IT WOULD TAKE SOMETHING SPECIAL to fill Bowker Auditorium to near-capacity in mid-afternoon, mid-week, the week before March midterms. That something special was Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian-born author scheduled to read from his Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems before joining that evening's audience for a touring production of a play based on his ground-breaking 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart.
The audience, a global cross-section representing the range of Achebe's public, filed in wearing coats and hats against the sudden plunge of the mercury that had gripped Amherst that day. The din of seat-taking and discussion of Achebe's books, from the 1964 Arrow of God to the 1988 Anthills of the Savannah, fell to a hush as the writer's wheelchair-bound form emerged from the wings.
Achebe had been a presence at UMass in the 1970s, and again in the late `80s, when he was a visiting professor in English and Afro-American studies. Some who knew of his automobile accident in London five years ago may have expected to see the literary lion tamed by fate's whip. Perhaps some anticipated a diminution of force in the laughing, cigarette-smoking, sunglass-wearing personality who appears, so virile and vigorous, on the dustjackets of his early books. Indeed, there was a hint of frailty in the fact that Achebe, currently Stevenson Professor of English at Bard College, requested that no interviews be scheduled during this visit to Amherst.
But within seconds of locking his wheelchair in place center-stage the author made it clear that no such humbling had taken place. Life-force radiated from the rich mahogany skin, warm in contrast to the cocoa-brown suit and chaplain-black shirt, and from the luminous, lunar-pale fingernails that found the first poem. A poetry reading, Achebe suggested to his audience, is not about poems. His compatriots who congregate in their villages to watch the night sky, he said, "aren't gathering because of the moon. Everyone can see the moon from their own compound. The moon is just an excuse to sit together."
In a fleeting forty minutes of reading, Achebe recalled his homeland with his wonderful rolling R's ("r-r-rise," "r-r-r-rescue," "gr-r-reed"), with the dancing rhythms of his Ebo tongue, and with uncompromising words. A refugee parts the hair of her famine-starved son "like putting flowers on a tiny grave." Proud soldiers are "squashed back into primeval mud." And in radiant lines quoted by Queen Elizabeth in presenting him with the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1972, Achebe urged his listeners to . . . remember also your children / for they in their time will want / a place for their feet when / they come of age and the dance / of the future is born / for them.
DURING A BRIEF RECEPTION after the reading, many of those attending thanked Achebe for putting Africa on their literary maps, for righting Joseph Conrad's wrongs for non-African readers and for giving Africans a voice. Several asked if he would autograph their dog-eared copies of Things Fall Apart, the novel that he wrote at the age of twenty-eight and that is considered the first portrayal in literary English of an African point of view. "Thanks to Chinua Achebe," said marketing major Onyinyeche Ihedigbo '99, whose own family fled the Biafran strife for Amherst, "My people's words are no longer whispers but heard around the world, loudly and clearly."
Achebe's affection for UMass, too, came through loud and clear. Calling Amherst "this home from home for us," he spoke of how he and his wife Christie Achebe `75G, now a psychology professor at Bard, found refuge from the Biafran civil war at the invitation of the late Joe Frank of the English department and Michael Thelwell of Afro-American studies. "This was where I caught my breath again," the writer said of his family's three-year stay in Amherst. Christie Achebe completed her doctorate in education during that first stay, and two of the Achebes' four children, Nwando and Chidi, studied here during the second.
BY COINCIDENCE, Achebe's visit came only five days after Nigeria held its first democratic elections since 1983. The UMass audience felt some of the tension of this transition as a young Nigerian woman stood and asked Achebe if he believed military and civilian rule could coexist. Not waiting for an answer, she stated her own opinion that a military government is a more orderly option, preferable to the muss and fuss of democratic process. A politically-correct gasp rose like a flare, but Achebe didn't miss a beat: "Don't let anyone in a uniform come and solve your problems," he said, as the audience burst into applause. "We should be able to solve them through discussion and debate."
