The making of Henry Louis Gates, CEO

When a trio of scholars decided to partner with Microsoft to create a pan-African encyclopedia, was it a match made in progressive corporate heaven or the founding of an ivory-tower gulag?

Topics: Academia, College, Books,

With a little alcohol, most students make all sorts of embarrassing vows. But one
night in 1973, a bunch of promising scholars gathered in an Indian restaurant
near Cambridge University and made a doozy. Three bottles deep in wine, a
23-year-old Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr.; 19-year-old Kwame Anthony Appiah; and
a Nigerian professor in his 30s, Wole Soyinka, all made an ambitious pledge: to
put together a Pan-African encyclopedia.

It was an unusual pact for a trio of men who turned out to be unusually driven:
Harvard’s Gates is now one of the best-known and best-paid humanities professors
in the United States; Appiah is a Harvard professor and philosopher; and Soyinka became
the 1986 Nobel laureate for literature. Their objective had been the holy grail
of black academics since W.E.B. Du Bois, inspired by the Encyclopedia Judaica,
came up with the idea in 1909. When he started out, Du Bois put together a
multiethnic staff with a Pan-African editorial mission, i.e., one that would be
inclusive of the work of blacks from all over the globe. This drew some bitter
criticism from the African-American community. After decades of radicalization,
Du Bois changed his mind. By 1959, when he moved to Ghana, he wanted an
encyclopedia for Africans by Africans about Africans.

Closer to Du Bois’ original vision, Gates, Appiah and Soyinka wanted their
encyclopedia to be inclusionary, one that would bring in as many disciplines,
cultures and perspectives as they could. “You have a diasporic black world, and
the only way to put it back together again is symbolic. It’s like Humpty Dumpty,”
Gates told Salon during a four-hour discussion. (Gates insisted
that his comments be used only on a deep-background basis; all quotes used
in this story had to be cleared with him.) “Whoever could edit the Encyclopedia Africana would provide symbolic
order to the fragments created over the past 500 years. That is a major
contribution.”

Joining a trend of joint ventures between academics and corporations, Gates and
company looked outside the university for funding. After a decades-long search
for a backer, they landed a big fish — Microsoft. The company agreed to put up
$1 million and technical, design and production support of the CD-ROM. Another
million came from Perseus, a publisher, which would produce a printed version of
the encyclopedia. After much heartache — and 25 years after the pact made at the
restaurant — the interactive CD-ROM encyclopedia, Encarta Africana, arrived on
the shelves to near-unanimous praise last February.

Yet while the Africana debut has seen no dearth of press coverage, the story of
its painful gestation has never been told. And it is a tale so fabulous –
including accusations of plagiarism, controversies over affirmative action,
charges of academic royals oppressing scholarly serfs, Microsoft bottom-line mania, worker
revolt and a Rashomon-like tangle of competing truths — that
one might even call it a creation myth for the contemporary university.

In today’s university, academics in the science and technology
departments can easily turn a profit from their intellectual work.
With the help of a technology licensing office on campus, an academic
can become an entrepreneur, often collaborating with a company to
distribute his or her invention/discovery in the form of a marketable
product.

More and more often, humanities professors like Gates can do the same
thing. An illustrious academic — who in the hierarchy of the new
university star system has become something akin to royalty –
descends from the ivory tower to share his or her intellectual wealth
with the public. But reaching the greatest number of people requires
more than brilliance, it requires power. So the academic decides to
work with a corporation. This transports the academic into a brave
new world, where the old rules of the ivory tower no longer apply.
There, intellectual property must be guarded fiercely; workers labor
under strict deadlines with their eyes focused on the bottom line.
Books must balance at the end of the year; there is no alumni fund to
draw from when the project goes over budget. Still, the professor and
the project often gain by their affiliation with the university –
there are laboratories, research materials, libraries, offices,
computers and staff willing to help out in a jam. More importantly,
there is a deep pool of well-educated cheap labor in the form of
ambitious young graduate students and untenured academics. In short, though the project may have been driven by idealism, it quickly becomes subject to all the complexities and
compromises of a business.

On a logistical level, Africana’s 15-month gestation was fraught with
complications. Grueling deadlines led to overexertion. Editors
contended with bouts of plagiarism. Open revolt broke out among
nearly a dozen staffers. All this turmoil eventually led to a
crippling worker slowdown in the middle of the project. Most
startlingly, a very low representation of African-Americans on the
core editorial staff (four of 17 writers at the most) inspired a
dozen employees to ask the management team to hire more
African-Americans. “There’s nothing like a common enemy to unite a
lot of young, similarly minded people,” one senior staffer told
Salon Books, echoing a sentiment shared by several others. What made this
project so beset with bitterness?

