Grievance Hearings, 2016: Picking up where Sister Grimm Left Off

I tried and failed to act cheerfully during the 2015 “holiday” season,


I’m trying, but I hadn’t slept much, nor would I for almost two years.

but I was hopeful that in 2016, the hearts of those in charge of Western Illinois University would soften and broaden.  Alas, no– not enough to reach me anyway.  In front of TV cameras in the Grand Ballroom, WIU’s president reinstated the 12 officially tenured professors.  As fate would have it for three of us on the layoff list, tenure was merely a formality (we had completed all the work). The WIU President could have easily justified our reinstatement as well.

The provost sat at the head of the table during my first grievance hearing, in February 2016. A copy of the “You-are-being-laid-off” script lay on the table.  The administration denied knowledge of it, and claimed I had no grounds for grievance because I was not laid off.   I guess I’d lost all that sleep over nothing.

Of the three of us who had submitted tenure files in January, the one who was a man saw himself reinstated before his tenure was officially conferred.  So that left two women dangling.  Two women, who happen to be mothers, who had completed all work for tenure.  At about 35 women for every 65 men, the tenured professorate is the most gender-imbalanced rank. [1]

At the June 2016 BoT meeting, I was officially tenured and the Women’s Studies major was eliminated.  A plan was already in place for the Women’s Studies faculty to join the faculty from African American Studies and Religion to form a new department:  Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the new department would materialize within months–and well before my contract was set to end.[2]

I complained.

In the step two grievance hearing (June 2016), an administrator stated that WIU didn’t need my “skill set.”  We were approaching the era of #metoo, when feminism is popular and departments of women’s studies are growing nationally, and he was laying off WIU’s only faculty with a graduate degree in women’s studies.   WIU does not need scholars trained in women’s studies, the discipline grounded in feminist theory.   Feminists need not apply.   WIU has never been the most liberal place on earth, but since I’ve became a member of this community in 1987, we’ve made room for the feminists who ask uncomfortable questions.  Here’s an example:


By Holly Stovall, July 7, 1988  (Thanks to Tom for saving 45 Western Couriers!)


I am a young feminist journalist for the Courier

Back to June, 2016, the WIU president denied my grievance.

Meanwhile, Janine Cavicchia, the feminist who had directed the Women’s Center, retired. Would they replace her with someone with a record of feminist activism?  They did not consider me even for the interim position.

All the faculty in the “LAS” department have tenure and all come from an eliminated program.  I have more than or the same seniority as half my colleagues, yet I am the only one laid off.  Out of ten professors whose departments were eliminated, how do you justify singling out only one of us, especially the one with more seniority than many of the others?  The one who has the strongest record of feminist activism?

To be continued.


For The Western Courier, Summer, 1988

[1] An even smaller number of tenured women had done the work of motherhood.  Fatherhood, however, is not underrepresented in the tenure ranks.  In the professorate, fatherhood is rewarded, while motherhood is punished.  Currently, not one mother serves on WIU’s administration. In addition,  a need to point out the obvious continues to present itself:  Women compose the majority of the general population, so until we are half every level of faculty and administration, WIU suffers from a gender imbalance.

[2] In Macomb, LAS attracts a small fraction of the students Women’s Studies did.  Another inconvenient truth is that some 90% or more of LAS majors are in the Quad Cities, but 100% of LAS faculty live and teach in Macomb.  And have you visited the QC campus during the week?  It’s very, very quiet.  Where are the students?

In Which Sister Grimm Observes 2-year Anniversary of Cinderella’s Unresolved Lay Off

No one danced in the Ballroom.  A series of Vice Princes claimed they had already cut every unessential servant in their budgets.  The last Vice Prince to speak was a woman who decreed: CUT THE EDUCATORS! Cut 50 of them!

Two days later, Cinderella put in her service to the Kingdom, then went home.  She was laboring over the slimy seeds of a butternut squash,IMG_2287 when her common, unionized, prince walked in out of breath.