A few hours later, Bowker's curtain rose on the last of three performances of Biyi Bandele's adaptation of Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Roberta Uno `94G, New WORLD Theater artistic director, had been thrilled when she saw it performed by the London-based Creative Artistes; learning that the troupe was making its way to Nigeria via the U.S., she lined up a stopover at UMass. It was Uno who called Achebe and invited him to see his play performed here.
It would be impossible to exaggerate the expansive effect of the drumming and dancing of the Nigerian and British actors, bare feet stamping clouds of stage dust over the Bowker footlights. Their tale lost none of the grimness, beauty, intensity, or humor of its famous source. Somewhere in the auditorium, Chinua Achebe was watching, perhaps marveling that his "home from home" was host not just to him, but to the story he had given the world.
ADMISSIONS WAS A DISMAL issue on campus this spring, as practices in pursuit of racial diversity became the subject first of revision by the administration, then of emotional protest by students and other advocates of the previous practices. By May, fortunately, with preliminary figures in hand for next fall's class, things were looking up.
Chancellor David Scott announced in February that the campus would reduce not eliminate its consideration of race as a factor in the admissions process. The change was on the "strong advice" of university lawyers responding to a legal climate of heightened scrutiny of affirmative action measures.
The principles of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1978 Bakke decision, which allows limited consideration of race in the interest of a diverse pool of applicants, have been successfully challenged elsewhere in the nation. They were recently called into question in Massachusetts by the striking down of an affirmative action plan involving racial quotas at the Boston Latin School. In the meantime, UMass Amherst may in recent years have exceeded the latitude provided by the Bakke decision.
In an effort to achieve entering classes as diverse as the high school seniors of Massachusetts, the campus has used race as a plus factor at two stages in the admissions process. The first was the initial stage, when applications are assigned to one of six ranks. The second was in selecting those applicants in the lower ranks to whom admission would be offered. Only the first practice is in clear compliance with the Bakke decision, Scott told a campus forum in March, because only at the initial stage are all applicants subject to the same considerations. The practice of admitting higher percentages of minority students in the lower ranks is in question because at that point decisions are made among a subset of applicants.
The chancellor affirmed his commitment to the principles of the Bakke decision and the goal of a diverse student body. However, he said, it had become clear that not only were some of our practices vulnerable to legal question, they were failing many of the intended beneficiaries. The university has managed to bring very diverse classes to campus for the past few years, but retention rates for minority students of those classes have been substantially lower than for non-minorities.
Scott therefore urged that the campus community step up efforts to recruit larger numbers of minority students who can succeed at UMass, as well as to support those who need additional help. "The university remains committed to its diversity goals," he said. "We must look for new strategies to achieve that diversity." As a first step, throughout April and May concerted efforts were made to contact accepted minority-group applicants and urge them to choose UMass. Early indications were that students of color may represent 14 to 16 percent of the class of 2003, even as the academic preparedness of incoming students continues to rise.
- Patricia Wright
Pulling rank: Fourteen UMass departments, programs, schools or colleges were ranked among the top fifty in the nation by the magazine U.S. News & World Report this spring. "America's Best Graduate Schools," the March 29 cover story, together with expanded listings on the magazine's Web page, cited as top-flight the UMass departments of English, history, computer science, political science, psychology, sociology, and polymer science and engineering. Also singled out were programs in audiology, clinical psychology, computer engineering, and speech and language pathology, together with the College of Engineering, the School of Education, and the School of Nursing.
Wired wheels: The campus plugged into some new transportation technology this winter as ownership of twenty electric vehicles was transferred to UMass by the state Division of Energy Resources. MARC FOURNIER '76 , assistant director for grounds management, says the 1994 Solectria Geo Metros will be used to test "clean" technology as well as to reduce emissions and comply with a mandate that state agencies phase in alternative fuel technology. The campus is an ideal setting for EVs, said Fournier, because of the short distances traveled daily by many vehicles.
