Once Upon a Time I Complained, a Fairy Tale by Sister Grimm

I complained to Western Illinois University.  I did so formally in June of 2016, right after the BoT conferred my tenure and eliminated the departments of African American Studies and Women’s Studies. [1]

WS and AAS were historically monumental and ever so valuable to our diversifying student body, and therefore deserved to be defended in a formal process.  I recalled Maya Lin quoting Martin Luther King quoting Amos 5:24:

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream

That was justification enough,  but I wonder if deeper, hidden factors also motivated my complaint.

I had seen the other tenured professors reinstated, and figured I should be treated the same.  But I knew a formal complaint put my potential reinstatement at risk.

Colleagues warned me:

“Don’t put yourself out there.”

“Stay off their radar.”

They had a point:  a university administration can, and will, make an example of witchy professors—tenure be damned.[2]   We are to simultaneously fear retaliation and deny that a university would stoop to such threats. Sister Grimm, not Disney, fashions this fairy tale.

One of my superiors said, “This is Macomb,” as if what’s wrong with you, Holly, that you can’t accept the way it is here? As if WIU’s existence between miles of industrial corn and soy fields constituted a free pass to indulge the white patriarchy.  I get WIU as well as anyone–I’m a WIU alumna!  My dead family members are memorialized on every end of campus!


One friend told me that for months, he had been witnessing a male faculty member aggressively refer to women as bitches, but when my friend talked to the Title IX officer, the latter said that if my friend filed a complaint, he would likely face retaliation from the bully.  Plus, he probably wouldn’t be able to prove discrimination. As he told me this story, he looked over his shoulder and frowned, then looked at me: “Holly, be careful.”

Discouraging reporting to Title IX is not what the feminist civil rights activists had in mind when they advocated for an equal playing field in the 1960s and 70s.

Another colleague told me that complaining to the office of Equal Opportunity and Access and its Title IX officer would be like asking the Gestapo for help.  My friend said “Gestapo” matter-of-factly, without irony or disdain, as if everyone knows that Title IX exists to protect upper administration, not members of the professional union.  Again, not what Patsi, Pauli, and the other feminist activists had in mind.


I decided to assume WIU’s office of Title IX cared about justice.  I wanted to use every institutional channel available to defend Women’s Studies.  If I had not been laid off, I might have acted more complicitly.

Today, as I’ve been peeling away layers of anger and shame at not having had the opportunity to report the sexual assault I sustained in 8th grade, I wonder if a primary motivation for filing a formal complaint was to take advantage of Title IX reporting, an option I didn’t have in the 1980s.  If silence led to depression, a formal complaint would prevent it.

But standing up for my beliefs did not shield me from anxiety and depression.  I ruminated–  even while camping with friends in Wisconsin.  I argued with them about Simone De Beauvoir and fussed about sunburns.  Instead of taking down camp, I yelled at my daughter in front of everyone.


Summer of 2015, we made stir-fry together on a camp stove, but summer of 2016 I was so anxious and angry that we didn’t even take pictures.

Justice was not rolling down like water—rather it was trapped with twisted fish hooks below the whirl of a defunct dam.  My ruminations about the complaint interrupted the flow that I had, until then, tapped into during summer vacations.

When WIU’s Title IX officer spun the numbers, she didn’t find any sex discrimination.  No surprise, but her decision disappointed me anyway.

A year has passed.  Today, I feel  peace and freedom for having done what I could to defend the values I know to be good and true.

I write every day and, if I’m lucky, tap into flow.  Flow is healing, but requires daily practice, and that is justice for now.


Amos 5:24 at the Civil Rights Memorial, designed by Maya  Lin, in Montgomery


[1] (Note that the first-person voice of this fairy tale is fictional.)  I said that the elimination of African American Studies and Women’s Studies forced the burden of cuts on women, especially women of color.  Interestingly, the Diversity Council (led by WIU’s Title IX’s officer and an Assistant Provost For “Random Things with Random Sub-Duties, Such As Chief Diversity Officer for Academic Affairs”) also disapproved of the eliminations of WS and AAS:  they encouraged the APER to save WS and AAS.  In my complaint, I said about ¾ of the students who took Women’s Studies classes were women of color.  AAS was similar.  Eliminating philosophy, popular with white men, didn’t level the playing field for two reasons:  first, Philosophy served a smaller number of students than WS or AAS, and secondly, WIU already offered a variety of Gen Ed courses and majors that placed men, especially white ones, at the center of curriculum, and that were not being eliminated.  Why take the subjects to which women of color flocked and eliminate their majors and Gen. Eds?

In order to teach in Women’s Studies, I sacrificed a more efficient career advancement:  my two publications in Hispanic literature would have met requirements for tenure in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. In that department, I would have earned tenure sooner and not have been a target for layoff.

[2] The historical justification for tenure is to protect the right of scholars to dissent.  Tenure’s architects never intended it to serve as a reward for silence or complicity.