Closing the Books
UT editor says Mexican-American imprint was shuttered as a whistle-blower retaliation
Until Aug. 31, Víctor Guerra had a nice, tidy office in a fifth-floor corner of the University of Texas' West Mall office building, the home of UT's Center for Mexican American Studies, where for 15 years he worked as the editor of the CMAS publishing unit, CMAS Books. By all accounts, Guerra is a fastidious and meticulous editor who is passionate about his work. "He's a very rare bird, a remarkable resource," says Timothy Dunn, an assistant professor of sociology at Salisbury University in Maryland. Under Guerra's tutelage, the master's report Dunn wrote as a UT graduate student was transformed into a volume published by CMAS Books. Dunn's The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border: 1978-1992, sold out two printings, nearly 3,000 copies, a considerable number for an academic press, a success that Dunn largely attributes to Guerra's work. "It was a very rough document that he turned into a really well-written book," said Dunn. "That's really his editing work. His work is top-notch quality."
During Guerra's tenure as editor for the 28-year-old press, CMAS Books has published a string of well-received works, earning the small imprint critical acclaim and enhancing its reputation among academics and policy wonks. Nonetheless, in July, CMAS Director José Limón announced the elimination of CMAS Books and the dismissal of Guerra, a decision apparently supported by Richard Lariviere, dean of UT's College of Liberal Arts. In a July 3 e-mail to CMAS staff, Limón wrote that CMAS Books was being eliminated because, he wrote, their "publishing efforts" are "no longer viable in their market, and ... we were publishing at a loss." Further, he wrote, "With the termination of our publishing efforts we are simply no longer in need of ... [Guerra's] editorial position."
The abrupt decision to eliminate the center's publishing unit and, therefore, Guerra's job came as a surprise to Guerra. He says that before July 2 -- when he received official notice of his termination -- he had never been consulted or even informed about the potential elimination of CMAS Books. "I was shocked," he said, adding that basing the decision on lack of profitability is mystifying. "I knew that [this decision] was crazy. University presses are, by definition, subsidized." The decision -- made without apparent input from CMAS stakeholders or the larger university community -- was announced during UT's quiet summer months, but the news is now being received with consternation. "I am shocked and outraged," said Dunn. "Every university press loses money; it's only a question of how much. As much as the university may try to mimic the corporate model, the university press is still a role that no one else is able to fill. The scholarship needs to be out there," he continued, "and [UT] is now giving up [a publishing program] that is leading the nation in an area of great importance. It doesn't pass the sniff test."
Like Dunn, other observers also don't buy the official reason Limón has given for dismantling CMAS Books. Guerra himself believes that it was done solely to eliminate his job -- in retaliation for his having reported concerns about Limón's leadership of CMAS to Dean Lariviere. In May, Guerra filed a report with Lariviere, outlining what he felt were potential financial improprieties, unilateral decision-making by Limón, and violations of the university's nepotism policy. "It was totally connected to the complaint," said Guerra. "It's clear to me."
Over his 15-year career with CMAS, Guerra has worked with four different directors, but it wasn't until late 2001 -- a year into Limón's tenure -- that he began to notice problems in the way CMAS was being managed. "I started noticing behavior and a way of operating that was in many ways dysfunctional," he said. At first, he said it was just a "lack of communication" -- nobody within the center seemed to know what anybody else was doing. Then, he said, it appeared that Limón's assistant was "getting anything she asked for," traveling a lot and spending money on "frivolous things" -- like paying a West Coast artist $4,000 to produce a silk-screened poster of CMAS founder Américo Paredes -- that "didn't further the core function of the center," he said. Finally, Guerra said that despite the university's policy against nepotism, Limón's stepdaughter was given an administrative position at CMAS. Guerra says that on at least two occasions he tried to talk with Limón about his concerns. "I tried to broach the subject with him," said Guerra, "and each time he waved me off and said, 'This is none of your business.'"
"The Demoralization of CMAS"
In late 2002, Guerra began writing a report outlining his concerns. "I thought, my strength is writing," he said. "So I started writing it all down. I thought the honorable thing to do was to write it down and present it to [Limón]." In the middle of drafting his report, Guerra said he tried once more to talk with Limón but was rebuffed. "He said it's none of your business ... and don't bother me with any of your concerns," he said. "I thought, gee, this document I'm writing, I can't give it to him."
