THE END OF THE AFFAIR
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."
"Howard is unique," says Sonya Hamlin, a communications consultant and twenty-year CWA veteran. "He is, in every sense of the word, a character. I think they have to handle him with more respect. I have this terrible feeling about what they're doing; it feels like a hatchet job."
"The committee is caught in a dilemma, knowing change is necessary but that it might be hurtful to Howard," says Spenser Havlick, a Boulder city councilman and one of the few CU professors active on the CWA committee. "It's heartbreaking."
Higman has refused to step down, vowing to appeal Corbridge's decision to the CU Board of Regents. The CWA is "dandy," he insists, and any claims to the contrary are "just garbage," "bunk," "an absolute lie." Opposition to the conference has been orchestrated by "a very tiny minority of extreme feminists," he claims, led by four women who've left the committee, including Ehlers.
"I predict that in a week or two it will all evaporate," he blusters. "The regents will say, hell, this is a tempest in a teapot."
On a campus convulsed with political infighting, the passing of the CWA has attracted about as much notice as the demise of Boulder's other annual rite of spring, the Trivia Bowl. But there's nothing trivial about the CWA's contribution. Despite dwindling attendance, the conference still draws bigger crowds than anything else on campus, with the exception of the bloated athletics program. No other institution offers such a sprawling menu of cultural events, free and open to the public, or has cast such a high-wattage international spotlight on the university and the town.
For almost half a century, the driving force behind the conference has been its pugnacious founder, who envisioned an intellectual summit that would defy the fads and formalities of more orthodox academic gabfests. Ironically, the CWA now stands accused of being woefully behind the times, politically incorrect and tragically unhip. And the same qualities that made Higman's affair work--his dogged persistence and stubbornness, his ferocious loyalty to old friends and the "traditions" of the conference--may have sealed its doom.
It's a case of an irresistible force--the prevailing winds of campus politics--coming up against an immovable object named Higman.
What's Boulder without Howard Higman?
A city you hardly would dig, man!
Though the campus is fine,
And the Rockies divine,
It's the CONFERENCE that gives it the kick, man.
--Helmut Rueckrigel, from a 1967 collection of tributes to the CWA.
Even his closest friends describe Howard Higman as a kind of charming ogre--"this large, florid, loud and frequently rude man," as film critic Roger Ebert put it a few years ago.
"He's not an easy man to get along with," concedes author Tom Adams, a former Higman student who teaches sociology at the University of California at Davis and has returned to Boulder as a CWA speaker. "But he really is a wonderful person."
Higman says he has two voices. One is the bark of command; the other is his "comfortable as cookies" voice, which he uses to cajole editors, college administrators and bureaucrats into letting their star writers and scholars come to the conference. When Corbridge told him he was deep-sixing the CWA, Higman flashed his usual guile.
"I told him, `Jim, I'm shocked that you would hit a bully when he's down,'" Higman says.
"Howard is not a nice man," says one former conference organizer.
But then, a nice man would never have gotten the CWA off the ground.
Like his conference, Higman is a Boulder institution. He was born in a building on the campus and grew up a few blocks away, in the rambling wood-and-brick house he still inhabits, now stuffed with seventeen phones and years of conference memorabilia. He completed his master's degree at CU at the dawn of World War II and returned to his alma mater right after the war, spurning lucrative government and private-sector jobs to accept a $2,000-a-year post in the sociology department, where he remained until his 1985 retirement.
Higman found his real calling in 1948, when he tried to organize a spring conference in connection with United Nations Week. The featured speaker fell through at the last minute, and Higman frantically phoned his way through a list of potential replacements until he landed former Roosevelt advisor James Warburg, whose speech on the Cold War, Higman says, "electrified the campus."
The conference quickly became an annual event. Armed with a pitifully small budget, Higman coaxed and bullied friends, enemies and absolute strangers to come to Boulder not only for no pay, but at their own expense. They, in turn, invited their friends, establishing the elaborate network of personal contacts that fuels the CWA. Locals volunteered to feed and house the speakers; students chauffeured and tended bar.
The no-pay rule is only one of the quirks that makes the CWA unique. The conference first lines up its speakers, then the topics to be discussed, on the theory that bright people ought to be able to talk about anything. (Since there were more panels than speakers in the early days, everyone was expected to talk on at least one topic outside their area of expertise, a tradition that continues today.) Formal presentations of academic papers are banned--as are speakers from Colorado, in order to avoid offending local academics who might feel snubbed (CU faculty and locals chair the panels, however).
