I’ve decided to publicly tell the story of my last job and how I was harassed on numerous occasions in numerous ways, and how I had to watch the harassment of colleagues. It’s a long story and there were multiple events, so this is a long post. I’ve debated for years about saying these things, since I still have ties to the university, but I’ve decided not speaking publicly about it is cowardice and it allows the harassment to continue. Silence is not the friend of the victim, but of the abuser.
In 1999, I graduated from my PhD program and also got an offer to teach in Montana, at the University of Montana, Western. I was so excited. It’s unheard of in the English world to get a job so fast out of college, but they really seemed to like me and I thought I was a perfect fit. I’d be teaching a variety of courses and getting to participate in a small department. Two men, two women (we had an open position) and then adjuncts. Everybody seemed so nice and welcoming, I couldn’t wait to get started.
Skip forward a few months. All was going well, except we had an adjunct teaching with us. She was petite and blond and smart as hell, but one of the department members insisted on making insinuations about dating her, about having sex with her, about her love life, and everything under the sun, but always revolving around her sex life. He seemed to think it was funny, but it was relentless. It happened during meetings nonstop. Almost every time he addressed her. I wanted to speak up, but I didn’t have tenure and I was afraid I’d lose my job. (And that fear is justified later). So I, I am very disappointed to say, stayed silent. She couldn’t speak up either, because she had no protections and needed the job. Complaining would only have resulted in getting fired. She and I both knew that.
S. continued facing that harrassment for as long as she remained. Eventually she got out because she couldn’t take it anymore. Jump forward to the next year. I got pregnant in my first year and my son was due in the beginning of my second year. I planned to take off two weeks. I didn’t think I could get away with more. My colleagues would have to cover my classes. L., an adjunct, volunteered to cover my two freshman writing classes. My two male tenured colleagues (one of whom had been the one to pursue S. so relentlessly) would take my other two. In an effort to make things easier, I planned everything out carefully and then provided assignments and everything else I could so they wouldn’t have to do much work. I didn’t want them angry with me for taking time off for having a kid.
Unfortunately, one of them decided that my preparations were an insult. That he knew damned well how to teach the class and he didn’t need anything from me to do it. At the end of my two weeks, I didn’t want to come back, but when I asked for another week, they said no. They would not continue. By law I could have had the time; by job standards, I’d be let go: non-renewed. Until I had tenure, they could just decide I wasn’t a good “fit” and I’d lose my job.
I came back, only to find nearly my entire class of students at my office door. They told me my syllabus was too hard, they shouldn’t be required to do that much, and I needed to change things. Of course, my disgruntled colleague had stirred them up and sent them to me en masse. I had to cave to them. I had no choice. I knew that my professional life was in the hands of my tenured colleagues. The two men ran the show. My female colleague did anything they told her to. She thought they they were amazing and wonderful and she’d do anything for them. I found out how much, when she pulled something highly illegal.
At the beginning of the next semester, she called me into her office. She said she’d reviewed my evaluations for the last semester and if I didn’t pull them up, they’d have to let me go. It was code for “don’t have any more kids on our time.” I got the message loud and clear. Now you might ask why was that illegal. At that university, chairs had no power. Not to hire and fire, not to evaluate anybody, not to assign courses, nothing. They were glorified secretaries, providing a conduit between the administration and the department for disseminating information, and for doing whatever scut work the admin decided to demand. They were uncompensated for the privilege. I refused to take the ‘honor’ because were the lowest paid teachers in the nation for comparative sized and degree-granting institutions. After fifteen years there and at full tenure, I was making 52K a year. As other colleagues in other universities will note, that’s tremendously low.
But to continue on with my story . . . . My female colleague, as chair, should never have even looked at my evaluations. This wasn’t legal. Nor should she have used them to threaten my career. But she did. And I took it to heart. The next time I got pregnant, I made sure to shoot for the summer window.
The next thing that happened was in the hiring of our next colleague. When he came in, the others embraced him. He was a man, and funny, and interesting, and British. I liked him, too. But when he came in, the others shunted me aside in every possible way. I had become supremely unimportant. It burned, but what could I do? It didn’t affect my relationship with my new colleague, who I still count as a friend, as well as his very talented wife.
I can’t remember how long it was before the honeymoon ended for M. He challenged the others in some way, differed from their ideas, or otherwise broke one of their silent commandments. That started a feud that was exacerbated by the huge popularity and success of both M. and his wife. Students adored them both–and for good reason. They inspired and they involved students in ways that I still find so amazing and admirable.