Sharing shows caring: "I am proud to announce that UMass Amherst is now ranked #1, leading all state agencies in charitable contributions." Minuteman Band director GEORGE PARKS reported in March that record levels were reached in last year's on-campus drive for COMECC , the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Employees Charitable Campaign. The omnibus campaign supports dozens of regional, national, and international agencies, including the United Way. Parks and CHANCELLOR DAVID SCOTT, who chaired this year's Hampshire Community United Way campaign, announced this winter that campus participation has reached 39 percent up 27 percent from 1997 and that the average donation was up by 12 percent. JOHN SHEEHAN , president of the Hampshire Community United Way campaign and manager of the COMECC Region IV campaign, thanked the campus "on behalf of the more than 59,000 people in the region helped through donations to United Way."
Hail and farewell: emeritus dean of the College of Engineeing GEORGE A. MARSTON did remark, during an interview for a recent story on his bequest to the college ["Proud of the engineers," Fall 1998], that at age ninety he really didn't expect to be around much longer. And a life so long and well spent ( Marston joined the faculty of then-Massachusetts State College in 1933 and agreed to found an engineering school at the nascent UMass in 1947), and in which vitality is so long maintained, is a cause for celebration as well as sorrow at its ending.
Still, it was sad to hear of Dean Marston's passing, in New Hampshire, on March 31. Hearing of it, alumnus CARL HOWARD '59 offered to share with us this photograph of the pointy-haired dean as many will remember him from the '50s.
A fight for love and glory and the laptop: The tired cliche about athletes' indifference to academics is belied by the fact that, until recently, UMass basketball players often fought over the one laptop assigned to the traveling squad. Now they don't have to. The Alumni Association and the Athletic Department recently teamed up to make six laptop computers available to traveling athletes and to equip a study space at Alumni Stadium. "We're trying to enhance the academic side," says MARK WHIPPLE , coach of the national championship football team.
Hail to the coach: The Faculty Senate issued a resolution in February declaring that the astounding turnaround season of the Minuteman football team proved "it is possible to achieve a high level of success in a short period of time." First-year football coach MARK WHIPPLE accepted the senate's well-wishes on behalf of his team, which won the NCAA Div. I-AA title in December after finishing 2-9 the year before. "National championships are not exactly our forte around here," said JOHN BRACEY , professor of Afro-American studies and senate secretary, prior to reading a proclamation expressing the senate's "most sincere and enthusiastic congratulations."
Satisfaction very likely: The vast majority of alumni in a recent survey say that if they had it to do all over again, they'd still head for UMass. The survey presented to the Board of Trustees in February shows 91 percent of Amherst campus graduates would "definitely" or "probably" choose UMass again. Numbers were only slightly lower at the other residential campuses, with Dartmouth and Lowell grads affirming their schools at 86 percent, Boston grads at 80 percent.
Results were even stronger on four key qualitative measures. Alumni either "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the quality of their education weighed in at 99 percent for all campuses. Those satisfied with preparation for their careers stood at 97 percent for UMass Amherst, 96 percent overall. Satisfaction with preparation for further education: 97 percent for Amherst, 96 percent overall. And satisfaction with career progress to date, 96 percent for all campuses.
Questions soliciting opinions of UMass today also drew favorable ratings. The lowest, 80 percent, assessed the conduct of current students.
Precocious scholars: UMass is one of sixteen institutions in the country receiving Beckman Foundation grants for the support of five undergraduate researchers in biology, chemistry, and biochemistry and molecular biology. The program provides each undergraduate with $17,600 for research conducted this summer and next and during the 1999-2000 academic year. UMass is one of six institutions in the Northeast to receive the award: the others are Boston University, Dartmouth College, Smith College, SUNY Stony Brook, and Yale.
Her and her systers: "When someone tells them, `You don't belong in this field because you're a woman,' we say, `That's ridiculous. We're here, and you belong here, too.'" The medium for this message is "Systers-Students," a list-serv for women in computer science run by grad student AMY MCGOVERN. A subscriber when the previous "list owner" graduated and moved on, McGovern sees maintaining it as akin to civic duty. "I feel strongly about the list. When I was an undergraduate, a list member suggested I apply to UMass for graduate school, so it's played a big role in my life."
