It was only when the dean and the department chair began crying – during a check-in meeting about my resignation from the university and how it was affecting me – that I got clear, both about the incident compelling my resignation and about the folks who were really losing out. And I, a soon-to-be-jobless Black queer Muslim single mother of four teenagers, wasn’t one of them.
Years ago, after a successful campus visit (held on the day we found out Donald Trump would be our president), I was invited to become a tenure-track assistant professor of education at our slightly-larger-than-mid-size southeastern university.* I accepted, and spent the next couple of years working with really wonderful students and exploring the social foundations of education with them. The summer before my third year began, I experienced trouble at home: I was going through a separation and was trying to figure out where four of my five children and I could live on my salary (my youngest would stay with his other mom). I met with my dean and head of my workgroup, apprising them of my situation and letting them know that, though I signed my contract for the upcoming year, I wasn’t sure if I could continue with the university if I had to move too far away. We agreed to keep each other posted. I updated the associate dean in a separate chat.
Within a few weeks, I found out that I didn’t need to leave my position after all: I was able to buy a home that I could afford two hours away from our major campuses. I let the dean and the new department chair know the good news, and I was able to teach majority-hybrid classes to make my commute more manageable. That fall, I began teaching at a campus that was slightly closer than the last, and I enjoyed the students at my new location just as much as the students at the previous one.
It was during my annual review meeting early in the spring semester when I offhandedly mentioned that I had not yet received my pre-tenure portfolio information. But, honestly, besides mentioning it in that moment, I had not thought much about it. The major adjustments in both my personal and professional life had consumed my attention all that summer and fall; in the spring semester marking my third year with the university, I was just beginning to feel like I had my feet under me again. Between receiving divorce papers I didn’t know were coming; adjusting to a household income that fell by over half; buying a house that, despite somehow passing inspection, needed $20,000 in immediate repairs (e.g. water running brown out of all taps, crumbling pipes, a heating system that did not work); and my oldest daughter’s beginning college nearby, it was all I could do to stave off panic attacks and look somewhat presentable when I came to work. So, during my annual review meeting, I was just glad that I was still mentally sound and that my personal life was evening out. With the past few months I’d had, I wasn’t worried about my pre-tenure materials and hadn’t noticed that I didn’t receive them. My new department chair, however, was concerned. She said she would look into the matter and get back to me.
Later on that day, my chair told me that my name had somehow been removed from the tenure list. Apparently, before moving into her position as chair in the previous semester, someone thought that I was not returning to the university, so my name was removed. Even though I neither resigned verbally or in written form. Even though I had a signed contract and was currently teaching in my tenure-track position, just as I had in previous years. Even though no one told me that I was removed from the list – a list that I didn’t even know existed so that I could be removed from it. Even though I could neither find nor was told of any college or university documentation that detailed how, when, or why names could be removed from said list, particularly without employee knowledge. And even though, and perhaps most importantly, I never asked to be removed from tenure consideration, which, per our university system’s protocol, is the only way a tenure-track professor can be removed from tenure-track. All I had was a meeting the previous summer, telling two people I was unsure I could return. But I clearly had, and everyone knew it. And I found all of this out two weeks before the pre-tenure portfolios were due.
Of course, there was then a flurry of communication between the dean, the department chair, and me. The associate dean was not a part of these communications, and there was currently a search going on for an assistant dean. The dean, to her credit, took immediate responsibility for the situation, noting that, while she was unaware that I had been removed from any list, the fact that I had been was unacceptable and pointed to issues at the college’s administrative level. Both the dean and the chair separately offered any assistance I needed in submitting my portfolio within the two weeks and, while I appreciated their sentiment and offers of assistance, I asked the dean whether anything else could be done. She said she would check with university administration and get back to me.
Later that week, the dean, department chair, and I had a phone conference. The dean had gotten word from university administration: I could have an additional four weeks to complete my pre-tenure portfolio, and I didn’t have to include any recommendation letters. That, apparently, was doable and thus concluded the university’s offer.
And it was doable, I thought while listening to the dean. Technically speaking, I knew that I could complete the portfolio in six weeks. For sure. Even while teaching five classes (two with at least thirty students). Even while parenting four children alone. Even though my colleagues had six months to complete what I was expected to do in six weeks, due to the actions of some unknown person (I still hadn’t been told who had done this yet), actions that had been completely outside of my cause or control. It was doable. But it wasn’t fair.
