By Aaron Reiss
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By Dianna Wray
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By Jeff Balke
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Late last month, a University of Houston senior stepped into the small office of an assistant professor to appeal the "D" given him in an anthropology course.
Eric Springstun had completed an extra assignment in his effort to raise his grade, but Dr. Quetzil Castaneda remained unimpressed, berating the portfolio of work as "racist and sexist." Worse yet, the teacher told his student, the material was incomplete and irrelevant to the course.
Their argument escalated from anthropological differences into an animated tug of war. The teacher said he refused to return the portfolio to the student, who tried to wrestle his academic work from the professor's grip.
According to the next not-so-scholarly report, written by campus police, Springstun started punching his professor, whose head was bloodied as he continued clinging to the portfolio. Castaneda said the student's necklace broke when he pushed Springstun away.
Officers arrived to find Springstun yelling that the professor had attacked him, but it was the student who was arrested.
However atypical, this was the latest example of how the 37-year-old anthropology professor instills emotional energy into his students -- for better or worse.
Long before the altercation, Anthropology Department Chairman Norris Lang engaged in understatement regarding Castaneda.
"Students either like him or hate him," Lang wrote in a Castaneda review. "He incites passion."
Now, this passionate professor is pitted against his own department, in another war -- over his own professional future.
He thus far has failed the test for tenure, that ultimate exam that can endow academicians with lifetime job security and academic freedom.
For Castaneda, the fight has just begun. Professors in his own department and college voted against tenure late last year, triggering one of the more unusual appeals ever to occur on the UH campus. And before it's over, a clash between administration and faculty could result.
Student supporters launched a rare independent campaign of letters and petitions on behalf of the eccentric, if innovative, professor.
Contradictions are everywhere in this conflict, it seems. The same Castaneda who received a nomination in 1996 for UH Teacher of the Year was castigated in his tenure review with regard to his teaching abilities.
"Dr. Castaneda is a wonderful lecturer; truly mesmerizing," wrote former student Rebecca Hunter.
"Because of Castaneda," said student Kate Crawford, "I see and interpret the world differently."
Another former student showed the scholarly split over the professor. "He's an arrogant son of a bitch. He thinks he knows it all."
In contrast to the letters of support, an anonymous note was sent to university officials. "Did he get me to think? Definitely," the writer said. "I thought about the time and money that I was wasting by sitting in his class every other day."
Faculty friendships are few, by all accounts. His letter of tenure review quoted a professor as saying, "I know that he has attacked and viciously insulted ... other members of this department."
Castaneda says complaints are outdated or ill conceived. He says harassment by other faculty members started shortly after he began his teaching duties six years ago. He has affidavits from two students who say another professor asked them to file complaints about him, and tried to divert them from taking Castaneda's courses.
Castaneda, nursing a black eye from the assault, hardly seems like the sort to evoke the incredible emotions swirling around him in the tenure battle.
"I feel I have a mission in teaching," he said. "There are a lot of things in the world I am not happy with, and I want to get students to search for different perspectives than those from Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern. What I am teaching has a political tone to it."
Between classes, he can usually be found lounging in coffee shops along Westheimer, waiting to meet with students to discuss their papers or study questions for an upcoming test. He can roll his own cigarettes and lead conversations with equal ease. Nearby are textbooks and academic journals to be opened during lulls in the informal talk.
An Andy Garcia look-alike, Castaneda has been known to both charm female students and to make some of them cringe, with his classroom stares and blunt and vulgar language and mannerisms.
"I hate it when he came to class in those tight pants and sat in front of the class with his legs open," said one former graduate student.
This self-described pacifist professor traces his inner intensity back through a legacy of family roots intertwined with politics and higher learning. His late father, Hector-Neri Castaneda, was a Guatemalan philosopher who found himself "blacklisted" after the CIA-led revolution in that country in 1954.
Castaneda said his father refused to be silenced about his views, cherishing his right to truthfully teach -- and speak out. "He truly believed in total and complete academic freedom," he said. As a result, said Castaneda, the family was forced to flee to the United States.
He graduated from the State University of New York at Albany in 1991. He said he was recruited by UH, although the reception -- by most accounts -- was cool from the onset.