That Time I Spoke Up

Source: ALH Photography

Source: ALH Photography

So, this happened…

On April 5th, I had the pleasure of attending the Equality Virginia Commonwealth Dinner – a big time fundraiser dinner for LGBT people and allies in Virginia.  The University of Richmond purchased a table, where a handful of students and a staff member sat.  Also, two members of the Weinstein family (trustees/big donors to UR) purchased a table, where four UR students, UR President Ed Ayers, and I sat (in the picture above).  This was a significant moment — the university president and one of the board of trustees members attended an LGBT fundraiser.  And, I had the honor of sitting with them that night.

Besides being a new professor, and trying to figure out how to properly interact with students and the president and a trustee simultaneously, and navigating the many utensils that surrounded my plate (work outside in, right?), I went both excited and nervous.  If you recall, two months ago, I had spoken openly about my university’s handling of a trustee’s homophobic and sexist comments at a 2012 private event.  Essay 1 for all at UR to see, and Essay 2 for all of academia to see.  Though my intent was to defend the university against growing criticism of complacency, or even being complicit in the trustee’s homophobia, I made clear I was underwhelmed by the university’s response.

I had hoped that if these essays or the incident came up during the dinner, we would ease into to the topic.  “Hi, Ed — I’m Eric Grollman, in sociology,” I introduced myself to the president.  “Hi — I really liked your Inside Higher Ed essay,” he responded.  “Oh, we’re getting right into it, huh?” I nervously joked.  He was genuine.  (Why have I grown accustomed to passive aggression from other academics?)  As the night went on, he emphasized that he sees a faculty member’s job, almost as a citizen of a university community, to speak out in such instances.  I made other nervous jokes in response, “oh, can I tape-record you saying this,” and other silly comments.  I was slow to process the significance of his assurance for me, my status at the university, and my tenure prospects.  Eventually, I explicitly noted this, saying that I have grown so accustomed to being afraid as an academic.  Isn’t fear all of what being a tenure-track professor is about?

The next week, I went to meet with the university’s legal counsel as a precaution in light of increasing hostility toward me on the web.  As I waited, Dr. Ayers walked by, heading toward his office — next door to legal counsel.  He made brief small talk — “Saturday night was really fun.  How much later did you stay?”  (Why was I surprised that he even remembered who I am?)  Then, he returned to the tense conversation we had at the dinner; he re-emphasized that I have no reason to fear for my job because of my public scholarship and public presence.  Once I explained why I was waiting to see legal counsel — that, my job aside, I do have to worry about backlash outside of the university — he invited me to talk briefly in his office.  It was a short conversation because I had a standing meeting time, but it was an extremely important moment for me.

Immediately after I penned those essays in late February, I received dozens of emails of support from students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni.  Some thanked me for speaking up, some expressed their excitement that I had joined the university, and others expressed their admiration for my bravery in speaking out.  To my relief, I also got notice shortly thereafter that I was approved to return to the university for my second year on the tenure-track.  I was not asked to clear out my office.  I have not been snubbed by my colleagues or students.  The sky did not fall.  In fact, the outcome seems quite positive!