Over the next year, I will go through what I was thinking as well as what noteworthy events happened along the way. The original inspiration for this came from one of my students. I thank you for putting me on the path.
I actually will take a few moments right now to reflect on the beginning because I recently discovered something that was important to me at the moment but I had not realized its historical significance - think Cinema Paradiso meets some Spike Lee movie you liked.
The University of Houston (How it all began)
My first interview was at Washington University (in 1991) and I was as nervous as one could be. I had practiced but it was a very prestigious private institution and walking onto the campus I was reminded of the private high school that I attended for a while (before being asked to leave - another story). Campus was clean and university-like but I suppose at the time I was most struck by a few things.
First, my one on ones revealed something of a holy arch of achievements and degrees. Behind the desk of each individual, I remember seeing the people sitting in the middle of what appeared to be an arch. The PhD may have always been at the top or near the top while various awards and other degrees fell off to either side. I quickly noted how many were from the Ivy League.
Second, in certain respects I remember feeling like I was in one of my comprehensive exams. It seemed clear from tones and questions that some were not content to see the cv or transcript but they literally wanted to take me through some of the details of what I had allegedly learned. I recall one interesting lunch with Andy Sobel, Charles Franklin and the late Robert (Bob) Durr. I was happy to meet them and thought a little about what would be best to order given that I might need to swallow quickly, continue talking and try not to mess up my shirt. It didn't matter though because I never got to eat a bite. I doubt they noticed. The three of them starting calmly grilling me about diverse methodological questions and how to best approach them. At one point, I just kind of pushed my food to the side and settled in to the answering. Its a happy story, of course - I got the offer in the end. It was an intense moment though. I basically had to wolf down two big bites as we left to get to the next meeting.
Perhaps what I remember most about this occasion was the first lunch. I believe that we went to the faculty club. I remember this long hallway with seemingly 8-foot tall paintings of distinguished "individuals" that had walked these same halls years before. Upon getting in the room, I was immediately struck by the fact that I was 1 of the only 2 black people sitting in the room. The other one was a black grad student from sociology (another story). The rest of the African Americans were serving food with white gloves. I recalled feeling very uncomfortable.
When I arrived in Houston, the vibe was very different. The pilot was black, there were black businessmen and hip-hoppers on the plane, in the airport and downtown. I immediately saw a vibrant latino community - complete with the music, smells and colors that I had grown accustomed to in New York. It was clear from jump, however, that these were not the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans that I grew up with. Trying to use what I had learned, they immediately tagged me as being from the east coast. Even the whites there were cool. I remember seeing amazing quality cowboy boots and hats like folks had just stepped out of the tv show Dallas. The energy was very different from what I now don't recall about St. Louis.
The interaction with the faculty on campus was generally quite pleasant and less inquisitory. There was one awkward moment - right before I gave my job talk. Just as my knees had bent enough where the body could no longer comfortably reverse direction, this theorist made the point of saying that I should feel free to sit in his office for the duration of my appointment but that since he had no interest in my being in the department, we had no reason to speak. I recall going from rage to calm in about 5 seconds. WTH! Why did he ask to speak to me? Ahhhhhh. I get it. Quickly, I turned to: "Well, I don't see what your objection might be given that studies of coercive power are central to political science and my research agenda." He bit and I managed to choke everything that I was feeling down until I could get out of that room. Again, the outcome was a good one: I got the offer, but there was a cost.
Perhaps the thing that I remember the most about the Houston interview and the thing that turned me toward Houston and away from Washington University was meeting with the president of the university. On my interview, I was told that the president wanted to meet with me. Her name was Marguerite Ross Barnett.
Christian - people in Houston and Texas look to this institution as their school and it is their school. We don't always act like that though. Our faculty does not look like them and I want to change that. I want every faculty member to have a connection with some school k-12 in this city. I want every child to already know a professor before they get to junior high school. I want us all to be better connected and I want you to be part of this. I want you to help us become whole.
I never got a chance to tell Dr. Barnett how profoundly she impacted my life. She died a few years later and despite the best of intentions, no one could quite pull off what she began. I think that her passing was one of the reasons that I felt ready to leave Houston and continue my journey. There were other reasons, of course. But, I'll save that for another time.
Next in the series: Being the Second Youngest Professor at the University of Houston