In a scene reminiscent of Chicano campus protests of 20 years ago, more than 500 Latino students and others converged on the UC Santa Barbara campus Thursday to protest the university's refusal to hire a controversial Chicano studies professor from Cal State Northridge.
Members of MEChA, a Latino student group, traveled from campuses as far away as San Diego and Berkeley to support Chicano activist and historian Rudy Acuna, who alleged that UC Santa Barbara discriminated against him on political grounds when the school rejected his bid to become its first full-time Chicano studies professor.
"They said I would set up a dictatorship, that I should be insulated within a larger department," said Acuna, 58, founder of the CSUN Chicano studies department, one of the largest in the nation.
"It was a committee of all white males and they just didn't like my politics."
University officials denied any bias, saying Acuna was treated the same as any other candidate for employment but was rejected because he is more of an activist than a scholar.
"He's way off base," said Julius Zelmanowitz, associate vice chancellor. "All appointment cases are treated the same way through the same elaborate process. We make sure various safeguards are observed."
Acuna, who said he plans to sue the university for job discrimination, applied for the job last December at the invitation of part-time Chicano studies professors at UC Santa Barbara. His qualifications were reviewed by two committees of faculty members and the decision not to hire him was announced in June.
The committees concluded that Acuna's activism "could well exercise a chilling effect on objective scholarship," according to a report given to Acuna.
"This is a political appointment more than a scholarly one," the report said. "Acuna is a polemicist more than a seeker for truth, and his appointment is therefore biased."
Acuna said UC Santa Barbara officials disregarded letters of recommendation as being the work of his "political cronies" because they came from Chicano leaders.
He said the faculty committees judged the eight books he has written as not being scholarly enough, denouncing one, "Occupied America," as a "cult book."
In fact, Acuna said his books were carefully researched. He said the committee dismissed scholarly articles he had written for newspapers and other publications.
He said that the UC Santa Barbara officials want Chicano history taught from a white perspective.
Acuna also charged that he was not given full copies of documents written by the committees that evaluated him.
Zelmanowitz said that was not the case but declined to discuss Acuna's allegations, saying personnel matters are private under state law.
He said the school is continuing to search for a qualified full-time Chicano studies professor.
Zelmanowitz defended the university's hiring practices, saying of the 13 most recent Latino applicants for teaching jobs, only Acuna had been rejected.
He said the university welcomed Tuesday's demonstration as "an absolutely appropriate way for students to express themselves."
At the more than three-hour rally, organized by El Congreso, a campus student group allied with MEChA, students heard about 50 speakers support Acuna, including students and Chicano studies faculty members from UC Santa Barbara and Cal State Northridge.
"Mediocrity and conformity are often rewarded because they're not threatening to the status quo," Claudine Michel, a black studies professor, told the crowd.
Estimates of the number of Acuna supporters at the rally ranged from 500 from campus officials to 1,000 from rally organizers. After the speeches, the crowd marched on the university's administration building.
"We wanted to educate the community about the racism that exists at the university," said Benny Torres, an organizer of the event. Torres alleged that university officials rejected Acuna's application three days after students left the campus for summer vacation to avoid demonstrations in support of Acuna.
Acuna, a self-proclaimed radical, has long been known as a Latino political activist. As a new professor at CSUN, he demonstrated against the Vietnam War and participated in protests that followed the 1970 East Los Angeles riots. Last year, he was an organizer of a parade and protest commemorating the riots.
In 1985, Acuna participated in a protest against new rules making a strong college preparatory program in high school a prerequisite for admission to schools in the California State University system. He denounced the rules as elitist and said they furthered "the class system in education."
Acuna also has spoken out against what he called "the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo," saying it has become more of a happy hour than a celebration of Mexican heritage.
More recently, Acuna denounced the Persian Gulf War at a CSUN teach-in, likening U. S. society of today to that of Nazi Germany. As in "Mein Kampf," he said, a new world order "where everybody behaves" is forming in this country.
He said students and faculty members had "an obligation to go out and protest" against the war because it was immoral.