As the semester winds down, I find myself thinking about the state of academic leadership in the face of huge budget cuts and ever decreasing stability amongst the ranks. While these thoughts have often been theoretical on some level for some time, they became harshly real this past week as I was forced to confront behavior I thought had died with the end of Dr. Crackhead’s reign of terror.
As long time readers know, I work for a poorly funded state university by choice. For all of the budget constraints and their impact on ongoing scholarly research and faculty retention at Pov U, I have always counted on the majority of my colleagues being people committed to the region, research that is unique, benefited, and beneficial to the area, and with strong ties to the marginalized communities that make up the bulk of our students. After all, it is these research and justice agendas that tie most of us to a university whose salaries are likely outpaced by Managers at your local department store or fast food restaurant and whose access to funding is less than that of the high school cheer leading squad or local church youth group. And yet, for all of us, there are also those whose careers sputtered and died somewhere just outside of town and some how are allowed to fester within our ranks because, well, its hard to attract faculty when the best perk you can offer them is landscape and cheap rent.
The first year of my blog was mostly dedicated to dissecting the negative effects of working for one of these refugees from intellectual success, who I dubbed Dr. Crackhead because she had to be on drugs to make the detrimental department decisions and engage in high strung department histrionics that typified her time as Director. Long time readers will remember how she terrorized and belittled faculty, had regularized melt downs about how much more oppressed she was personally than any marginalized identity represented on campus … or the planet … during faculty meetings, and how she demeaned the intellectual potential of our students, particular those of color and older students. I wrote about her to document the insanity that I, as a regular witness to and victim of it, hardly believed myself. I did it as an actual mandate from the therapist she drove me to see 3xs a week for 3 years. And as I wrote, I discovered that many other academics worked with similar personalities and were desperate for a public place that proved they were not crazy, not hallucinating, and not without allies.
When her reign of terror came to an end, I promised that I would spend less time on the specific things that were broken at my institution and more on my research and personal interests. While this meant I lost a lot of my academic readers, or they simply no longer found things to comment on in the revamped focus of the blog, it also gave me the freedom to walk away from the crazy.
Unfortunately, walking away and being blessed by competent and compassionate leadership for the last few years, led me to forget the lessons of the internet, ie that Dr. Crackhead was not an anomaly.
As I was packing up my office with the bliss of someone who does not participate in finals week, one of my students walked in to my office in a daze. Speaking in my professional opinion as a former therapist, she was not only in shock, she was borderline dissociative. As I sat her down, my phone began to ring off the hook and the tell-tale sign of students in stress began a slow hum outside my now, mostly closed, office door. Like a survivor of violence, my own mind flooded with memories of Dr. Crackhead and how often this very scene played out while she was in charge.
The student told me a story in which she was summarily dismissed by a department chair while trying to get her graduation paper work processed. Her story included being yelled at, hung up on, called names, and told to “just go away b/c I don’t have time for you people.” Like most academics, I took her story with a grain of salt. After all, we all know that some students are prone to tell stories in which everyone is the bad guy but them. And yet, that shell shocked look on her face could not be denied.
As I tried to track down the various truths related to her story, I began to have a sinking feeling that Dr. Crackhead had made a Mini-Me. In fact, several of the students milling outside my door had witnessed the story the student inside my office had told me and each of their stories contained the same quote and the same reference to offensive behavior no matter how embellished the rest of their facts may have been. While I try to stay out of faculty-student conflicts, because you can never know all of the factors involved in individual conflicts, I am prone to stick my nose in when oppression seems to be at play. And while I will not tell you the specifics of the students complaints, since I did not witness them, I can tell you what happened to me when I went over to meet the woman I now loving refer to as Dr. Crackhead II.
When I walked myself over to the other Department to have a “friendly chat” with the Director in question, the Admin Assistant actually put his hand in my face and told me “If you’re here to get advising you might as well just turn around ‘cos we are done for the day.”
I checked my watch. Hmph, done at 2:30 during posted office hours that extend until 4:30, must be nice …
When I looked up, Senor Catty Pants had turned his back completely to me.
I cleared my throat. Nada. I cleared it again. Nadita de nada. So I said, “Excuse me.”
