I spent almost two years fighting the tenure decision. By the time I received the President’s letter dated July 21, 2011 denying my appeal, 21 months had passed since I’d first submitted my tenure dossier, 13 months had passed since I’d filed my appeal, and 3 months had passed since the Committee on Faculty Relations recommended that he thoroughly reconsider the evaluation of my scholarly work.
The President’s letter came 7 months after I resigned from AU, half way through my terminal year. I didn’t have the luxury of waiting for him to make the inevitable decision to uphold the denial; I needed another job.
And it was inevitable. By that time, there wasn’t anything about the process at AU that gave me any confidence it would end any other way.
I had moments of hope earlier on, but I’m not sure that I ever really thought I’d win the fight. Still, not fighting didn’t seem like an option. Despite everything that my letters implied about me and my work, it’s just not in my nature to do less than my very best in every situation. I’m not afraid of failing, but I’m not going to do it easily.
And I wasn’t about to fucking let them get the best of me. For two years I couldn’t get the Chair’s words out of my head: “she knows the consequences of this failure.” God, what an asshole.
After I received the Dean’s letter, I hired a lawyer.
A friend recommended a firm that was familiar with AU, and its policies and procedures. This was not new terrain.
For me, though, it was so strange … and so surreal. I think it was then that it really hit me that I was going to lose my job, when I wondered what the fuck had happened over the last many years to bring me to this place across from a stranger who would represent me in a law suit. My husband and I just looked at each other, unbelieving.
The decision to sue is such an individual one. In the many years since – and particularly as I’ve been writing this blog – I’ve met many people who’ve faced the choice. Some have pursued their cases, with mixed results; many have not.
The reasons for not suing are many. The prospect of winning is a primary one, of course, and it is generally dim. Judges are reluctant to interfere in academic evaluations, and it’s difficult to prove discrimination and other wrong doing when it is subtle and can be camouflaged as merit based. Settlement might be more likely and desirable, but it depends on the goal of litigation and whether remuneration is considered a successful outcome.
The financial costs are another enormous obstacle to pursuing a lawsuit. Although contingency fees may be an option for some lawyers, the hourly price tag in the hundreds of dollars for others can be prohibitive.
And then there is the time. There are numerous steps required in the process, which might include steps at the university, and then filing with the EEOC and perhaps the state employment discrimination agency as well. If a right to sue letter is issued, then there is the inevitable dragging of feet by the employer, the effort at mediation, the submission of documents, the dragging of feet by the employer, the depositions, the dragging of feet by the employer…
The emotional toll must be enormous.
I considered all of this as carefully as I could. Winning for me was to be promoted with tenure and while the lawyer said that my case was a strong, the odds of success were still pretty low. A settlement might bring some amount of monetary compensation but probably not much. Evidently, universities believe faculty will jump at any amount of money considering the value of their normal compensation. But unless AU compensated me for the loss of the college tuition benefits I might have otherwise had for my kids, I wasn’t keen on the primary price of settling: silence.
The cost of litigating was definitely an issue, but we had savings; it wasn’t completely out of the question as it would have been for so many others. The time was something I could wrap my brain around; what was another year or two? I was starting a new job – and one that would make suing a bit awkward -- and I didn’t relish the idea of a lawsuit hanging over my head. But I’d figure out how to manage that. I had remarkable personal support and the will to fight.
Surprisingly, the prospect of the emotional toll didn’t worry me as much as it probably should have. I was exhausted but also energized; the adrenaline – and pride – required to continuously respond to the negative evaluations kept me pretty hopped up and I figured (wrongly, I’m quite sure) that I could easily withstand any additional shit that came my way.
In the end, though, none of these things worried me as much as what all of this would mean for my kids.
And I don’t mean how they’d be affected in real time. In 2010, they were 6 and 3, too little to know what was going on. We did everything we could to shelter them from the chaos, and we did it well. There were more than a few moments of short and quick tempers, many nights when I just couldn’t manage the bedtime stories, and weekends and holidays that were overwhelmed with letter writing and obsessing about the future. But despite my angst over this insult to injury, the kids were appropriately oblivious.
What I mean is, how the hell would I explain this to them? Someday they would know their mom was fired. They’d know that there were people who didn’t think I was smart enough, dedicated enough … just not enough. They’d know that I hadn’t accomplished something I’d worked very hard to achieve. They’d know I’d been beaten.
I wondered about not telling them. Ever. An appealing option, but not very realistic. They were at the center of this maelstrom because they were – and are – the center of my life. My work was worthy of tenure at AU and there would have been no question about it had I not had children.
It’s certainly true that if I’d been less distracted, less exhausted, less involved in raising my kids, I would have written more (although, not differently). If I’d been able to sleep (even) less and work late at night, to use 15 minute increments effectively, to have convenient daycare and hire additional help, I would have written more (but not differently).
But my only “failure” was being a mother – their mother – and, of course, that was no failure at all.
And I wouldn’t change a single thing. Not. A. Single. Fucking. Thing.
That’s what I’ve explained to my kids (F-bomb and all), who are now 13 and 10 and are beginning to make their own decisions, confront their own challenges, and experience their own disappointments.
If there is one thing I can teach them—one thing I know very well—it’s resilience: how to take risks, face difficulties, make hard choices, and not wallow in regret. We do the best we can, always, whatever that means at any particular time. And when that best isn’t enough to reach our goals, then we adapt. Sometimes that means making hard decisions like cutting our losses and moving on.
There will always be people who want us to fail, people who will be obstacles to our progress. Many will be exceptionally shitty, sometimes to our face, often from behind opaque processes, power, privilege. Some of them we’ll be able to see; many more will be hiding in anonymity, cowards whose false sense of confidence comes from attacking ours. All of them will think they’re better than us, they will act as if they have some special insight and know us better than we know ourselves.
Their goal will be to make us doubt ourselves, and they’ll succeed at times.
But we will stand up and fight when we need to, and then we’ll walk away when it’s time to move on.
I don’t know if a lawsuit would have been successful. In my fantasies … well, let’s just say I had all kinds of ideas about what success might look like. But after nearly eight years of working my ass off and two years of doing everything I could to fight for my career, it was time to turn the page.
All I wanted was to be able to tell my kids—to show my kids—that I did my best, fought the good fight … that I knew "when to hold ‘em [and] when to fold ‘em." (1)
And I did.
(1) Schlitz, Don. (1976). The Gambler [Recorded by Kenny Rogers]. On The Gambler [Record]. United Artists (1978).