“Check your messages!”

Cinderella opened her tablet.  The Dutchess had assigned her a date and time (Friday, December 11, 2pm) to be sentenced to exile.

She posted on Fairy Book that she was laid off, wandered up the stairs and down, then sat with her family to attempt to swallow a soft pudding of butternut squash.

Cinderella didn’t need a dutchess.  She needed a fairy godmother.

Cinderella lay awake all night, and then dressed for an 8:00 am interview committee meeting for director of the Western Courier.  Upon entering the hall, she saw the Vice Prince of the committee and recalled that he had only recently become a member of the court.  And then she looked at the candidate and realized that she—or any journalism faculty—could have done the job they were interviewing him for.  She looked down and her own tears falling on the sheet of interview questions, blurring the words.

The Dukes and Dutchesses began to read an identical lay-off notification script to 40 or 50 professors.  15 of them were either tenured or had tenure in hand—Cinderella’s tenure file was complete—all the criteria met, the rest was formality.

The Dutchess of the Liberal Arts and Sciences wore black.  Four others attended the sentencing:  the Chair of Women’s Studies and three members of the union leadership.  The Dutchess unrolled the scroll and read:  “You are being laid off.”  Cinderella had three semesters left in her contract.

Cinderella asked the Dutchess why her junior step-sister was protected.  “Because she can teach German.”  If German was so much more essential than Spanish and Women’s Studies, Cinderella later thought, after the step-sister suddenly resigned, why hasn’t this German-speaking step-sister been replaced?

“But,” the Dutchess said, “I will not cut off your head!”

The following week, the King and his court returned to the Ballroom, and invited the lowly unionized educators, but again, not for dancing.

Cinderella and her laid-off colleagues sat in the front row as the King and his court discussed their fates.

During the break, the King called to Cinderella and her senior sister.

“Cinderella, Tabitha, come here,” he said.

Cinderella’s heart fluttered—the King could end her layoff sentence.  HE COULD END IT! right then and there, for her and the rest of the doomed educators, and then they could all dance, like one is supposed to do in a ballroom.

“I didn’t make that layoff list.  I know I’m still responsible,” the King said, when no one else was close enough to hear, “but we’ll work to remove some of the names from the list.”

Cinderella delightedly skipped around the room until she spied her lowly prince, an optimist who found the words of the King reassuring.

Before the King dismissed his subjects for Holiday, they decided to delay the decision on the fates of the laid-off educators.

At Cinderella’s Christmas table, once the feast was cleared, she asked the family Wizard, a retired Vice Prince, a scholar who defended the liberal arts, what he made of the layoff decrees.

“It sounds like a Joker made that list, but a sharp one, trained in business,” said the wise old Wizard.

“I’m a line on a spreadsheet??  That’s bloody medieval!”

“He or she was looking only at numbers,” replied the Wizard, “but if the King says to you or anyone that he didn’t make that list, he should be dethroned.”

Cinderella balked.  She held fast to her fairy tale that the King and his court and his Vice Princes were curious thinkers, capable of  broad and balanced perspectives.  They were creative and open-minded, and would defend the Liberal Arts.  Educators were not the King’s medieval subjects.  Or maybe they were.

Silly Cinderella!


How about those princess sleeves!






Dear Readers, Nominate a Woman


“You Can’t Be What you Can’t See,”  suggests Jennifer Siebel Newsom in her award-winning film, Miss Representation.

What can you and prospective women students not see in this image from Western Illinois University’s website?

Women have composed more than half of all college students for over 30 years. Women are not a minority; in fact, we are the majority (51%) of the population.   So, why aren’t the majority of 2017 alumni awardees women?