Remembered warmth: Seeking to create "a fictional warmer place that is connected to the summers of my childhood," grad student ANA MARIA DIAZ-MARCOS composed the short stories in, The Affections of Heat, which recently received Spain's Asturias Joven (Young Asturians) prize. Awarded to a young writer of the Asturias region, the prize includes a gift of $1,800 and publication of the collection. Diaz-Marcos is entering her second year in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at UMass.
Entertainer ELLEN DEGENERES spoke for thirty minutes and answered questions for seventy before a packed house in the Fine Arts Center concert hall April 7. The event was a benefit for the Stonewall Scholarship Fund, which was established in 1995, says Stonewall Center director FELICE YESKEL '91G, with the dual purpose of funding prizes for outstanding student papers in gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender studies, and providing emergency funding for students cut off by their families after their sexual orientation became known.
Former student ANDY MEJIA , whose crisis led to the establishment of the fund, is shown above with DeGeneres, whose on- and off-stage affability and charm led the Springfield Union-News to describe the evening as "almost a love-in." In her on-stage remarks, DeGeneres stressed that she wasn't speaking for all gays and lesbians. "Everyone has their own journey. I do represent all Aquarians."
WHY DO WE ALWAYS THINK of this guy as "Captain Jack" Francis? It's as fun to say, for one thing, as Jack is fun to talk to. And although F. J. Francis is a food-scientist/technical-expert/emeritus professor (kind of a dry-sounding mouthful of titles) and even in retirement a prodigiously productive scholar, there's a slightly madcap quality about him.
Francis just made a $1.5 million gift to his department at UMass to endow a professorship in his own name. Visiting him to talk about it at his North Amherst home this spring, we found him very little changed from a dozen years ago when we interviewed him for an article called "Advocates for Additives." For that story Francis and his former student and lifelong colleague Fergus Clydesdale did their delightful and really quite reassuring song-and-dance on the merits of modern food preservation. (Their well-argued philosophy boils down to: given the longest-lived population in history, we must be doing something right.)
Francis is a little thinner now, seems a little smaller, but he's entitled: born on a farm near Ottawa in 1921, a fighter pilot in World War II and a graduate of the universities of Guelph and Toronto, he came to UMass for his Ph.D. in 1950 and joined the faculty in 1954. He's subdued when he speaks of his wife, Jean, a biologist who worked at Smith and Amherst colleges and UMass, and who died last year after a decade-long illness. He says he appreciated more after she got sick how much her management of practical matters contributed to his massive productivity and far-flung professional travel. "It allowed me to just go ahead and do whatever it was professionally provident to do," Francis says.
BUT HE'S STILL cranking out the work and enjoying himself. Sitting in a sunroom in the back of his house, he gestures with pride toward both the plethora of award certificates, mounted gavels, and the like that line the walls of what he doesn't mind calling "my brag room," and the stacks of papers, reports, magazines, and journals arrayed around what also serves as "my reading room." He has "three organizations feeding me information constantly": since retirement from academic duties in 1990, he's remained active in his big three professional affiliations, the Institute of Food Technologists, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, and the American Council for Science and Health, in all of which he's held high office. He's also editing an encyclopedia of food science and technology that keeps him in contact with the 2,000 authors of entries and articles, all, obviously, experts in the field.
What does he read for pleasure, we ask? "I never read for pleasure," he answers. "It's a terrible thing to admit, but I don't." But he doesn't really seem to feel terrible about it, and since working is a pleasure to him, why should he? He does have a couple of hobbies investing and gardening but not surprisingly, he's hit on ways to plow both of them back into his work, or his work into them.
In the case of investing, the hobby has produced a handsome cover-crop now benefiting the place where he grew his professional life. The farm boy from Canada who came to the U.S. "without two nickels to rub together" has made over $4 million in the stock market since the late '50s through judicious acquisition of pharmaceutical, biotechnical, and chemical stocks. He's now able both to make his three children millionaires and to further strengthen the already internationally recognized department he once headed.
As for gardening, it's a very literal plowing-in of professional material that's going on in Francis's back garden. All those stacks of newspapers, magazines, journals, and reports we mentioned? Francis estimates that at this point he's turned about thirty-five tons of reading matter into home-made Miracle-Gro. The stacks of slowly composting paper in a far corner of his garden haven't had anything special done to them, says Francis: "I just stack `em up and let nature take its course."