It wasn’t fair for me, of course. But it also wasn’t fair for my colleagues, who would have had taken six months to do the same work. Any errors and anything missing from my portfolio would have to be ignored, I assumed. I couldn’t possibly be penalized for submitting a sub-par pre-tenure portfolio now, after all. How was that fair to them? And if I submitted a sub-par pre-tenure portfolio and received a pass, would I also receive a pass on my tenure portfolio the following year, as these portfolios are supposed to be, to an extent, buildable? While a boon for me, that would still be unfair to my colleagues.
Or would I instead have to do extra work in my tenure-portfolio future to make up for missing or mediocre documentation submitted in the pre-tenure-portfolio past?
Should I overexert myself for six weeks – ignoring both my family and my students – in order to produce a portfolio that was beyond reproach, despite the fact that I only had a fraction of the university-mandated time to complete it?
The dean again offered any assistance she could provide as I listened to the university’s offer. The chair, also on the call, was silent. I was driving during our phone conference. It was the Friday before MLK weekend, and my youngest was coming to visit for a few days. He was talking to his siblings in the back seat as I sped from the city to our new home in a town seventy-five miles northwest. As I maneuvered around tractor-trailers and highway potholes, I took a moment to marvel at how quickly our lives could be changed by anonymous hands.
I already knew my decision but wanted to give it a few days to sink in. I asked the dean if I could have the weekend to think it over. She agreed, without hesitation.
Over the long weekend, I visualized submitting my pre-tenure portfolio by the deadline and knew that work required would be an exhausting, frustrating blur. But I could get it done. I knew that if I had survived the previous few months, I could do anything.
But then, I wondered, what next?
I knew the ‘next’: I would still have my job, but I feel angry, hurt, and excluded. I would walk the university halls not only feeling devalued, but knowing that I was devalued: no one had even bothered to tell me that my job status that changed so drastically, not to mention the primary issue of its being changed in the first place. I would have to smile in the faces of people who, unbeknownst to me, had almost completely upended my career trajectory, if I ever found out who they actually were. And I already assumed no one was going to be reprimanded; that’s not how things were done. Carrying all of this inside, I would still be expected to do my job as if none of this ever happened, or else my own work performance and professional evaluations would suffer.
That seemed unfair and crazy-making to me. And not worth it.
I told the dean that I was resigning on the MLK holiday. In a meeting with both the dean and the chair later that week, the dean made clear that she understood my decision, again apologizing for the entire situation. I said I intended to finish out the semester – there was no reason to leave the students, the department or myself in a lurch – but wouldn’t return for the fall. I may have mentioned then or later that I was available to teach over the summer if they needed me. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m sure the dean and chair only said nice things to me about me, as they’d never had negative words for me before.
When we got off the call, I felt scared, but also clear. I had no plan B. And, on paper, I was probably the last faculty member in the college who could afford not to have a job. But I also couldn’t afford to keep that one: some costs, even if they aren’t monetary, are just too high.
After the shock of the incident itself had worn off, I got angry. I took a mental health day off of work. I posted about the situation on social media. I talked with some colleagues about it and quite a few lawyers. Pretty soon, the starkness of my situation became clear: while what happened to me was absolutely unfair and unjust, it wasn’t illegal. I had not been part of the major union (I didn’t even know it existed before this incident), but it might not have mattered much, as I live in a right-to-work state. Or maybe it would have. I’ll never know. What I was repeatedly told, though, was that, as it would be difficult to prove that any discrimination laws had been broken or that there was clear malice linked to the incident, I had no legal recourse.
Indeed, even I didn’t think that what happened to me occurred because of malice on anyone’s part, which is probably what made it sting a little more. It wasn’t that I was noticeable enough for someone to want to hurt me, after all. It was that, despite all my good work, I wasn’t noticed enough to be warned of major changes that were happening in my own career. What would have happened if I kept my pre-tenure comment to myself during my annual review meeting, or if my chair happened to sneeze or put me on hold when I was commenting? I wouldn’t have known that this happened to me at all… or at least until it was too late to come up with any sort of solution, even a ridiculous one like the one I had been offered.
