Reflections on Leaving the University
I have some big news to share with you about me, and it isn't good news, but I can't exactly call it "bad." To put my news into proper perspective, I need to share a sad story, a piece of my personal history that I have not told any of you before. In April 1996, I lost one of my best friends, someone who was a mentor and like an older brother to me, to suicide.
Those of us who have lost someone to suicide know the haunting feeling of not knowing why someone close to you would take his own life. In my friend's case, I knew that he was unhappy at work. His department had been subsumed into another department, and he was being slowly and not subtly squeezed out. His supervisor had begun to be cruel to him. In the suicide note that he left, he wrote of the ill treatment that he felt he had received at the hands of his boss.
To say that my friend's boss or coworkers drove him to suicide would be grossly unfair. He had received other setbacks in his personal life over the course of the previous year, and he had self-esteem issues. I was concerned about him, and had tried to reach out to him. In retrospect, I see the warning signs in his behavior in the few weeks before he took his life. Like many friends of suicide victims, though, I didn't suspect that he would kill himself. His death was a deep shock that still haunts me. Although many years have passed since then, I still think about him every day. I still consider him my best friend. His name is part of my email password, a reminder of what I lost, and a part of keeping his memory alive.
One of the lessons that I drew from this horrible chapter in my life is to try to maintain perspective with regard to problems and conflicts at work. We should neither define ourselves by our occupations, nor let setbacks at work affect our confidence or feeling of self-worth. The poet Robert Bly once wrote that men draw their sense of identity from their occupations, and if they are not allowed to contextualize themselves by their jobs, they don't have a gauge by which to measure their place in the world. My friend may have fallen into the trap of defining himself by his occupation. Facing the loss of his job title, he may have felt that a crucial essence of his identity was taken from him, and gave in to despair.
Throughout my career, I have tried very hard to avoid that trap. Long ago, I resolved not to draw my sense of identity, self-worth, or perceived sense of value as an individual from an ephemeral job title.
An unexpected and jarring event, the news that I referred to in the beginning of this letter, recently forced me to draw on this conviction. On March 28, I took a bathroom break at work. When I returned to my office, I found that a letter had been slipped under my door. The letter was a termination notice. As of August 15, the letter read, my appointment in the College would end and not be renewed. Budget cuts and organizational restructuring were the reasons cited in the letter.
That letter completely took me by surprise. I had received absolutely no indication or suggestion that my position would be eliminated. In fact, only two months prior, I had received reassurance from two of my three supervisors that even in the face of budget cuts, my job in the College was not in danger.
Before I could even process this news, and start to make plans, I had to work through some emotions. One of the first thoughts that ran through my head was: "this must be what Andy was feeling." Don't misunderstand me: I never for an instant considered the extreme action that my friend had taken. Nevertheless, for a moment, I felt the despair and hopelessness that he may have experienced.
I hope that you never receive the news that your job is being taken from you. But if you are placed in that unpleasant situation, I hope that you receive that terrible news in person from your boss, and not via a letter slipped under your office door while you are in the toilet. I know that a termination notice is hard to deliver. I have had to give this news to people in the past. I can understand why a supervisor would choose not to face the person whose job she was terminating. However, I think that there are responsible ways of delivering this news. I know that for me, a bit of counseling, a kind word, and some encouragement would have helped soften the blow.
This sudden turn in my life has forced me to reassess my plans for the rest of my working life, in good and bad ways. Some of you may remember that I've mentioned the different directions that I hope for my career to take, specifically the desire to branch out and do something new. With a family to support on a single income, though, I have been bound to stay where I was at least for the next few years. The situation has changed, of course.
The silver lining to this rather dark cloud is that now I have no excuse not to begin the next chapter of my life. Indeed, I have no choice but to do so.
The immediate task, though, has been to put food on the table and make the mortgage payment. Trying to find a job in a stagnant job market has been unpleasant and stressful. I am very lucky that my wife is loving, strong, and supportive. She has helped keep my spirits up, and we have both made a conscious effort to focus on moving forward, maintaining a stable family life, and not to think about the cause of our situation. Throughout this experience, I have maintained my strong belief that life is too short for malice and resentment. Believing that there are "bad guys" is vanity and counter-productive; as someone once said: "a waste of soul." It is destructive for one to dwell on injuries and injustices, real or perceived.
I have often said that no one is irreplaceable, even me, and I honestly believe that. The College and the three Centers which I have served in my 15 + years at the University will continue their activities, changing and adapting to fit their new administrative and budgetary circumstances. The fact that they will do so without my participation is a cause for some sadness on my part, and, I have to say, some regret at the circumstances under which I am leaving.
Let me put in writing something that I have said often over the past few months as I have been preparing to leave: I am a responsible grown-up, and regardless of the decisions that caused my departure, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to the people and projects from whom I am being separated. If and when you need anything from me, please do not hesitate to reach out and ask. I dare say that those who would hesitate the most, have the least reason to. I look forward to hearing from you. You can email me at my Gmail account: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If I don't get to see you again before the end of my appointment period, let me say good-bye now. I've enjoyed working with you, and I will never forget you. In closing, let me assure you that I am fine, everything will be fine, and I wish all of my colleagues at the university nothing but happiness and success.
July 16, 2012