A Letter to the Editor
The events of this academic year, which is thankfully coming to a close, have led to my wife and me leaving Temple University. As the Herald is a publication for faculty issues, I here want to offer my account of what would compel us, after investing nearly a decade of our lives mentoring many students, organizing workshops and symposia, and contributing what we could to the international reputation of this institution, to leave, namely, what is, at the end of the day, wrong with Temple.
What’s wrong with Temple University is not the faculty. Temple has an excellent faculty with a high reputation for their research and teaching. There are award-winning scholars and artists, and there are faculty whose research is the subject of dissertations and academic profiles in professional journals and other publishing forums. Having served on the Great Teachers Award committee, I can attest to the teaching talent of faculty who also turn out to be some of the best scholars at Temple.
No, what’s wrong with Temple is an administrative environment of bullying, denial, and unaccountability.
Here is my story: I, an Afro-Jewish faculty member, filed on August 27th of last year a charge of racial and religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Teresa Soufas, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, as well as a grievance through TAUP, the faculty union. The remote cause leading to my doing so was her response to an email I sent on July 30th to a member of her staff objecting to the disrespectful tone and closed-mindedness of her emails and expressing a wish not to have to communicate with her anymore. Our dispute was rooted in her cancelling my classes and rescheduling one of them for MWF afternoons, which would impinge on my religious practices since it would prevent me from observing the Sabbath with my family who reside in Providence, Rhode Island, a six-hour drive. (When I had last been assigned a MWF schedule, a TA had taught on Fridays.) In early August, I proposed arranging a MW class with an extra 25 minutes each day or paying a TA through my Carnell funds to teach on Fridays. Both of these suggestions were rejected by Dean Soufas. The union informed me by the end of the third week of August that I should contact Diane Maleson, Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, and I did so on that very day. Maleson expressed surprise on finding out I was Jewish, although as the director of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies and the subject of profiles about Temple in The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times I have been very open about my Jewish identity.
The response to my grievances was a series of retaliatory actions that brings out the absurdity of Temple’s rules and the pathologies of its administrators. On August 31st, the Dean issued a “warning” claiming that I supposedly threatened her staff member in the email of July 30th, a characterization I disputed and continue to dispute. On October 1st, Dean Soufas emailed me, demanding I explain why I had missed classes on the High Holy Day of Yom Kippur as well as the major holiday of Sukkot and the Friday immediately preceding my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Although I had arranged with the students to make up these classes, she charged me with violating her policy requiring that she give written permission for faculty to miss classes if she finds satisfactory their account of when and why they were missing class and what they were doing to make it up. I responded by doubting the fairness and even the legality of asking permission to not teach on religious holidays; all that I should have to do is ensure that the classes were made up at a time agreeable to my students, and that it was problematic to require me to seek permission from an administrator against whom I had filed a grievance. I also pointed out that she articulated no clear criteria of what would satisfy her demands, which made her policy open for abuse. On October 10th, she informed me of her intention to begin a disciplinary procedure against me for my “failure to meet classes as scheduled” and to “follow established processes for approval of plans to reschedule class times.” The disciplinary meeting was scheduled for October 31st.
Later, I found out that on Yom Kippur (September 26th), Dean Soufas had sent a staff member to determine whether I was teaching that day; this person wrongly reported that I was present, apparently seeing some other person teaching in that room during my noon class. On that day, I was 280 miles away attending services in Rhode Island with my family; my students were not there, as the syllabus stated there was no class on that day; and these facts could easily have been established through consulting my students or me. Rather than do this, she used this misinformation to question my claim of being an observant Jew.