The Director walked out at that moment, gave me the once over and said “I am so sick of all of *you* coming in at the last minute!” She glared at me and added “I can’t help you.” then said it slower in that “you no speaky English” way.
Behind me, a student with an appointment walked in. She too was brown. She tried to explain that she had an appointment and the Director again refused to help her. Then it happened … a young, white, student with no appointment walked in and asked if she could be seen. The Director instantly brightened and waived her in.
Sadly, Barbie didn’t make it to the playhouse because I stepped in front of her.
In my most commanding voice, I introduced myself to the Director as Dr. Susurro and asked for a moment of her time. She muttered something about “graduate students turned adjuncts who think they know something” rolled her eyes, and repeated “I can’t help you” in her slow voice. I was astounded. I was, in fact, speechless. And in that moment of silence, Dr. Crackhead II waived the white student without an appointment in front of the brown student with one and me into her office.
The student of color, who recognized my name, apologized as if she was the offender.
I tried to make an appointment, mostly because if I had followed Dr. Crackhead II into her office, I too would have lacked professionalism and would likely be writing this piece from my lawyer’s office. I then reminded the Admin Assistant that I had witnessed the refusal to serve a student of color with an appointment in order to serve a white student without one and returned to my office to await my appointment time, aka regain the ability to speak without screaming.
As I sat in my office, fielding more phone calls and visits from students, I began to piece together a story of a newly tenured Department Chair with a clear bias against working class students of color, particularly those who were parenting or older returning students. It seemd the office hours drama was a direct result of a confidential funding decision getting leaked to students by an outgoing student of color/office assistant. Dr. Crackhead II had said several negative things about the intelligence of students of color and their “cycles of poverty” that had made it possible for others to cut important funding to grads of color. The male professors who had tried to make these cuts before seized on her clear disdain and rode it all the way to policy change that “could not be disputed b/c a minority [aka woman] supported it.” And she was now the scapegoat but also in many ways the spearhead.
The Dept. Chair viewed herself as a victim put upon by “incompetent students.” In her version of reality, she was in a sinking ship when she should have been on the luxury liner cruising away. After completing a degree at a prestigious college in New England, she had taken time off to marry and have a child, not realizing the profound sexism of academe that would punish her for the rest of eternity as a result. After being turned down for several snotty schools she felt were her right, and no doubt would have been without the incomprehensible sexism of our profession, her husband took a position near us. When she followed, she, in her own words, “lowered her expectations to keep her marriage” and took a job with one of our lesser funded programs. Like most hires here, she was promised that the program was growing, that it had an exciting vision and faculty growth plan and that she would be on the ground floor of innovative and hot research. Guess what …(Note to newbies, never let a poorly funded uni in the middle of nowhere promise you the moon when you can so clearly see they have not even reached the sky.) 7 years later, under a nation-wide recession, her program had practically been dismantled. Several faculty who could, had moved to “better universities”; those who couldn’t leave, retired or switched to better funded departments. When the previous Director was one of the latter, she was unduly jettisoned into his position.
Her story is a tragedy many of us, especially at pov u, recognize all too well. It is tinged with an urban focused ivy league elitism that is a function of oppression that is never excused at universities like mine. And yet, it is also a story of gender inequity in which a highly praised female scholar’s career was permanently derailed for daring to become a wife and mother. The same decisions amongst male faculty are mostly praised. Becoming a husband = stability, confirmed heterosexuality in most states, and the promise of free labor that ultimately feeds into the university’s prestige through more time for publishing and research. Becoming a father = a wholesome, well-rounded, appearing faculty and the potential to point to any future success of faculty children as born at the university. On the contrary, becoming a wife = less productive time for the university and less potential for unchecked sexual harassment or at least the possibility there of. Becoming a mother = complete redirection of one’s labor. Or so the sexist myths of academe go. (And yes, I have actually been at staff meetings where male faculty say they hope the new hire is “young and unmarried” b/c they are “tired of all the saggy boobs in the dept”)
This sexist reality however, in no way excuses the way Dr. Crackhead I and Dr. Crackhead II, or Thing I and Thing II if you prefer, chose to manifest their anger through primarily racial hegemony underpinned by ageism and classism. In both cases, their most egregious offenses took place as a direct result of a shrinking budget that increased their level of responsibility while decreasing their level of compensation. Accolades related to their work were also filtered through gender inequity in which male colleagues were praised while female colleagues were constantly put upon with no rewards. Watching this situation unfold, Cracheads I and II filtered their experience through racism in which they saw both students and faculty of color as unfairly privileged vis-a-vis the sexism that pinned them down. Their evidence: the number of students and faculty of color at the university and the number of conflicts they had with them in which they were made to feel incompetent. It never occurred to them that they might actually be incompetent because whiteness vis-a-vis blackness implies total competence at all times.
