In many ways, the most amazing professor I’ve had at PSU was Dr. Ridwan Nytagodien. Ridwan, as he was affectionately known to his students, was an unapologetic gadfly, often hilarious, but always breathtakingly honest. A few months ago he was summarily dismissed, to the outrage of many in the PSU community. He had been elected chair of the Department of Black Studies over former chair, Kofi Agorsah, but Dean Kaiser of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences overturned the election. This power struggle added an air of controversy to a firing that was constantly couched within the terms of failed tenure obligations. Nevertheless, his legacy of intelligent resistance still looms large over the university whose administration rejected him.
Ridwan has returned home to South Africa after 23 years in the States, but through e-mail correspondence it is clear that he has lost none of the passion that made him an amazing professor. His ideas remain fierce, and his strident defense of the truth as he saw it is unwavering.
In trying to better understand how one of our most loved professors could be fired, I tried to speak with two men close to the process, Kofi Agorsah, former chair of Black Studies, and President Bernstine. Agorsah wrote, with careful blandness, "I feel sorry for him that he failed to fulfill his academic obligations for tenure." President Bernstine declined to comment.
A recent PSU Magazine article about Ridwan pointed out that he was one of the few teachers to win the Best Professor of the Year Award twice. The article failed to mention he was honored with the award the day after he was fired.
However, despite his feeling that "teaching, at PSU, is second to kissing the ass of administrators who want to turn PSU into a Fred Meyer," he has fond memories from his time here. "Mostly, I miss the students. All those wonderful folk who took my classes, challenged me and pushed PSU to live up to its posturing of diversity and multiculturalism."
His time in Black Studies was often stormy, exemplified by the time he refused to wear Ghanaian Kente cloth with the other faculty of Black Studies on the occasion of Bill Clinton’s visit to PSU. He was pointing out that Africa is not one country, that blackness is not one homogenous thing, but his actions were seen as divisive and needlessly contentious. Still, imagine yourself the representative of American Studies somewhere, and being asked to dress like a cowboy to celebrate unity. How would you feel if you were Lakota?
His outspokenness and refusal to be complacent made him excruciatingly inconvenient to an administration necessarily concerned with the quotidian, spreadsheet realities of running a large institution. Yet that doesn’t make his sentiments less essential, or less true.
The fact is that the perversion of the university into a mere profit engine, where education is a by-product rather than the purpose, is clearly the central problem with PSU today. "There is no conscience in capital-driven academia," Ridwan wrote. "Students are merely clients, and the educators are like car sales folk, busting their asses to try and fit into the capitalized university and all its ‘development’ aspirations."
Breeding workers rather than thinkers is fine until you run out of thinkers. It’s what I’ve been talking about in many of my columns. It’s what Paul Robeson wrote about when criticizing the U.S. educational system. It’s what underlies the widening gap between rich and poor. And it’s perhaps the single biggest threat to the future viability of our democracy. Ridwan puts it well: "The fast-food mentality to education will rob students of being immersed into a critical arena where the status quo is constantly interrogated."
It’s silly that it need be said, but a school’s purpose is to teach, not make money. To make speculative financial decisions that fly in the face of current educational needs is irresponsible; the tendency to later point to ancillary benefits to the "educational environment" is a post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc fallacy akin to pointing to the elections in Iraq as justification for the invasion.
There is no place for realpolitik in the university, and no ends can justify the means of eviscerating the intellectual legitimacy of one’s institution to ease the transfer of donation monies, regardless of budget shortfalls and the state’s myopic evisceration of higher-ed funding. When the ends themselves seem to be almost entirely profit-oriented, and the idea of educating students becomes seen as increasingly quaint, the deadly necessity of having teachers like Ridwan becomes all the more clear.
"I expected PSU to fire me," he wrote. "I needed to know that I contributed to a form of struggle and that my place there was no more. I left with my politics intact. I resisted and was not corporatized. I’m still black and proud."
He continues, "And I am happy that I plucked at the white sensibility of that university. I made the friendly colored folk in BST squirm. In their quiet moments they know what I am talking about. But I am also confident, that inside every institution like PSU live and breathe guerilla intellectuals that will not lie down."
Sometimes it takes guerillas like Dr. Ridwan Nytagodien to come screaming down out of the hills and set us back on our heels, to prompt us to look inside ourselves for dishonesty and rot at our core. We’ve all got some to get rid of. If one is truly comfortable one can never change, never grow. Discontent is the engine of progress, complacency its antithesis; Ridwan embodies this dynamic.
Teachers of his caliber serve as a moral rudder, keeping us on the right track in those times when it’s a real pain in the ass to do so, but we’ve got to anyway. It would be more than a shame if other such brilliant, alternate voices were similarly removed from PSU.
Riggs Fulmer can be reached at [email protected]