First Male Voice
First Male Voice
He fantasizes about harming the first female voice.
I'll find you there
in your dreams
you can't hide
I'll be there
in your dreams
Your eyes closed
you'll see my face
I'll be there
You'll wake in sweats
you'll see my face
You'll try to run
in the dark
In the street
I'll find you there
in the dark
When you're awake
I'll be so sweet
I'll tell your friends
We're goin away
We'll be alone
far, far from here
When you're asleep
I'll have you there
When you're asleep
February 7, 2017
There’s this quote about academic life. This saying. I’ve heard it attributed to everyone from Henry Kissinger to George Santayana. I never bothered to track down its origin. It starts with a question, “Why is infighting in academic life so nasty?” The answer is, “Because so little is at stake.” There’s some truth in that. I remember, way back in my grad school days, being amazed that two distinguished, accomplished profs would fight over a half a research assistant or an office with a few extra square feet. You could, of course, answer the question in different ways, which would be just as true, if not quite as catchy. “Because everyone thinks he’s smart and wants to prove it by being really sneaky.” Or, “Because people are fighting over intellectual property, rather than anything tangible, which is harder to defend.” Or, “Because academic life doesn’t have clear markers of success.”
We’re a bitter lot. We set ourselves up to fail. If we were lawyers, we would probably be satisfied with being one of the top hundred lawyers in some average city. But we’re scholars, and we expect to be one of the top ten people in our field in the world. We fail. By these standards, most of us fail. We become bitter. And bitter people fight nasty, and they don’t like to lose.
So, as you might already suspect, it’s been a bad week. A stressful week. I’m sure that’s why I’ve been philosophizing about academic life. Maybe I'm trying to understand some looming, vague threat. It seems as if demons are among us.
There’s a tension on campus. Something—I’m not sure what—is happening behind the scenes. For maybe a couple of weeks now, I have felt it in meetings. No one talks about it, but you can see tension on the faces of the vice chancellors and others who are on the inside. They seem exhausted, defeated. Some of it is clearly related to whatever has been going on in Political Science. It’s coming to a head, not sure why. But there has to be other things going on. You can feel its effects, even if you don’t see the cause, like seeing a splash on the surface of the water, so you know there’s something down there.
I’ve worked for three deans in the past twelve years as a chair. A handful of times—maybe not even a handful, three that I can remember—the dean’s administrative assistant called me to set up an appointment at “my earliest convenience.” They always use this phrase, as if they went through the same training, as if I had any choice in the matter, as if they wanted to work around my schedule. This really means, clear out your schedule and get over here now. They never tell you what the meeting is about. It is never about anything good. It’s always about a serious issue, and your day is getting ready to turn to shit.
It is a little like being in a dream, a normal dream, and then from some direction, some area without significance, you are assaulted, surprised and beaten, and you realize, at some point, even in this place of shadows, that this person, the one who came from nowhere, is someone you’ve know, someone who had never been a threat, not a friend, but not a threat. And then everything changes. You see danger in every sound, every creak of a floorboard.
On Tuesday, I got the call at 9:14 am. On my cell. So, it would be a 9:14 am day. I may not have ever told you about this, but I gauge my days by the hour and minute that the first serious problem drops on my desk. A 3:49 day is a pretty good day. A 9:14 day is pretty bad day. A problem generates other problems, cascading into something that becomes a force of its own. It’s like that Yeats poem about Cuchulain drawing his sword to fight back the “invulnerable tide.” You can wade into the ocean, slice into waves with your sword, wear yourself to the bone, accomplish nothing, or let it wash over you. To slaughter the waves, that's clearly futile. To let the waves bash you about, what is that? Something better, I guess.
This is the struggle. The truth is that even serious problems tend to remain unsolved and are often forgotten in a few days, until they circle around again in a few months. You fix what you can, and you let the rest of it wash over you and hope you can regain your footing.
