Friday, December 16th 2005

posted @ 1:17 pm in [ ]

As you doubtless already know, I was dooced this week–that is, I was fired because of my blog–from DeVry University in Westminster, Colorado. Indeed, this very text. Here are the Cliff Notes on the affair from my point of view. Some of you have seen part of this already.

First, here’s what happened:

I got called into the Academic Dean’s office late Monday morning. The Human Resources person who hired me joined us. She said they had become aware of my blog, and that I had made disparaging comments about DeVry and about its students on the blog, and that because of that, I was being let go. I was then escorted to my office, where I packed up everything in there while the HR person watched (and to some extent, helped) and then to my car.

Here’s what didn’t happen:

- Any specific mention of a particular posting or even particular blog (as many of you know, I participate in or run about half a dozen blogs).

- Any warning, disciplinary procedure, discussion, or any other process by which I was notified of the “problem.” This was especially egregious, as previous instances of faculty having “objectionable” postings on their blogs have been treated by discussing it with the faculty member. I was fired outright without any opportunity for discussion at all.

- My being allowed to say goodbye to anybody or talk to anyone on the way out, ostensibly for the purpose of “confidentiality.” I was hustled out of there in a surprisingly furtive fashion. Nobody even knew I was gone.

- ANY disparaging comment about my students, on ANY blog, EVER! That is just not accurate at all. My students are my heart. But you knew that.

Was the blog so bad?

First of all, it doesn’t matter, because companies should not be in the business of regulating their employees’ off-hours activities. That being said, I sure didn’t think so, but hey, see for yourself. Email me for access to any of the protected posts: Once you convince me you won’t be too badly damaged by my dangerous, dangerous thoughts, I’ll give you the passwords. I haven’t edited ANYTHING, even where I looked back and found some typos, and you know that drove me crazy. DeVry does have a policy about employees not putting anything in personal blogs that could hurt their stock prices. It literally begins with the phrase, “DeVry is a publicly traded company.” Their interests are clear. However, to my knowledge, nobody reading my blog is big into playing the market, or owns or has considered owning stock in DeVry, I never had access to that kind of information, and I don’t own stock or stand to benefit, so it does not fit the definition of insider trading. I did not violate that policy, but that wasn’t what I was fired for anyway.

I honestly don’t know which postings were supposed to be so offensive. My personal blog is largely about whatever is on my mind, and occasionally, it was my work teaching at various programs, including DeVry’s and as many as four others. If one searches for the word “devry,” in every one of my archive pages, through hundreds of postings, there are only a couple of things that aren’t glowingly positive. Those are no more than water-cooler kvetching (for example, about being told not to give my students good grades, or about DeVry hiring practitioners rather than teachers–which they proudly do–or about having to fill out a lot of paperwork, or having to waste a bunch of time on unnecessary online training), and not the sort of thing one generally gets fired over. Come on, fired for bitching about paperwork?! The entire government would be out of work. Furthermore, they weren’t things I hadn’t mentioned to the administration already, so if it offended them, they should have fired me then, asked me to shut up, or not hired me later.

Any more pointed critiques did not mention the name of the institution, and, given that I’ve been teaching for a few different programs, do not give specific evidence of being about DeVry–one would have to infer it, and might not infer correctly. “Driver, throw this man off the bus! He’s humming the tunes to dirty songs!”

Finally, because all those posts were months (to years) old, I was basically fired as an employee for something I had “done” many months ago as an independent contractor–essentially in a completely different job. Yup, fired for something I ostensibly “did” at MY LAST JOB, not at that one. Furthermore, subsequent to those postings, I was re-hired as an independent contractor (potentially multiple times, depending on the age of whatever posting they claim is the problem) and then hired as a full-time employee. How jacked up is that?

What really bothers me about all this, though, is that the wrong people are getting punished. The messages I’ve been getting from my students are anywhere between absolutely outraged and wrenchingly heartbreaking. They have been confronting the administration, offering me endless kindness and support, and a few are even leaving the program, saying this was the last straw. The work we did together was important to all of us, and the students feel really ripped off that it won’t continue. It’s one thing to punish an employee for doing something you don’t like. It’s another thing to punish your own clientele.

Can they do that?

Maybe. Colorado is an “at-will” state, so I can be fired for any reason, because my mama dresses me funny, or no reason, without notice. Local and state agencies here don’t really address this sort of thing yet, either: they handle things like discrimination on the basis of sex, race, age, religion, creed, etc. Nobody but the ACLU seems to handle First Amendment issues, and they’re ironically impossible to get through to. This might very well be a good opportunity for a public dialog about this issue, though. We could start here: How come Ward Churchill gets to keep his job when the things I said were not even said in class, or to my students, or anywhere near as inflammatory? How can someone be fired not for her actions, but for her THOUGHTS? Where does an organization so hostile to free speech and critical thought get off calling itself a university?

