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How I Learned the Value of the AAUP

By Galen Leonhardy

One light illuminated the office, a soft-white bulb within the yellowed burlap-upholstered confines atop a standing lamp. Five of us gathered in one place. To my left and behind me stood our vice president of instruction and acting president, a former math teacher and colleague recently promoted from a dean’s position to vice president of instruction shortly after organizing with exuberance a school-wide painting spree that never reached its completion: one hallway of faculty offices still shows an inch or so of unpainted space between the ceiling and dark-wood. Everywhere else in that hallway had been whitewashed. And there are uncounted hallways and entryways all over our small campus still waiting for orange or green paint. She had just replaced the second president in a row to leave the school for “medical” reasons.

To my right and in front of me stood my academic dean — a former music teacher and practicing trumpet player then charged with overseeing the Department of Humanities, Languages, and Journalism, which included English and reading teachers, but, as of this year, longer includes a full-time foreign-language professor. In front of him and sitting was the chair of my department, a long-bearded philosopher who dressed in handmade Civil War era work clothing and who spoke often of and wrote emails noting his ongoing use of prescribed morphine. To the left and just behind the vice president’s empty chair sat my union president... for obvious reasons.

Like many academics, my reading included labor-related works, but none of my coursework had prepared me for this. I had been reading Giroux’s work for a few decades. Students learned labor history in my humanities class. But, when push came to shove, nothing prepared me when I finally realized that my administrators had crossed the line separating healthy academic interactions and unhealthy forms of domination enforced by the power of business law.

I had not really paid much attention to the AAUP and had no idea really that my academic workplace conditions could deteriorate to the point where resistance was necessary. I knew “things” were happening to academics in other institutions, but those things all seemed so distant from my academic realities. So, when our administrators so thoroughly transformed from supportive to sadistic, it seemed to happen overnight. One day, everything was functioning smoothly. The faculty senate members were part of the everyday interactions and collaborated fairly well with school administrators. The union had a contract that allowed for clarity in terms of workplace processes and expectations. We were all working to support student learning.

The next day came, and I was somehow caught up in an administrative web looking at a horrendous sadistic beast that had wrapped me up and would soon be sucking from me the very stuff that kept me alive. The reality, of course, was that the process had been years in the making. And the reality is that there had been hints of the oncoming transformation that we might have better seen and prepared for had we been paying attention to the AAUP.

I think I realized things were really amiss not too long after I started openly questioning the community college’s dual credit (high school classes counting as both high school and college credit) program. A colleague, the advisor for the school paper, told me the student reporters discovered the administration had not been following the Illinois (110 ILCS 27) Dual Credit Quality Act. The student reporters, while doing a routine story on dual credit, discovered inconsistent responses from administrators. Rather than shying away from the story, my colleague helped the reporters learn how to ask difficult questions. The administrators started refusing to comment, choosing instead to rely on avoidance and an intermittent banter of half-truths. My friend showed the student reporters how to file FOIA requests, which revealed the administration did not have documentation showing how state laws were being met.

Letters were written by myself and other faculty members. Senate representatives responded with a series of internal discussions that culminated in interviews with administrators. Still, the administration would not budge in terms of admitting that state laws were being violated, and then our faculty senate members let the ball drop, so a few of us chose another path. I don’t think I realized how serious things were even at that point. Each escalation in the process kept showing me how powerless faculty members were to call administrative impropriety into question, but I don’t think I really believed that administrators actually had that much power. I really could not believe the administrators could violate state law with impunity.

Abandoned by our union representatives and abandoned by our faculty senate colleagues, we collaboratively authored letters to the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) representatives and to the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB) members in charge of the dual credit programs. Two of my colleagues and I were offered a phone interview with ICCB representatives. In order to give the upper-level administrators opportunity to respond, I purposefully revealed to lower-level administrators that my colleagues and I would be chatting with the ICCB representatives. About three days before the interview, I received an email summons to meet with the vice president of instruction, who refused to explain why we were meeting.

That’s how I had ended up in the dimly lit room surrounded by what is referred to at my academic institution, in militaristic terms, as our chain of command.

The vice president of instruction (not then technically the college’s president, though later promoted to the position) put the school counseling center’s pamphlet on a faux wood table. With her fingertips resting on the glossy pamphlet like a ouija planchette, she slid it toward me, to a place just beyond my reach, saying in an icy tone, “We are deeply worried about your current emotional state. You are happy one moment and then sad the next.”

I laughed. I really laughed. A deep, authentic belly laugh. This was the same person who knew about my book and article publications and who had asked me about developmental teaching strategies and methods of reducing costs while increasing support for students. The vice president paused and then said, “Oh, you laugh, but we are serious.” She moved past me, leaving the glossy pamphlet just out of my reach, and sat down in a chair to my left and in front of where my union president silently hunched over a yellow legal notebook.