In my experience serving on award committees at WIU, two factors must be present for a committee to fairly consider giving an award to a woman:

  1.  People have to nominate women.
  2. A feminist who will advocate for women must serve on the award committee.

When I served on the Hallwas Liberal Arts Lecture committee, my colleagues often did not initially see how a woman’s application was compelling.   We have learned to assume that men’s perspectives and achievements are more valuable and legitimate than women’s.  We avoid examination of our own prejudices and narrow assumptions.  In meetings, I would point out the strengths of a woman’s applications and say why her perspective was important, and each year I advocated for a woman (twice) the majority of committee members voted in her favor.

When I was on the Hallwas Lecture committee, in our “Call for Nominations” we crafted a sentence that said we wanted to consider applications that, in terms of gender, sexual, and cultural diversity, expressed a range perspectives, and we wanted to hear from faculty from underrepresented groups.  I did not want to see us default to privileging traditional voices of power.

In light of the fact that women’s freshman enrollment has taken a plunge, the WIU Alumni Association might follow this lead in encouraging diversity of nominations–unless, of course, WIU alumni want to discourage diversity.  One alum turned WIU professor wrote me an email that said I was wrong to advocate for diversity.  We cannot assume people appreciate various perspectives.  What we can assume is that WIU relies on women’s tuition.

The WIU Alumni Association sponsors 7 different awards, so there’s plenty of room to recognize women’s achievements.

One line of the criteria, however, may discourage women’s nominations:

  • Exceptional service in support of the advancement and continued excellence of WIU.

Women who are mothers often work two jobs–one for pay and one for children at night, and because of this factor, how would we have time to support the advancement and excellence of WIU?

Also, there’s a wage gap–women make an average of 80% of what men make, for the same work (WIU is an exception, thanks for the minima–WIU must protect minima).  Women have less money to donate to WIU, but does that make there achievements less great?

In addition, women often choose creative lines of work.  One friend of mine is an incredibly successful artist, but she had to teach high school art for 17 years while she pursued her own painting in the evenings.  She’s worked two shifts.  How would she have the time and money to provide exceptional service to WIU?  If this line of criteria is an obstacle to recognizing women, it should be waived.

Why hasn’t Kelly Eddington received the Distinguished Almumni Award?  Maybe no one has nominated her.



A Plummet in Women’s Enrollment

My economist and I keep talking about an article on the cover of Thursday’s Voice (11/30/17).


What is a “dip”?  Open to p. A2 and dig down a few paragraphs:


27.2 percent?

That’s not a dip; it’s a plummet, like thisminus the safety ropes. Don’t miss the scream:



Yikes!  Back to the women’s plummeting enrollment– how much revenue in tuition is  27.2 percent?  What caused it?

Nationally women compose 56.5% of college students, but Western Illinois University has lagged behind this trend for as long as I’ve been here, and now it’s dangerous.

How does Western afford the lost revenue and hit to reputation?  Upper Admin and the Board of Trustees have kept closed session minutes secret.  Secrecy leaves this failure of enrollment unexplained.  Do they have a grand plan to purge the feminists from campus or are they hiding incompetency?  Do they hate women so much they’d prefer to falter from insufficient tuition than support a curriculum that would make women want to come here?  I doubt leadership intends for the consequences of their decision to result in sexism or loss of women, but until we hold frank, informed discussions, without the secrecy, we have to keep asking.

In the Voice article, the admissions director claims women are interested in Nursing  and Education.  That’s a stereotype.  And if women are indeed interested in those fields,  why aren’t they coming?  The nursing department literally displaced the Women’s Studies offices in Currens.  If Nursing is so much better for WIU than Women’s Studies (and yes–they are laying off the WS professor while recruiting nursing instructors), where are the women?  Maybe future nurses want to attend an institution that values Women’s Studies.

And what happens next year if WIU doesn’t reverse this nasty trend?  How do we recover?  Without women’s student fees,  how will WIU  cover its football program?  Will men want to come here as women continue to leave?  So many questions.

Or are we trying to attract conservative men who are looking for women trained in the areas of caregiving and childcare–women who will make subservient and supportive wives?  Given the the programs WIU has chosen to promote (Policing/Nursing, Ag/Teaching), we need to have a frank discussion about sexism and gender roles.

