A few years ago, my department experienced severe issues with our climate. Some of the women students’ complaints were typical indications of a climate that ranged from chilly to openly hostile. These complaints should have generated immediate examination of departmental practices and culture. They did not. Some of the complaints were more dramatic and should have immediately triggered formal procedures for investigating actionable harassment. They did not. At the time I was a junior faculty member and, I now realize, woefully naïve. I was appalled at how little we did and that we did not treat the complaints as urgent. My mistake was in acting appalled. Complaining made me an “agitator;” I was told to “stop provoking people.” Eventually, at my instigation, the university became involved and others were also appalled: the ombudsperson said my department “needed a massive lawsuit to change;” legal counsel assessed our legal peril as “monumental;” and the police invoked the Virginia Tech shootings, citing the awful risks of indifference and delay in dealing with the sorts of complaints we had received.
A couple of years have now passed. We have changed some, instituting some formal mechanisms for addressing climate, guarding evaluations from bias, and so forth. However, despite this and the passage of time, I am seemingly indelibly branded as a troublemaker. For while I was right that we needed to act, I violated the department’s unstated norms – I complained, I got angry, I argued, I sought help external to the department. For that, I continue to pay a heavy price. Let me just describe the price I paid this week.
Our chair recently distributed our committee assignments for the year. My service obligations are incredibly light and I have no role in the governance of the department. In this, I am distinguished from all of my colleagues. So I went to my chair and volunteered to serve on two committees: our Graduate Studies Committee and the newish committee formed to address diversity issues. I was not seeking to supplant anyone, but merely to be added; I did not ask to be relieved of other responsibilities, but to increase my service load. Nonetheless, he declined. Our conversation captures what it’s like be the resident trouble-maker.
My chair declined my requests “because the department is in transition” and our present priority is “maintaining the status quo without dramatic changes.” To place me on one of these committees would jeopardize this aim. I then offered to serve under the status quo preserving terms he described. He replied that anything I might say about my intentions in serving would not be predictive of how I’d actually behave. Consequently, he would follow his own “judgment” that I could not be trusted not to “shake things up.”
In some despair, I asked whether, in future, I could serve on either of these committees. He could not say with certainty, but said it unlikely I would serve on the Graduate Studies Committee, for this committee “already has two women.” When I asked why this would matter, he said that “3 women is not necessarily a problem, but we do still need male representation on that committee.” The committee has 5 members, has always been majority male, and, I gather, is meant to stay so.
With respect to the diversity committee, I “might be considered” in future, but my impression is that I must somehow prove I will not “provoke people” to be considered. For the present, I cannot serve. And the present is truly odd. Because the other women faculty are currently unavailable for it, our diversity committee is now all male. I thus asked directly if my department would really rather have an all male diversity committee than allow me to join it. He said that yes, that’s true, and condescendingly added, “you know, diversity is not just about women.”
My chair’s one concession to my requests was to offer that I could be on the one committee I have, since my initial hire, asked not to serve. Before our problems, he always said that no one need serve on a committee where her preference was against it and she would take an alternative. Now, however, my long-standing and heretofore respected preference is taken as intransigence. My sense of the offer was that it amounted to a strategy for making my lack of service my fault: He expected I’d decline and having me do so explicitly was the purpose of offering it.
The trap I occupy is perhaps obvious. After my department’s ordeal, I tried to escape the perception that I am a trouble-maker; I have not “made trouble” in over 2 years. But it is not enough to rehabilitate me from my “errors.” I am not only on the margins, but deliberately kept there. Indeed, my service assignments are all work I must perform alone. And the worst of it is that in even asking to serve alongside others, I again “make trouble,” for in doing so I challenge the desired status quo.
I write this now, after never having written here about the other, much worse events, because I conclude that I am condemned no matter what I do and thus I may as well seek modest relief in speaking.