Friday, June 24, 2011

Adventures in Academia: High Weirdness With Computers and a Letter

The spring sunlight brightened the world outside my office window with a promise of even warmer days to come. Here, from the third-floor aerie of the college’s graphic design teaching program, I could see the bright neon glow of new green leaves and the ebb and flow of human tides as classes began and ended and began again.

Like the seasons, the activities of the college followed a regular pattern, and the arrival of springtime meant that we were nearing the end of our annual budget cycle. That cycle had begun last July, when we got word of how much money our department would have for the next 12 months. When that money actually reached us in August, we started buying things we needed for fall and spring semesters—office supplies, new planning books for the faculty, printer paper, markers and chalk and erasers for our classrooms, which were prominently featured in our marketing materials: “You will learn the newest techniques of graphic design working with state-of-the-art computers and the latest software.”

What we couldn’t afford, though, were those state-of-the-art computers and latest software. Money for those items had been held hostage for several years by our legislators, who refused to believe that any form of stable funding for education—especially for community colleges—could possibly benefit our state’s citizens.

But that spring, we had actually received some encouragement. After several years of ongoing discussions, the college’s administrators had agreed to let us use the lab fees they charged for classroom materials to purchase brand-new computers and software for our classrooms! And though we all thought this sounded like a no-brainer, the decision had taken three years; such was the pace of decision making in academia.

With frustration now replaced by boundless delight, we decided to share this good news with our students and Kitty, my boss, asked me to draft a letter to them. The letter would be especially important for students coming back in fall term, since the college was planning to raise lab fees considerably. We didn’t want a student revolution on our hands as Kitty surrendered steerage of our department to its new coordinator, Cabana Boy.

So I sat at my computer, drafting the letter and looking out over campus as the landscape began to flower and youthful hormones began to surge. I had been reading a lot in my spare time about earth religions, the pagan calendar, and the various rituals for reawakening that were appropriate for springtime. Drafting a happy letter to students fit right in! And while this job didn’t always use my highest skills and I sometimes copped a ho-hum attitude as the college moved through its annual cycle, I realized that I was basically content here. My co-workers were creative, lively, and liked to laugh, and there was a steady paycheck twice a month.

Life was good.

I finished the letter. Kitty liked my draft, tweaked the letter in a couple of places, and signed it. I made copies, and we gave the letter out to students as we approached finals week.

Spring warmed into early summer; June gave way to July and the new fiscal year. Cabana Boy took over from Kitty as coordinator, and our good humor carried us through the transition. Some of our students graduated and took jobs; others moved on to four-year colleges. We registered our returning students for fall term with no audible complaints about the increase in lab fees.

We started planning our computer and software purchases, and submitted the required paperwork to Dr. Doubledud, our division director, who was widely regarded as being one of those public employees who was retired on active duty. We’d done our jobs, though, and then some—bowing and scraping as our department hosted a seeming throng of new college trustees, dragged through as part of a tour of the college’s showcase programs—so we settled happily into our summer routine.

Life continued to be good, until our purchasing paperwork fell into a black hole that seemed deeper and blacker the longer the summer went on. When Dr. Doubledud returned from the World’s Longest Vacation, Cabana Boy was lucky enough one day to reach him by phone to get a progress report.

Hmmmm. It seemed that we’d had the mother of all misunderstandings. Cabana Boy was assured, via Dr. Doubledud, that the college never had any intention of using lab fees in those programs where those fees were actually collected. Would we get new computers this year? Nope. New software? Nope.

Now, at this point, here is what a good bureaucrat would have done: Nothing. And here is what a good bureaucrat would have said: Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. And so here is where the story would have ended.

Except that I had never been that good bureaucrat, and anger rose up within me like a lion because that letter Kitty signed, that went out to students—that letter that I drafted—that letter, from back in spring term when the earth was turning and the world was greening and we were basking in a garden of delight—that letter was now a lie.

A lie told, unwittingly, by Kitty, who was right up there at the top of my list of favorite and best supervisors ever. Favorite, because we had similar interests and enjoyed giggles and good conversation about things that were totally unrelated to our jobs. Best, because she was smart, organized, honest, trustworthy, and knew how to give direction without micromanaging. Any one of these traits would have been enough to set her head and shoulders above most supervisors, but she had them all—in droves. And it’s because of her honesty that I had that lion anger about her letter’s being made out to be a lie—because she didn’t lie.

So what I thought of as my Artemis energy—that energy that protects animals, children, those weaker and more helpless than those predators who prey on them—started to kick in. And when Artemis kicks in, look out.

Cabana Boy and Kitty were both thrown for a loop by Dr. Doubledud’s assertions, because they had both been in the meetings in which the lab fee and computer purchase issues were discussed, and they both had heard the same assurances: Lab fees would stay in the departments where they were collected and would be used to purchase materials that were needed for those departments.

