Towards Wholeness at the Balandic

We walked along the Chicago river path on the way to my labor hearing in the Balandic building,  about halfway between the two Broadway theatres on Randolph.

The word Balandic rolls off my tongue and generates power, a sophisticated power:  heels knocking on the sidewalk in a quick rhythm, engines whirring by.  But the sound of  Balandic is not all positive; it holds something negative as well, for it ends in “dic,” which sounds like “dick,” which Merriam Webster defines as “a mean, stupid, or annoying man.”  So, Balandic:  empowerment and stupidity, efficiency and annoyance, balance and tension.

In the lobby, I saw Western Illinois University administrators filing past security and into an elevator.  They, four of them, including an expensive attorney, had traveled to Chicago to argue that they don’t have to obey the arbitrator’s (judge’s) orders to make me “whole.”

Before I set my cross-body bag on the security belt I turned to my mom, who’d come along for support:

“I’m glad we don’t have to ride the elevator with them.” I’ve written about this before—how administrators often cross paths with the people they’ve fired, how rotten that moment is.

Last year, I had gone to the Balandic building to testify before the House Higher Education Appropriations Committee.  The window in the House hearing room spanned the entire east side wall from floor to ceiling. I had told the House committee that the budget crisis was hurting the quality of WIU’s education and debilitating the regional economy.

The room for this year’s hearing was windowless and plain.  We could have been in Morgan Hall or Stipes. A few rows of chairs were arranged for the witnesses and the audience.

Bill Thompson was already sitting in the first row. When he invited me to sit next to him, I smiled and my shoulders relaxed. Bill and I were both born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and he was the first faculty member I met when Tom and I started thinking about moving to Macomb in 2004.  Also, I like Bill’s company because his steadfast commitment to the quality of education at WIU and to our community inspires me.

An Administrative Law Judge entered and we rose.  She was tall, with dark hair neatly pulled back.   She wore a black jacket over a smooth dress and low black heels.

The witness stand consisted of a podium and a short and wobbly chair, so each witness tended to sink down behind the podium.  I busied myself thinking about how I’d keep my head visible above the podium when it was my turn.

I lengthened my spine when I took the witness chair, then raised my right hand to swear in.  The judge asked me to spell my name.  I did, careful to make sure “t” didn’t sound like “d” and “v” didn’t sound like “b.”  (Don’t want the record to show my name is “Sdoball.”)

There were several thick binders on the stand in front of me.  Our attorney told me to open one of them to a tabbed page in the middle.  I tucked my foot under my skirt to prop me up high enough to maneuver the heavy binder.

The dialogue went something like this:

UPI attorney:  (Referring to the open page of the binder) Is that your testimony?

Me:  (I nod yes)

UPI attorney:  Yes. (she looks at me to let me know I must answer verbally for the transcript.)

Me:   Yes.

UPI attorney: Have you re-read your testimony from the supplemental hearing?

Me:  Yes.

UPI attorney:  Is that testimony correct?

Me:  Yes.

The UPI’s attorney recited a similar line of questioning for the Interim Provost, who, like me, opened the binder to her testimony and answered “yes,” but minutes before, she had given a different testimony to the administration’s attorney, so I wondered which testimony she intended to stand by.

I left the Balandic building feeling good, that the UPI’s case on my behalf was strong and rigorous, and that the administration’s arguments were weak and self-contradicting.

But, I’ve left every single one of the previous five hearings believing that the UPI’s arguments were far stronger than the administration’s, more consistent with what a university is and how one functions, and yet, here I am, at the end of year three, still not reinstated.

However, the arbitrator has kept open for me a possible path back into the classroom.  We might say that the path is muddy and overgrown, but still a path.

The larger picture here is that my firing is a measure of this administration’s refusal to defend the quality of education at Western Illinois University.  General Education in the liberal arts and sciences, not trendy career training, defines a university degree.  I taught general education every semester.  (I also taught upper-level and graduate courses.)  I am a part of what makes WIU a timeless degree, not a trendy one.

IMG_0717

The Balandic Building sits two blocks south of the river.

Making me “whole,” as the arbitrator has required the administration to do, makes the university more whole, in the sense of more perfect, more like a university.

 

Slowing my Heart before the Hearing in Chicago

I wear a running watch to track my resting heart rate (RHR).  Research indicates a RHR below 70 beats per minute is optimal for a long, healthy life.  When I wake up I the morning, my RHR usually checks in around 66, but if I’m worried, stressed, or sick, it’s higher–a warning to slow down.

IMG_0694

I wish they made these for smaller wrists!

Illinois has a special judicial system for education labor disputes, the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board (IELRB).  I testify before it tomorrow.

The UPI’s attorney told me what to expect at the hearing.  She explained strategy and process.   Testimony should be easy, but I’m swearing in in front of a state board, so it’s enough to make me feel that something important is at stake.   After talking to the UPI’s attorney last week, that night I went to bed anxious and the next morning I frowned when I saw that my RHR rose above 70.

The following day, a union leader told me that the question before the labor board is one of process:  Has Western Illinois University complied with the process?  Does WIU have to comply with the process?  Phrasing it that way, so that I could better understand this long and complicated grievance, put me at ease.  My RHR slowed to 66.

In my early 40s, I was worried that my RHR was too high, so I started running.  I was in the middle of tenure track and my RHR was sometimes 80!  Running lowered it, but not enough.

Now, after a year’s break from WIU, and a heart rate that eased itself, I often wonder if it was the tenure track that prevented my heart from slowing down when I was at rest.  In hindsight, I sometimes think the tenure track was stripping me of the ability to relax.  I looked forward to completing tenure and believed that after the conferral, I’d be able to work with a slower heart rate.

It’s not that the requirements for tenure were excessive (I knew how to publish and teach); rather, it was the feeling that so much was at stake, that I had so much to lose.  If tenure was denied, I’d have to either end the career I’d invested decades in or move away from my family.  As long as my entire career was at stake, I could not rest, not even while sleeping.

In addition, I was anxious because I felt that I was being surveilled–that anything I said or did at work, or any public activism I engaged in, would be monitored and used against me.  Feminist activist academics developed Women’s Studies, which has always been a publicly critical and publicly engaged discipline.  I wanted my colleagues and administrators, especially, those with power over my tenure process, to say, “We support academic freedoms. We support dissent and diversity of perspective that is central to the discipline of Women’s Studies.”  They did not.  My heart raced.

Still, how would I have lived with myself if I had hidden the activist that I am?  If I would have silenced myself?  I would have felt like a coward in front of my students.  Maybe I erred on the side of too much critical dissent, and that’s okay too, because it’s not going to be perfect. Knowing I have acted in a way I believed was good and true eases my heart rate.

As it turned out, nothing was at stake because tenure at Western Illinois University no longer exists-not in any reliable way:  when administrators conclude they don’t need you, your tenure is irrelevant.  My heart speeds up with righteous anger.

In hindsight, the irony is dramatic:  I believed that the anxiety induced from working towards tenure would be temporary and worth the stability of having WIU commit to me and me to WIU; for that is how the contract (20:10) defines tenure.  The ability to reflect, because time has passed, slows my heart.

I’m not sure what’s at stake at tomorrow’s hearing.  (Backpay?  A path back into my Women’s Studies classroom?)  We could lose.

Wish me luck and thanks for reading.  As for me, I’m going to read a book.  Reading books, real books, slows the heart.

IMG_0695