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Yet Vaksman is surprisingly agile, and he walks with the purposeful stride of a someone who has pressing business.
"I am absolutely open book," he had told me on the phone.
Vaksman's English is somewhat stilted and Russian-accented, but after 20 years in this country he has no trouble with the language. In addition to his academic pursuits, he freelances as a Russian translator and interpreter, when he can find the work, and he says he went to Kazakhstan in December to interpret for a Houston-based oil company he won't name. Vaksman's as cocksure of his translation skills as he is of the importance of his scholarship. "I don't miss a comma," he later tells me.
Vaksman and I are going to lunch. The venue is his choice, and I'm hoping he'll suggest some hole-in-the-wall Russian cafe or deli. But when I ask where to, he hems and haws before deciding that the Chili's in the Galleria would be a suitable place. After 20 minutes of lurching through the West Loop traffic in my un-air-conditioned car, though, he suddenly asks if there isn't a Japanese place somewhere right off the freeway on Westheimer, and a few minutes later we're being seated at Tokyo Gardens. Apparently, it's his first time for Japanese.
"We've left the U.S.," Vaksman says as we make our way into the back room of the restaurant. "We've defected."
Two days earlier, Vaksman had been the target of a combination protest and press conference at the UH campus, where a group of undergraduate history majors and a half-dozen professors denounced the 44-year-old doctoral student's latest antic -- the series of "memos" he began sending to the history professors and UH administrators last month that equate the university's African-American studies program with "animal studies" and refer to its students and faculty as "research animals." Vaksman had composed yet another of his memos that very morning, before he agreed to meet me outside the synagogue near his apartment. Addressed, as most of his memos are, to Art Vailas, UH's vice provost for research and graduate studies, it reads:
"Financing African-American animal research at the expense of Russian history is such a MISPLACED priority as to be prima facie evidence of the administration's stupidity and incompetence. It IS proof positive that this administration is the champion of ignorance and savagery -- NOT civilization and knowledge."
Clever he's not.
Of course, it's all a joke, but then again, it isn't.
With a straight face, Vaksman maintains that he aims only to "sensitize" UH administrators to the short shrift he claims his own research is getting from the school. His is an important yet undervalued area of inquiry, and if you don't believe him, you can refer to his memo to Vailas of February 17, wherein he decries another administrator's failure to "recognize the critical importance to survival of civilization of adequately supporting academic research in Russian medieval history."
He has nothing against black people, he says. He's the real victim of discrimination, you see, and he's just taking advantage of this country's "pathological hyper-sensitivity" to race to draw attention to his plight.
In that regard, Vaksman has been wildly successful, his memo-writing binge and the resulting controversy having been covered by the Daily Cougar and the Chronicle and on Channel 2. Two weeks ago, UH president Glenn Goerke and executive vice president John Ivancevich felt compelled to issue a statement confirming the school's commitment to free speech while "vehemently" disagreeing with Vaksman's "racist polemics." Now Vaksman's dining on medium-rare steak teriyaki courtesy of the Houston Press.
"If I had said the French department was 'animal research,' and the people in the French department were research animals, then [you] wouldn't pay any attention to it," Vaksman says.
That's the empirically verifiable truth, but Vaksman can barely articulate the thought. He's cracked himself up, and he's almost choking on his words. It sounds like something he's said before, but the very idea seems to have convulsed him to the verge of the hiccups. It's the laugh of someone who spends a lot of time with himself.
A Russian Jew, Vaksman was permitted to emigrate from the Soviet Union in 1976, and he spent a year in Israel and two years in England before coming to the United States. He arrived at UH as a doctoral student in 1982, but was booted from the history program four years later for failing to make the required progress on his dissertation. Of course, he says that's not the case, and his subsequent lawsuit against the university led to protracted litigation that ended with a judge ordering his reinstatement in 1991. Vaksman's academic standing was again in jeopardy in late 1995, but to the dismay of many in the history department, he struck an agreement with lawsuit-chary UH administrators that provided him with a $10,000 stipend for 1996 and a two-year extension to complete his dissertation.