Meanwhile, the EEOC and TAUP grievance processes were playing out. On October 5th, then-Interim Provost Hai-Lung Dai rejected my grievance, and on October 17th Sandra Foehl, the Director of Temple’s EEOC office rejected my complaint. Leaving aside my disputes with their interpretation of the facts and the legitimacy of university policies on religious holidays and other matters, their decisions were based in part on simple misinformation reported to them by Dean Soufas and an unwillingness to investigate her claims. Ms. Foehl wrongly asserted that I had taught on Friday afternoons in previous semesters. This claim could have been addressed through consulting me. I would have provided contact information on the teaching assistants who taught those Friday sections and the chairpersons who approved them. Both Ms. Foehl and Interim Provost Dai claimed I had imposed “a hardship” on the university by waiting too long to voice my concerns about teaching on Friday afternoons; but I objected to this schedule when I did since it was first proposed in late July and filed a grievance only after my proposed solutions had been rejected in late August. Finally, Interim Provost Dai repeated the false claim that I had taught my noon class on Yom Kippur, which “call[ed] into question the sincerity” of my protest at having to teach so close to the beginning of Shabbat, though he later apologized for this in a separate letter.
On October 18th, my wife and I resigned. The harassment I experienced had made it clear to me that there was no future for my wife, an award-winning scholar and teacher in Political Science, and me at Temple. We were fortunate that several universities immediately offered opportunities across the globe to the both of us, and we happily selected The University of Connecticut. But even if these offers had not been forthcoming, we had already made up our minds to resign.
At the disciplinary meeting of October 31st, the Dean claimed that she had not forced us to resign from Temple. But I replied that she had done so by creating an intolerable work environment. If a Laura H. Carnell Professor could be treated this way, it left little hope for an untenured Jewish faculty member, especially one who was also my spouse. The level of corruption we saw at each stage of the grievance process, save for the work of TAUP, made it clear to us that the management of the institutional structure of Temple is thoroughly compromised. The response of my wife and me to this situation was thus the only sensible one, which is what most experts who study bad management counsel employees facing situations such as the one my wife and I faced at Temple: leave.* It’s sad but clear that we had to exercise that option.
It’s difficult to see how a denial of anti-Semitism could be maintained when the accused sends someone to snoop on a Jewish faculty member on the holiest day of the year for Jews. And if the supposed instructor observed were black, I don’t see how the concerns of antiblack racism could be denied, unless all black people really do look alike as such antiblack racists claim.
Yet this circumstance goes beyond my being black and Jewish. It raises questions about the legitimacy and even the constitutionality of Temple’s policy on religious holidays. On one hand the policy stresses the importance of respecting the religious beliefs of the members of the Temple community and on the other gives schools and colleges the authority to set the procedures. But what if a Dean insists on a procedure in conflict with the conscience of the faculty member? More broadly still, my case suggests that faculty lack recourse when they are being bullied by administrators; many colleagues told me of encounters with the Dean where she berated them in a very unprofessional manner, and apparently her behavior is well known among faculty and staff most of whom are afraid to acknowledge this publicly because of a very real possibility of retaliation since her response to any assertion of dignity is “insubordination.” Moreover, from my discussions with faculty, alumni, and students, this seems to be part of a culture of bullying and micromanagement that goes beyond CLA, pathologies structurally endemic to Temple.
The Lord of the Flies imagery proposed as a campaign for Temple pride misses the mark for what is needed in a public university in North Philadelphia. School pride should be about having prized researchers, students who achieve academic and professional success, and community volunteers, staff who are recognized for their achievements and contributions to the community, and administrators who are models of academic and managerial excellence.
I have worked with administrations at several institutions of higher learning. In my experience, much is a matter of will. If there had been administrative good will, my situation would easily have been resolved with respect and professional decorum. Because there was ill will, every reasonable demand was treated as unreasonable and events unfolded as they did. That’s what’s wrong with Temple; and for the good of the colleagues and students I will miss at Temple, things must change. There is only one hope for Temple University to have a sane and viable future, and that will depend on the collective will of the faculty and the good will of the new president. I wish all of them— all of you—well in that effort.
Lewis R. Gordon
Soon to be former Laura H. Carnell Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Jewish Studies and Director, Center for Afro-Jewish Studies
* See, e.g., Robert I. Sutton, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (New York: Business Plus, 2010).