Sweet Rumors 10/15/19

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Rumors have haunted me my entire life. Bashful and quiet through school, I never knew how to socialize, and was more or less an outcast throughout school. And my career?

Here’s the setup. I was always a single male professor. Today, I’m an older single male professor at an all-women’s college. Yeah, there are going to be rumors, and always one of the same two.

So, either I’m having an affair with a student, or, I’m homosexual. And it doesn’t matter what the truth is. People love to believe rumors, not the truth. We don’t like wasting our time trying to find the truth, especially if the rumor is SO much more interesting. The truth is, no, I never had an affair with a student. And, no, not that it matters (especially in this day and age), but neither am I homosexual. Does it matter?

When I was applying for tenure, a colleague (no less) started a rumor. Tenure, in case you are not aware, is the ultimate “all your eggs in one basket” proverbial situation. If you are successful and granted tenure, then you are more or less guaranteed a position for the rest of your life, provided, of course, that you don’t do something illegal or monumentally stupid. If you fail to get tenure, typically (as was the case for me) you are given one more one-year contract to try to find a new job, and like it or not, the university boots you out.

As such, it was particularly painful to discover that my “colleague” had gone to another professor in the same university but at a different college, and started the rumor that I was having an affair with a student. I know who started it, because this particular professor knew the student involved, and elected to call her into his office to have a frank discussion to see if the rumor was true, and he told her the story. After his office, she sat, weeping, in mine.

Rumors hurt. I try to avoid them. In fact, students came to me earlier that year about this particular professor to ask if it were true the SHE was having an affair with a student. I defended her honor. Not only did I tell them that, no, as a professional she would not let that happen, but I also asked them to backtrack and tell anybody else involved in spreading the rumor that it was not true.

But, apparently, I was an easy target for this professor.

If rumors are such a part of who we are, why can’t they be sweet? It’s funny, but I don’t recall anybody telling rumors about former president Jimmy Carter building houses, or donating to charities like the Shriner’s Hospital for Children. I guess if it’s not scandalous, it’s not a rumor worth telling. Of course, I’m sure that he would also be happy to confirm the work he has done (and rightfully so), so it wouldn’t be much of a rumor. “How could you build all of those houses?” “Because they were needed.” End of story.

Maybe rumors should have a humorous twist. Wouldn’t that be better than the nasty twist rumors that are SO common? I had a student assistant in lab who was working with me before he had his first year of chemistry. I was careful with what I assigned to him, and he was very good at what he did and because of his experience, he decided to take chemistry as a major. We got to know each other pretty well, and at one point he told me that, when he was taking first year chemistry, one of the students asked him if I was gay. Yup, it was the homosexual professor rumor year. Knowing my sense of humor, he replied, “yes, yes he is.” He went on to tell me how the rumor backfired, though, because as the rumor of my sexual orientation spread, the immediate follow-up rumor was that this student was, in fact, my lover.

So, I guess it was a year for BOTH rumors.

Of course, the real downside to being a single male professor is that it makes you very vulnerable to rumor based attacks, especially by female students, that have wanted to get you fired. Yes, I have been subjected to this as well, several times, and have even been investigated for it. These investigations always yielded the same results; no evidence of impropriety, which is the only conclusion a legitimate investigation could give since there never has been. But, again, the rumors are so much more interesting than truth, and as strange as it sounds, I’ve had administrators try to hold me responsible despite investigations that cleared me. One of the strangest “offers” I received was from a president who offered to remove the investigation from my file if I simply write an apology for what I had done. Yes, you read that right; he was “willing” to remove the investigation absolving me of wrongdoing for a written confession. And no, I didn’t fall for it, and I told him how insulting it was that he thought I was such an idiot. Sadly, once the relationship decayed to that point, it was only another year or two before I felt compelled to leave anyway. If the administration wants you gone badly enough to try that kind of nonsense, they’ll find an excuse eventually anyway.

The next time a juicy rumor comes your way, remember there are real people on the other end. Think carefully about what you will do with that rumor.

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