Ralph Luker: Reflects on HIS Fast to Protest Denial of Tenure





To explore the hazards of refusing to eat in response to a negative tenure decision, The Chronicle spoke to an academic hunger striker of years past.
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Ralph E. Luker is a retired, well-known historian of the civil-rights movement and a member of the prominent group blog Cliopatria, part of George Mason University's History News Network Web site. Thirteen years ago, he was a man on the verge of losing his academic career. Mr. Luker engaged in a hunger strike when his bid for tenure was denied at Antioch College -- an institution whose proud tradition of campus activism made it no more receptive to his protest.

At the time, a faculty dean at Antioch said the college's reservations were "in the area of teaching strengths," though he called Mr. Luker "an intellect of some note."

On his own hunger strike and its aftermath:

I went on a fast in the spring of 1994 when the president at Antioch refused to accept a petition from half the resident students asking him to accept a reconsideration of my tenure decision. I fasted for six weeks. I took vitamins and liquids and electrolytes. That's the minimum you have to do to not damage yourself.

By commencement it was clear that there was not going to be any reconsideration. That was the end of the story. Just after commencement, I broke the fast.

I faced a pretty grim situation thereafter. At the age of 54, with five books in print, four earned academic degrees, a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize, I took a job throwing a newspaper and running a cash register at a grocery store to subsidize a daughter in college.

I wore out the academic job market. Later, I taught as an adjunct for two years at Morehouse College.

On defining success:

The fast was a failure in the sense that it didn't change the immediate situation. The other side of that story is that fasting is not simply a matter of trying to change the immediate circumstances. Fasting is also about reaching down into one's inner resources for strength in the face of professional death.

I think in that sense, my own fast was a success. I had no idea what faced me, and what faced me turned out to be very, very difficult. I think that the fast in a very real sense steeled me. And those who sneer at it as a childish response to a negative decision have no sense at all of that side of it.

On perspective:

A negative tenure decision does not have the world-historical significance of Indian independence or the war in Iraq. Yes, you might go on a hunger strike for world peace. The problem for some of us who have been denied tenure is that it is a world-shaking matter. When I have to take a newspaper route at the age of 54, that seems to be pretty world-shaking to me.

On deciding to fast:

I was an activist in the civil-rights movement. I had taken part in a fast in protest of the war in Vietnam in the 1960s. It was an act of self-discipline that I'd already participated in. It seemed to me an obvious place to turn.

It probably is fairly rare for somebody to begin a fast without having done some serious reflecting about what it means. There were people around me who urged me to abandon it and made all sorts of emotional pleas. I had to think very deeply about it. I certainly had no interest in making a fool of myself.

Think about the kind of place that Antioch is. Even there I was mocked for it. In the midst of my fast, the dean's wife asked me how my diet was going....

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