My economist (also my husband of 20 years), generally an optimistic guy, is alarmed.  If this trend is not corrected, the campus will not survive.

dar ball

My alarmed economist.

The good news is, it’s not too late to recover our enrollment.  Here’s how to start:

Restore the major in Women’s Studies.

Students seeking 4 year degrees aren’t dumb and won’t be fooled.  You want women’s tuition?  Place women and people of color, with white men, at the center of a broad liberal arts curriculum and give the tired stereotypes a rest.  Restore the major in Women’s Studies.  Only then will you be able to assure young women that you value them.  With the hundred plus  job announcements I’ve been receiving for over a year now, you can afford to bulk up Women’s Studies.

Screen Shot 2017-12-02 at 7.41.28 PM

The Upper Admin has sent me more than 150 “career opportunity for you” emails. How can we afford to fill these posts, yet not afford Women’s Studies?

Nearly two years ago, I indicated that eliminating Women’s Studies and African-American Studies would entail great costs to our student body.  Given my state of complete astonishment and shock from the still-fresh layoff notice,  I am surprised that my editorial is coherent.  I stand by my core argument, now made stronger by the plunge in women’s enrollment.

Why would women and other disempowered  or underrepresented peoples enroll here if you push us to the edges of curriculum and layoff the people who teach about people who look like us?


The month after my layoff, the Western Courier ran my guest editorial.

Move into the 21st century:  invest in women, value them, don’t shy from feminism.  They will come.

In Market I Do Not Trust

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.

Women in Chicago

Happy and relaxed with dear friends in Chicago: none of us had any idea of the approaching confusion and disorientation. All of these women work or worked for WIU, or have a spouse there. We used to take this trip every fall, but that lovely tradition ended after the layoffs.

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.

Uniquely Crappy

“What would you do if nothing stood in the way of your dreams?”  a discussion card read.  Each year in WS 265, Women and Creativity, we watched Who Does She Think She Is?, a film about mothers in the creative professions.  untitled-2.jpg

“What about you, Dr. Stovall? What would you do?” a student asked.

I stood between my students and a massive metal desk.

“Um, I guess I’m living it?  I landed a tenure track job and have a family.” My cheeks heated up under this exposure.  Their faces were patient, but unconvinced.

The second year they asked, I hid my body behind the massive desk and said, “Um, write a book?”

Finally, the third year, I did not hide or blush: “Write a book, a story, something creative.”  What was I waiting for?

Write what you know, say the great authors.  I’ve known more than my share of crappy stuff: sexual assaults and harassment, depression, the sudden death of my brother, etc., but others have written about these themes.  I was waiting for something uniquely crappy to happen to me.

Then I got laid off from the career that I believed promised the most job stability.  How often does a tenured professor get laid off?

The Western Illinois University provost told the Chronicle of Higher Education that WIU laid off faculty in the early 80s.

The provost’s “assumption” is confusing and disorienting.  How important is it that we hold WIU’s upper administration to a rigorous standard for truth and accuracy?

In the 80s, I knew WIU professors pretty well:  Dr. Helwig took us to Spain; Dr. Vaughn, an accounting professor, taught my Sunday school class at the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); church deacons chaired Geography and Foreign Languages and Literatures.  They did not speak of layoffs.

Many professors from the 80s still live in Macomb, so I asked them if they recalled any faculty layoffs.

Gil Belles (History, at the time) did not, nor did Sterling Kernek (History) or Jim McKinney (Spanish). Gil said that the administration told the History department to re-organize and gave them three years to do it.  Gil re-trained for RPTA.  One professor was given a dual appointment with the advising center.  Another went to the Dean’s office.  Not one was laid off.

I have asked about town if anyone knew of any faculty from anywhere in the university laid off in the 80s.  (No.)