So do I wish I had done some things differently?

Maybe. For one thing, I had a lot of trepidation about applying for the job in the first place. I liked my previous relationship with DeVry and didn’t really want to mess with it (sort of like deciding to date a friend), but the lure of financial stability was pretty seductive, and I was getting a lot of encouragement to do it, which was flattering, and as you know, I’m a sucker for flattery. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t apply. I was not okay with some of the things I observed going on there, and I had a few “what-have-I-done” moments just in the first month at that job. Now, of course, I am thoroughly creeped out.

I wish I had known that some people take this stuff so seriously. As one student pointed out after I told him what had happened, “But a blog is just an opinion. It’s not even a reliable source.” Right! Good man! It didn’t occur to me that people who so fundamentally didn’t get it would have the slightest interest in my random noodlings. I would have offered more selective access to the blog, or taken down my profile and posted anonymously. And, had I been given the opportunity, I would have implemented those or a range of other changes sooner.

I might have clarified a few things. For instance:

1. I have had pedagogical contact with literally hundreds of students over the last year and a half, and they ranged in age from 18 to somewhere in their 70s. They are all old enough to decide for themselves whether or not I am a good writer, whether or not they agree with me, and what they would like to infer from what I write. Furthermore, when a student plays as much Grand Theft Auto as some of my students at DeVry do, nothing I could possibly write is going to offend them. To imply that they somehow need to be protected from my words is not only censorship, it insults their intelligence.

2. When I say “my students,” I’ve had as many as a hundred or so students at a time in various programs, not counting the ones in dance classes at the studio where I worked for over 6 years. Could be anybody. When I mentioned earlier this year in one posting my awareness that some of my students were interested in my blog, those were mostly graduate students, my age contemporaries and older, and not my students at DeVry. My grad students had asked me how I handled self-censorship, and I told them about my one and only experience with it: when my mom had found my blog the previous summer. I showed them a few postings from that time period–none of them racy–the disclaimers, and the silly one about my mom’s email, and how stilted the ones were where I was trying really hard to write to please somebody else. They asked me an important question as a writer and as a colleague, and that is exactly the spirit in which I answered them. Some of them later wanted to follow my writing, and they sought out my blog. I did not point them to it, but I knew from their questions that a few were reading it, and I let them be their own judges of my work. As for my students at DeVry, I don’t think they were reading it–but they sure are now! Since last week, I’ve had a number of questions about the blog and how to get at it that lead me to believe they hadn’t looked for it before. So if firing me to protect the little dears was what DeVry had in mind, they fired me for nothing, and in fact generated both animosity toward themselves and student interest in the blog where previously, there hadn’t been much to speak of. It may actually be one of the best things that has ever happened to my blog–it’s like having a banned book, and it’s made me something of a folk hero. In the future, I now have something to tell students who ask me about good, old-fashioned censorship by others, too, and then I’ll tell them all about banned books.

3. Apparently, the sharpie who discovered my blog did not read the “disclaimers” section. In a way, that’s pretty funny: so busy looking for something “bad,” he or she completely avoided information. This is a vain enterprise, purely about my own thoughts, and one shouldn’t read the parts that offend one. He or she also should consider eating more fiber, as it is very good for the colon.

Finally, none of all that really matters, because nobody should be fired for her thoughts or opinions. Certainly, her critics are free to disagree with her, or even, hey, call her a total idiot or try asking her to modify her behavior as a condition of employment–that is their right as well. I love America, I love the Constitution, and I loved working with the students (and the vast majority of employees) at DeVry. I could not be more proud of the students’ resistance to what has happened. They are questioning the administration, and exercising their own rights to free speech in the face of the violation of another’s.

Now, for their sake as much as anyone’s, the time has come for a public dialog about this issue. Talk about it, blog about it, communicate about it, and do not be silenced until some resolution is reached. If an employer fires someone in violation of her basic Constitutional rights, it should expect some publicity about that.

In parting, I will share with you my favorite ethical rule of thumb. My father-in-law, whom we lost in July, and for whom I have two eulogies posted here, worked as a corporate executive for most of his life. He negotiated any number of business deals over the years, and when they got tricky, he always used to tell his team, “Don’t bring me a deal I can’t tell my mother about.” If you don’t want to explain to your family or to Mike Wallace what you did, you probably shouldn’t have done it. I told my family all about what happened to me, and I’d be happy to give Mr. Wallace a jingle. They all believe in the First Amendment.