Friday, April 22, 2011

Codes of Silence

cross-posted from Dagblog

There's sad news from Princeton where a lecturer who was apparently in danger of losing his job has taken his own life. That's a terrible thing.

A number of his students (and other supporters) are campaigning to make Princeton explain more about the events preceding his death, and especially about the danger that he was about to lose his job. That is a very understandable desire. On the other hand, Princeton is very unlikely to do any such thing unless it's in response to a subpoena, and they're right. That will make Princeton look secretive and authoritarian and inhumane, but Princeton will just have to take it.

Nothing could be less humane than Princeton defending itself at the dead man's expense. If Princeton did wrong here, it's not going to fix that by smearing the man in the newspapers. And if they were in the process of firing poor Antonio Calvo for some legitimate cause, they won't comfort his mourners by announcing that cause at his funeral. Whatever the facts, he deserves a better elegy than that.

When I was a doctoral student, a brilliant and well-liked assistant professor was turned down for tenure in the department. (Actually, that happened more than once, but this time was particularly unfortunate and surprising.) So the graduate students asked for a meeting with the department chair and graduate chair, to get an explanation. Why did N not get tenure?

That was an awkward meeting, of course, and also a frustrating one, because the department chair and graduate chair could not tell us. And I, like many of my classmates, saw pretty quickly that they really couldn't. What were they going to say? Were they going to run N down to the grad students, adding insult to injury? Were they going to publicize the reasons for denial while N was trying to find another job, and thereby add real injury to injury? That's the kind of thing that gets you sued, because it's unnecessary and wrong. Whether the department had been right or wrong about the tenure case, N deserved at least a fair shot at a continued career, which definitely couldn't happen if the old school was talking about N's shortcomings in public. And there was no good to be achieved by trying to talk graduate students out of their respect and affection for N. Who would stoop so low?

Now, it's easy to view closed deliberations as secretive and opaque. Some people call for greater transparency in things like the tenure process, arguing that confidentiality leads to abuses without accountability. It's definitely true that there have been some injustices done behind closed doors in the academy (some of which, although done in secret, became notorious), and decisions without any accountability at all really would invite abuses. But there is a crucial distinction between transparency and publicity. The reason behind N's tenure decision was not a secret. It was confidential. The difference is that N knew the reasons, and knew who had made the decision; the process was transparent to the party concerned. The general public did not need to know the grisly details. Making everything public, including every slighting word said during the process, would have left N without any protection of confidentiality at all and caused material damage to N's subsequent career.

(For the record, N swiftly got an excellent new job, published a new book, and won a big prize for it. So I still hold that we were right about N and that the people who made that tenure decision blew it. But then, I didn't read N's file.)

The one thing the department and grad chair were never, ever going to do, although some of us might have been hoping for this deep in our hearts, was to say that they had done him wrong. They weren't going to sit there with their graduate students and say, "We confess! We railroaded N out of the job! We did it because we're evil!" Of course not. They didn't think that they had railroaded him, and certainly didn't consider their own motives wicked. (And if they had, would they confess?) "Tell us why N did not get tenure," is not just one unanswerable question, but two. It asks for reasons that cannot be shared (in part for N's sake), and it also asks for consolation and validation. When we asked that question, part of what we meant was absolutely, "We want you to admit that N has been done wrong." We were upset, and we wanted to hear someone sufficiently powerful tell us that what had happened was not right.

Something similar, I think, is behind the insistence that Dr. Calvo's death be "explained." His friends and students need to hear a valediction for him, to hear that he was done wrong. That Calvo lost his life, rather than merely suffering a brief career setback like N's, makes his friends' and students' needs much greater. On some level, I suspect many of them want to hear a public statement that says, "Princeton treated Antonio Calvo unfairly, and we hounded him to his death." And Princeton will never say that. No one would.

Something clearly went very, very wrong, although I'm not eager to know what it was. Calvo was undergoing a routine reappointment review, but it seems clear that Dr. Calvo was removed from his duties with a few weeks left in the semester, in a way that suggests that Princeton had not adequately prepared for someone to take over his courses. That is very peculiar. Clearly, that was not the outcome of the performance review. No matter whether Calvo was getting a new contract or not, he wasn't going to be fired two weeks before classes ended, with all of his final grading left to do. No one at a college gets fired two weeks before exams if anyone can possibly help it.

So something very unfortunate happened. If the sudden relief from duty was a result of Calvo's behavior, or perhaps his health, then there are excellent reasons for Princeton to offer him all the tactful decency they can manage. If such a sudden suspension was unwarranted, it was outrageous, since the step was so extreme and since it came at a clear cost to students' education. But if someone actually committed any misconduct, no lobbying campaign will reveal it. If someone was trying to terminate Dr. Calvo wrongly, the only way to discover that will be through the discovery process in a lawsuit. Universities don't become "accountable" for their misdeeds by voluntarily admitting them; they are actively held accountable through due process. And if the truth of Dr. Calvo's untimely death does not reflect badly on anyone else, it should be forgotten with his burial. The evil that men do lives after them, and the good is oft interred with their bones, but shouldn't it be the other way?

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