I was fired from my first tenure track job. That was 2002. February.
A month after the Twin Towers crumbled, my first tenure track job, a job that I had only been in for about 2 months also began to crumble. I had received a hate letter in my university mailbox, written on a departmental letterhead, sealed in an envelope asking me to leave.
So I shared the letter with my department chair (who was also a faculty of color). Upon seeing my letter she shared with me that she had been receiving cut outs of job postings from The Chronicle of Higher Education in her mailbox ever since she had joined the department. “Women and minorities encouraged to apply” was often highlighted.
So I took my hate letter and shared it with the Dean of Liberal Arts and requested that an investigation be conducted. Given that there were threats in the letter, I also requested that the locks in my office be changed.
Needless to say, nothing happened. It was already December.
So I asked the Dean if I should contact the FBI and have them investigate the matter. After all, receiving hate mails on stamped departmental letterheads is a federal crime.
Upon hearing this, within two weeks, the department put an ad-hoc committee together and did not renew my contract for the following year. My department chair was not on board. Later, the Dean removed my department chair from her “chair” position without following any due process.
I came back to a safe space.
I moved on.
I learned what happens when you complain.
I learned what happens when you are untenured and complain.
I learned what happens when you are a woman of color and complain.
I learned that universities are not always obligated to follow “due process.”
I learned that they are powerful enough to get away.
I learned that I had the potential to be a damn good lawyer.
But I just did not leave. I filed a grievance against the department.
I learned a lot about my constitutional protections, EEOC procedures, AAUP guidelines and academic freedom and “due process” as spelled out in faculty handbooks.
In my grievance hearing a colleague that had left a couple years ago testified. In his testimony he named the colleagues from within the department that could have written my “hate letter.”
I learned that this was the regular practice of the old guards to threaten faculty who they deemed progressive.
I learned that some of them were active supporters of the KKK.
And then this colleague that testified said something quite remarkable to me:
“Being fired is probably the best thing that could have happened to you. You get to leave. Only the healthy ones gets to leave this place. The rest stay and become a part of the cancer.”
Years later, I ran into an old colleague (who had also left by then). She told me that six more junior faculty left. ALL of the faculty of color left. She told me that as a result of my grievance the university investigated the department and named it as one of the most dysfunctional departments on campus.
The department, however, did not think that they had any problems.
Five years passed by. By then I had landed another tenure track job in another institution. I was happy. My new colleagues were nothing like my old colleagues. They knew my past. They knew my story. They thought I was brave.
I received tenure in 2007. I was finally ready to throw away my entire file that contained all that grievance materials. It was like an encyclopedia. It was toxic. I wanted to burn it.
So before I threw it away, I took one last look at these pages that contained my past, my scars, their audacity, their power, their capacity for abuse. My eyes finally rested on a page that contained a brief email from the Dean. In that email he had written to me that he did not find that there was reasonable cause to prompt an investigation about the hate letter I had received.
I wanted to know if this Dean was still the Dean. So I googled him.
What I found was an obituary. I learned that the Dean and his wife were taking a vacation in the Bahamas and he had drowned.
After all those years I was finally able to throw away my grievance file. I was saved.