Celebrating Zinn at Boston University the Right Way


Boston University is planning a “celebration” of Howard Zinn on March 27th.  I dare think that this is a proper moment for the university to address the need to reverse the grievous discrimination against Zinn, who taught political science at BU for over two decades and yet retired with a paltry junior faculty salary.  John Silber, BU’s president at the time of Zinn’s tenure, repeatedly denied any salary increase for him, voted on unanimously by the faculty committees at BU.  In one instance, Silber wrote an opinion letter justifying his unilateral decision against pay increase for Zinn by labeling Zinn’s books as “nonsense” and bereft of scholarly value.

Thankfully, the autocratic Silber is no longer at BU, running the university like a third world dictatorship, but the legacy of his right-wing bias and even hatred of Zinn remains.  Indeed, there can be no proper “celebration” of Zinn at BU so long as the university has not confronted the necessity of rectifying the past error of seriously mistreating Zinn, the charismatic and immensely popular professor whose connection with BU is a definite source of pride and prestige for the university, second only to another civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, who graduated from BU in the 1950s.

In fact, since the publication of my tribute to Zinn in both The Nation and Monthly Review, raising for the first time the issue of salary discrimination against Zinn, a number of present and former faculty at BU, including professors Henry Giroux, Irene Gendzier, and Edouard Bustin, have communicated their agreement with my expressed concern.  One hopes that the faculty at BU can initiate a university-wide campaign for Zinn to receive a posthumous, retroactive salary increase, dating back to the first instance when Silber unfairly disregarded the opinion of faculty committees favoring pay increase for Zinn.  This would constitute a healing process at BU, mandated by the need to rectify a politically-motivated, extra-academic discrimination against Zinn, who always championed the cause of others but rarely if ever bothered to speak out against the injustice against himself.  The new, post-Silber administration at BU would be prudent to take proactive steps in this regard, that is, to put into effect a resolution, approved by the BU board of trustees, that would make retroactive salary adjustment for Zinn possible, whereby upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars of past due salary rightfully owed to Zinn would be committed to his family.

In conclusion, this author’s message to the faculty, staff, and students at BU, who cherish Zinn, the towering intellectual giant who devoted so many years of his life to the noble cause of teaching at BU, is this: let’s celebrate Zinn the right way, by speaking out for justice for him.  Failure to do so is to keep an old wound open, one that blemishes the university’s reputation in light of Zinn’s global fame that has in fact grown by leaps and bounds since his death.  In addition to retroactive salary adjustment, BU should also consider a center on justice and peace named after Zinn, so that the present and future generations of students at BU will be rewarded by a sustained memory of the affable professor who enlightened thousands of BU students through his lectures and publications.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy and a co-author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11