So on Tuesday, by 9:16 am, upon my earliest convenience, I was heading to the dean’s office. When I arrived, I was asked to sit. I sat for over forty minutes. Then I was invited in and gestured to sit in a new place, across from the dean's desk—not invited so much, gestured, without any eye contact. It was now 9:56, more or less. These meetings are usually short and direct. The message is usually, here’s how you screwed up, here’s what you need to do to make it less bad, don’t do it again, get out of my office. I expected to be on my way by 10:11, reduced to feeling like a bad little boy for something I may not have caused and didn’t have the power or resources to fix. But the dean sat there staring at his coffee, not seeming to know how to start.
I was trying to think of some way to divert his attention once the dean started on his dressing down. I was thinking about how Kellyanne Conway diverted attention from the Muslim ban by talking about the Bowling Green Massacre, a made-up event where some Muslim immigrant supposedly killed some people. I could tell him I was ill. Someone close to me had just died, again. I'm having trouble with my computer. Losing files. What would divert this dean, whose natural state is to be distracted? Maybe I should just stare off into space and hum some show tune.
“You sure you don’t want some coffee?”
“No. Thanks. I’m fine. Just finished a cup.”
It was odd, his reluctance to get to the point. I don’t particularly like the man. I don’t particularly dislike him, either There is not enough of him there to evoke much feeling, one way or the other. He doesn’t like making decisions, an odd trait for a dean, who should be making a lot of decisions. The upside of his indecisiveness is that he usually leaves chairs alone, unless the provost or president pressures him to deal with a problem. I was pretty sure that was what we were dealing with. The provost or president told him to “fix it.” The “it” had something to do with me. I suspect his greatest fear was that he would tell a chair to do something and the chair would look him dead in the eye and say, “I would prefer not to.” Power can prove an illusion in the moment it is exercised.
I beat up on myself for scrapping by. I don’t think I have performed at a very high level for a long time, maybe three years, maybe four. I wonder why they haven’t invited me to step down as chair. I feel like I can’t take any pride in what I do. I am merely getting by, preventing small problems from becoming too big. Things look shiny enough on the surface. I keep most problems in the department, off the dean’s desk, out of the gaze of the provost, but I still hate myself for being so mediocre. I am sure, if some younger member of the department wanted to be chair, I would be voted out (hell, I would vote for the youngster), but no one wants the job. I am kept on, even though I am doing a crappy job, because it’s a crappy job.
But, as bad as I feel about my performance, I know I am more competent than many of the administrators on campus, including the dean. I can’t imagine the stress that an indecisive person feels when everyone looks at him and says, “Tell me what to do.” Oddly, I found myself starting to feel empathy for him. Students feel sorry for him. I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, but they do. He has a house near campus, on a street that a lot of students walk on their way to or from campus, heading to class or to their apartments. He doesn’t close his drapes, even in the evening. Students walk by and see him walking through his house like a lost street urchin, wearing nothing but boxers and slippers and a beater, carrying a drink in his hand, muttering to himself. One student told me, after he had a long meeting with the dean, some sort of complaint, that "he didn't know what was in his own pockets." That sums it up pretty well.
“Are you okay?” I finally asked him.
“Yes. Yes. Sorry. This has been a spot we’ve been in. A spot. . . . I need to ask a favor. . . . Give some advice. . . . But really ask a favor.”
“Okay.” If he weren’t such a misshapen creature, so transformed by over a decade in the dean’s office, over a decade of full-metal administration, I might have given him a hug.
“I know you know that things are amiss with the Poly Sci department,” he finally said. “I wanted to let you know that I know, and that the administration knows. Though it can’t be acknowledged publicly, there is a knowledge of things. There is a knowledge. There are actions in the offing.”
I was taken back by this odd blend of language, babbling nonsense and biblical prophecy. I was trying to figure out what he might know—what he thought I knew. I am pretty sure that Steven Thomas feeds information to the provost, probably to the dean as well. He likes to feel important, and he thinks feeding inside information about the department will help his career. I don’t know how he thinks being a sycophant to the administration is going to benefit him. He might not even calculate the long-term effects or the short-term liabilities. His motivation might be nothing more than he likes feeling important, part of the inner circle.
