Punctuation

Ash asked in the comments a post or two back for me to talk about the aftermath of the process of taking a job, particularly in terms of dealing with things within a department that is now losing me as a faculty member. That's a great idea, and one I've been trying to get to all week, because dropping the news has been a process.

But the week has been busy with a lot of student movement on campus, and trying to support that has taken up some time. Maybe more importantly, though, the particular moment and the university's response to it have laid bare some of the peculiarities of life as an untenured professor. My current "one foot out the door" status has placed me in an interesting spot here, primarily by allowing me some freedom many of my colleagues don't feel. In some ways, it's let me have a final word that I wouldn't have otherwise - punctuation, if you will - and in other ways, it's let me speak a little more clearly and a little more loudly than I otherwise might.

By way of context, I'm at a small, religious liberal arts school that's been feeling the pinch of religion a little bit more strongly. We've also been struggling with questions of diversity, particularly since the election. The movement has been spearheaded by students and by young, untenured faculty. It has been positive. It has been well-received. And, in hindsight, it has been relatively straight-forward and easy.

I know, I know: matters of race and diversity are never easy. But here's the thing: here, at least, even the racists think racism is wrong. They just don't see their part in it. So when the university wanted to tackle questions of race, nobody disagreed or threw much in the way of a fits.

In any case, I've spent the better part of the year serving with this group of young, untenured faculty who came together over the racism on campus, and we've been basking in the glow of administration support and planning our little untenured heads off. After our first official meeting, though, when the suits had left the room and it was just us, we all realized we were in a very difficult position. First, there wasn't a single tenured faculty member in the group - none had come forward about the event as we had. Second, we realized that the university's view of diversity - given to us a straight forward definition the school had come up with - and the definitions we were working were at odds. And by so publicly addressing the question of racial and ethnic diversity, we also opened the door were there problems with other types of diversity.

Hint: there are a lot of other diversity issues.

And so, we were left with a question about how to deal with this conflict. We could, fearing for tenure and taking the long view, say "this conflict isn't right, but we can't address if it overtly, particularly if we don't get tenure and can't stay to do so in subtle ways?" or we could say "This must be addressed now."

Because we're a faculty committee, it shouldn't be surprising that while we were struggling with this, the question became moot. A student movement sprung up, seeking university support in forming a Gay/Straight Alliance on campus.

Now, for those of you not in the know, Catholicism's views on homosexuality would appear to be, at best, conflicted. There are, for example, a number of openly gay priests. I'm told there is even an openly gay president of a Catholic school or two. The Church, however, prefers not to lend support to anything that might be seen to support homosexuality. See? Complex. And that's without me getting sarcastic.

The students have been making their case exactly the right way, I think. They've written a mission statement for themselves, and they've sought the support of the university community at large to lend support. They've got petitions with lots of pretty signatures.

There was even talk of a faculty petition. But it was very quickly suggested from on-high - in no uncertain terms - that petitions are a bad idea. Tenured faculty appeared outside the doors of folks signing the petition, waving their arms and crying for caution because, they said, names would be taken. One administrator, testing out both sides of his mouth, even said "Well, of course it's okay if untenured faculty sign it." followed by "Of course, their names will be noticed and remembered."

All of which leads back to the first, most useful benefit of how taking a new job has affected me in the old job: I get to be very frank. And I don't have to be scared off of things. I've had the rare privilege of talking in meetings about this. I got to sign the petition without fear of reprisal. I got to sign off my career here in the best possible way: by trying to actively make the place better and by doing what I think is right. And while I'd have signed the petition regardless, having told some very personal stories and put my integrity on the line in an earlier event with a story I told and a challenge to students, I wouldn't have been able to do it without great hesitation. Leaving allows me to do the right thing, publicly, loudly, without mincing words.

I'm feeling bad for my friends here in the group I'm working with because they've some very clear reason to be warned off speaking up about what they think the right thing to do is. I can see in their faces when we're talking with anyone outside of the group how that prohibition is like a maddening itch. They're rubbed raw by it. They want to sign, to lend their name and support and to feel like they have a voice in the process here.

And what's most intriguing is that this, too, places the school in a tough spot that I hope they see. Currently, untenured faculty make up the majority of faculty positions. And they make up nearly all of the forward progress from the faculty side of things. They're the ones researching, the ones putting all of the mission statement buzzwords into practice. And at least some sections of the administration are starting to recognize the uncomfortable crossroads everyone is sitting at.

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ash said...

This is awesome, Doc. But, since you (in your typically understated, non self-aggrandizing way) will not point this out explicitly, I will: You would have been frank anyway. You would have--indeed, you have, from the time you got there--worked to make the place better. You would have done what is right and, I believe, done so publicly. You already have.

The difference is that you were able to do so without fear. I know that's what you said in the post, but I want to underscore that the fear was never going to stop you from standing up for what's right. It just changed how you felt while you were doing it. That's one of the things I have always loved about you--your willingness to say what needs to be said, even if it's going to make you unpopular. You are incredibly brave that way. So this is just one more thing that makes me happy about the new job--that you can be you without having to worry too much about the consequences. (But I have to tell you, FWIW--from the outside, no one would ever guess that you are ever afraid or hesitant!)

February 21, 2009 at 2:32 PM