Glorious, heroic, fruitful for his own Time, and for all Time and all Eternity, is the constant Speaker and Doer of Truth! If no such again, in the present generation, is to be vouchsafed us, let us have at least the melancholy pleasure of beholding a decided Liar. Thomas Carlyle, “Count Cagliostro”
So here I am in my second year at ZU at a fall faculty meeting. And, after twenty minutes in, wondering, What the hell are you doing? Who is this person? Do I know you? The one suddenly shouting at the college’s President, Dr. D’main, and not only is this person—moi?—roaring—and three years later an amused colleague tells me, “You’ll forever be known as the guy who went ape-shit in front of Dr. D” I’m also watching my left arm wind-milling like Pete Townshend in “Won’t Be Fooled Again” when I mean to be pounding the chair’s tablet, which I then do—it’s on the right-hand side–and the little librarian to my right tells me that my hammering is causing him to levitate in his chair.
The large over-flow crowd—over flowing partly because the auditorium has yet to be built, and thus yet to leak, but mostly so they can depart as soon as possible without being noticed—goes wild, like the Chicago Seven verdict had come in. Sadly, the fun is spoiled when a senior psych professor (and why does it always have to be a psych prof? Shouldn’t they be tending to their rats or throwing switches in some lab at Yale?). She goes on about “acting out”—someone snorts and someone else passes me a drawing of a blue tumbrel.
Things settle down and the president goes on as if nothing has happened (uncannily like my own genteel Republican family, so maybe she’s not so far off with the acting-out thing).
But something happened here, didn’t it? And here’s what. But perhaps it’s useful, first, to know that the President of Zirconium worked his way through college and grad. School performing magic tricks, and at the meeting he’s doing the same thing, albeit writ large. When Dr. D. addresses an audience there’s usually a Liberty half dollar ringing the changes over the fingers of his right hand; this takes place usually when a knife is about to lodged between the ribs. Today’s sleight of hand—before I become ground zero–involves bemoaning the current state of the college—declining enrolment, a recalcitrant county legislature cutting back the budget, the obstructionist union (negotiations are going on), and last, wait for it—the burden of the senior faculty or, in his regularly preferred term, “deadwood.”
Ka-Boom! I can still see a large Marvel Comics blazing orange-red star over my head. Jansen starts pounding and shouting about arrogance, respect, dignity and seems even to have said, “I won’t have it!” (Too much to the manner born, I guess.)
Like a scene from Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, the President gets out his little black notebook and appears to be writing something down, probably my name and that of a local hit man he knows. (He employs the notebook as a stage prop, like Torvald holding a pen when pretending to listen to Nora, taking it out unobtrusively and jotting something down, a sign of his caring. Later, someone finds it on the floor of the faculty dining room. It’s blank.) In another life, perhaps, he’d be holding up his wine glass and spilling severed ears from a wrinkled paper bag, saying, “Something for your poetry, no?”
Like a lot of authoritarians, he gets bonus points for defending free speech at the college—when the sheriff’s department comes to the school newspaper office and confiscates fifty copies of the school paper. I’m the advisor and something offends. Possibly the bumper stickers we display on the back page of the issue that follows the firing of Archibald Cox: Nixon Has a Staff Infection (from radical hospital nurses), and, this is the clincher, Impeach The Cox Sacker(remember Nixon, the football fan?). The president defends the paper and the advisor—either he has respect for me, which I doubt, or he thinks of me as a common house fly. Still, he later signs off on my tenure (although I’m dismissed the year before; the world is a wheel). And he defends a vaguely “obscene” feminist art exhibit. None of this costs money, and a year later the art gallery is gone).
It may be about, say, now. Or, possibly earlier, like by my second sentence, you may be wondering what am I up to? Well, duh, we’re talking about power and powerlessness. And obedience—remember them switches at Yale? There are no quasi-genteel Hegelian overloads here. Working for a public college is like gradually being crushed, like Princess Leia and Luke in Star Wars with all that garbage, lettuce leaves and sundry robot parts. Or like that story by that Poe guy. The key is the search for solidarity, which keeps the walls from closing in.
And I’ve got two more evil presidents to deal with: Raison and Bossy (as a side-line, he imports underwear, thongs in particular, from Russian sweat shops. And there’s more with Pres. D’main.
Coming Soon! Tenured Faculty Fired!!! Religious Studies Scandal! Courtroom Drama! Huge Fines!
(And, I’m not done with Carylye)
Reamy Jansen is a Professor in the…but it is better not to mention the department. There is nothing more irritable than departments….Therefore, in order to avoid all unpleasantness, it will be better to describe the department in question only as a certain department.
 And, lo and behold, a friend of mine in the bio department recounts to my wife, Leslie, “I’ll never forget it.” This some thirty years later—apparently “ape-shit” has been expunged. Although to this very day I still seem to have a bad habit of interrupting presidents and sundry vice presidents.
 Senior faculty become something of a leitmotif for presidents. Another president, Dr. Raison, tells a radio interviewer that the senior faculty, whom he’d earlier praised at a meeting, is holding up the negotiations and undermining the very mission of the school. I just about go off the road in shock while trying to find a pay phone.
A third president—presidents depart and arrive with the regularity of Italian prime ministers in the ‘70s—is overheard telling a member of his staff that he’d like to take a baseball bat to the senior faculty.