So, I never tell Steven anything unless I want it to go upstream, but I started to wonder what Charles might have said to him. I hoped that Charles would have better sense than to say anything to Steven, but he is so worked up right now, he might not be able to help himself.
“I have heard things,” I said. I felt uncomfortable with the long silence.
“I know you have. I appreciate that. There is a deep desire to deal with this appropriately. It will take a little time. There are certainly people who need to be protected here. Certainly. I mean students, of course. At the same time, it needs to be handled in the right way, at the right time. I wanted to assure you that it is in motion. I wanted to ask you, as I have myself been asked, to be patient and let this play out.”
I was trying to imagine what “it” and “this” were. To some degree, I have to admit, I was trying to convince myself I cared. This was like being out on a bad date, a horrible date, and I couldn’t figure out how to end it. It was just . . . confusing. And that “students” statement, thrown in, an after thought, to justify whatever he was trying to justify.
I wasn’t even entirely sure that the “things” in the “Poly Sci department” were the “things” he assumed I had heard when I said, “I have heard things.” And I was wondering how the dean would have known—or presumed—that I knew “things” or how he could be so sure that a vague reference to “things” would be clear enough. I began to wonder if he was intentionally dropping vague hints to see if I would volunteer what I knew and how I knew it. I began to regret that I had even admitted to having heard “things.” I would have been much better off pretending to be totally ignorant, which wouldn’t have been much of a stretch, especially as a gesture to a distracted dean.
“I’m not sure I understand,” I said to him, after another long, awkward pause, “but I don’t think I have a history of getting involved in the internal issues of another department. I have enough to deal with in my department.”
“I know,” the dean said. “If there were something, I would expect you to come through me.”
“Of course. I think I always have.”
This was not the meeting I was expecting. The dean should have already explained that I screwed up, if he thought I did, I should have already apologized, even if I had no responsibility in whatever happened. We should have worked through all the formalities. I should have already been walking back to my office, muttering profanity to myself. The dean should have already been writing a follow-up email, a summary of what was said, paraphrased liberally enough to prove that he exercised due diligence to thwart a potential lawsuit, or to land a fair share of the blame on me, if there were a lawsuit. It should have all been resolved, as much as anything is ever resolved in academic life. But here we were, still dancing around “things” and “it” and “this.” I wasn’t about to tell him what I knew, even though it was not much more than gossip and hearsay and hints. I certainly wasn’t going to give him names of students who had come to me in confidence.
“I’m a little confused here,” I said, moving into an expression of innocence, or maybe ignorance. That was a start. “If this is about a grade issue, I typically tell students—students from other departments—that they must speak to the chair of that department. I give them a printout of the policy. I show them the steps. That’s all.” This was a diversion. I didn’t think the “things” or the “it” or the “this,” whatever was the point of the meeting, was about the grade complaint. It was more about what that grad student said. Sam whatshername. More about the culture. More about some potential scandal the dean was trying to keep contained, keep out of the press. I did not want to be dragged into all of that.
He looked puzzled for a while, when I mentioned the grade complaint. This is good, I thought. Good that I was obscuring when he wanted clarified. Easy, risk-free clarity, without having to risk saying the wrong thing. Tacit clarity.
“It was an issue about an adjunct,” I continued. It—the grade appeal—wasn’t, of course, about an adjunct. It was about Barnes, but I wasn’t going to mention his name. I wanted to keep muddying the water. (I was, I have to admit, starting to enjoy myself a bit.) I was trying to appear like I wanted to help, without getting anywhere close to what I thought might be the real issue—the “culture” of Poly Sci, as Sam put it.
“I don’t think I should say more than that,” I went on. “I certainly don’t want to mention the adjunct’s name, or the student’s name. It’s not even in my department. The student, I can assure you, has the policy. I can assure you that I didn’t get involved, beyond giving the student the policy. I have no intention of getting involved. I can assure you of that.”
“Yes, of course. That’s good.” Another long silence, during which the dean seemed to become more uneasy. I assume he was thinking through the issue and how to address it with me during the long silences, but I wasn’t entirely sure. I’ve always wondered if the dean is hard to read or if there is actually not much going on in there.