A collective silence followed. From behind my department chair’s seat, the dean, who would later serve as acting vice president of education, said, “I hear ya sing and dance in the classroom. Ya aren’t doing that now, are ya?”

I just looked at him. It’s true: I sing and dance in my classrooms as a pedagogical tool. In order to communicate the idea that adverbial structures often move and can be identified because of that characteristic, I do what I call the adverb dance. And I sing traditional Nez Perce Indian songs in my humanities classes, songs the chair of my department described in an email correspondence as caterwauling after being asked why he had (after more than twelve years of past lessons, often in the same room) pounded on the walls of my classroom while students were singing. All I could do was stare at the dean because, as a former marine, I knew that what I really wanted to say should be kept to myself. When you’re called on the carpet, you keep your emotions in control. You speak the truth. So I did not reply to his taunting.

Then it was my chair’s turn. With the voice of a man barely able to force a whisper, he let me know that my psychological condition was deeply troubling. I asked if he realized that his philosophy degree hardly put him in a position to hand out a psychiatric diagnosis. Again, a hush fell across the dimly lit room. My chair scratched at the cheek somewhat hidden under his belly-length white beard. The vice president commented on something I have since forgotten.

There was another silence, and then the chair asked what degree I held. I said I had a master’s degree in rhetoric and composition theory. The chair asked me how that degree made me any more qualified than he to know my own psychological condition. I scoffed, saying, “The voices in my head tell me I’m just fine.” Just to make it clear, I don’t hear voices in my head beyond the kind of voice many hear when reading or thinking.

I don’t recommend that others say something similar in such a situation. Every time I tell a lawyer what I said, the lawyer gets worried and tells me I should never have said such a thing.

My union president said nothing. She just kept taking notes. Fortunately, my administrators were not prepared enough to recognize the mistake I made in responding to the chair’s taunting. After the meeting, the union president told me that my approach to questioning the administration about its lack of adherence to state law was the same as the strategy used by Tea Party leaders in response to Obama administration proposals.

After the taunting ceased, the vice president got to the point. “So is it true that you are going to have a phone conversation with ICCB representatives?” I confirmed I would be doing so. She wanted to know with whom, specifically, I would be speaking. The names escaped me. She quizzed me on a few of her other concerns about the phone conference and let me know I was not allowed to represent the college in any way. I remember smiling and nodding as she lectured me, and I remember letting her know that it would be perfectly acceptable with me if she wanted to participate in the conversation. At first she agreed, but then said the notification did not provide her enough time to prepare.

Silence once again fell across the darkened room.

I asked, “Is that all? Are we done now?” Soon after, the meeting was dismissed.

That was near the end of the spring semester 2014. By that summer, an online class I taught was taken away from me without notification; I was told in an email that if I continued to question the loss of that class, the chair would take away other classes to keep me from “burnout.” My colleague who had advised the student newspaper retired that semester and the president of the college board, likely in violation of state law, denied emeritus status, saying that my colleague had acted inappropriately as advisor and, therefore, needed to be punished. The next fall, students in my basic writing class were given a departmental barrier examination in the fourth week of an eight-week class, an examination that was normally completed in the sixth and seventh weeks. I let the chair know that I would not support that sort of high-stakes practice. The next eight-week class was given the barrier examination in the third week of class.

Early that same summer, I drafted a version of what you have just read (above) and posted it as a Facebook note. In the fall of 2014, the chair reported I had written a draft of the essay. I received a letter from human resources telling me to remove Facebook notes with writing from a specific date as well as any other material I might have ever written that might be considered a violation of privacy. No specific titles were provided then nor later when I met with the director of human resources.

I chose to take down all of my Facebook notes (drafts of essays, poems, editorials written for the local newspaper, everything), change my user name, and put my privacy settings on “friends only.” I then removed every friend from the local area where I teach. While the investigation progressed, the AAEO verbally commanded me to report any blogs I kept. I confessed to having one blog with around 600 entries and more than 15,000 viewers worldwide. The AAEO told me I was to take down any posts that might contain violations of privacy. I chose to take down the entire blog in order to avoid any possibility of violation. After about four months of investigations, I was found guilty in the spring of 2015 of violating the zero tolerance for harassment and terrorism in the workplace policy. Specifically, I was charged with being a perceived threat and harassing authority for reasons that could not be revealed to me. I was then banished from the floor of the building where the department holds meetings and sentenced to psychotherapy for an undisclosed behavior pattern in order to achieve undefined outcomes.

My assigned psychotherapist called to find out what I did and what needed to be changed. She was told that information could not be revealed beyond the notion that I had developed a change in behavior that needed to be modified.

