The Ghetto

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One of the more interesting elements of music is the principal of dissonance and resolution.  Like a good novel, or a drama, music has to build tension, which ultimately will be treated with the resolution of that tension.  Part of a musician’s study is in how to recognize musical tension, and how to elegantly resolve that tension.  We musicians must become manipulators of that element, and we thus become manipulators of our audiences.  Hopefully we are kind and generous manipulators!

As a full-fledged musician, I totally believe in dissonance and the need for resolution.  I believe in harmony and the life-pulse of rhythm.  I find these elements in perfection within the music I love:  Brahms (God, how I love Brahms), Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and even the curmudgeonly Ludwig van Beethoven and the smarty-pants Mozart.  I’m being facetious; they all were geniuses at building a perfection we rarely are able to find in life.

I have made my life’s work the conveying of musical dissonance, and hopefully, the masterful resolution of all that tension.  I firmly believe that the dissonance that we find in other aspects of our lives is as important as in music.  I also have to believe, then, that every day dissonance can be resolved.  I find that musicians are constantly frustrated with the lack of harmony in life, and the erratic nature of rhythm we find in the people around us.  We instinctively retreat into our music, where we can control things and we rail against the non-understanding we find in non-musicians.  I would like to tell you a tale that not many have heard beyond my closest circle of friends.  This is a true story of dissonance and resolution that I found myself engrossed in.  I believe my heart and mind were shaped by the study of music and by my time practicing the piano.  I think this story is a time when my two hands touched the sky.

Back in 1981, before I had acquired tenure in my position on the faculty of Louisiana Tech University, I put the wheels in motion to sue my university and its president in federal district court.  This probably wasn’t the smartest career move a lowly Assistant Professor could make, but it was my move, and I gladly made it.  At the time I was the College of Arts & Sciences representative on the Faculty Senate.  Interested in the way the elements of the university worked as a whole, much as I was interested in the blending of the elements of music in my repertoire, I became very active in university governance.

During my second year on the Senate I was alerted to a disturbing rumor.  It seems that the university, in their wisdom, decided that all international students (non-citizens) would be housed in one dormitory on campus.  I immediately didn’t like the sound of this; over a quarter break I took it upon myself to call the housing office to ask the head of that office if the rumor was true.  The person answering the phone was a staff member of the housing office, and he confirmed what I had heard.  I asked a few questions of detail, and he gave me enough information that I knew a basic timetable, exactly which students would be involved in this change, and even a basic rationale.

After a short period of rumination I decided that I didn’t agree with either the changes being considered, or the rationale.  I called the President of the Faculty Senate to see what he thought; I called a couple of friends that were also on the Senate.  It seemed that a few people were disgusted by this new idea, but that the Faculty Senate had no say in this particular item.  The President assured me that he was empathetic to my feelings, but I should not count on them to make inquiries.

It was at this moment that I decided that I would have to do something, or nothing would get done.  I found the telephone number of the ACLU chapter in New Orleans, and using the “watts line” I called N.O on Louisiana Tech’s dime.  My initial conversation with an attorney in New Orleans was about an hour long.  He took all of my information, gave me an idea of what options there were, and told me, “I’ll get back to you.”  I have to admit, I was more than cynical, and I thought I was probably done with the whole exercise.  I was ecstatic when, a few days later, I received a call from a different man at the ACLU.  He had instructions for me.  I wasn’t qualified to complain, legally, about this.  A dormitory that forced all international students to be isolated from the American students they came to study with did not affect me.

Before I could descend all the way to crestfallen, he told me that they needed me desperately to do something.  The international students, themselves, were legally qualified to bring a class-action suit against the university.  They needed me to contact students, to have them sign a document that would be prepared at the ACLU, and get the document back to them.  One of my close friends was a professor in the foreign language department; at this point he joined me in my efforts, and sent a student from Nigeria to my office.

I remember Robert as a gregarious young man, and he fully understood what was required.  Although he expressed a little fear about any retribution he might receive, I gave him the assurances that had been passed down from the ACLU lawyer.  He would find students that were willing to sign the document gathering plaintiffs, and they would come to my office to sign the document.  Before the episode was over I had hosted over 300 non-white, non-citizen foreign students in my office.  I held the document until it was full of signatures, telephone numbers, etc.

The big moment was when we all met with the ACLU lawyer when he made a trip up to Ruston.  We co-opted a classroom in one of the university buildings and the lawyer explained to everyone what the steps would be.  Robert and one other student were selected to be named on the class-action lawsuit.  Papers were filed in Federal District Court, and the process ensued.  I have still in my possession articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Philadelphia Enquirer and several other newspapers that picked up the story of the International Student ‘ghetto’ planned by Louisiana Tech University.  In the end, there was a consent decree that admitted no malice on the part of the university, but the revocation of the International Student Dorm.  (This would have been the oldest building on campus, and one with no air conditioning in Louisiana.  The building had not been used for a residence hall, but the plans were to reconfigure it, without the addition of air conditioning.)

In the end, I received a call from the Clerk of Court, with a follow-up letter and copy of the Consent Decree.  He told me to watch out for any retribution the university might take against the students… or against me.  I was to call him directly if I suspected anything.

Dissonance-Resolution.  How does one handle these musical elements?  How does one handle the same in a life-situation?  I find little difference in the handling.  This remains one of my proudest moments.

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