Perhaps it was the great expectations of Gates the public humanist.
Though Gates is only one of four Afropedia partners, he is Africana’s
front man and biggest personality. Politically, Gates is neither
radical nor neo-conservative, but rather a thoughtful, learned voice
of black progressive liberalism who has consistently been able to
translate his intellectual ideas into books and articles geared
toward non-academics. Pundit Adolph Reed Jr. called Gates “the
freelance advocate for black centrism,” while Time once voted Gates
one of the “Twenty-Five Most Influential Americans.” An outspoken
advocate of affirmative action, the 49-year-old West Virginia-bred
Gates also has voiced his concerns about the responsibility of
corporations to soften capitalism’s rougher edges. “A more humane
form of capitalism is about the best I think we can get,” he told the
Progressive last year. “Which might sound very reformist or
conservative, but that’s basically where I am.” While the notions of
better business practices and affirmative action may mean different
things to different people, some Africana employees told Salon Books that
when it came to working for Gates the CEO, they encountered a split
between Gates’ progressive theories and Africana’s bottom-line
practices.

The idealistic project was beset with birthing pains. As an associate
professor at Yale in 1979, Gates proposed the idea to Charles Van
Doren, the Encyclopedia Britannica editor who was infamous for the
“Quiz Show” controversy in which he and NBC were involved in a fixing
scam. Van Doren, who had since climbed his way to the position of
vice president of editorial at Encyclopedia Britannica, took an
interest in Gates’ proposal. Portentously, however, Van Doren told
Gates the project would cost $20 million. Though Van Doren remained a
consultant for the group, Gates and Appiah soon were looking
elsewhere for support. Eventually they would be rejected by
publishers at Random House, Simon & Schuster and by new-media
companies Voyager and Prodigy. So in 1997 when Microsoft agreed to
underwrite the project, the team jumped at the opportunity.

Genetically speaking, Encarta Africana had some formidable DNA.
Gates, along with Appiah and Soyinka, linked forces with musician and
media entrepreneur Quincy Jones and Time Warner lawyer Martin Payson
(the only white person on the board) to start a private company,
Afropedia L.L.C. Gates and Appiah would co-edit the content, and
Microsoft, which had two Encarta encyclopedias’ worth of experience
behind it, would integrate the content with the latest audiovisual
technology, the costs of which would go on Microsoft’s ledger. With
Gates of Harvard and Gates of Microsoft leading the way, the project
seemed like an inspired marriage of new technology, academia and
progressive thinking.

But the $2 million budget was tiny compared to Van Doren’s $20
million estimate. It’s possible that attempting a project of this size with such
modest funding was a mistake from the start. Since the
budget has not been made public, it would be difficult to guess.
However small the payment, Africana received its advance only
after the editors submitted a specified number of words. In other
words, the two sides agreed on a book-publishing model in which
advances were to be paid back through royalties. In terms of finances,
Afropedia didn’t have a lot of breathing room. Insiders claim that co-editors Gates and Appiah received $100,000 each off
the top, but this is not a particularly lavish fee for heading up
such an undertaking.

Despite the formidable profiles of Gates and Appiah, however, the
project was still steeped in uncertainty. For one thing, Microsoft
partnership was a new one for all involved. Microsoft had never had a
joint venture of this nature. It was ultimately responsible for
supervising the project, yet Afropedia had the final say in the
content. Meanwhile, the leaders of Afropedia had their own worries. As
a collection of academics, they were venturing into unknown
corporate waters. “We didn’t have a model for this,” says Pat
Sullivan, Africana’s managing editor and an Afro-America studies
lecturer. “No one had ever done this before.” Encarta may have been
called an encyclopedia, but it functioned with the structure of a
magazine working on a book-publishing deadline. Unlike most
encyclopedias, Encartas are completed at a breakneck pace — French
Encarta and Italian Encarta were both finished in one year.

In order to achieve its staggering goal of 2.25 million words,
Africana had three models of encyclopedias on which to base itself:
the Samuel Johnson Dictionary model, in which one woebegotten genius
writes the whole thing; the Encyclopedia of Islam model, a drawn-out process
that involves only experts; or the Encyclopedia of
Social Sciences model, which had a core staff that wrote everything. Africana
synthesized the latter two: a core crew of writers who would generate 40 percent of the content. Experts would contribute the remaining 60 percent. A few
intellectual stars would oversee the whole process.

