Howard Zinn died yesterday. I never read much of his work, but I admired his career a great deal–the linked obituary is a nice rundown, but hilariously, it identifies Camelot lapdog Arthur M. “history goes in cycles” Schlesinger Jr. as a “liberal historian.” Zinn was a “polemicist,” as Schlesinger called him–but then, aren’t we all? It’s just that some of us are timid polemicists, and some of us are bolder than others, and Zinn was a bold, combative person. (He was literally combative–the obituary linked above says that he got his head bashed in by police at a Communist rally when he was 17, and he was in the Army Air Corps during World War II.)
I never met Zinn, but curiously, our paths crossed in a distant way in-between my freshman and sophomore year of college. Here’s the story of my brush with (the correspondence of) greatness: I moved to Boston that summer to live with some friends, and found a job at Boston University as an administrative assistant in the Office of Faculty Actions for the College of Liberal Arts. Zinn was a longtime member of the History Political Science faculty there. The Office of Faculty Actions processed all of the paperwork involved in hiring and tenuring and promoting (or not) everyone on the Liberal Arts faculty at B.U. I was the person that summer who was xeroxing (and reading!) everyone’s tenure and promotion files, and filing all of the documents that came down from the President’s and Provost’s offices.
The President of Boston University at the time was John Silber, whom many of you liberal and progressive-types my age and older will remember as a comic-book like villain of a university president who was actively at war with what he believed was the dangerously liberal and/or feminist tendencies of the faculty in the Liberal Arts college in particular. (Silber and his reactionary cronies were just colossally stupid–this is the guy who let it be written down in the 1980s that he thought the English department was a “damn matriarchy,” because it had 6 women on a faculty of 26 and a woman department chair, as revealed in a successful lawsuit against the university for a tenure denial case. Yes, I looked in the Julia Brown file, and yes, I saw the words “damn matriarchy” there in black and white. What a dumba$$.)
In addition to handling faculty advancement, Faculty Actions was also the office that processed all of the annual faculty contracts and salary increases. I dutifully prepared a mountain of contracts for mailing out to individual faculty members, which they were supposed to sign and return to me. (It was shocking to me even then at the age of 18 to see how little the humanities faculty were paid, as compared to the economists and scientists.) By 1987, Zinn hadn’t had a salary increase in years–presumably because of his politics and his combative stance against the Silber administration. He was at that time being paid just $41,000 a year by B.U.–a salary that was clearly far below that of his colleagues in the History Political Science department. Zinn’s contract came back signed, but with a righteous addendum printed under the signature that went something like this: “I see that once again you have refused to give me a raise because you disagree with my politics. But fortunately for me, I am independently wealthy!!!!” Just based on that brief note, I decided that I really liked his style. Childish, yes: but really, the whole thing was childish. That’s the kind of response you should expect if you treat your eminent faculty like disobedient children.
I think back on that summer of 1987, and I often marvel at the fact that I went into academia myself, because I was privy to a lot of nasty faculty politics, even aside from Howard Zinn’s financial persecution. It was a pathetic bunch of twerps who were in charge at B.U. at that time. Sadly, I’ve learned in my brief career so far that there are pathetic bunches of twerps in a lot of universities, and that they unfortunately can wield meaningful power. Would that we all had the courage and common decency of Howard Zinn (not to mention, the financial means) to call it as we see it, and to take the consequences cheerfully–with exclamation marks!!!!
UPDATE, later this morning: See also this more detailed obit at the Boston Globe, which reports that Zinn “Dr. Zinn became an associate professor of political science at BU in 1964 and was named full professor in 1966.” I’ve made the relevant corrections above. The Globe story also provides more details and context for understanding Silber’s feud with Zinn:
Certainly, it was a recipe for rancor between Dr. Zinn and John Silber, former president of Boston University. Dr. Zinn, a leading critic of Silber, twice helped lead faculty votes to oust the BU president, who in turn once accused Dr. Zinn of arson (a charge he quickly retracted) and cited him as a prime example of teachers “who poison the well of academe.”
Dr. Zinn was a cochairman of the strike committee when BU professors walked out in 1979. After the strike was settled, he and four colleagues were charged with violating their contract when they refused to cross a picket line of striking secretaries. The charges against “the BU Five” were soon dropped.
John Silber: classy, classy guy. (Verily, verily, I say unto you: dumba$$!!!!)