After consulting with several trusted colleagues, Guerra said he decided to present the document to Dean Lariviere. "The only person with the proper authority would be the dean," he said. On May 12, Guerra submitted his report -- titled "The Demoralization of the Center for Mexican American Studies, University of Texas at Austin" -- along with a brief cover letter to Lariviere. "I wrote this paper with great reluctance," Guerra wrote. "It is my concern for the welfare of the center itself and all the people associated with it that has forced me to take this action." Within the report Guerra outlined six issues that he said "are harming the integrity" of CMAS. "Everyone involved closely with the center is aware of the situation, but open discourse on the subject has been squelched."
Among his concerns, Guerra wrote that decisions about center-led projects are being made, "unilaterally ... with little or no input of any kind from the professional staff or the faculty," which has led to "uninformed" decisions. For example, he wrote, Limón committed the center to a major art exhibition in conjunction with a Mexico City museum without input from the CMAS staff. "The staff member assigned to organize and raise funds for the project was not even informed of its existence," he wrote, "until she attended a meeting held at the center with some of the principals of the museum." Further, Guerra wrote that dialogue among CMAS stakeholders -- staff, faculty, and students -- had nearly evaporated and that several committees created to help guide CMAS decisions have been "neutralized."
Guerra also reported what he considered misallocation of center resources. He charged that Limón's assistant had been "given free reign to travel liberally," while another staffer "was expected to cover out of her own pocket a portion of the expenses incurred to participate in a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute conference, [while] representing the center." Finally, Guerra wrote that Limón had violated the university's nepotism policy. "The director has granted his stepdaughter, a UT undergraduate, a permanent part-time position at the center," he wrote. "At the same time, an administrative assistant who is a highly qualified UT graduate has been kept in a temporary, although full-time, position for eight months. This person is thereby being denied health and other employee benefits."
On May 21, Guerra got a short memo from Lariviere, thanking him for his report. "I will take your observations into consideration," he wrote. Guerra heard nothing more from the dean. On July 2, he was notified of his termination, effective Aug. 31.
UT has not been immune to the state's budget shortfall. In June, UT officials announced an expected two-year, $80 million budget gap, compounded by an expected $22 million cut in state appropriations. UT officials sought to eliminate 150 positions, through a combination of layoffs, attrition, the imposition of a hiring freeze, and the establishment of a retirement-buyout option. In his July 3 e-mail to center staff, Limón wrote that the CMAS budget had been cut by 10% and that during a May 19 meeting, the CMAS executive committee had "endorsed my recommendation that we phase out our in-house book publishing efforts," which weren't making money. One day before, on July 2, Guerra had been notified of the decision, which meant also that he was out of a job. "This is to notify you that the [editor] position which you currently hold ... will be deleted as a result of a duly approved reorganization recommendation," Limón wrote in Guerra's termination letter.
A Unilateral Decision?
Guerra was aware of the university's budget struggles but shocked by his dismissal, especially since he was never told that the elimination of CMAS Books was under consideration. The stated reason, "that CMAS books is not making enough money, is totally weird," he said. Guerra said that after Limón was appointed director in 2000, his new boss acknowledged the importance of CMAS Books in furthering the reputation and mission of the center. "He said, 'I've never thought this unit should be self-sustaining' and point-blank that he knew it was not a profit-making venture," Guerra said. "He said he understood that, and I never heard anything else."
Limón confirmed that CMAS Books and Guerra's job have been eliminated. "Beyond that," he said, "I can't talk [about it]." As an "officer" of the university, he said, he is not allowed to comment on the situation, in the event that Guerra pursues civil litigation to redress his termination. "Mr. Guerra has the luxury of saying whatever he wants to," Limón said. "I, however, cannot."
It appears that Guerra wasn't the only one kept in the dark about the decision to eliminate CMAS Books. Although Limón wrote that in May the CMAS executive committee approved the dismantling of CMAS Books, a committee member who was present at the May meeting says that did not happen. "That topic did not come up," said Rudy Cortinas, a UT undergraduate and the student representative on the executive committee. "I really don't think it was discussed in the spring at all. It came up over the summer [in June] ... I think in reaction to what Víctor did [in reporting problems to Lariviere]," he continued. Cortinas adds that even then, there was no indication that CMAS Books might be targeted for elimination, until Limón made the announcement in July.
"I really don't like the way [Limón] has handled this," Cortinas concluded. "It was a unilateral decision on his behalf."
