Sunday, April 24, 2011

Was There a Conspiracy Against Dr. Calvo at Princeton?

In the aftermath of Antonio Calvo's suicide that followed his humiliating dismissal from Princeton, people have been trying to offer explanations as to how something this atrocious could have happened. It has been suggested that a conspiracy between several graduate students and a lecturer at Dr. Calvo's department led to his contract not being renewed by the university in spite of the wishes of the majority of his colleagues. An article in New York Post states the following:
He wasn't PC enough for Princeton. A vicious campaign to end the unblemished 10-year career of a popular but often politically incorrect Princeton teacher left him so despondent that he took his own life, brokenhearted pals said yesterday. . . Another pal said, "Those people didn't want his contract renewed. The campaign was led by graduate students who teach Spanish who were essentially under Antonio's supervision, and a lecturer also teaching there." At least two un-PC incidents were among complaints about Calvo during the review of his contract -- although his department supported the renewal. Calvo once raised his voice in a meeting with a female graduate student, who interpreted the confrontation as "aggressive behavior," the pal said. Another incident apparently involved a grad student whom Calvo chided, "You're spending too much time touching your balls. Why don't you go to work?"
This push to demonize the female lecturer and the grad students who complained about Dr. Calvo's conduct comes, in my opinion, from a deep-seated reluctance to recognize that what happened is not the fault of a small group of individuals but, rather, a sign of a profound systemic problem in North American academia at large. Of course, it's easier and very comforting psychologically to think about these sad events as the result of a personal grudge that some people might have nursed towards Dr. Calvo. It is much more difficult and disturbing to recognize that his tragedy is the result of a much more general malaise experienced everywhere in our system of higher education. The malaise I am referring to is called casualization. Please remember this word, as you will be hearing it more and more often in the coming years. 

Casualization is a process of a gradual erasure of the institution of tenure, where tenure-track positions are substituted by lecturer, adjunct, instructor and postdoc contracts. Such contracts offer absolutely no protection to the educators. Lecturers, instructors, adjuncts and postdocs have to teach an insane number of hours per semester just to make ends meet. In the meanwhile, they are under a constant threat of their contract not being renewed. It is, of course, easier for college administrators to have an army of underpaid and overworked employees who are permanently terrified of losing their livelihood than to hire tenure-track professors who will have some degree of protection from being summarily dismissed.

I have been teaching at a university level for exactly ten years now. I have taught as a graduate student, a Visiting Professor, and now a tenure-track professor. And let me tell you the following: graduate students and lecturers do not have the power to remove anybody from their job in academia, no matter how much they might try. The idea that people who have worked at a university for 10 years can get fired because a bunch of grad students and a lecturer complain about their loud voice or their use of colloquial Spanish is risible. 

Everybody who works with people generates resentments, annoyances and conflicts. I have no doubt that some of my colleagues, students and supervisors have, on occasion, found me to be annoying. I am sure that in many of those cases they were right to get upset or angry with me. Even the most professional and courteous among us have been known to raise our voices or write an angry email. If you have worked in the same place for ten years and have never raised your voice, then you are either dead or completely indifferent towards your job. However, in the same way as petty bickering between spouses does not always end in immediate divorce, small daily conflicts between colleagues don't always lead to people being escorted from their offices by security guards or to senior lecturers being expelled from the workplace in the midst of the semester. 

Dr. Calvo wasn't thrown out of his office in this humiliating manner and threatened with deportation because a few of the people he supervised didn't like him. Rather, these complaints were used against him by the administration that had decided to get rid of him for whatever reason. This can happen to absolutely anybody. The only way we have to defend ourselves from such things happening is by fighting against casualization. Dr. Calvo's story is only exceptional in that he took his life in response to being discarded by his institution. Such dismissals, however, take place all the time. 

What we need to do is to protest as loudly as we can every time our academic institutions cancel tenure-track positions and substitute them with lectureships and instructorships. Casualization is the most dangerous thing happening to academia right now. Let's stop blaming this tragedy on the non-existent PC-police, the grad students and the lecturers, who are as powerless as anybody in academia can be. Let's lay the blame where it belongs. And that, my friends, is the systemic transformation of academia according to the most egregiously inhumane corporate model anybody could imagine. 

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