part 1 of 2
He enters the room slowly, gripping his gnarled cane and a colleague's arm for support. But don't be fooled. He may be 78, with bad knees in the bargain, but Howard Higman--University of Colorado professor emeritus, chairman of the Conference on World Affairs and living legend--doesn't let anyone lead him by the hand.

It's shortly after noon on a Monday on the Boulder campus. A dozen members of the CWA's steering committee are already gathered around the conference table, chattering away, waiting for the meeting to begin. Waiting, that is, for Higman.

Higman settles in at the head of the table. Someone asks how he's holding up--a delicate reference to a most indelicate situation.

"I've been rewriting Shakespeare's plays," Higman quips. "The Tragedy of Errors. Much Ado About Something. Shall I go on?"
Never at a loss for words, the chairman does go on, guiding the committee through a maze of lists and decisions regarding April's 47th annual Conference on World Affairs, a week-long binge of lectures, panels and concerts drawing scholars, diplomats, artists and crackpots from around the globe. Higman calls it "a circus without a main tent, all kinds of sideshows all over the place, mutually contradictory and conflicting." But one contradictory topic never surfaces during the two-hour discussion: that this year's conference could be the last. Higman, who has run the show for 46 years, refuses to believe it. As the meeting ends, one member tries to bring up the "budgetary missile from Corbridge," but Higman waves him off impatiently.

"We'll talk about that at the next meeting," he says.
Last month CU-Boulder Chancellor James Corbridge informed Higman that the university would stop funding the CWA--a $90,000 budget item at a school strapped for cash--after this spring's event. "The Conference has drifted from its original purpose," Corbridge wrote, "and no longer provides for the significant involvement of faculty and students." The chancellor suggested the CWA could survive only by adopting major changes that CU officials have been pressuring the committee to make, including "a change in leadership."

Corbridge's letter, a clear rebuff of Higman, followed a series of well-publicized drunken episodes involving the CWA's founder. In October Higman was arrested on charges of false imprisonment, harassment and domestic violence after his wife, Marion, summoned police to their home, claiming he was intoxicated and verbally abusive. He was arrested again three days later, charged with violating the no-drinking condition of his bond, and a third time in November after another complaint from Marion, who has since moved out of their home.

Higman denied any physical abuse of his wife of 52 years and agreed to seek treatment for his alcohol problem. In a letter to the Boulder Daily Camera, he apologized to the community "for my having gotten drunk three times in a row recently, in a peculiar situation." Last month he pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor harassment count and received a two-year deferred sentence. Corbridge's decision came down a few days later.

Although the timing of the chancellor's letter raised eyebrows, Higman rejects the notion that his domestic troubles have anything to do with what he calls the "conspiracy" to scuttle the conference. "I'm not going to allow our little mess to overthrow one of the world's great institutions," he says.

In fact, the battle over the conference goes much deeper than Higman's personal problems. But critics of the CWA, including several former participants and organizers, say the chairman's "dictatorial" control is a major reason for declining attendance and waning faculty support. They charge the CWA has become a gathering of stale ideas and geriatric cases, one that bears the heavy stamp of Higman's own biases, inflexibility and reputed sexism.

"The energy to put together exciting panels was pretty much squelched by Howard," says Tracy Ehlers, a professor of anthropology at the University of Denver who served on the conference steering committee for more than a decade before leaving two years ago. "More and more, Howard has tried to control the content of the conference, and it's just getting so old and tired."
Like most of his opponents, Ehlers laces her comments about Higman with praise, describing him as "an absolutely brilliant person with an incredible memory"--but her respect for him has clearly declined in recent years.

"Howard Higman made the conference great," she says. "But Howard Higman also destroyed the conference. He's taking it with him to his grave."
"It's time for a change," adds writer Adam Hochschild, a co-founder of Mother Jones magazine and former CWA speaker. "There are good reasons why businesses have retirement ages. People get fixed in their ways. I feel Howard deserves enormous credit, but I don't think [the conference] is dependent on him."
Yet Higman still enjoys widespread support among current members of the steering committee and his far-flung network of conference participants. "To me, he is the conference," says Betty Brandenburg, a secretary of the CWA for twenty years and now a committee member."He knows how to get people working together. Yes, he's a little dynamic about it at times, but most of us have been on the committee for a long time, so it seems to work out in the end."

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help