On behalf of a representative to Faculty Senate, Annette Hamm searched the Faculty Senate archives for evidence of layoffs and did not find any.

I visited the archives in Malpass. IMG_2039

I have published a scholarly article based on archival research, so I felt confident about my ability to find evidence of layoffs.

The librarian  pulled these documents from the early 80s:

Provost Papers


Provost Papers

Board of Governor’s minutes:



Newspapers articles about the financial situation of the 80s


President Malpass says even in hard times, 7% faculty raise (top middle) is not enough.  Peoria Journal Star, 1/6/1984

I kept an eye out for key words:

Faculty, realignment, re-organization, reduction, layoff

I found nothing.  Maybe I just needed to brush up my research skills.  Two months later, I returned to re-read the documents.  Nothing.

So, laying off a tenured professor who’d worked at WIU 12 years and who’d invested thirty years in preparing for an academic career?  And I’m the first and only tenured professor laid off at WIU?  These facts meet my standard for uniquely crappy life event.

If my dream is to write a creative book, nothing now stands in my way.







Recipe:  Anti-depressing Dressing with Pumpkin and Portabella

We gathered for a Thanksgiving meal yesterday.  In order to enjoy my Saturday and spare myself the temptation of an expensive Starbucks latte, I blew off a trip to Hy-Vee.  This means that Sunday morning, the turkey dressing had to be made with whatever was left in the kitchen and the garden. Luckily, my monstrous sage bush is still fresh.

I woke up and dumped about a pint of sourdough starter in a big glass bowl and stirred in almond and coconut flour (1/3 cup of each?) and some liquid poured off from plain yogurt and some milk—enough of these last two to get the consistency of cornbread batter.  Good dressing starts with bread or biscuits made from ingredients that don’t have names better suited for a bottle of weed killer.

I grew up on corn bread dressing, but in New York, I learned to make it with chunky whole wheat sourdough.  Yesterday, I was conjuring a quick hybrid of the two.

Also, because I did not want to pass several minutes cutting cold butter into my bread batter, I put a stick of butter in a sauce pan on the tiny burner—that way I could just pour the butter into the batter. I hand-brewed a large light-roast coffee and retired to my study to write in my gratitude journal:

When I finally started chopping veggies, the names and faces of various loved ones who would be missing from our table “haunted” me.  We had gotten used to the absences of those who had died 20 and 30 years ago, but the more recent ones—that’s harder.  I began to regret volunteering to host, but I got my knife out anyway.

I cut a wedge out of the sweet pumpkin my son had picked out from the CSA.


Pie pumpkin from our CSA was almost as big as the 20 lb turkey!

Aware of my anxious brooding, I handled the 10″ chef’s knife extra carefully.


My chef’s knife piercing a butternut squash that I roasted for soup.

I cut the pumpkin wedge into chunks, and put it in the oven to roast.

My husband and I took a walk in the sun.

“I’m not looking forward to the afternoon,” I said.

He moved slowly, as he does when he’s sad:

“Let’s focus on the food.  And make sure your mother is happy.”


Soggy bits of my sourdough biscuit bread mixed with roasted pumpkin, mushrooms, onion, celery, and sage

When I mixed the ingredients for the turkey dressing and poured the cream over it, I began to feel better.  Cream makes me feel good—and there’s a scientific rationale:   Sally Fallon, of the Weston Price Foundation says,

The body makes its own endocannabinoids—exactly the same substance that occurs in marijuana—and these can help the body modulate pain naturally. We make these endocannabinoids out of an omega-6 fatty acid called arachidonic acid, which occurs uniquely in animal fats like butter, egg yolks, cream and lard.

Also, we need cholesterol for serotonin to generate good feelings and we need fat to regulate insulin.  Eat more butter and cream!

I tucked the pan of dressing in the oven above the turkey and went for a two-mile walk.  Thirty minutes later, all the cream was absorbed.  It smelled divine.  My husband walked through on his way out for a run and paused to stand over it.