At one point, one of the senior men got into a public email argument with M’s wife in which he called her “Lady Macbeth.” At any rate, it wasn’t long before the senior members tell me that M. has been non-renewed, i.e. fired. They apparently had a meeting about it, and they told me, and I quote because I distinctly remember the conversation: “We didn’t invite you because we knew you would support him and we didn’t want you to risk your tenure.” Yes, a not so veiled threat. Toe the line or get fired. By that time, I’m the sole breadwinner for my family and I have two young children. I had no choice but to comply.
It happened again to another colleague, G., though that time my senior colleagues claimed the administration had made the decision without their input. But I knew better. The administration would never have done that. Another warning.
So I kept my head down until I got tenure. Then I got mouthy.
The first issue came when I suggested bringing a writer to campus. I’d planned to take charge and make all the arrangements and such, but a senior colleague decided he was the creative writer guest guy and he just took over. I was more than angry. I complained. So began months of nasty emails from him telling me that he was a senior member of the department, I was junior, and I should behave better and so on. I took his emails to the admin who eventually put us in mediation. My colleague was stunned to hear how I viewed his behavior and apologized. That surprised me, but the damage was done. I’d been looking for a job and had asked him to be a reference (before all this started and I’d applied to this job before the situation blew up). I’d had an interview in Colorado, and when they called him, he gave them an angry reference. The only reason I even know about that was because one of the search committee members told me. I did not get that job.
So because he was angry at my uppityness, he sabotaged my career. Would have I got the job without his negative input? I’ll never know. But I do know that he knew what he did would sabotage me and he did it anyhow.
After that, the friction rose and ebbed depending on the moods of my senior colleagues. We hired in more people as others retired or left, and these people were . . . unpleasant. I’m afraid that I have a lot of respect for all people, no matter whether they have an education or not, no matter they have a Ph.D. or not. These other colleagues did not. They targeted an adjunct professor because she was so popular and because they decided she wasn’t good enough because she “only” had an MFA and of course, she was a woman. The woman thing became obvious when they chose to strongly support a male PhD adjunct–with less seniority and he was more inclined to play their game–aka, kiss their asses. I don’t blame him in the slightest–they’d made it very clear how willing they were to destroy people to get their way.
But it wasn’t just my immediate colleagues. The Vice Provost didn’t like confrontation. At all. He also tended not to obey the policies of the student handbook and the faculty contract. So on more than one occasion, students complained about their grades to him, and he would call me in and make me justify them. This, first, was against policy and illegal according to the contract, but when I went to get help, I couldn’t get any support. The recommendation was to just let it go and do whatever. Why be bothered? It’s just easier than challenging him, so go along to get along. Basically they said that I hadn’t done anything wrong, so it wasn’t a big deal.
But it was. Because he didn’t do this to any of my male colleagues. But because I was a woman, and because I didn’t cause a public stir, he came after me. I remember one advanced fiction writing class, where I’d specified certain rules in the syllabus. Two students didn’t do as they were supposed to and I docked their grades as specified in the syllabus. One got a B+, the other a B. And they complained about their grades, accusing me of not actually grading properly and I didn’t even keep track of some things. Except I did. I produced my gradebook and all the documentation. The Vice Provost had nothing to say. Nothing he could say.
To be honest, this only happened about four times, but it didn’t happen to my male colleagues whatsoever, and I knew for a fact students had complained about them. They didn’t face the same “prove yourself to me” demands as I did.
I’d also decided that I would make every effort to protect the women adjuncts in my department. I became their voices. I refused to attend faculty meetings that they weren’t invited to (something the elitests decided to do). I refused to let them run those colleagues down in front of me. I was not well liked by certain colleagues for my actions. I do not regret it. I was able to protect these talented and hardworking women on some small level, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
These weren’t the only instances where my job was threatened, or harassment in the department, but these were the major ones for me.
To be fair, this wasn’t the only reason I left. Severe toxicity entered the campus during contract negotiations in the last years and collegiality failed. The Chancellor was absent most of the time–leadership was simply a black hole. Then during negotiations, a member of the admin repeatedly said that the faculty was dispensable, that we already got paid too much for what we did, and we should be grateful for whatever they gave us. It was frustrating and demoralizing, because the rest of the admin echoed that sentiment, even while telling students we were the best faculty ever and this school was only as good as it was because of its tremendous faculty.
There were other things too, like faculty misbehaving with impunity. After I left, one professor had a restraining order against another in his department and they had to have offices in separate buildings.
Anyhow, the first seven years of my journey in academics was an exercise in fearing for my job. I swore after that that I’d never not voice my thoughts and stick up for myself again. I would always demand fairness. That caused me some problems at another job, but I don’t regret it. I was polite, but insistent on answers and holding my superiors accountable for their actions.