“Do you know Bess Abbott?” Out of the blue, he asked this. I told him I knew her, she was one of my advisees, one of our majors, a good student. Only that. He never gave me any sense of why he asked. My mind started racing. I was wondering what Bess had done to get the attention of a dean.
There was another long pause.
I decided to look down and start counting the floor tiles so I wouldn’t feel the need to jump in with more information that I shouldn’t be sharing.
“Is there anything else?” I wanted to try to end the meeting, if I could. This was not my place. I should have continued to sit, quietly, waiting for him to speak.
“No. Well, one thing. Just make sure the faculty in your department understand that . . . Just make sure . . . We want everyone on the same page.”
“Certainly,” I said, with my most sincere voice, without having any clear idea of what he was talking about. If you want everyone on the same page, you usually make it clear what’s on the page. My God. What bullshit.
I was under no illusion that the meeting had gone well, for either of us, but probably better for me. It was as fuzzy and vague as any meeting I had ever attended. But a few things were clear. Someone above the dean—the provost, the president, a member of the board, could even be the governor—knew “things” and was worried. Someone was trying to do damage control. Whoever that someone was, that person, or persons, felt that my department—me, or someone in my department, I would assume Charles—was going to cause trouble. The dean was charged with getting the problem under control—maybe, “under cover” is more accurate—by issuing a vague threat, which he couldn’t quite pull off. If he is even more incompetent than I imagine, he will go back to that person and say that I don’t know anything, so don’t worry, and that he gave me instructions anyway, and he was sure things would stay put. If he is smarter than I think, who knows, maybe he is, he would assume I knew what he was suggesting, circling about, that I was diverting, that I would not play along, which makes me the threat, or makes me the person protecting the person who is the threat. As I was walking back to my office, this was all running through my head. It’s going to unravel in a public way, I kept thinking. People are going to get hurt.
As soon as I was back in the department, I looked for Charles. Then, I tried calling him. His cell went straight to voicemail. His inbox was full. I have never known his inbox to be full. He just doesn’t get that many calls. He doesn’t even like cell phones. Or any kind of phones. I remember thinking, It must already be happening. Things must already be out of control. Beyond repair. I sent him an email that only said I really needed to talk to him soon. I didn’t want anything about my meeting with the dean in writing. I called Lincoln Wray and some of Charles’ other friends. No one, the ones I could reach, had spoken to him. No one knew where he was. I have been calling his cell every hour. Always straight to voicemail. It’s almost been a day now, and nothing.
I’m not sure what to do but wait. I don’t feel like I can do anything when I don’t really know what I am dealing with. Since the meeting, I’ve had this growing sense of dread. Maybe it’s more helplessness. I haven’t felt this way since things were very bad with my wife. There was a period were she was sick almost constantly. This one night, shortly after that doctor had accused her of hurting herself, after that doctor had her primary care doctor thinking the same way, she was dehydrated. She needed to go to the ER, but she felt everyone knew what this one doctor had said, what he had written in her charts. I couldn’t convince her to call anyone or go to the ER. I told her we could drive to another city. We could be there, at another ER, in about an hour. She was sitting in the middle of the floor crying. I sank to the floor also. I wish I could have cried. I couldn’t. I was the one who was supposed to act. I kept thinking, What are we going to do? How can I fix this?
I don’t want you to over-react to what I am going to say. And I know you don’t. You are always great about listening, letting me get it out, not judging, not feeling like you have to offer advice. At that moment, when I was sitting on the floor in front of my wife, feeling without hope, I thought, I understand murder-suicide. At that moment, I fully comprehended murder-suicide. I am not saying that I would have done that. She wouldn’t have suggested it. I would not do anything to hurt my kids. But, at that moment, I understood how a couple could be at a point of such deep despair that murder-suicide would seem like a reasonable alternative. It is possible to be in such a dark place that something drastic seems like the only way out.
I am not at that point now. I am not even close. But I feel a darkness. I want to be able to act, but what can I do? Follow the instructions of a ghost?