“That looks really good.”

“Yes– it’s going to be a wonderful Thanksgiving.”

My mom said it was the best dressing she’d ever eaten!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Recipe: Anti-Depressing Dressing

4 to 6 TBLS of butter, plus more for greasing pan

A pound or so of torn up bread or biscuits–a day or two old if possible

One medium butternut squash or the equivalent of pie pumpkin


1 large onion, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

20 to 30 fresh sage leaves, chopped

4 medium portabella mushrooms or a combination of mushrooms, chopped

2 cups (or more) heavy cream

  1. Preheat oven to 375
  2. Butter 9X11 baking dish
  3. fill baking dish with squash or pumpkin chunks, salt generously, and bake until soft—30 to 40 minutes.  Let cool and peel.
  4. While pumpkin roasts, on medium heat, melt 2 TBLS or more of butter and sauté onion and celery with half the sage and generous amount of salt, until soft
  5. On medium heat, melt 2 TBLS or more of butter and sauté mushrooms with other half of sage, and generous amount of salt, until soft
  6. In a big bowl, mix bread, onion mixture, mushrooms, and pumpkin. Taste for salt and add if needed.
  7. Spread into greased baking dish. Pour cream over.  Pour enough cream to saturate the all the bread and vegetables.  In fact, pour so much cream that it almost spills over.
  8. Bake, uncovered for about 35 minutes.


POST SCRIPT:  My daughter, ever rigorous in argument and skeptical of mothers, said,

“But mom, does cream really make you feel good?”

“Did you hear Grandma?  She said I am different.  She said I am more relaxed.  I didn’t pay her to say that.”

Anyway, if drugs can change our moods, why shouldn’t foods, or a deficiency of certain foods, anyway?  And if we’re deficient in something, it’s animal fats.  Why not eat well (delicious, fatty and healthy) and forgo the pill?







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.


G Minor to G Major

After almost two years, my arbitration remains unresolved, but I’m going ahead with the healing process.  I shift my perspective.  The practice of shifting perspective on my history of depression and anxiety puts me at ease.

The first time I saw my depression recognized, it was on an 8 ½ by 11 piece of paper that had arrived in a business envelope.  I was living in Fort Worth, Texas, and preparing to resume an M.Div. program at Brite Theological Seminary.  A routine evaluation indicated a significant drop in my “energy level” compared to 2 ½ years before, when I had left for Argentina.  The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)) would pay for psychotherapy.

I was scared—not of the depression, which, like an old couch, was easy to sink into, but scared that someone cared enough to see it named and remedied.  I was also curious.

I looked at the tall stack of theology books I’d bought for my Fall classes.  I did not want to read a single one of them.

The therapist suggested I take Effexor, to jumpstart my mood, she said–to take the edge off.  Effexor made me feel even edgier, as if I couldn’t respond to gravity.  Plus, it interfered with sleep.

The therapist cut out an ad for an M.A. in Women’s Studies.

I loved Sarah Lawrence College and New York City, but my depression didn’t disappear.  A therapist in the SLC counseling center prescribed Prozac.  I hated it.  The therapist said I was healthy enough for psychoanalysis and told me how I could do it affordably.

For five years, I lay on the analyst’s couch 4 days a week.  When I taught K-12 Spanish, I met her at her office in White Plains at 6:00 am.  Like a gentle voice in my head, she sat behind me.

While in psychoanalysis, I functioned well enough—I got married and taught Spanish.  I maintained steady progress towards my PhD while I grieved my brother’s death.

With my psychoanalyst, I finally talked about the depression and anorexia I endured as an adolescent:  an asshole in the hallway had grabbed my crotch, hard, while I was trying to get to math class.  Before, talking about it was not a possibility.  There was no language for that–no #MeToo.  Shame was the only language, and I didn’t want anyone to discover my shame.

What saved me during those years—8th to 11th grades—was my grand piano.