To lure writers, Africana posted advertisements around Cambridge
offering 15 cents a word to temporary writers. The writers who signed
up on salary were mostly students between undergraduate and advanced
degrees and would receive somewhere between $25,000 and $28,000;
editors, some of whom were Harvard fellows or professors, received
salaries in the $50,000 range. (For a university town, Cambridge can
be costly. One-bedroom apartments generally rent for around $1,000 a
month, which would be half a writer’s salary, before
taxes.) Writers would have benefits packages only if they had a
previous arrangement through Harvard as a student. Editors, if they
were not already covered by Harvard, did receive benefits packages.

According to Sullivan, who hired many of the writers, management told
writers initially that Gates and Appiah would switch off semesters to
take their leaves. For most of the first semester, Gates went to
Africa, where he was filming a BBC-PBS program, “The Lost Wonders of
the African World,” portions of which appeared in Africana. Appiah
left for the second semester. Africana’s core staff gathered each day
on 10 Divinity St. at Vanserg, the Harvard building where
Afropedia rented space. Harvard refused to say whether the
Afropedia project received a special cut-rate rent. A dim building
with a makeshift, temporary feel, Vanserg rents to pot-luck tenants
such as classes from divinity-school overflow, a piano repair shop, a
day-care center and the Harvard-Yenching Institute.

Problems in Vanserg developed within the first two months in the
summer of 1997. When some writers discovered that editors were given
medical benefits, disenchantment grew. Stephen Hendricks, an Africana
writer and a former Microsoft employee, draws a parallel between
Gates of Harvard and Gates of Microsoft.

Henry Louis Gates “told his employees that the lack of benefits was
not something that he dreamed up, that such is the modus operandi of
the software industry, in which growth is fueled by disposable,
long-term temps,” Hendricks told Salon Books. “Certainly this is at least
partly true of Microsoft, from which Mr. [Henry Louis] Gates took his
cue.”

On one level, the analogy makes sense. With low-paying jobs and few
benefits, the young Africana writers were being given their first
taste of life in the modern corporation. Some Africana employees
believe that Africana had learned the purported “permatemp” style of
management from Microsoft. (One-third of Microsoft employees don’t
receive long-term benefits, even though they work for the company on
a long-term basis.) On another level, however, the arrangement also
resembled the new model of university labor, which has become
notorious for its unabashed exploitation of non-tenure-track
scholars, researchers and faculty. A common complaint from the ghetto
of adjunct teachers is that they are paid far worse per hour than the
janitors that clean their offices; moreover, the janitors often enjoy
unions and job stability.

Since Encarta Africana was privately owned, initially some writers
did not have Harvard privileges and could not access the university’s
vaunted libraries. Instead, they had to make due with their limited
resources — the small African-American Studies department library in
Barker Center (a 15-minute walk from Vanserg), Macmillan
Company’s Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History
(edited by Africana contributor Cornel West) and Lexis-Nexis, which
some staffers say was accessed by a password from a Yale student.

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With a large deadline looming at the end of August, the staff grew
desperate. Writers had to meet the first milestone by August, a
numbing 250,000 words that the group had to submit to Microsoft so
that Africana would get its first advance. “It was as if they said,
don’t worry about quality, just get quantity,” the senior employee
said. According to one observer close to the project, the writing
turned out to be lousy. “I was appalled by the quality of material.
The entries were woodenly conceived. They had linear chronologies,”
he said. “These writers were not very experienced. They were at the
low end of the freelance chain.” When writers turned over their
sources, an editor discovered that some entries were barely rephrased
versions of the entries from the Macmillan. In the end, Africana had
to hire a temporary staff to rewrite the plagiarized sections, all of
which were purged and replaced. “There were huge, huge mistakes that
never would have eluded Skip [Gates] had he seen them,” the senior
staffer contended.

When Suzanne Friedberg arrived in September to edit the Africa
section of the encyclopedia, she inherited a troubled legacy.
“Everything was done in extreme time pressure,” she said. Friedberg,
now a professor of geography at Dartmouth College, said that the
deadlines were daunting. “I’m on the tenure track now at an Ivy
League school, and the encyclopedia was harder.” Even though some
writers were nabbed for plagiarism, they still simmered with
discontent. “Some writers stirred up trouble,” Friedberg said. “The
medical insurance concern — that was legitimate. But some bad
writers just liked to complain.”

