through reasoned discourse with those willing to accept change.

Some other books to consider:

Making Gumbo In the University, by Rupert W. Nacoste, $18.95, Plain View Press, March 2010, ISBN-10: 1935514296, ISBN-13: 978-1935514299, pp. 224.

Dr. Rupert Nacoste, a Louisiana-born interpersonal social psychologist, draws on the imagery of gumbo to distill lessons learned from his experience as the first vice provost for diversity and African American affairs at North Carolina State University. (He resigned after two years and returned to the NCSU faculty.) Without bitterness, he outlines his view that the recipe for achieving diversity in the modern university requires stirring up the “conflict of ideas” and allowing them to simmer into a rich concoction of durable relationships and intellectual ferment.

Life After Grad School: Getting From A to B, by Jerald M. Jellison, $21.95, Oxford University Press, May 2010, ISBN-10: 0199734305, ISBN-13: 978-0199734306, pp. 208.

This book charts a roadmap to help the 2.5 million graduate students estimated to be in training for a handful of available academic jobs get off that track and into jobs in business, nonprofits and government. Jellison, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, a financial executive and an expert on change management in business, provides practical advice on how the process of pursuing real-world jobs differs from the approach inside academia.

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