#6: Those Who Lift Up and Those Who Tear Down
Updated: Dec 2, 2022
If they really do this to you, I'll step down as Chair.
They did it. He did it, too.
The Anniversary Effect is defined as "a unique set of unsettling feelings, thoughts or memories that occur on the anniversary of a significant experience" (Psychology Today, 5/19/11).
Most students, alumni, and professional peers associated with the university for which I used to work are not aware of how my 20-year career ended in a matter of days, just two years ago.
As I sit down to write, I am definitely experiencing "a unique set of unsettling feelings, thoughts [and] memories." Not necessarily because I’m reflecting on the event–because today I’m reflecting on the people.
As TimeHop, Facebook, and other social media platforms continue to make our memories more accessible, our "digital anniversaries" are becoming commonplace. They occur daily as we open our apps over innocent cups of coffee. Today’s clip from my veritable “This Is Your Life!” comes in the form of a fellow colleague at the university.
“If they really do this to you, I'll step down as Chair.”
I was sitting with a fellow Chair tenured across campus. He was sitting with me as a friend might sit in silence with someone grieving a great loss. We were both flummoxed and in shock at my sudden demotion and loss of salary.
We were sitting across from each other, staring out his office window when he broke the silence, "Well...I'll tell you what, John. If they really do this to you, I'll step down as Chair."
He was dead serious. Though he wasn't much more than a professional acquaintance–someone with whom I had shared hours of committee time–he was willing to change the directional arc of his own career.
The kindness of strangers is just as loving as the kindness of friends, but it's more surprising.
Not many know the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to me leaving my job in 2020.
It had been a few weeks since the death of George Floyd. The summer of rage was just at the beginning. Some students, faculty, and alumni had reached out to their academic department leadership asking (sometimes demanding) a public Black Lives Matter statement.
The Dean of my own college had already written the Chairs detailing the mandate that only the president of the university was allowed to officially speak for the university. While faculty were free to speak their minds on political headlines and verbalize support for various organizations, their messaging would need to make clear that their opinions did not necessarily reflect those of the university.
Our Dean also clarified that our university email accounts were to be used for business purposes only, thus mandating faculty to refrain from political discourse through campus email.
To add to the obvious attempt to control otherwise volatile situations popping up across campus, he cautioned against allowing students or faculty to use our departments’ social media pages to express cultural or political opinions.
For me, as one of the Chairs in this college, his communication created a delay… as the Chair, I had to pause and ask my faculty to pause as we carefully considered how to proceed. In that pause, a few of our alumni forced the conversation onto our main social media page.
During the first weeks of the pandemic, I had taken responsibility for posting daily on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages. It's something I really enjoyed–an oasis amidst the stress of lockdowns, panic, and wondering who among us might fall ill.
Additionally, my wife was working as a professional social media specialist at the time and she mentioned the vital role all of her clients’ social media accounts were playing in terms of retention, gaining financial support, and communicating changing policies regarding Covid.
Instantaneous disconnection was forced upon all of us in the early days of the pandemic.
As we ended our semester 100% virtually, my goal was to unite our students, faculty, and alumni around feel-good stories, memories, personal profiles, and headlines from our industry that were interesting and educational.
“We’re in this together!” That was the idea.
With these daily postings, our page analytics revealed a 3,400% increase in engagement from March to June 2020. Eventually, the plan was to leverage these exciting numbers into several calls to action. Our theatre needed a complete overhaul, more donors, and a strategic invitation to a greater number of students.
But when we failed to immediately address alumni demand for an official stance on #blacklivesmatter a few former students attacked our department's Facebook page.
The mob began with 3.
Being Facebook friends with all three, I sent them a private message telling them I was going to delete their comments (I wanted to keep everything on our public page positive), but I encouraged them to have the conversation on our private alumni page, which had hundreds of alumni and most of our faculty as part of its membership.
This action was the flint stone that lit the very short fuse which set off a series of explosions over the next 72 hours.
Looking back, I realize what an intense disadvantage I was in trying to navigate this during the beginning of the pandemic. All the communicative attempts to deal with heightened emotions happened either in written form or inside Zoom squares.
“Bob, you’re muted.” Bob’s name has been changed to protect his discomfort with technology.
Okay, I’m Bob. But, I digress . . .
What we desperately needed was an in-person sit-down with any willing faculty, students, or alumni in the area.
And probably wine. Lots of wine.
To be sure, I wasn't afraid of the conversation. I welcomed it. I just wanted the proper venue, and Facebook–in front of our donors, community members, and parents–wasn't it.
If this were a play, this is where you would need to weave in several more threads of character and plot, including:
an opportunistic faculty member who saw this as THE opportunity to "take me down"
an anti-Christian bias from many online attackers who cultivated spurious and unfounded assumptions about me based on my faith
the fruit of activist scholarship in our academies that has made EVERYTHING about race, gender, identity, oppression, and victimhood
the fear of reprisal that kept 100% of my supporters publicly and digitally silent.
72 hours later my reputation was being flogged in front of my eyes. What was happening online had offline repercussions that started offline explosions and ended my very real career.
It didn't matter that I had a "blood, sweat, and tears" relationship with so many of my faculty peers, students, and alumni. With nearly all of them I shared mutual, positive regard; and many of them were genuine friends.
Even so, when the attacks came, I became a name in a digital space. Pixels on a screen.
None of my accusers seemed to want to relate to me as a human being.
Irrespective of being responsible for hiring and promoting some of them, and teaching, directing, advising, recommending, celebrating, and awarding many others, there would be no benefit of the doubt extended in my direction.
Digital excoriation was sent with exclamation points and backed up with hearts and thumbs up.
There are so many rabbit holes from this experience to which I could now transition.
Perhaps those will be subjects for another blog...
For now, I'm left not with all the digital noise and static from 2 years ago, but with the companionship of a peer--the one who did indeed step down when my sentence was pronounced. He took a flesh and blood stand against what was being perpetrated.
It reminded me of the words of Jesus in John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends."
This person didn't give up his life, but he did alter his career.
He also showed up at my house to help us load our truck when we were moving away six weeks later.
There were so many people on my campus watching this play out in real time.
Here is a list representing those who did not stand up for me:
colleagues who had complained to me about the very faculty member who started the fire and knew exactly the kind of person that faculty member is
men and women who began as students but who became close friends of over a decade or more
any of the leadership under whom I had been promoted to Chair or the head of the school I led
Here are those who did stand up for me:
a small group of students, most of whom had grown in relationship with my wife and me through moments of counseling around our dinner table
other Chairs and Deans across campus who wrote letters to the president of the university
community officials who knew my wife and me through various community organizations
other adults who had been through difficulties in their own lives and knew heartache and injustice when they saw it.
Without a spot on my record throughout my 20-year career, I voluntarily pulled away from the home we never intended on leaving surrounded by a faithful few we never expected.
The kindness and love they showed us during those weeks and after marked the beginning of a new community, a new understanding of loving one another, and a new life.