In a controversial move among core staff members, Africana received
permission from Harvard to hire Peter Glenshaw, the assistant
director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, the same place where Gates is
director. (Glenshaw, who has since left Harvard, did not respond to
Salon Books’ calls.) While keeping up with his arduous duties with the Du
Bois, he had to manage the content and employee relations of the
encyclopedia. As a friend or admirer of Gates he may have agreed to
the job out of respect for the project, but as Gates’ deputy at Du
Bois, how much latitude did he actually have? He now had to commute
between two jobs.

As the next 250,000-word milestone approached, editors’ hours
increased, as did those of the writers. Twelve-hour days were the
norm, along with weekend shifts. According to Friedberg, there was a
huge editorial bottleneck: the work was lined up to be edited, but
the pieces needed a great deal of work. Writers were disappointed
that they didn’t receive feedback, and editors didn’t appreciate the
quality of writing. Africana had itself a situation that was headed for
internal combustion.

On Oct. 3, 1997, writer Hendricks and 11 other staffers sent a memo to
Gates, Glenshaw and the rest of the management team suggesting
significant editorial and personnel changes for Africana. The memo
specifically asked Africana for a clearer mission statement, benefits
for writers — which would include medical and dental coverage — and an
employee-matched retirement plan. As Hendricks explains, “We wanted
to hold it to a higher standard.” Employees also wanted more
specialists, and last of all, suggested that Africana hire more
people of color.

Some editors now maintain that had Africana spent $10,000 more on
writer’s salaries, it could have hired more seasoned candidates and
tempted more African-American scholars in the process. Among writers
on the core staff, African-American representation never reached more
than four out of 17 and none of the core editing staff was black. “We
took a look around and said, ‘Jesus, we’re 90 percent here and
we’re not comfortable with this,’” said the senior staffer about the
paucity of blacks. “I wouldn’t buy an encyclopedia about women if it
were written by men.” It seems that despite Gates’ formidable
reputation, few blacks applied to work on Africana. Moreover, the
editors whom Salon Books spoke with say that they were never given any
directive by Gates to pursue African-American applicants. Part of the
affirmative-action agenda involves seeking out applicants who have
been previously denied opportunity.

Yet making an airtight case of hypocrisy against Gates isn’t so easy.
How far does an employer have to pursue it? How much time, for instance,
should be spent searching for diverse candidates before such searches
are deemed inefficient? And if such searches don’t yield competitive
candidates, how important is it to give an opportunity to a worker
who is not qualified, but might rise to the occasion if
given a chance? Still, it’s remarkable that Gates — a black luminary
– wasn’t simply surrounded by bright, ambitious young
African-American scholars who could foresee what their participation
on this project might mean to them or their risumi.

Does the fact that Gates was somehow stymied by the problem of affirmative
action hiring say more about him, the shortage of highly educated
black candidates willing to work for peanuts or the very problems
inherent in affirmative action itself? After all, it may be an easy
practice to embrace in the abstract, but when you’re running a
fast company, who has the time for theory?

For meetings, Gates would have the staff convene in Barker Center, a
humanities building where the Afro-American Studies Department is based. Indeed,
every staffer interviewed for this story contended that they never
once saw Gates step foot in the central Africana office in Vanserg itself, despite the fact that
Gates’ own house is right across the street. Not surprisingly, such
aloof management only exacerbated worker resentments. In October, he
drew the staff together and gave them an ultimatum: For those who
don’t like the project, there’s the door. Gates also said that
plagiarism would not be tolerated. The Oct. 3 petition was
rejected out of hand — and on the delicate issue of hiring more
African-Americans, Gates apparently told staffers: “Affirmative
action? I’m Mr. Affirmative Action. You think I’m not all for
affirmative action? But look, what we hire here are qualified
people, people who can do the work. White people can do this work,
and black people can do this work.”

Relations on the Africana staff deteriorated further with the arrival of
Microsoft project manager Keith Senzel in November. Senzel, a 26-year-old from
Yale who graduated a year behind Hendricks, had a mandate to improve efficiency
with the greatest attention to quality. Or, in other words, whip the staff into
shape. Senzel had fulfilled this kind of role for Encarta for its French and
Italian CD-ROMs, both of which were completed in one year. “He was a Microserf
before he got made,” Hendricks said of his old schoolmate. Senzel said that
compared to other Encarta products, Africana did not have an unusually rigorous
set of deadlines. “There’s a pretty aggressive schedule on all of them,” he said.

