Resigning Women, or, should you tell them what you really think?

burning-bridge.jpgA great friend of Historiann’s in feminist studies has left academia for good.  While this was a huge loss to her students and her discipline, she was treated so poorly by her department and the institution she worked for that it’s been nothing but a tremendous relief to her.  In addition to resigning her academic position, she left the city that she has lived in for the past decade, moved 2,000 miles away, and has gone into a new line of work where she is succeeding admirably.  For the first time in nine years, she is respected, valued, and is getting positive feedback on her work.  She’s elated by the fact that her new colleagues are no longer abusing her, and she feels almost bewildered by the praise and generous reception she has received in her new position. 

Although (as Historiann says) living well is the best revenge, sometimes (in my friend’s words) “revenge is the best revenge.”  I resent the fact that when a department or institution succeeds in driving someone out, the institution then gets to tell the story about how the outcast really wasn’t fitting in, or wasn’t all that successful, or was really a very difficult person to work with, or was too big for her britches and who the hell did she think she was, or all of the above, and then some.  So, in the name of speaking truth to power, I’m supportive of my friend sending a letter to all of the people she worked with spelling out very clearly the circumstances she worked in for more than a year, and which ultimately forced her to resign.  It’s heavy on the facts, and rather light on the invective, all things considered.  Because she has left the profession and doesn’t need letters of recommendation from them, she is beyond their reach entirely (although because her major adversaries are not high-status people in academia, its unlikely that their opinion would be terribly meaningful anyway.)  This will embarass her former colleagues, although I’m sure they’ll just tout the letter as proof that she was just a crazy bee-yatch all along.  But, I also think that her story will ring true to many of its recipients.  And although I don’t think her former institution is going to snap-to and reform itself and its practices once it sees her letter, it’s the institution that wins if she doesn’t speak out.  Institutions count on untenured people to be poor, weak, driven by fear, and to remain silent when attacked.  (An observational aside:  why is it that most of the faculty I’ve known who were treated this way were single women, and therefore more economically vulnerable?  Is it just a coincidence?)

I want to hear what you think.  What advice would you give my friend?  Should she send the letter? 

0 thoughts on “Resigning Women, or, should you tell them what you really think?

  1. I would be inclined not to send it. I guess the question is, what’s the goal? If it’s only sent to the people who made her life miserable, it won’t make any difference: they will discount it totally. If it’s sent to the Dean/Provost or whatever of the institution she left, it might have an impact because it would name a departmental dysfunction; but the dean/provost would have to be willing to acknowledge it, and in my experience, administrators are usually unwilling to take on departments until things are REALLY obviously bad.

    On the other hand, there is a great Chronicle “First Person” article (signed) that compares how we treat people in academia and what happens outside….That’s a public shaming ritual!


  2. Susan–she’s planning to send it to just about everyone she worked with there, from top administrators to faculty and staff in several different departments. I should have made that clearer–she’s not just sending it out to her main aggressors. Many people were completely bewildered when she resigned, because they thought she was wonderful and very successful, and had no idea what was going on with her immediate supervisor and department. Sadly, I agree with you that administrators usually refuse to intervene in even the most egregiously abusive and dysfunctional departments. (I used to be in one, and the Dean at that institution would tell me–the youngest, most junior person there–that I needed to understand that other people found me “intimidating,” so it was my job to try to fix that.)

    Do you have a cite or link for that Chronicle article? (Although they’re all behind a subscription firewall…!)


  3. While I cannot speak to this issue from the stance of an academia insider, I too am friends with the individual who wrote the letter in question and would have to side with her strictly from an objective perspective.

    I feel that victims finding themselves on the receiving end of adminofascism have a right to establish a set of unofficial social standards before their peers, as a way to create a sense of equanimity when it comes to loosing one’s job–let’s knock down the hierarchy of vulnerability in the workplace and enforce a social code of ethics. Everyone deserves to be respected for doing their job to the best of their ability, and that’s exactly what this letter writer did, only to be persecuted. In this case, I think that persecution shouldn’t be a one-way street, and I will support her in her mission to expose the truth.


  4. For all that is good and just in this world, send the letter!

    The only way to root out bad management, be it in academia, business, government or anywhere else, is to expose it for what it is. And although it may make administrator’s and higher-ups feel uncomfortable, it’s in their best interest to act on it–more people cite bad bosses as their reason for leaving a job than any other reason. People are an organizations most valuable asset, and when good talent walks out the door, something is going seriously wrong.


  5. I have a hard time advising on this because I cannot imagine seriously contemplating doing it. I could see this as a fantasy, but actually carrying through? Never.

    If I received such a letter — even if I were not one of the opposition, and sympathetic to the former colleague — I would be totally flummoxed. I probably would think the episode reflected poorly on the sender, no matter how truthful her words. For, if indeed she is prospering in her new situation, then the whole thing strikes me as petty, motivated by a desire for vindication that she likely will not receive.

    I can fume as well as the next person, but I seldom allow myself to act on such feelings. But that’s just me. Maybe it will exorcise some demons of the past for her… I guess. I still don’t quite get it, though.