This fall, 2015, the community college was in the newspapers for making changes to the dual credit program. Specifically, the administrators had magically discovered that teachers in the district did not actually have required credentials needed to teach dual credit. That, however, was just one aspect of the program that FOIAs showed to be in violation of state law. It is within reason to think the school is still not actually in compliance with state law, though it is nearly impossible to know for sure as there is no real transparency. There are other issues as well. According to the faculty member charged with direct supervision of one dual credit program, some high school students had not been paying for dual credit classes. At our school, high school students were paying forty-five dollars per course when the school paper investigated. That price was increased since then. Regardless, the students who were not paying ended up getting a free ride as no money can be collected after the fact, nor can degrees be retracted. So who knows how much money the dual credit program has cost the college over the years? And then there are so many other questions. Basically, the dual credit program still appears plagued by obfuscation and fabrication.

In the end, it appears that business law allows the administration the liberty to punish faculty members who question administrators, point out violations of state law, and write truthfully. The key — no harm was done. Specifically, the administration did not cause me or my colleague economic harm. I contacted six or so lawyers, none of whom would take the case. Several helped me in terms of selecting the proper wording relating to the administration’s not meeting the burden of proof and in terms of the administration’s quelling of my First Amendment rights. One lawyer said that because I had commented on the chair’s prescribed drug use and had posted my essay drafts on Facebook that the case could not be defended. Another said that for about 3,000 dollars, she could get an injunction filed that would keep the school from continuing to violate my First Amendment rights. Beyond that, finding lawyers who will explain to me what has happened and how what my colleague and I experienced was orchestrated has not yet happened.

I’ll confess to having given up calling legal representatives in the spring of 2015. There were a couple who charged around 400 dollars an hour who said they would chat with me if I paid, but I have a kid studying astrophysics at Berkeley, and I decided her needs outweighed my desire and ability to pursue the matter in the courts. In the spring of 2016, the president of the college board paid the school lawyer for studying Roberts’ Rules in order to find a rule that allowed the board president to reject a motion to revisit my colleague’s emeritus denial and have another discussion and vote on the matter. Obviously, there is no way I could ever compete financially.

The reasons I have penned this essay are twofold. First, it’s a warning related to academic labor issues. If administrators at a small college in Illinois can do such things to me and my colleague (in addition to charging the faculty senate president with violations for asking the senate members to discuss one dean’s acceptance of gifts that exceeded the college board’s limits), then administrators all over the country can do such things to academics who question policies, who question administrative actions, who question compliance with state law, or who have the audacity to write essays or voice their opinions about workplace-related issues on Facebook or in blogs. As faculty, my colleagues and I had no idea that business law allowed administrators so much power. We thought we could post our thoughts on Facebook or in the form of blogs. As it turns out, that is not necessarily the case as long as the administration does not cause economic harm, and my hunch is that what happened at my school is but an echo of what’s happening nationally.

Second, it is my hope to convey what so many already realized and what it would have helped me to know: we need unions and lawyers and the desire to stand up for our rights and the will to support those who are standing up for their rights. The AAUP continues to make public announcements and disseminate information about folks all over the country who are doing what it takes to strengthen academic freedom and labor rights.

Like all American workers, I have no overt quest to lose my position, no desire of returning to poverty, no desire to rob my children of the health benefits won by past unionists who put their lives on the line while resisting domination. Those unionists, like others who fought the power of legislated interferences with the content of public education in all its myriad forms, had to face domination by working hard, by sticking together, and by being smart. We owe a great debt to those past unionists, and, consequently, a compelling moral obligation exists. We owe it to those past unionists to keep up the fight so future generations of academics and other laborers will have healthy working conditions.

Hopefully, this essay helps other scholars, so they do not have to learn the hard way. I still don’t quite know what happened to me and my colleague or how the administrators gained the authority they appear to have. I survived the Kafkaesque process and did not lose my job. And I have not stopped questioning the autocratic administrators who govern education and workplace interactions where I teach, though I am learning to think before I act.

There are significant indicators that let us know when to wait or not to wait when making a stand. Information from the AAUP has helped me to not make the mistakes I made the first time I challenged my autocratic administrators. If we are to strengthen our collective rights, the very least we can do is disseminate the content offered by the AAUP. The first place we can do that is on our Facebook pages. In our own workplaces, we need to support those brave enough to take a stand. The least we can do is help those taking a stand by doing the research that helps our colleagues know what they can or cannot do and what administrators can or cannot do.

Again, disseminating materials provided by the AAUP is a great way to increase collective strength. We also need to monitor autocratic administrators who are willing to use business law to limit what we write and where we write or to limit our ability to question and share in the governance of our academic workplaces. I promise that such autocratic educational administrators make mistakes. They violate laws, and when they do, we need to be watching, be informed, and be willing to act.

There’s the rub of real academic responsibility in terms of labor issues, and, thanks to the AAUP, I am learning the realities of what it takes to be part of the resistance movement. To engage, to resist creatively, to question systematically, to face the adversity of administrative and legislative domination with laughter, to strive for equity, fairness, and quality, to be filled with hope, to know the laws and past precedent, these are the keys of our resistance, and I am grateful that the AAUP leads the way in making those keys available to all of us who have discovered that there is a need to resist.