Nonetheless, Senzel found some difficulties. “They hired so many people all at
once and so many of the people were not that good,” he said. “The writers were
not very good. They couldn’t write in an encyclopedic style.” Yet some staffers
told Salon Books that Senzel talked down to the writers. “We were like, ‘Who are you
and where are you from?’” the senior employee recalls. “Their attitude was, your
content sucks.” When it came time for the staff Christmas party, Senzel received
a last-minute invitation but did not attend. During the party’s Secret Santa
exchanges, Peter Glenshaw — who had won no popularity points as Gates’ henchman
– received Dale Carnegie’s personality primer, “How to Win Friends and
Influence People,” from an anonymous staffer. Glenshaw left the party soon after.

Even though the Oct. 3 memo was a flop, employees received a $500 Christmas
bonus. They also received a one-week vacation. “It defused the tension a bit,”
someone on the project recalled. But after the break the malaise intensified. A
new system of editing software was implemented, which slowed down the process.
While Microsoft contends that the program, E-Edit, was an improvement, some
staffers contend that it was a bad replacement for some new technology that
didn’t roll out on time. Production fell off by an estimated 80 to 90 percent.

When Gates returned from a trip in April, he asked for three staffers to meet
with him — a group he facetiously called “the bitch-and-moan committee.”
As a result of the negotiations, Gates implemented a new incentive program for
the writers: If they exceeded the 2,500-word-per-week minimum by 80 percent they
would receive a bonus equal to 5 percent of their weekly salaries. If they exceeded by 100
percent, they would receive a 15 percent bonus. Although this amounted to minuscule sums
for most writers and just made the work harder, it successfully disarmed
the writers and set Africana back on track. Gates found a silent fifth partner to
fund the peace treaty.

Pat Sullivan had her own take on the strife. “You have to be committed to the
idea of the project. Only that could get you through the rough months.” Indeed,
Africana seemed to punish its staff with the rigors of a high school yearbook in
which the editor or editors receive most of the glory. “Africana was very good
about what it accomplished with the text,” says Friedberg. “It was the first
thing of its kind. It filled a hole. In that sense I’m glad I worked on it. It
was just riven by bad management.”

Was that all it was — a case of bad management by admittedly neophyte corporate
executives? From an internal point of view, Encarta Africana seems like a collision
of too many interests, a confluence of paradoxical intentions. “It is an
excellent example of the broad convergence of the recent trends, all sinister:
target marketing, identity politics and the academic star system,” observes New
York University media professor and corporate critic Mark Crispin Miller. If an
ivory tower company reaches out to fresh-faced graduates for employees, it will
face the culture it wrought. If you start a company at Harvard and need
some sharp young workers, no doubt you will hire egalitarian idealists nurtured
on the idea of multiculturalism — and conversely, a sense of their own
entitlement. Another paradox: If this joint-venture has a target market for
African-Americans, is it hypocritical or democratic that it is not prepared by
African-Americans?

Even among the so-called target market, not everyone is pleased about the outcome
of Africana. Dr. Raymond Winbush, a professor at Fisk University, Du Bois’ alma
mater, had trouble with the product. Winbush takes exception to what he sees as
the encyclopedia’s underrepresentation of Afrocentrics — a large black
constituency who believe that Africa should be the focus of all African-American
study. “It’s like a modern history of computing without mentioning Bill Gates,”
he says. Winbush is working on a rival project, Encyclopedia Africana, due in
2009, which he claims has its real roots in Du Bois’ ultimate dream.

Masao Miyoshi, a literature professor at the University of California at San Diego,
sees the Africana model as symbolic of a greater problem. “This is simply
outrageous. When you work for a professor, you get paid — what — $10,000 or $20,000
a year for a 40-hour week? But this project exists outside the university. No
claim could be made that this is an instructive program. Many people with skills
and graduate degrees who don’t have jobs gravitate towards these kind of work,”
says Miyoshi, who edited “Cultures of Globalization” with Marxist critic Fredric
Jameson. “That’s where Skip has an opportunity. This is the kind of thing that
goes on today at universities.”

Despite the 15 months of upheaval, the interactive CD-ROM changed the stodgy
image of an encyclopedia. Rather than an old-fashioned A-Z set of volumes, it
features live video, virtual tours and more than 3,300 entries. Africana’s
arrival was greeted with great exultation. “I wanted to hug the FedEx guy,” a
Time writer gushed in her review. Gates also seems happy with the way Africana
turned out. “I’m really proud of this product. I would do it the same way over
again.” As universities and their star professors become more involved with these
kinds of quick and furious projects, and more overeducated young men and women
float in postgraduate limbo, no doubt Gates will still have many willing takers
for the next time around.

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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