At the Young Chang before and after the Hallway Assault. Before, my back is easily straight and shoulders wide. After, I wear a lot of makeup to cover my shame and frilly clothes to hide my anger. After, the camera looms from above,  and I pose  modestly –hands together! legs together!

Thank god my teacher assigned me a powerful Grieg concerto in G minor.  I didn’t master the concerto, but I could hit the right notes, and my unacknowledged anger flowed into those giant chords.  I hammered my Young Chang for four hours a day. My right shoulder ached. My parents made sacrifices to buy the Young Chang, but none of us knew it would save me.

not skinny enough
Summer after 9th grade: In world where any perpetrator can grab your crotch anywhere, mild anorexia affords a sense of control.

When we direct anger inward, it makes us depressed, and that can kill us.  But feminine anger, outwardly expressed, is not lady like, not nice, not professional.  Boys learn to direct their anger outwardly (boys will be boys).  Men have a right to anger.  Our society punishes displays of feminine anger, and I didn’t need punishment.

My current piano teacher says for a small lady, I have a heavy touch.  She is teaching me to play lightly.

I’m learning a gentle Baroque Sarabande in G Major.  It is from Bach’s 5th French Suite.  Murray Perahia (whom I saw perform in Western Illinois University’s Grand Ball Room in the 80s) says G Major is the “tender” key.  Practicing the Sarabande (link to Perahia’s recording), I feel that all shall be well.




Practicing Self-Compassion

I could surf the web, never reading an entire article, or try to give something to you, my dear readers.  I mean, give you something.

I force myself up the stairs to turn off the modem.  Now it is just me and you, my dear readers.

At my side–a heavy-cream latte made by the baristas in Hy-Vee. I am nervous but I should be fine.


Heavy-cream latte at my side. I’ll get to the spider webs later.

I am anxious and ruminate constantly, I told my therapist.  She already knew about my layoff and unresolved arbitration.  When she suggested I learn about the practice of self-compassion, I balked—it sounded like trendy self-help—like surfing, not really diving into the wreck.  I had already read my share of books on mindfulness and the like.

“Kristin Neff,” my therapist was firm.  Skeptically, I watched one of Neff’s Ted Talks, and then ordered her book.

Give yourself compassion for the wave of pain you are suffering, says Neff.  Pause, acknowledge your pain, recognize how hard it is to feel pain, how your own suffering connects you with all of humanity.

Maybe I don’t want to be connected with humanity—especially not if we are all suffering, all vulnerable, all so imperfect.  Maybe if I keep myself cut off from you, dear reader, I can be perfect and not suffer!

Except that my anger is bottomless and I lash out at my kids. Losing my temper feels both terrible and sublime, but shame (how could I act that way in front of my children???) stalks me and sucks me down into a toxic flush.  I log on to Neff’s self-compassion website, close my eyes, and follow one of her guided meditations.

The New York Times had been reporting on the science of ruminating: women ruminate more than men (this is because the playing field of life is not level and women have to be on watch, and we have to excel–only to be laid off or lose an important election), and people who ruminate are more vulnerable to depression and anxiety.

I begin to notice how frequently I ruminate about Western Illinois University:

in the middle of the night,

when I wake up in the morning,

when I go for a walk,

a run,

when I drive to a Cross Country meet,

Shopping in Aldi

when I try to meditate,

when I cook,

when I play Chopin

And why can’t my brother still be alive to help me?  Chad, why did you have to get yourself sucked into an ice-cold river whose flow had been rudely interrupted by a defunct dam?

This is a moment of pain. 

Everyone suffers.

May I hold my pain with tenderness.

I no longer wake up at 2:00 am to ruminate.  In the mornings, my thoughts are calm.

What I can give to you is recognition of the waves of suffering that define what it means to be alive.  There is happiness as well.  I cannot give you self-compassion–you have to give that to yourself.  I’m still working on it.

Thank you, dear reader.