"It got prestigious to be a speaker," Higman explains. "We didn't expect that."
In 1953 the CWA scheduled a series of panels attacking Senator Joseph McCarthy. Then-CU President Ward Darley nervously summoned Higman, who refused to organize a "balanced" panel about something as odious as McCarthyism. The chairman won the argument, and the CWA's freedom from institutional censorship was assured. Higman went on to debate beauty-pageant queen Marilyn Van Derbur in his classroom on the evils of J. Edgar Hoover--and earned a fat FBI file for his trouble.
Although the CWA still focuses on politics and international affairs, over the years its agenda has expanded to embrace the arts, pop culture and more. Featured speakers have included Eleanor Roosevelt, Ralph Nader, Henry Kissinger, Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Huey Newton and, more recently, media superstars such as Ted Turner and Roger Ebert. (Ebert, who received an honorary degree from CU for his 25 years of CWA participation, stages a week-long film seminar; he's also found himself on panels about masturbation and national security.)
But it was the obscure and not-yet-discovered, as much as the famous, that made the CWA such an offbeat free-for-all: the street poets debating NATO generals on The Bomb, the pagan priestesses and laugh therapists knocking heads with ex-CIA spooks and publishing tycoons. One year Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys showed up on a panel on the Middle East.
"In other conferences, this kind of stuff goes on in the bar," says Higman. "You read your paper, and if you have any excitement, it's in the hotel room, not on stage. We try to put the excitement on stage."
Over time, though, the CWA became known for the off-stage excitement, too--the lavish house parties for visiting geniuses, the clubby camaraderie among veteran panelists. Columnist Molly Ivins called the event "Howard Higman's house party," and a platoon of hard-drinking British journalists sang its praises. "I have arrived back at my host's house on all fours smelling like a pub carpet," boasted Simon Hoggart in the New Statesman & Society not long ago.
Higman once estimated that the CWA was responsible for more than a dozen marriages and an equal number of divorces. It was the kind of event, one visitor noted, at which "people do the wrong things and fall in love with the wrong people and get drunk and disgrace themselves."
The notion of a boozy intellectuals' frat party may have seemed daring in the 1950s and even the 1960s; by the late 1980s, however, in certain quarters the CWA was regarded as a ghastly anachronism. Some of the complaints had to do with the event's political tilt (which was either too left-wing or too mainstream) and the preponderance of white male speakers on a campus saturated with the new orthodoxy of "diversity" and "multiculturalism." Others concerned the sheer unwieldiness of the conference, which now features upwards of a hundred speakers on more than 150 panels, many of them droning on simultaneously.
In 1990, acting on a request by Chancellor Corbridge, an ad hoc CU faculty committee prepared a lengthy report on the status of the CWA. While lauding the conference for its "rich history," the report ticked off a host of criticisms and urged new blood on the aging steering committee, stronger efforts to involve faculty and students, more diversity among panelists and a sharper focus to the event.
Chairman Higman, the report noted, was "not particularly sympathetic toward change, especially planned change," and had resisted efforts to groom a successor for his job. "It may be that the formula depends to a fatal extent on the personality of a single individual," the report stated, "...[but] we are unwilling to watch CWA merely muddle along to its eventual demise."
Higman thanked the committee for its efforts and promised to explore several of its minor recommendations. He says now that the report was "godawful," based on a biased and far too narrow sampling of faculty and CWA attendees.
"That report has no legitimacy whatsoever," he says. "I doubt if Jim Corbridge has even read it."
Corbridge didn't respond to Westword's requests for comment. But Spenser Havlick, who served on the ad hoc committee, notes that the chancellor cited the report's recommendations--and the CWA's failure to implement them--in his letter terminating CU's support.
"Howard has courageously tried to defend the status quo," Havlick says. "I think he believes he's right, that a change is a capitulation to a passing fancy. But in changing times, we need to be sensitive to the community and the university."
Whatever the report's validity, there's no mistaking the harsh and even savage tone of the anonymous comments solicited from faculty members. Asked about the value of the conference to them and to the university, their responses ranged from mildly laudatory ("Keep up the good work!") to poisonous:
"Has little to do with me."
"Very high bullshit level."
"It's a joke and a bore."
"Too much junk."
"I would like to see it discontinued and the money given to more worthy, scholarly activities."
"Sack Higman and begin again."
"Get rid of Higman."
end of part 1
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