Collateral Damage 2/19/19

By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.

Tenure is a big deal. A newly hired professor has typically five years to prove their worth, often required to obtain grants and publish papers, although some institutions have different goals for tenure. The professor then puts together an application for tenure, which is reviewed by the faculty and upper administration. You may have heard the expression, “all of your eggs in one basket”, and that applies. If the professor successfully demonstrates themselves to be a significant asset to the institution, they are granted tenure. This nearly guarantees a position for the rest of their life (barring anything truly stupid like violation of law). If the professor fails, they are typically given one more one-year contract, then must leave the institution. It makes, or breaks, an entire career.

The year that I applied for tenure, a student came to visit me in my office in tears. Apparently, a professor from the college of business had asked her if it was true that she was having an affair with me. Of course, she was not, but when she inquired where he had heard the rumor, he said that the source was one of my “colleagues” in my own college of natural sciences.

It’s not easy being a single male professor, especially when teaching a course in an unpopular subject like chemistry. Throughout my career, I have had to deal with rumors, some of which originated from students upset with their grades. Unfortunately, it’s far more entertaining to believe the rumors than consider that it might be untrue. The most significant investigation into these rumors yielded the conclusion that there was “no evidence to substantiate the claims.”

Honestly, it’s fine if people want to lash out at me. I’ve certainly paid the price for these smear campaigns which have dogged me for my entire career, but what really bothers me is that student, sitting in my office tearfully telling me about the damage to her reputation.

Many years ago, a radio station was involved in a radio marathon to raise money for a charity. People would call in “challenges” to be read on the air. I called in my pledge, and challenged my students; if they liked me, I challenged them to match my pledge, and if not, to pledge more. I’ve had my rivalries in the past, but instead of trying to tear my targets down, I used these rivalries to build myself up and outshine them. When I was a senior in high school, one of my fellow students laughed at me when I suggested I wanted to follow chemistry as a career. When I think of him now, I can’t help but smile.

But the approach of undermining people causes collateral damage. The rumor my “colleague” started about me hurt a student. I successfully obtained tenure despite her attempts, but this student’s college experience was tarnished because this professor, who was supposed to be there for the benefits of the students, caused collateral damage. This I cannot forgive.

At my most recent position as dean, I had a few faculty who did the same thing. They decided that I needed to go before I had even begun, and embarked on a campaign to discredit me using half-truths and some flat-out lies. This time, though, the campaign did succeed. The irony, though, is that the collateral damage ended up back on the faculty themselves.

Today, there is still no dean for the school I had represented. The final act that ended up terminating my contract was when I stood up to protect my faculty. The provost had violated school policy in the tenure procedure, which I pointed out through appropriate channels.

Today, there is still no replacement for me. The dean filling in for my former duties will, no doubt, set his personal priority for his own faculty and college over mine. This means less or no representation in upper administration meetings, and lackluster or no willingness to step up on behalf of the faculty. It has come to my attention that the budget for my former school had been cut by over eighty percent, and the school of the dean representing my former school had a budget increase by a factor of about four or five.

I wish I could say that karma always kicks in, but sadly, it doesn’t. The professor I spoke of earlier continued working, and has only recently retired and probably never once considered the consequences of her actions or regretting any of it. At the police department, there were two people involved in a similar campaign. One was terminated shortly after I was let go (on the day that my replacement was not named to be him, as a matter of fact), but the other got married, and moved into a similar position in another state.

Ultimately, I guess we all have to decide on how we live our lives. Personally, I would rather build myself up rather than tear others down. It seems to be antithetical to the way our society works, and it has cost me heavily. But in the end, I’m happy that I’ve helped people out, and feel that my journey has made be a better person than I would have been had I taken the other pathway. My accomplishments, and my failures, are my own, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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