  6. I agree with the above posters who feel she should send the letter. I had a friend who was unjustly fired at a non-academic institution, but then went on to a successful freelance career, and he nonetheless left the institution with a mass email, sent to everyone, explaining what had happened and why he felt he had been unjustly treated.

    As long as the letter is clear yet free of excessive personal attack or hyperbole, it should be sent. I think that’s the most honorable thing to do, actually.


  7. Wow–you guys are all over the map! My father used to work in management at a big company, and when dealing with problems at work, he would say, “I’m not gonna be the only person here who’s angry about this,” meaning, that he would confront people and share disturbing information if that’s what it took to get a problem addressed. I think that’s what my friend is aiming at–if not solving problems (because she is no longer at the same institution), then refusing to be the only person pissed off about her situation. There’s catharsis in that too, which is also important.


  8. I can kind of understand sending it to people she considered friends/close colleagues – the folks who are bewildered by her resignation and thought things were going great – as an explanation, although really I think such a gesture might have been best done face-to-face before she left. But in the end, if it were me, I don’t think I’d send it. I totally and utterly understand the frustration about letting the institution tell the story of what happened (I’ve just assumed that my old institution now says that I was incompetent, which means no one has to examine any of the flaws in their review system, and it depresses me, but it is what it is). But I do think it tends to reflect poorly on the sender, unless very finely gauged. There’s research somewhere that says when a person passes on negative gossip, their audience tends to associate the content with the person telling it, and attribute the negative qualities to that person rather than the person being talked about.

    A possible compromise is for her to send the letter to one or two people with whom she worked most closely, and to let them disseminate the truth of the situation (this works better in a smaller institution, of course). Because if the problems were so invisible, people *will* wonder why she left, and given that the material will ring true, there will be an interest in the story, and it *will* spread. And I think other people reporting the injustice reflects much better on her than sending out the letter widely herself.

    (Oh, I think First Person articles are all available from the Chronicle for free – non-subscribers can access them. I don’t know the one Susan refers to, though.)


  9. Ann,

    I think your Dad gave good advice. Catharsis is spiritually useful (at least I think so), and I don’t think it is petty. I personally would not view someone sending that kind of letter as a gossip monger or anything like that. As long as the letter is civil and well-written, it would only reflect positively on her in my eyes. I would interpret it as an authentic attempt to set the record straight and to bring to light whatever problems may exist in the department. If written in that tone, I would think it would be interpreted more as a way of imparting some perspective to a problematic situation. However, if it engages in mud-slinging and trashing people in the department, then I think it would reflect poorly on her.

    But even if that were the case, so what? She’s obviously never going to work there again, and has a new life. So who cares what everybody thinks? That’s what catharsis is about!


  10. Hey, I applied to a job last year that I think might be related to your friend. Didn’t get it, though, for good or for worse.

    I would have to agree with the people who say not to send the letter. What’s the pragmatic outcome the letter-sender wants? What effect does she intend to have? What is her “ask,” to steal from the lobbyist people: what is she asking the recipients of her letter to do? In my opinion, the more concrete the ask, the better … if she’s asking them all to feel outraged or have their awareness raised, that’s not really going to do much.

    As long as she’s out of that place, my take is that the best way to spell revenge is l.a.w.s.u.i.t.


  11. I am Historiann’s letter-writing friend. I wrote the letter and will be sending it because it is always important for the truth to be told (whether received by deaf ears or not) and because sending this truth-clarifying statement will cause considerable emotional damage to the person it is addressed to–my former supervisor, the director of a university honors program who bullied me to the point that I was diagnosed with PTSD and colluded with administrative officials in successfully running me out of my job. No one unconnected to this institution understands how this could have happened to such a successful and popular teacher and administrator (I was the associate director of the program). Even my lawyer was driven to expletives.

    The letter is not a gratuitous rant; it is measured and based on facts. It is, however, aimed at undermining and humiliating this person. Because I know this person well, I am sure that she will be extremely disturbed. And while she may only be undone for a finite period of time, still, she will never again be able to dismiss me with easy relief and satisfaction.

    I have also named names in the letter–of colleagues and students who concurred and supported me–and I make clear that those named have read and authorized the letter (which they have done). I have done so because bullies or abusers are only successful when they isolate and marginalize their victims (as happened to me). Abusers thrive on silence. Victims come to power when they assert their voice. Institutional oppression/repression, in turn, thrives on “civility.” Justice or truth, in such a situation, requires subversion. Because I no longer have any ties to this institution (other than my good friends who support me in what I am doing), and thus will suffer no consequences (nothing I wrote is actionable–it is just damning), I actually, for the first time, have some power. I am eager to exercise it.

    This letter is meant to fuck things up. And yes, it is an act of revenge. I have yet to hear why seeking revenge is such a bad thing. I no longer want to hear that “living well is the best revenge.” This is a category mistake. Living well is living well (which I am doing). Causing pain as payback to someone who ruined your life is something completely different. I have heard that I should take the “high road.” My response is that being direct, exposing, and even destructive in certain situations is the responsible and even courageous thing to do.