After consulting with an attorney, Guerra decided to contest his termination in accordance with the university's grievance policy. On July 10, he wrote to Limón. "It is my belief that the precipitating event that led to my dismissal, by way of the elimination of my job, was the registering of ... complaints of illegal activities with Dean Lariviere," he wrote. "My belief is enhanced by the fact that there was no discussion with me prior to July 2. ... I believe that the elimination of my job was accomplished as a pretextural basis for firing me in violation of the Texas Whistleblower Act." In a July 25 response, Limón denied Guerra's claims. He said he was not aware that Guerra had reported any concerns to Lariviere, and while he acknowledged that Guerra had previously raised several of his concerns with Limón, the director wrote that all the decisions he's made are "well within the purview" of administrative discretion. "I find no evidence of misallocation of funds," he wrote, and "the hiring of my stepdaughter by CMAS did not violate the nepotism policy," although he did not explain how he came to that conclusion.
Limón reiterated that the decision to eliminate CMAS Books was purely financial, a move he had been considering since his appointment as director. The decision "reached its first full official expression on February 7, 2003, when I first sought the approval for this decision from the upper administration subject to a consultation with the CMAS Executive Committee," he wrote. "Put simply, CMAS Books was operating at a financial loss, taking considerable more funds and resources to run than royalties received."
On Aug. 1, Guerra filed a grievance with Dean Lariviere, and on Aug. 22, Lariviere denied Guerra's claims. "I find no support for your claim that your dismissal has been in retaliation for expressing your concerns," he wrote. The suspect budgetary allocations that Guerra reported in May were "within [Limón's] discretion," Lariviere wrote. He noted that Guerra's grievance alleged that Limón violated state law in hiring his stepdaughter for a CMAS job but, wrote Lariviere, "I am advised that the hiring or supervision of stepchildren may indeed contravene UT Austin's policy, [but] is not a violation of state nepotism laws." Furthermore, he wrote Limón had discussed with him in February the possibility of eliminating CMAS Books. "I understand that you would have preferred that the process of eliminating your position were handled differently," he wrote, "however, that circumstance alone does not establish that your position was eliminated based on improper motive."
Lariviere appeared to confirm Guerra's complaint that Limón's hiring of his stepdaughter violates UT policy, even if it may not violate any state law. According to the university's policy handbook, UT strives to "prevent conflicts of interest and appearances of favoritism" that result from the "appointment, reappointment, and/or supervision of an employee by a close relative," including exercising authority over "managing performance, work assignments, salary administration, or ... other terms of employment." (The policy does provide for "alternate supervision" of a relative employee by someone else in the administrative chain of command. But because Limón is the CMAS director, Guerra believes that in this case it would be impossible for final employment decisions to be made without his authority.) Furthermore, Guerra points out, although Lariviere wrote that he had been aware of the plan to eliminate CMAS Books, he offered no documentary evidence -- even though such evidence could specifically contradict Guerra's complaint. "I am wholly dissatisfied with and unpersuaded" by the responses to his grievances, Guerra said. So is Guerra's attorney, Derek Howard. "I think the university is in a position to need to explain to ... the professors that have long supported CMAS what they're doing," Howard said. "If we're forced to pursue litigation, obviously [any] documents related to their alleged conversations will have to be produced."
Lariviere did not return phone calls requesting comment.
On Aug. 28, Guerra filed his final grievance, with UT Provost Sheldon Ekland-Olson, who has 30 working days to respond.
As his grievance moves forward, Guerra's job and CMAS Books have come to an end -- an outcome generating fallout both on and off campus. During his final days at UT, Guerra said, he started receiving phone calls and e-mails from professors and students, wondering what exactly had happened while they were away on summer break. Theresa May, assistant director and editor in chief of the UT Press, penned a letter of support for Guerra and CMAS Books. And a series of political cartoons lampooning the CMAS administration is making the rounds, drawn by an artist identified only as "A. La Crán" -- an apparent play on the Spanish word for scorpion.
Like Losing a Limb
The demise of both the press and Guerra's job has begun to receive attention from other academics outside Austin. "I think that [for] a center like CMAS, one of the things that distinguishes it and lends it prestige is the publishing arm," said Manuel Peña, who is currently teaching at UT's Pan American campus in Edinburg. "It just seems to be that an important function [of CMAS] is being excised, lopped off." Peña received his doctorate from UT, and in 1985 CMAS Books published his book, Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of the Working Class Music, which was a critical success and, Peña notes, made money for CMAS Books. "CMAS has published some important works, trailblazing work," Peña said. Salisbury University professor Timothy Dunn agrees. "These are works that would not see the light of day, even by a good university press, because they don't have the expertise [in Mexican-American studies]," he said. "The closure of CMAS Books is in opposition to the growing social reality [of the influence of Mexican-Americans]," he said. "Which begs the question: What is the real rationale?"
It's a question that Peña said he has also considered. "I can't say for sure that this is a retaliatory move," he said. "But, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it's probably a duck."