My anger burned for a few days, until I talked to a lawyer referred by a friend. During our conversation, that lawyer asked me what was, to me, the most important question in this entire process: before embarking on any legal action, she said, she always asks her clients, “What would it take to make you whole?” It helps her clients shift their focus away from the anger and hurt they feel to the actual purpose of legal proceedings: finding remedy toward one’s wholeness.
What would make me whole? I thought about the question for a moment and stammered an answer. Well, I already considered myself whole, I told her honestly. There wasn’t a monetary amount that I was particularly looking for from the university. I hadn’t been planning on staying in academia forever anyway, and due to my divorce, I had intentionally created a life that required a relatively low standard of living. So while I didn’t know what was going to happen in the future, I wasn’t particularly scared of it. I planned on departing from academia relatively soon, anyway, and had already arranged my life to allow for some financial flexibility; it just wasn’t happening exactly on my time table, was all. I stumbled in telling her that all I really wanted from the university was an acknowledgement of what happened, an apology, and a self-initiated offer to make things right – whatever rightness looked like for them. Even as I said it, and even as the lawyer agreed that could be a good place to start as we ended our call, it seemed like both a very small and very big ask: small for me, as an individual human who was wronged, but undoubtedly big for an institution whose main priority is to maintain and perpetuate its existence. An existence which is, at base, an abstraction.
Because universities doesn’t really exist, after all. People do. And buildings. Chairs and desks. Logos and paperwork. Ceremonies and books. And even the abstract things that humans naturally desire: socialization, learning, contemplation, a sense of belonging. But the thing students pay for – that people go into debt (also imaginary) for, risk their health (actually real) for, spend their time (that one’s debatable) on – this concept of the university? It’s not really a thing. Everything that happens in a university could happen anywhere else, really. One doesn’t need a university to learn or train or become qualified to do a thing.
So the institution must protect itself, and it will do so at high cost. And admitting a gap or hole in the institutional illusion – that an institutional requirement doesn’t matter much when it really doesn’t have to for the sake of the larger system, for example – or admitting that part of the illusory system could be wrong, bowing in momentary remorse to the needs of the very real, very small person before it? Definitely possible, of course, but highly unlikely.
The dean had offered her assistance in pulling together a meeting of university administrators when I asked for one, but, after mulling over this question of wholeness, I told her that I didn’t need a meeting after all. I knew that I was looking for a specific response from the university and anything less would make it even harder to complete my pledged time there. Despite my backyard daydreams, I knew that university big-wigs weren’t ones for a dedicated fifteen minutes of hugs and voice-crackling apologies to anyone, much less the likes of me. I wanted them to be openly sad, just for a little while, like I had been. But why should they be? There were many out there eager to take my place if I wasn’t happy (and, as I write this, my position’s already been filled). Also, what unwanted consequences could such a show present for the institution farther down the road? At what institutional expense? All just for one very real, very small, and very replaceable person? I was looking for a human-like response from an illusion, or, at least, from the people charged with (and paid for) maintaining that illusion.
I told the dean that I didn’t need the meeting after all, because it didn’t seem worth the trouble. Anyway, I knew I was already whole.
All of this happened right before COVID-19 hit our state. In fact, I told my classes about my resignation (and, for one of my classes, the reasons behind it) on our last class session before the campus closed. When I told the dean that I didn’t need the meeting with the university higher-ups, I did tell her that I would be discussing the incident publicly. She said I should.
I didn’t know that would be my last time seeing my students in person, of course. What followed, as we in academia all know, were months of adjustment and general confusion. My students were understanding and patient as we finished up the semester. My student evaluations were still strong, and many of them made clear how much they missed being in the classroom. I taught two summer classes that were fully online and, as the country reeled under the (not unrelated) conflagrations of pandemic and racism, my online students produced the best semester-end work I’d seen – including students from the class that directly and intensely addressed oppression and White supremacy.
As the summer session was under way, I met with my dean and department chair, who’d recently earned the assistant dean position, a final time. It was a video call this time. The dean wanted to check in with how I was doing and ask for any recommendations that I had for the college’s preventing situations like mine from happening in the future.
