I am astonished. Even after two years. The first week of December, 2015, I was so innocent. I was completing one of my most satisfying semesters at WIU.
Tenure in hand, I was finally beginning to relax. And then we were called to an assembly.
My department chair, colleague, and I zipped up our coats against the north wind and headed down to the Grand Ballroom. In the afternoon, the ballroom smelled faintly of rancid French fry grease. Nervous pleasantries skipped between the walls. Usually, for the August Faculty Assembly, the Department of Women’s Studies would squeeze into a narrow row in the back half. I would sit next to my colleague, with my Chair on the other side of her.
But for this odd December assembly, my Chair led us to the front row of the middle section, where our legs were exposed to the passageway. My Chair took her seat second to the aisle and, looking at me, turned her palm slightly towards the seat on the end. I sat there, separated from my colleague.
I thought nothing of this unusual arrangement.
The provost’s husband approached us. Twice a month for a year, I had sat with him on the President’s Faculty Roundtable. I didn’t think to ask myself why the Provost’s husband was on that Roundtable—I mean, the provost herself had plenty of access to the president—how did the president justify a coveted seat at his table for her husband?
In the ballroom, the provost’s husband stood large and wide in front of me. Even late in the afternoon, his dress shirt remained crisp, clean and smoothly tucked into his pants. My eyes could not get around the long leather belt holding his pants up.
He asked my Chair about a box of peaches he’d given her.
How did she reply? They were sweet and soft? They ate as many fresh ones as they could and canned the rest? The Provost’s husband would surely move out of my way in a moment.
Instead, this is what I wrote in my notes from that day:
The Provost’s husband turned to me and proclaimed,
“I’m in charge of 50 graduate students.”
He stared at me. I stared back and if I had not wrapped myself so tightly in a thick soft blanket of delusion, I might have wondered why he stood in front of me for so long while he spoke of peaches and then changed the subject to the importance of his position.
Sometimes, when this scene slips into my consciousness, the Provost’s husband is wearing a red coat trimmed in thick white fur. And a crown. I catch myself and restore his starched dress shirt. The Provost’s husband and I had something in common—we were each members of a household with two WIU incomes. The wife of the WIU president benefits in this way as well.
Finally, the provost’s husband disappeared into the sea of hard plastic rows of chairs. I saw his wife, on the big screen, announce that she was laying off 50 professors, that she had no other choice.
With my chair and colleagues, I returned to Simpkins for a reception of cookies, but my coat of delusion remained thick. At home with my husband, I said,
“Thankfully, I am not the junior member of my department.” (I believed WIU valued seniority.)
Two days later, my dean—yes, the one who hired me, the one I crossed paths with at the Consumer Supported Agriculture, the with whom I chatted about local eggs and eggplant—addressed me as “Dr. Stovall,” not “Holly.”
I was astonished and still am. Between undergrad and 10 years of teaching, I’d invested maybe a third of my life in WIU. I had to remain as deluded as possible. My layoff was a mistake. Soon, they would see the light. It would all be worked out. They had accepted my years of work towards tenure, they had encouraged me, and I was sure they would uphold their end of the promise.
My anger has been so heavy that only now, two years later, have I begun to lift it and sit with the pain that lies beneath.
It is told to me that the provost and her husband believe that the Market is THE driving force of a public university.
The market is king. I write that sentence, but I don’t believe it.
In market I do not trust.