It turned out that Cabana Boy wasn’t the best bureaucrat in the world, either. He made some phone calls on the sly to other administrators who were in those same meetings—something he should have cleared with Dr. Doubledud first, because administrators always liked for their underlings to “go through channels”—and was told no, those things he had thought that he actually heard were never actually said.

We realized that perhaps something involving the college’s finances had changed dramatically, something that we didn’t know about—something that would mean the college desperately needed to use those lab fees somewhere else, at least for this year—but none of us could figure out why, if that were the case, the administrators would feel they should lie about it.

Kitty finally accepted the situation but Cabana Boy and I remained flummoxed, certain that there was something more we could or should do, but not sure what that something was.

Then I remembered: The college’s president, Dr. Tumbleweed—for whom I had once written speeches—had what he called an open-door policy, and frequently made himself accessible to students, staff, and faculty by plopping down in various well-announced places on campus for an hour or so, to take questions and comments from anyone and everyone who showed up.

Surely, I thought, if he knew about this situation, he could do something to fix it. He could work some magic, and Kitty would no longer be made out to be a liar to our students. All we wanted, really, were some new computers and new software. All our marketing materials said we had them! We were a showcase department for the college! Why should we have to beg?

I was not above begging, though—or communicating with the college’s president—if either would get us the equipment our students needed. I decided to write a letter because I was the only support staff person, and if I left my desk to meet with Dr. Tumbleweed we would have to close the office.

“Dear Dr. Tumbleweed,” I typed, “I could very easily title this letter, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger.’” It was one of his favorite phrases, so I figured it would buy me some absolution for what I was about to say: “Our administrators have just made my former supervisor out to be a liar.” And I explained the whole situation, in as much detail as would fit on one page—how neither Kitty nor Cabana Boy were in the habit of hearing things that weren’t said, how we could all understand if something in the college’s budget had changed and in that case, we would all like to hear what that was and why the funds we had been assured we would get were not actually coming to us. Most of all, I stressed that our students were expecting to be trained on the latest hardware and software, and that wasn’t happening.

I marked the letter “CONFIDENTIAL,” sent it through campus mail, and waited.

Weeks went by, and we began fall term with old computers and old software. One day, we had a call from Ruby, Dr. Doubledud’s administrative assistant. Dr. Doubledud wanted a meeting with Kitty and Cabana Boy.

I got a really knotty feeling in the pit of my stomach, the same feeling I got when I had a strong psychic flash that turned out to be right; it was not a pleasant sensation.

“You don’t think this could be about my letter to Dr. Tumbleweed, do you?” I asked both Cabana Boy and Kitty. They doubted it, but I felt no relief.

I have found out, over time, that my stomach does not lie in cases like this. Kitty and Cabana Boy returned from the meeting with long faces. I sensed instantly that something had gone terribly wrong.

“What is it?” I asked. My voice was almost shaking.

“It was about you,” they told me, “and the letter you wrote. Dr. Tumbleweed wanted us to fire you. We said no.”

Kitty and Cabana Boy explained to Dr. Doubledud that they had read the letter before I sent it, that they agreed with what I had said, that there was absolutely no difference between my writing a letter when I could have walked up to Dr. Tumbleweed at an open office hour and said exactly the same things I said in the letter, and furthermore, the letter had been marked CONFIDENTIAL so how was it that Dr. Doubledud now knew about it?

When they refused to fire me, Dr. Doubledud hit them with another gem: They had to give assurances that they would tell me that I was never, ever to communicate with Dr. Tumbleweed again.

“Why would she?” Cabana Boy asked. “She marked her letter confidential, and he’s now violated that confidentiality. You can be sure she’ll never communicate with him again.”

No, I thought, I certainly never would. I was rendered speechless by their support, and bewildered by this crazy turn of events. Dr. Tumbleweed was, after all, not a stranger; I had worked directly for him for a time, and we had, I thought, gotten along fairly well.

That night when I got home, I asked my husband, “What kind of organization is it that tries to silence its employees?”

He thought for a while, but not long.

“Fascist,” he replied.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, during World War II, described the domination of the government by corporate power as “the essence of fascism.” Benito Mussolini said that fascism should be called corporatism because it is essentially the merger of state and corporate power. Essential to fascism’s success, it seems to me, is a population that is afraid to speak out, to challenge those people who use power in ways that harm other people and harm the planet. A silent citizenry is a doomed citizenry.

“Adventures in Academia” is a chapter from “Failed Bureaucrat,” a work in progress.


  1. Hi Alex! I hope that's not like having the grippe. :-)

  2. Yikes! Perhaps you should've labelled it Top Secret?

    Ah, gotta love college presidents who are totally out to lunch with their heads so far up donors' butts they let bad administrators run amuck.