    The plans for the letter have changed, and I will be sending it only to my former supervisor because one person mentioned does not feel comfortable with me sending it to faculty colleagues, and I am happy to respect this person’s wishes. It should nonetheless have a negative impact on my former supervisor’s life and this knowledge, in addition to living well, will help me move on.


  12. Hi all newcomers–David, Frank, and NK–thanks for weighing in. Said Friend has totally changed the game if the letter is only going to the former supervisor. I think most of the squeamishness reflected in the comments above had to do with the reach of the correspondence across the faculty and university.

    True confession: I’m invested in questions of fair play in work envirnoments not just as Said Friend’s friend, but as someone who once had a Very Bad Job. (So bad that the tenure line had existed for 17 years and no one had ever been tenured in it!) I gave a F. U. speech to my soon-to-be former department when I resigned–and it felt great! People were angry–how could they not be, to have an assistant professor get up in their faces? Even my friends and supporters were angry, because they thought that my speech made it difficult for them to justify supporting me. But I was sick and tired of playing by the rules of an alchoholic family–don’t ever confront the problem, just pretend like we all get along. but I’m pleased to say my speech was prescient about all of that department’s problems, and the biggest jerks are still there, and still making each other miserable. Schadenfreudelicious!

    That said, my decision to spout off was a calculated one. I had already secured another tenure-track job, and I worked in a department with no other experts in my major fields, so I’d never have to see them again, nor would I need to fear retribution (in reviewing grant proposals, peer review, etc.) They could bad mouth me at my former institution–but they were doing that anyway.


  13. Thanks, Said Friend, for the clarification. I initially envisioned the letter as a catalogue of more systemic abuses, which struck me as likely to alienate everyone associated with the system — i.e., any and all former colleagues. But if it is chiefly concerned with the abuses of a specific person, then such a letter does have an achieve-able goal, e.g., irritating, humiliating, and enraging the former superior, and possibly (if she’s that type of person) causing her to think twice before abusing a subordinate again. And as Historiann surmised, it also seems more palatable if the audience is more limited.

    On the other hand, I would not call this act courageous. You yourself point out that it is, in fact, an exercise of power. Now that the power has shifted in your favor, there is no risk to you, and hence no courage in the confrontation. It’s just an act of revenge that will make you feel good.


  14. Historiann,

    I find my self giving much thought to your friend and her situation. She has now decided to write to her former supervisor. I am not sure I agree but I am assuming that by now, revenge will be eaten cold. Did she have an avenue of complaint to pursue? Presumably that was a dead end.

    I am intrigued that nobody has addressed your aside about single women and their economic vulnerability. Has feminism not progressed far enough to overcome this? I was about to make a remark about precious pricks (a term I usually reserve for men) when I realized that your friend’s supervisor was a woman. I do not wish to imply that all women need partners to “protect “them; an insurance policy, someone to pay the bills temporarily, a shoulder to lean on.What about emotional vulnerability? This should apply equally to men and women. I am left wondering if there is a solution.


  15. The letter is nice, both in terms of personal catharsis and in that it hangs the institution’s dirty laundry and possibly embarrasses the main antagonist. But to get them to pay attention, consider a complaint of some sort. If something was done that violated a law or at least the university’s code of conduct, then you should seek avenues for redress. If something went too far, why stop at a letter?


  16. Hey, Rad–thanks for weighing in. The question of formal or legal action has been raised by other commentors. My friend went through all of the usual channels to try to get redress, and then when she got nothing out of that, she filed a grievance–all of this was according to the manual. She found that when she went through the institutional channels, instead of relief, she was retaliated against. She lawyered up but lost a Civil Rights claim. Because she wanted to move on with life, she had to abandon a civil claim against her employer. Her lawyer was not a crusading lefty, but rather an average middle-aged midwestern kind of guy who grew increasingly horrified at the way the “liberal” university was steamrolling my friend.

    These are facts I should have included in the original post, because I think it highlights that people caught in situations like my friend’s feel like a primal scream is the only thing they’ve got left to use. Susan’s first comment alluded to an important truism: once someone is promoted to an administrative position, the university’s reflexive defense is to justify that decision, no matter what kind of a rolling disaster he or she is. I have seen (and, sadly, experienced) this to-the-barricades attitude used to defend indefensible administrators before.


  17. I’m bummed that the letter didn’t go to everyone on faculty. I find that bullies are ineffective (or at least less effective) once they are “called out” and from the sound of it, this individual is an experienced bully who is likely doing it to others. If for no other reason than to start a paper trail, this person’s actions need to be documented.
    Regarding the single women issue: I think they are targeted because they are often more vulnerable financially speaking. As a “partnered” person who could rely on my partner’s income for a time, if necessary, I would probably be more likely to stand up to such a bully. If I were paying my bills on my own I’d probably take a lot more crap from my boss. Beyond that, I think women are are given messages when they complain like that they are overreacting, or being too sensitive, or worse- when it is a woman bullying them- that they are jealous and/or being catty.


  18. hard to say about the truth in the letter sending. but you might want to consider it just the truth. Institutions write off people all the time and get away with it. Mary Daly didn’t call it Academintia for nothing.


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