I thanked the dean for asking and began with my feelings, as they were the easiest to address. I talked about how isolated I felt as I worked that semester; while many of my colleagues had no idea what had happened, a few had. So had, of course, university administration. The fact that no one had spoken to me about the incident besides the dean and the new assistant dean almost made me feel like it hadn’t happened. I felt very sad and alone, unsure of what I should say and what I shouldn’t.
I told her that I didn’t have any direct suggestions for improvement, as I still did not know who initially removed my name or exactly why it happened. The dean then told me the people involved, assuring me that they were made aware of the problematic nature of their actions. I thanked her for the information, and then pointed to the issues in protocol and procedure. If there was a procedure, it wasn’t followed, and that was a problem. If there wasn’t a procedure, then that was a problem. The fact that this information was not clearly shared faculty-wide was a problem, as we were vulnerable in ways that we didn’t even realize we could be. Both the dean and assistant dean nodded in agreement as I spoke.
I then noted that this incident simply wouldn’t have happened to my White male colleagues. Until that moment, I had not brought up race or gender or any social identifier when discussing this incident, though the dean had hinted at its being a diversity-related issue more than once in our communications that semester. I stayed quiet on that front for multiple reasons: I didn’t want to believe that my social identifiers could be an issue; thinking about that possibility would be too painful while continuing to work; I didn’t want to be seen as someone playing the race card… or the religion card… or the homophobia card. Now that my time with the university was coming to a close, however, I felt able to speak a bit more boldly.
While I did not believe that anyone intentionally did anything because of any identity I hold, I believed that these identities don’t make me quite human enough to some of my colleagues, and that belief is what caused the situation. So, while I don’t think (and would not think) that the actors took my name off the list, say, because I am Black or because I am queer, the fact that I am these things made me a person not worthy of checking in or following up with. I might have done good work, and that was interesting and quaint in some of my colleagues’ eyes, but I didn’t have an actual life worth considering outside of rhetorical or abstract purposes – which is why the folks that did this did not consider how their actions would affect my life enough to let me know they had done it.
(I should note, as an aside, that some of the same people involved in upending the career of their Black colleague [still without acknowledgement or apology] shared information on anti-racists books and movies to be used for class when the protests prioritizing Black lives began. I and people like me are a fleeting thought, a talking point, a stance to take. But not humans like them. Not human beings worth knowing or being known. So they can talk about Black lives mattering, or have email signatures quoting non-White folks, and effectively torpedo the career of a non-White person they actually know. And keep it moving.)
When I shared some of these thoughts during my final meeting, the dean and assistant dean nodded in agreement. The dean then acknowledged that my assertions were true, going on to note the quality of my publication history and that she had rarely seen student evaluations as good as mine. That felt good to hear.
The dean went on to discuss the fact that they would begin professional development to ensure that a situation like mine wouldn’t happen again, and that the university administration encouraged such training. She asked if I would be willing to come in to talk about what happened to me, as she didn’t want to put words in my mouth and wanted to give me the opportunity to speak for myself. I declined, and said that I trusted her and the assistant dean to speak about the situation. I said that, maybe in a year, I’d be willing to be brought in, but it would be too much right now. Earlier in the semester, the dean indicated that she thought about this situation every day, and she repeated that sentiment during that final meeting.
Those are the parts of the conversation that I remember. Besides the crying, that is.
I don’t remember how it started. I don’t even remember what we were discussing immediately before. But I do remember the dean was saying something positive about me, and then she just… started crying. Then the assistant dean began crying, too. I was surprised, of course, and sat there for a moment, silent. Watching them cry. I think one of the two women tried to talk through it, and there was eventually the light laughter that happens when surprise tears appear and everyone tries to lighten the mood a little.
I said something nice, but not reassuring. I remember that, because I’m the one that will often say, “It’s okay,” when people cry. But I didn’t say it then. Because it wasn’t okay. Also, this situation was happening to me: I was the one that was a just a month or two from my last paycheck, supporting four children alone during a pandemic, all because I had to make a choice between my emotional and psychological health and submitting to the whims of an institution that clearly didn’t care about my existence. I should be the one crying. And then it hit me: I wasn’t crying, because I wasn’t the one losing out.
