Punches, Passion in Tenure War

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.

"From the beginning, his presence in the classroom has evoked a barrage of complaints from students at all levels," the tenure review report said. "No one from the past or in the present has received the number of complaints concerning his teaching style and his manner of responding to student complaints."

Castaneda, according to the report prepared by Lang, uses foul language in the classroom. He leaves too many students complaining that lectures are "over their heads," and refuses to clarify or explain material. A graduate student found Castaneda had written a grade of "Bull Shit" on his term paper.

Castaneda says that he had to "learn how to teach" and that over time he "became a good teacher." To back this up, he is quick to point out that he was a finalist for UH's Teacher of the Year. He notes that his teaching evaluations went up, and that he has "developed a following in anthropology." He also said that the department claims of his "poor interaction" are based on "outright lies." "Only one [other professor] has seen me teach in a classroom setting, and he said I was 'mesmerizing,' " said Castaneda.

Yet, Lang cites collegiality, "not an official criterion per se for granting tenure," as another reason for the department's rejection of the professor.

Lang says, "Dr. Castaneda continually behaved as if he felt that rules of conduct were for others [and] not to be applied to him. This pattern of the differential application of rules was manifest in his use of the copy machine, postage, and other facilities."

Though Castaneda is the first to say he "is not perfect," he believes that personal conflicts within the department began soon after he was hired, and are indicative of the "hostile working environment" he faces.

He said that he was often ignored in the hallway by his colleagues. Some of them never said a word to him, hardly ever attended his lectures and attempted to marginalize his role in the decision-making processes of the department, he said. Castaneda said the relationship has become so rocky that the department has even refused to provide him with more toner for the department printer after he allegedly lost a box of toner.

Worse, Castaneda says, the computer in his office broke down early in his residency at UH. The department has not replaced it, nor has it sent a technician to repair it. Castaneda was forced to work on his computer at home or use the student computers on campus.

When he was caught using the student computers, Castaneda claims that another UH anthropologist, Professor Randolph J. Widmer, would "scold him like a child" in front of others for using computers designated for students.

"This was an obvious attempt to fuck with my scholarship," said Castaneda.
But his strongest allegations have been directed at colleague Rebecca Storey, an associate professor and anthropology graduate adviser.

Storey is one of three anthropology professors from Penn State, forming the (Nittany) lion's share of its eight-professor staff. She called it a mere "coincidence" that they are alumni of the same school, although department skeptics question whether the Penn State cluster is conducive to faculty diversity.

Castaneda says Storey often solicited students to complain about him and that she would periodically spread "vicious" rumors, even warning students about allegations of his sexual behavior. In particular, he claims, she encouraged incoming graduate students not to take his courses or work with him.

"That is pure and total bullshit!" Storey replied to the allegations. "If any student wants to work with [him], it is perfectly fine with me."

Jennifer Arias and another student signed statements supporting Castaneda's claim that Storey tried to divert students to other graduate advisers, and attempted to get them to complain about his teaching.

"I was present when Storey told another student that she [the student] should complain about Castaneda to the head of the department," said Arias. "She said that he was good-looking and used it to get his way."

Arias said Storey claimed that Castaneda even stole food from the department's refrigerator.

"He did eat someone's food!" Storey replied. "There was an actual incident where he ate someone else's food. But it happened years ago and we only brought it up as a joke."  

Castaneda counters that these "jokes" are only part of the "hostile environment" he endures as a faculty member. "Maybe they don't like my field or my theoretical framework ... or maybe it is because I'm Hispanic. I don't know why."

Loftier debate over Castaneda's research also reveals no common ground in the arguments about his tenure.

He has produced several academic articles, a book on Mayan culture, an ethnographic film, and has generated impressive research grants. However, the tenure review by Lang and Dr. Richard M. Rozelle -- dean of the College of Social Sciences -- chided the professor for generating no new data in his book, and for failing to publish works in prestigious journals.

Castaneda chalks the criticism up to differences in opinion with his post-structuralist approach, which is shunned by many mainstream anthropologists. With a speciality in Mayan culture, he said it is only natural that his material is published in Spanish-language journals.

Castaneda also claims that the department's requirements to publish in "known" journals is "quite peculiar" because some tenured members of the department have published nothing.

His supporters also say other department professors have no room to criticize about teaching and behavior.

"Lang allows students to act out skits in class rather than assign papers to write," says one student. "And the readings in his class were funny, not challenging." She says that Lang, in one class, "did not want any trouble" and "gave out good grades."

Another anthropology professor is often privately ridiculed by students for being a "hypochondriac" who cancels classes for supposed illnesses. Castaneda, meanwhile, made it to his classroom one day with his head freshly bandaged. He was in a serious auto accident, got patched up and still made it for his lecture, students recalled.

About 30 letters have been generated thus far in the campaign for Castaneda. Maureen Williams, a senior business major and former Castaneda student, organized the drive with three other students. But the real test for the professor appears to be looming at higher levels.

Tenured anthropology faculty voted first on his tenure, with four of them against him, two in favor and one abstaining. Their decision was upheld by the College of Social Sciences.

After those two setbacks for Castaneda, he scored one win when the UH Promotions and Tenure Committee voted to recommend tenure for him. That sets up a showdown for Dr. Edward Sheridan, the new provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs. He received favorable publicity from the Houston Chronicle for minority hiring elsewhere, although a decision in favor of Castaneda would quickly end any Sheridan honeymoon with UH faculty members, who want the eccentric professor ousted. Sheridan is not viewed as eager to go against faculty members at this early stage for him at the university.

Any clash would then rise upward, because UH President Arthur Smith has ultimate review authority. And if Castaneda gets canned, there may be a civil lawsuit in the works.

Savvy students are monitoring the fray. "A decision to terminate him could only be based on the same politics that led to the exile of Galileo," said student Joe Osborne. But faculty members show no signs of backing down.

"The real truth is that Castaneda has a bad attitude," said one social sciences professor. "There are a lot of people who want to see him gone. Many find him arrogant and rude. Even the janitors don't like him." That enemies' list would have to include the name of UH senior Springstun. The altercation over grades earned him another kind of "A" -- as in Class A misdemeanor assault charge.

If Castaneda loses his tenure fight, he will have one year to find a position at another university and pursue free academic license.

So the passionate professor and his student are, in their own ways, both awaiting final judgment on their future -- and freedom.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >