Me Burn My Bridge? You Lit It

Pyrite cube from Fuente del Moro, Navajún, Spain.
Pyrite cube from Fuente del Moro, Navajún, Spain.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

1. This Just Happened

In late August 2019, Millicent Whitehat, a recently retired college instructor, came up to me late one afternoon as we were leaving a reception at the university.

“So, you have a job on campus, right?”

“Yeah, webmaster for the College of Education and Health Professions, three years last July. It’s been great, it really has.”

“I’m very glad to hear it. You know, they did not treat you right, and I’ve felt bad about it, but nothing I could do. That [Reedman], I don’t know how you worked with him. He’s never fit in, I’m not sure who likes him. He has no personality.”

No personality, what did she mean by that?

“I’m not sure he was the problem. I felt we got along, got along well enough. He’s of a type in newsrooms that I knew, so I felt I could handle anything that came up with him. I never figured out what happened, that made them cut me out of the job. Do you know?”

“No, I never really heard.”

“I’ve wanted to find out, but to ask around I never knew who to approach. I mean, who really knew and who would tell me, and would they be truthful or lie, or would they know just part of what happened or just one point of view, and still there’d be no complete picture then either.”

“I understand. You’d best forget it and move on. I guess you did move on.”

“Yes, I did and this is great, where I’ve landed. Yes I’ve obviously moved on, but no I can’t forget. That’s just not something I could do. That hands it to them, you know?”

A mutual friend at that moment joined us, as if they had come in together and obviously heading toward the car. Millicent’s manner indicated the friend’s presence ended our talk. We exchanged cheerful good-byes, and I walked toward the campus center.

[Quotation marks are used here because I’m certain of near-journalistic accuracy. The absence of such punctuation later indicates reliance on strong memory.

[Names HAVE been changed. However, my name as always is “I” or “me.”]

So did Millicent know what happened? Gosh, how could she? 

Department chair Baton knows, most or all. Ethics center director (interim director at the time) Reedman knows, at least his role in it. Now-retired Professor Alto is complicit and had to have colluded. Beloved Professor Bass told me several times all this happened at levels above him and he was powerless. All assistant department chair Dr. Cornet had for me was a sudden gesture of empathy. Their word for me: “insubordinate.” The allegation is false.

I have never spoken of the “maladventure” except to my life partner because it had not seemed in my best interests — that eternal advice about burning bridges and me back in the job hunt then needing to impress those with the new position, best face forward and all that, cheerio.

Pyrite cube from Fuente del Moro, Navajún, Spain.

Burning Bridges

One maxim that young people often are tossed is, Don’t burn your bridges.

The point of the proverb:

You never know when you’ll cross paths with these people and need something from them. If you antagonize those people, all one’s former superiors and certain of one’s former colleagues, they WILL react against you.

Then why is it, in every case that comes to mind, THEY set the fire.


2. First Day

The department until later in the decade was on the first floor of a building set into a hill, more of a basement. The space was at capacity so for their proposed Ethics Center Dr. Alto and Mr. Bass were assigned a small odd suite one floor up, the ground floor. It had a main room, two small interior offices one with a narrow window, and a narrow break room with a sink.

Funding for the center came from a chancellor’s discretionary fund. This paid the salaries of Dr. Reedman and me and that of a part-time graduate research assistant. It funded gutting these rooms then painting and refurbishing them, with that finished shortly before we, the interim director and interim assistant director, moved in Tuesday, July 15, 2014.

Significantly perhaps, our office was separated from the rest of the department. I missed the conviviality from when a fellow graduate teaching assistant and I shared an office in the administrative suite in 2002-03.

Reedman did not have a computer in the first month so worked most of each day in an equipped classroom downstairs. This was ideal for him to get to know other faculty and the staff. Even after his desktop was installed Reedman spent hours a day down there till classes began in late August.

Alto called a meeting for 10 that first Tuesday. Earlier I roughly set up my desk area. I brought a homemade zucchini or banana bread. Alto brought in her homemade treat. Reedman brought in store-bought cookies. Bass brought his mug of coffee.

Alto led the meeting with Bass bringing up points. The center would open at 9. Reedman’s duties as listed were comparable to the job posting description. Mine were detailed. Reedman was full-time as director that would include teaching an Ethics class each semester, a tenure-track assistant professor.

For payroll, I was faculty as a full-time instructor, on a renewable nine-month contract, the first year being 10 months to set up the center. My assistant director duties were considered 50 percent with the other half teaching. 

One assistant director duty was to oversee the grad assistant we’d see when the semester began. Other duties would be created as needed. With my second skill after the journalism set, my second duty was to create and oversee a website and run social media.

As instructor, I would oversee the writing labs of the Fundamentals class. I would oversee two graduate teaching assistants each with four labs, while I taught two labs. In the spring I also would teach a regular 3-credit class. 

3. Some Background

In that initial meeting, I was formally told something that had come up earlier: having a unique website, not just a some pages within the academic departmental website, was a priority.

It had been recommended strongly by a consultant, a respected semiretired professional in our field. He had outlined the program’s first couple of years, with the two-professor Steering Committee and a virtual office the first year where the half-time grad assistant took calls and email. Dr. Reedman and I were brought in for the second year along with a physical office.

My orders were so clear I could jump confidently into routine tasks and the big one, the website.

Months earlier, postings for the director and assistant director had been published a few weeks of one another. The former had with a minimum requirement of being on track to complete a doctorate though recommended the terminal degree already be in hand.

Academically holding pat with a master’s, I did not bother to apply. The assistant directorship, however, would be a dream for me, a career capstone using decades of journalism skills applied to my ongoing fascination with ethics, plus the second skill set I had been developing since 2002, the Web. That world was full of code developers and site designers, so I had applied my editing and writing skills to content management.

Alas, earlier in the spring I received a rejection letter from Dr. Alto. Then a few weeks later she telephoned to see if I was still available. The person picked for the top job withdrew. The next best candidate in their view was their choice for assistant director, Reedman. Putting him at the top required an interim one-year appointment as he didn’t apply directly — state hiring policy.

I had come in second so would I accept that also as an interim appointment. Alto said that my being offered the post was approved by a faculty vote unanimously!

I asked Dr. Alto for Reedman’s phone number in Maryland so we could chat. It was amiable.

4. Too Successful

By Tuesday afternoon I located and emailed the webmaster of the College of Arts and Sciences, explaining the situation. Her answer was pleasant though a bit vague so I donned my figurative reporter hat. Wednesday morning after settling in, I walked across campus to her office and knocked.

She was surprised but the conversation warmed in no time. She was very busy planning then migrating all the college’s formal websites to a new system, but we figured this out in just a few minutes. The ethics center website would be on WordPress, great since that platform was my specialty, and she said all I needed was the name for the domain, the blankety-blank-dot-uark-dot-edu.

Victory, virtually overnight. 

Mr. Bass emphatically and to a lesser extent Dr. Alto had told me of their frustration at getting the college webmaster to do anything for them during the entire first year of the center. Also, they had said this was my duty and Dr. Reedman need not worry about it.

The virtue of being a late-career professional is anticipating likely reactions. So I considered how to present my win to give least offense. My plan was wait a day or two and present my information straightforward and diplomatically.

Late that first week I briefed the three.

What happened next: Nothing.

You can’t have a domain without a domain name. After weeks the Steerers accepted my recommendation for a name. After more weeks they accepted my site design. In the entire academic term, they never approved putting the website public.

I stayed ready for that moment, though. Daily I filled it with blog posts of links to current ethics issues as they arose across the country, a page of resources, a page of links to codes of ethics within sections of the profession and so on. When they gave me the word, then it could be published instantly.

Not being wasteful, I sent those blog posts to the world via the center’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, after Reedman approved them. He rarely made a change and then it would be just a word or comma.

5. Access to Access

As the website for the ethics center neared completion, I asked Dr. Reedman if he would like to have access to it, to create posts and edit pages and so forth. Of course, he said.

I responded that he probably should have second-to-the-top access, WordPress “editor,” as he had had no training as yet and neither of us would want unintentional changes or deletions.

I’m director of the center so by definition I must have top “administrator” access, Reedman said.

But, Reedman, the only work you’ve done on any website was to post your stories at the Post and you said that was just a button to push.

I offered basic training or to arrange for the campus-wide web designer to work with Reedman, and he said no.

He insisted he be made a full administrator. So with zero further argument from me, I did. Just like I was taught in various newsrooms from the start decades ago, one states one’s objections and when the superior stated the final decision, you shut up and complied instantly.

Reedman and I only had one other flare-up. It was later in the fall.

He called me into his office with a friendly to neutral tone. We began a conversation, I don’t recall specifics, then he started taking notes on a letter pad. His comments turned into more of an interrogation.

I said his note-taking making me uncomfortable. He continued regardless, asking me questions over something routine. It wasn’t like being interviewed, which I could handle. It felt like I was dropped into a legal deposition.

My objection made Dr. Reedman furious. This was the only time he raised his voice with me.

6. Ernie

Chesterfield magazine ad featuring revered war correspondent Ernie Pyle
Chesterfield magazine ad featuring revered war correspondent Ernie Pyle

In outfitting my corner of the ethics center I hung a page from a 1944 Saturday Evening Post. It is a full-page advertisement for Chesterfield cigarettes, featuring the image and endorsement of a celebrity spokesman. Why, it’s revered World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle. 

If my career-long fascination with ethics taught me anything it was how right principles shift with the times. I employed this when I taught upperclass undergraduates ethics in spring semester 2003, assigned to teach the class by Dr. Alto, then department chair. She approved my syllabus where I used nearly all current examples of possible ethics violations, a few photocopies and no conventional textbook.

Ernie Pyle these days would be seen as crossing the line by endorsing a product, even though he was a columnist not a reporter. It appears no other print journalist of the era did so, according to the Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising project. Radio commentators and announcers, such as Walter Winchell, were more commonly featured.

For me the framed ad was intended to be a conversation opener for any who pointed it out, about changing standards. No one ever asked about it. 

No one for that matter questioned its appropriateness for an ethics center or hinted same. If they had I’d have taken it down with no back talk, just like I started parking my bicycle outside when Reedman after some weeks mentioned it, instantly and with my apology.

Was displaying the poster insubordinate? Wouldn’t that be a stretch?

7. In Residence

Another key recommendation of the consultant was to commission an Expert in Residence for a few weeks each year. The retired newsman was the first, which set the tone.

This person would be a veteran of our field but with some college-level teaching experience. The expert would make presentations to all classes in the department and conduct a public lecture. This person when in town — two or three days every other week — would live in a university-leased apartmen, take the center’s second office. And receive an attractive stipend from our budget.

The network TV correspondent we had in my fall semester was charming and dedicated to best principles in the profession. On her last day, Reedman and I were standing outside our building to tell her good-bye. Reedman continually moved around to stand between her and me.

With some discomfort, she witnessed this awkward pas de deux. In concession I finally said to her, It’s been great working with you, but I have to go inside and get some work done. She peered over Reedman’s shoulder and wish me good luck.

8. Summer School Prospect

At a departmental meeting in October 2014, Mr. Bass as senior faculty announced that he was taking names of those would be interested in teaching summer sessions in 2015.

After the meeting, I asked him to put me on that list. Most professors and instructors taught in the summers, to fill the income gap. After this 10-month contract, I would be a regular nine-month teacher. The other instructors had told me they were automatically renewed year after year, no sweat.

Bass, however, told me that I would not be needed for teaching that summer.

Though disappointed, I didn’t take it personally. After all, I was new. The regular term’s salary was big enough that my wife and I could swing the summer.

Maybe I should have seen he was telling me exactly what he was telling me.

Pyrite cube from Fuente del Moro, Navajún, Spain.

Rage to Confusion, Forget Forgiveness

The maxim is Forgive but Never Forget. It’s been a bit over four years, since May 2015, long time. Don’t have it in me to forgive. Won’t be forgetting.

Lewis Hyde’s new book A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past helps put this in perspective.

How about even minimum contrition by the actors? There’s been none. Now I haven’t reached out to the actors, but I’m the not victim how about the acted-upon. It’s not up to me. When I have crossed paths with any of the actors, they’ve been pleasant, if cool and distant.

Anger has faded, leaving a lingering mist of confusion.

All anyone can do really is move on.

I’ve been extravagantly lucky that I have been able to move to a steady job on a beautiful campus in a progressive city. That’s more than I thought possible from losing my career Labor Day 2012 to a new one starting in July 2016.

There’s no reason for this bliss to last, so I relish every darn day.


9. Mr. Baton

In fall 2014, Mr. Baton was entering his first year as department chair. We had known each other for over a decade, in the way I knew most of the faculty, from 2002-03 when I sharing an office with the other grad assistant in the administrative suite. All faculty stopped there at least once a day, for mail or coffee, or a bookkeeping task with the office manager, all in good humor.

Baton seemed like a good guy, well-regarded by all there and in the broader community as well.

With me in 2014-15, a quirk came up.

We’d meet occasionally in his office about one thing or another by his request or mine, either about the ethics center or my teaching. Baton always would ask about Mr. Airhorn. 

For roughly the previous couple of years and for the next couple of years, Airhorn was a reporter for a local TV station. In that capacity, Airhorn wrote a few stories for the TV station’s website — never put on the airwaves — casting doubt and making aspersions about this academic department and Baton in particular. 

One of Airhorn’s pieces suggested the first choice for ethics center director was less qualified than other applicants. Actually, she was qualified and had features that would make her a good pick. That person withdrew — though she told me later there were a number of reasons not this. That’s how Mr. Reedman and I were moved up.

Airhorn is responsible for his own work but, as a former midlevel newsroom manager, I thought he was poorly supervised and that his news director bore much of the blame for not killing these stories for less than thorough reporting and Airhorn’s blatant conflict of interest.

Airhorn earlier had been a business reporter for the local newspaper. The publication shared offices with the regional edition of the state newspaper where I worked. (Later the statewide absorbed the local.)

Every time Baton was alone with me in his office he would ask how well I knew Airhorn.

Every time I would say we knew one another by name, worked in different wings of the building and would exchange pleasantries when we crossed paths in the break room or restroom. That was it.

Every time Baton ask me this. I had no other answer for him. The routine got old, and it was unnerving. 

My other contact with Airhorn was none of Baton’s business. 

In any case, I did understand. Maybe Baton worried I was a mole.

10. Airhorn Does a Favor

Long after the Pollock family laundry-dry cleaners failed — I was 10 — my dad told me that’s how he found out who his true friends were. I put that with other shreds of memories: lots of people pulled a little away from him and my mom as some do after a death or a mild scandal. Yet a few people in their circles offered help, like part-time work that my dad often took and loans he didn’t. Almost never were they the people he and Mom would’ve predicted.

The mass newspaper layoff that hit me occurred Aug. 31, 2012. I saw his lesson in my life: someone would buy my lunch, a few had clear not vague job suggestions.

I entered the gig economy, working as a substitute-teacher and free-lancing web design projects as well as journalism. For a local web-only news source I covered election night returns that November. There at the courthouse for his TV station was Mr. Airhorn. We exchanged pleasantries, briefly, as we were competing.

As I continued covering the occasional event for the online news site, sometimes I’d run into Airhorn. In fall 2013 he turned “whitehat,” mentioning that his station was looking for a web editor, full time. He set up an interview for me in mid-September with the news director. It went well enough that there was another interview in mid-October, where the man offered me the job. I said I’d need overnight but that I was excited and honored. 

As I left through the conference room door, the news director said, Wait, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think you’d be a good fit.

That night, I phoned Airhorn. He didn’t know what turned his boss on me.

It was the last time Airhorn and I have spoken. Not on purpose, we just occupy different circles and never had much in common to begin with. He since left the station for another field where he has been successful.

11. Student Evaluations

In December 2014 or January 2015, Mr. Baton told me the evaluations of my writing lab students were rounding out to be merely average. As a new teacher, he was not expecting an Exceptional rating but Above Average was his minimum acceptable.

He said the student evaluations had to go up in spring semester or my contract could not be renewed.

From the previous August I had taken every teaching workshop the university offered new faculty. Even before Baton’s direction, I asked senior professors for advice, from planning to dealing with difficult students. While I knew how much I didn’t know, being new, day to day I saw that my students got it, whatever I was teaching that moment.

So for Spring Semester, I employed what few concrete suggestions I’d received from the Writing Lab evaluations for the next sections, and conscientiously taught my Web Design for Practitioners. In May, in the last days of classes, I gave all lots of time and encouragement to complete the forms during class.

No surprise, I earned that Above Average average.

It wouldn’t be enough, it was too late, Baton had told me in late March or early April, when he called me in to formally state my contract would not be renewed. 

The reason was that I was “insubordinate.” I asked Baton with whom, so I could apologize, make amends, as surely there was a misunderstanding at root. Outside of the above anecdotes, I felt no conflict with anyone nor had anyone brought anything up. Baton would not tell me.

Pyrite cube from Fuente del Moro, Navajún, Spain.

Possible Explanations

In terms of bad employer-employee relations, I don’t claim my tale is anything but minor. I wasn’t fired, but my one-term contract was not renewed

Maybe a labor advocate can see my tale as actionable, but it’s doubtful.

After four and a half years of reflection and finally writing it out here, one firm conclusion comes to mind: my being cut was due to several people not one. Not sure who. Some things, virtually unspoken, happened and may remain a mystery.

My partner in life though has an opinion. Dr. Reedman felt threatened by me. We are about the same age and in some ways had similar career trajectories. He may have been envious by the ready friendliness of seemingly the whole department toward me. His Ph.D. job was safe from M.A. me. That Mr. Airhorn blasted Mr. Baton and his department in a public forum may have aroused an irresolvable distrust of me by Baton.

I wonder: Could have this stemmed from prejudice? It doesn’t show, though some would say it does, but I’m a minority member. Over the decades I’ve come to see that sometimes when I’ve been screwed and can’t figure out why, then ethnicity, religion or some-such has to be at the root.

Something else?


12. The Hug out of Nowhere

Mr. Baton when he assumed leadership in summer 2014 informally made two other professors assistant department chairs, Mr. Bass and Dr. Cornet.

Informed of the contract nonrenewal in late spring 2015, I sat in Bass’s office and asked him what I had done, what I had done wrong.

It’s out of my hands. I’d tell you if I could, he said.

I asked him about the charge of insubordination. Bass remained silent.

On other days I tried to ask Dr. Alto, who with Bass formed the ethics center’s Steering Committee, but she never gave me over a moment of conversation. She was always about to rush off to class or a meeting or expecting an important phone call and so on.

I needed an explanation, just to know and even try to repair this mysterious offense. It was Bass or nothing.

All I could figure out to do was to stay put in the guest chair of Bass’s office. He sat at his desk. It nearly was a staring contest. Every few minutes I asked him for details. He gave me silence and sort of a sad slight smile. After a while I left.

In my last week, Dr. Cornet came upstairs to the Ethics Center. Her degree program in the department was different than mine, and our paths crossed rarely though always pleasantly. I graded some tests for her back in 2002-03 as a grad assistant.

Dr. Reedman was in his office, door closed as usual.

Out of the blue Cornet hugged me and told me how sorry she was that this was happening. She whispered she wished I wasn’t insubordinate. I looked at her and said I never was that to anyone there and if this appeared to be the case then it was a misunderstanding I was eager to remedy.

She shook her head and left.

Pyrite cube from Fuente del Moro, Navajún, Spain.

Insubordinate, That’s Crazy

This job was hard to get. It fit so many needs and wants for me, immediate and long term.

Thus I never would have jeopardized it with poor work, discourtesy or, drum roll, “insubordination.”

Communications being fallible, what I do or say, what anyone does or says, perhaps could be construed as poor work, discourtesy or insubordination. 

It’s in those times when one party or the other speaks up: What’s going on? Or a supervisor or supervisor’s supervisor steps in to mediate.

All the times I asked, What’s going on? I was shut down.


13. A Hope in May

In my last weeks in the Ethics Center, the Fundamentals instructor whose writing labs I oversaw told me of a webmaster job with a major nonprofit in the city. Thinking of my dad’s lesson, while we were friends I hadn’t pegged him as one to offer such help. This “whitehat” made some calls, and I was interviewed. It would’ve been a juicy job, that just might carry me through the years to retirement.

The interview revealed a twist. The person who would be my supervisor was retiring. She and two people above her told me they hoped to make the hiring decision before her last day.

This person’s successor, though, wanted to interview candidates from scratch. She turned out in summer 2015 to want someone with more technical skills. Understandable.

Pyrite cube from Fuente del Moro, Navajún, Spain.

Far from Ideal

If I had gotten to keep this job, I would’ve continued to share the suite with Dr. Reedman, who daily skulked past the graduate assistant’s and my desks then stayed in his office — leaving of course for teaching, meetings or whatever. Whenever he took phone calls and often just because, he shut his door. Even so, the GA and I had to talk minimally and quietly except in his absence.

Every job has dreck. Dreck is a percentage — what ratio can you stand? What’s tough — boredom, too many repetitive tasks, the overall management or atmosphere. Co-workers — unpleasant, conniving, endlessly gloomy, relentlessly cheerful, chatterbox, sullen.

Rarely but not that rare are the toxic situations that have come increasingly to light nationwide.

At 50 percent dreck, I have lasted a year or two. Forty percent or less dreck for me would be a fairly happy job. The 2014-15 interim assistant directorship stood at 40 percent. The 60 percent came from teaching and interacting with students, and informing the world about professional ethics via the website and social media. Vital: the salary and benefits were a little better than any previous job. I could’ve stood it.

The current job stays under 10 percent dreck. It’s amazing. Jobs take at least half of one’s waking life. Don’t have many years left to work. Hate to blow them on dreck.


14. End of the Rainbow

I took the maximum weeks of state unemployment benefits, actively job hunting and free-lance reporting and web designing during and after. In fall 2015 I resumed substitute teaching and found it much easier this go-round. One job posting, webmaster for one of the colleges on campus that included some public relations, went dormant, but in late spring 2016, I was called in for an interview.

This is the job I enjoy now.

Enjoy is an understatement. It is deeply satisfying. No job is safe, from the economy to interoffice machinations, but I’ve held this over three years and feel good security and stability.

To keep myself balanced, I don’t forget the derisive comments the faculty in my old department made about their college’s webmaster. I may be talked about like there now. As it happens, she later moved on, to her own design shop. She often is commissioned by faculty when they want something special and have the budget to go off campus. 

Her successor was a similarly talented young woman. A year ago a professor in my old department with whom I remain friends flippantly called her incompetent.

Early this summer that webmaster moved on to a prominent area corporation. 

Guess everyone’s happier.

-30-

© 2019 Ben S. Pollock

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