Sure, I had absolutely no idea about what was going to happen to me or my family. But I knew that I have enough non-material and material resources that my children and I would be okay. As I mentioned, the trauma of my divorce had encouraged me to arrange my life so that something like a job loss would not affect me as drastically as it would so many others in my profession. I had always joked with my ex that I planned to retire at forty-five because I wanted to spend decades of my life (hopefully) actually enjoying it, and I turned forty-one a few months after I resigned – a bit early compared to the initial plan, but not by much. I love being at home and with my kids, and, between the pandemic and however I make money in the future, I knew I could focus on working from/at home as much as possible without hoping the scheduling gods would allow me to. Finally, I was actually able to make the choice for my psychological and emotional health; this is a privilege that so many do not have, and one I do not take for granted. Despite wider oppressive systems that do very much exist, I saw that I had the power to grasp every option that would lead to my best health and peace, and I refused to sell myself short (or just sell myself) when I had the option to do otherwise.
I didn’t know how it would all play out, but I saw that I was not the one losing when I leave a place that did not acknowledge my worth. They were.
I saw that that’s what the tears in that meeting were about: my dean and my assistant dean, who did actually know me and who did actually know my worth, knew what would be lost by my leaving. Rather than my identities’ rendering me invisible to them, they understood that my lived experiences were actually assets to the institution and that the loss was theirs, not mine. So, without my expecting or requesting it, my soon-to-be-former bosses did exactly what I was hoping for in my daydreamed meeting with the university higher-ups: openly lamenting my departure, apologizing for what went wrong, pledging to make things better.
I didn’t exactly know what to do with it in the moment, but I understand it better now: it was a light shone on the truth of the situation, and a reminder of real losses and real gains beyond the dominant narratives of how we need institutions that, in reality, need us. They need our differences and our uniqueness in order to matter, because, unlike people or buildings or books or socialization or learning, our assumption that universities actually matter is the only thing that keeps them in existence. And if they don’t recognize this – their need for us, in all of our varieties and differences – well, we certainly don’t need them. I see that now and, thankful for my experience within academia, and with the way I was swiftly ushered out of it when it no longer recognized my value, I’m looking forward to whatever comes next in my life.
Now, I know that some will read this and say, “Hey! That it’s not enough!” or “This is terrible! You should fight!” And I get it. There are many material gains, I’m sure, that someone more knowledgeable in these things than I could have gleaned from this situation. There are others that would justify a long-fused ire, perhaps even remaining on the job to exact retribution in ways that I couldn’t even imagine. I get it.
But, as multiple universities across the country tell their professors in no uncertain terms that they don’t care about them much – that everyone is expected to sacrifice their health and safety by returning to their campuses during a pandemic, that students and staff may die due to governments’ and university administrations’ lack of care and creativity – I cannot imagine the burden of choice that my former colleagues will soon have to bear when they shouldn’t have to. I cannot imagine the fear and stress that will soon ensue as classes start across the country. And all for something that doesn’t really exist, anyway. All for an institution/illusion that’s so busy caring about itself, it cannot care about the very real, very small people keeping it alive in the public mind.
I guess I could fight imaginary things that say they’re real if I wanted to. I could swing and jab, losing my breath and my patience. Exhausting myself. Ignoring my kids some. Laughing a bit less. I could make a few enemies along the way, and burn resources better saved save for other things. I could do all that and claim to be right. And many would agree with me, I suppose.
But there’s no reason for all that. In the end, I actually got the life that I wanted, a few years earlier than expected and just in time to avoid the heinous threat to health and safety that professors across the country are having to confront. And even if this pandemic weren’t happening, I still wouldn’t go into debt (still imaginary), jeopardize my health (still real), or waste my time (still debatable) swinging at imaginary giants.
Because, though small, I am too real and too valuable. And, as I’ve mentioned, I’m already whole.
* I should note here that I will not be naming people or institutions in this piece for two reasons. First, people that are really interested in those details can and will find out for themselves. We’re researchers, right? So it won’t be hard. Second, I’m not interested in vilifying people and places: I believe that naming others when recounting situations like mine allows you, reader, to assign actions to particular actors, rather than considering such actions as indicative of more widespread practices that can – and do – happen in many institutions, likely even your own.