Just as Dr. Crackhead I almost brought our Department down with her petty and vindictive racism and homophobia that permeated policy, communication, and so-called leadership, Dr. Crackhead II was working toward a similar demise in her department. She made irrevocable funding decisions based on erroneous racial bias, sharpened by her experiences of sexism, that would end the academic aspirations of many grad students in or affiliated with her department. And then when caught, she, like Dr. Crackhead I, played victim, spouting offenses that in “corporate America” would have led to a dismissal; the reaction of the people she wronged only further proved her sense of victimization by an “over-indulged” and “over-privileged” band of brown folks.
It seems to me that as the budget crunch worsens these moments of widescale oppression increase at universities. While they are blatant at universities like mine, where neither students nor faculty are empowered to address oppression effectively, I have to wonder if less blatant encounters are occurring across the nation. How has the sense of beleaguered entitlement on the part of less competent faculty prone to racialized (or gendered, sexualized, etc.) thinking lead to increased marginalization of students and increased dysfunction amongst diverse faculty?
I looked to my partners experience in a completely different state for a counterpoint. Except that there is none. She also teaches at a poorly funded institution by choice, where faculty are either completely committed to the region and the cultures of that region or dead-end career folks who are bitter and taking it out on everyone. She is often the target of misogynist homophobia, sexism, and gender baiting. And she is often seen as an easier target than I am because she does not have an ivy league education; tho my education and former appointment make me a target in different ways. The number of oppressive incidents she has experienced has increased exponentially in the last few years. We have often marked that increase down to her transition to administration; she has gone from full time faculty to director of a research institute and part time faculty. As I reported earlier on the blog, her male colleagues have taken to her new role by telling her in writing to “go f-ck herself” when she asks for things they promised to do and other similar egregious behavior.
Now I find myself wondering, how much of it is a transition to the otherside of the faculty vs. administration divide and how much is about the ways in which oppressions increase to mask people’s anxieties in an increasingly unstable economy? And why is it that I would think academe would be any different than the real world where violence against women, people of color, and queer communities has been consistently rising with the growing economic crisis.
To end my story w/ Dr. Crackhead II, because I know you are dying to know, I never did get my appointment. Dr. Crackhead II, sent me an email claiming she was unavailable. When I pointed to the university policies governing posted office hours, she claimed the posted hours were out-of-date and thanked me for reminding her to change them. When I asked about the students I had seen coming to office hours, she claimed that they were there by appointment b/c of end-of-the-year needs. When I pointed to the disparity between the girl with the appointment and the girl without one, she claimed she was too busy for a back and forth and suggested we have coffee after the break.
In truth, I’m not really sure she’ll be here after the break. There are enough witnesses to her behavior that it is likely even Pov U will have to do something about it. Unless the uni response is a slap on the wrist, I don’t think she has the stamina to stick it out especially with a position open at her husband’s uni in her field. Like so many privileged heterosexual white faculty, she will likely make a leap from Pov U to Slightly Better U and bad mouth us, never taking responsibility for the chaos she has created in the lives of already massively marginalized students. The fact that she has this option will never play into her understanding of oppression or decrease her likelihood to see herself as a victim without recognizing how she also victimized others; if she leaves, she will no doubt use her time at pov u to prove to others who call her on her stuff that she is in fact more enlightened than they b/c she “did time” at our little brown college.
But if she does comes back, dear reader, I will find myself having yet another coffee with a Crackhead …
- Hope. George Fredric Watts
- Hands of Hope. Andy Hodge
- Palin Celebrity. I Can Haz Cheeseburgers
- Prince John, The Sheriff of Nottingham, Sir Guy, & Isabella. Robin Hood. BBC 2009.
- “I’m @ Work Get Me Out of Here 2009.” HolidayExtras Flickr