Does he worry that the paper hasn't been de-inked before starting its descent into soil conditioner? "Nah," he says with a grin the same grin we saw a dozen years ago when we asked about the effect of additives on health. "It'll all break down the iron, the copper, the lead, the zinc." He's been doing this for forty-five years, he reminds us.
"It might cause me to die before I reach seventy, but I'm willing to take that chance," says Francis, who is seventy-seven.
THE windowless lecture hall that is Herter 227 is devoid of art, empty of any architectural frill that might invite the eye to wander from the front of the room. Very likely this is a design standard for college lecture halls; it makes whatever is happening on stage seem interesting. This appears to be a desirable thing at the opening of the 566th regular meeting of the Faculty Senate on April 22.
Three people stand on the dais, taking turns posting statistics on an overhead projector. Over the past two years, volumes of information had been gathered and plotted on graphs expressing the satisfaction of students with courses, professors, social activities, food, and other aspects of life at UMass. Gary Malaney, director of Student Affairs Research, Information and Systems (SARIS) is doing his best to clarify the salient point on each sheet of crisp acetate. "The red dots signify. . .The second chart shows . . .These dots on this chart mean something slightly different than the previous dots. . ." And so on.
But never let the aridity of statistics suggest that they are without point. These figures have something to say, as faculty senate secretary and professor of Afro-American studies John Bracey knew when he invited this presentation. From the bland charts and graphs a disquieting theme begins to emerge: many students are dissatisfied with aspects of their lives at UMass; students of color are more dissatisfied than white students, and African-American students are more dissatisfied than anyone else: they feel ignored by faculty, disrespected by staff, and disgruntled with their experiences overall.
"There's some kind of base of good feeling here, but also very serious indications that something seems to be wrong " offers one of the presenters, associate provost for planning and assessment Bryan Harvey '77, '97G, in wrapping up. "There are clear indications that something needs to be done, but exactly what it is will be hard to tease out."
Responding to inconclusive data is always difficult. This day, it appears to make people defensive. The stats are seen by many as a criticism of professors themselves. "I have sixty history majors fifteen came to see me," says historian Jack Tager. "Then they say they're dissatisfied with the advising they get." Ron Mannino of the school of management, suggesting that students are malcontents by nature, sard-onically inquires whether pollsters asked students for base-line data on their mothers' cooking, and whether the numbers on dining commons fare might be used to "justify the privateers coming in and killing food services."
Others challenge methodology. Still others express a basic frustration with the gerbil-wheel nature of surveys. "We don't know what to do with this," fumes biochemist Bruce Jacobson. "How many more surveys are going to be done? How much more time are we going to devote to them? How much more money is going to be spent?"
The comments and suggestions continue con brio. Has anyone thought of doing focus groups instead of random samplings? Has anyone asked what expectations students brought to college? Might the fact that minorities report more discontent with society in general have something to do with their experiences in the UMass microcosm? Is UMass really any different from any other institution in failing to make all of its students happy all the time? As one prof philosophically observes, "Happy is better than unhappy but not always. I mean to say, is there any way of getting data on what they've learned? Ultimately, that is our product." To which Chancellor David Scott, an ex officio member of the senate and present at most of its meetings, stands and agrees that undergraduates' perceptions usually mellow with time: "Surveys of alumni show that they look back on the `painful experience' and say, `There was a reason I had to go through that.'"
With many conciliatory nods, shrugs, and gestures, the researchers acknowledge the points being raised. It's difficult to know what it all adds up to, they agree, or how to translate often-conflicting information into policy change, change in menus, or "new, improved" class schedules. "It's hard to analyze the system," says director of assessment Martha Stassen regretfully, inviting anyone with ideas to come to her office and share.
The UMass Faculty Senate is a twice-a-month gathering of some ninety-two professors elected by their department or school, plus a smattering of onlookers. In other business today, the senate moves to adopt the 2001-02 academic calendar, approves a couple of new courses, and passes motions to establish exchange programs with universities in Australia and Amsterdam.