An academic’s mortal sin

25 04 2011

It’s no secret that the rigors of academic life place tremendous stress on college students; the challenges of heavy course load, an often brutal social battlefield, and uncertain employment prospects post graduation can drive students to depression or, in tragic occasions, even suicide.

Yet there’s another pressure point in the modern university system – one that receives a lot less attention from the mainstream media: the often bitter politicking that occurs between academics and the vulnerability of instructors lacking the magical armor of tenure.

Perhaps this situation will be given a bit more attention now that a non-tenured Princeton Spanish instructor, Dr. Antoni Calvo, has committed suicide after losing his position (and his work visa) in a potentially politically-motivated firing. This New York Times article has more information, but Princeton has been far from generous with the details so far.

This has led to some speculation that Calvo, though almost universally loved by students and other members of the Princeton community (he was nicknamed “St. Antonio” for his generosity and love of his students), was fired for being, at times, less than politically correct – a mortal sin in academia.

Unless, of course, one has received tenure, at which point one is free to make any number of offensive, outlandish, and generally insulting statements free of consequences; recall University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill’s post-9/11 comments about “little Eichmanns.” Churchill lost his tenure only after investigations revealed separate instances of academic misconduct.

By comparison, Calvo’s assault on modern politically correct sensibilities involved colorful language and Spanish colloquialisms. From the New York Times article:

Dr. Calvo told a graduate student that she deserved a slap on the face, and slapped his own hands together. In another, he jokingly referred to a male student’s genitalia in an e-mail, using a common Spanish expression that implores someone to get to work.

It’s impossible to tell what turns the Dr. Calvo story will eventually take. Calvo’s drastic decision to take his own life suggests that other factors beyond a simple firing, whether personal or work-related, were at play. The story is certainly worth following as more details begin to emerge. I hope that investigations into the matter will bring some solace to the Princeton community.

In the mean time, we need to examine an archaic and often abused system of tenure that insulates a small cadre of academic elite from criticism and accountability while leaving instructors like Calvo, who dare challenge the politically correct conventions of higher education, to the wolves.

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