Sunday, September 22, 2013

Walking into the Lions' Den: I Ask for Readers' Help as I Testify in a Case Involving Faculty Rights

Dear Readers,

I can use your help. I'm posting this as I prepare to give testimony in a trial involving one of my former academic employers. As my posting yesterday about the horrific Duquesne University story suggests and as many of you know, my history in church-related universities (the only kind in which I have ever taught) has been checkered, to say the least. After Belmont Abbey College ended Steve's and my careers as Catholic theologians, I spent time as chief academic officer at two historically black United Methodist schools.

It's one of those schools that is now the subject of multiple lawsuits, and I've been asked, as former academic vice-president of the school, to testify in a trial in which the matter at dispute is whether the rights of a faculty member were violated, and his ability to find further employment maliciously and deliberately diminished by the university's former president. I won't make more specific statements right now about this case, because I do not want in any way to weaken the case of the person seeking a hearing about the violation of his rights and smearing of his reputation.

But the help I can use from all of you: some of you are folks who pray, and I would be very grateful if you would remember me in your prayers in the next day or so, when I'll be called to testify. Others of you may not be people whose spirituality moves in a prayer direction. If you could hold me in the light, as the Quakers say, or send supportive thoughts my way, I'd be grateful.

I am not looking forward to this experience at all. I enter it with weak knees and with fear and trembling. I was deposed last week, and the experience of being deposed gave me a foretaste of what will be in store for me in the courtroom. 

Because it is in their best interest to undermine my credibility, the defendants will do everything possible to engage in the same smear tactics against me that they are alleged to have engaged in with regard to the faculty member filing suit. They will play the gay card--in a state that affords no legal protection to gay workers and has no laws prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. And in representing a United Methodist university in that state that also has no protections for gay employees . . . . 

My sexual orientation and my longstanding committed relationship with Steve have, of course, absolutely nothing at all to do with my credibility as a witness in this trial, but despite that fact, the defendants' lawyer asked multiple questions about this during my deposition. It is clear to me that they will continue this zeroing in on sexual orientation issues in the courtroom, and they will do so in a nasty way, seeking to elicit prejudice in a part of the country in which anti-gay prejudice is strong.

Like the faculty member who has filed suit, I was terminated by this university in a way designed to destroy my ability to obtain further employment. In my case, I was never presented with any cause of termination in writing. On the day of the termination, I was shown a letter of termination of which I was not given a copy, which said something to the effect that I had failed to "work with this administration." (In the 7 years in which the former president ran this university, she had 7 academic vice-presidents. She ran through chief academic officers on a yearly basis, like fire consuming a warehouse full of cotton bales. The average length of service for a chief academic officer is 4.5 years.)

Despite my never having been evaluated by my supervisor, the former president who is now a defendant in this case, and never having been given any written statement as a reason for my termination, during my deposition last week the defendants' attorney made many statements about the ostensible cause of my firing--I was ineffective, I didn't work hard, I didn't cooperate with the president, etc.

This raking me over the coals will clearly continue in the courtroom, and this, combined with my certainty that the raking over the coals will include attacks having to do with sexual orientation, is the reason for my apprehension, for the quaking knees and fear and trembling. It is outrageous to me that, when the former president now being sued did no evaluation of my work before she terminated me and never gave me a reason for the termination in writing, and when she is at trial and not me, my hard and good work is being placed on trial in this way--with smears about sexual orientation used to reinforce the lies about my work record. 

I don't look forward to being placed on trial in this way. But I am submitting myself to this abusive treatment because it is very clear to me that someone else's human rights have been violated in a parallel way, and he deserves to be defended. I intend to do my little bit to defend him. I can do nothing else, after I was asked to offer this assistance to someone who has been wronged.

So, support, prayers: these are what I need right now, and I'll be very grateful for them. I'm by nature shy, not predisposed to enjoy conflict, uneasy in the limelight, and I need the sense that I am not alone as I walk into this lions' den. 

There's also this: if the case proves as ugly as I expect it to prove on the level of smears about sexual orientation, I intend to defend myself and obtain a hearing that the university never afforded me and the legal process in a state with no laws protecting gay people from discrimination hasn't afforded me. I intend to obtain a hearing in the only way left to me: by blogging about what happens. 

More than once, the university has tried to use legal bullying tactics to shut me up on this blog, and the blog was even mentioned in the defendants' attorney's questioning in a very dismissive way, as he implied that 1) the blog has no readers (over 2,000 folks around the world typically log in each day to read the postings here), and 2) I am legally required to erase the blog because I have received legal threats from the university's former president to stop blogging here.

Here's how you can help: if any of you know of people with connections to the media who might be interested in a story about a United Methodist institution trying to use homophobic prejudice and legal bullying tactics to shut up a former employee who happens to be gay, as he testifies in a case in which the human rights of another former employee were violated, I'll appreciate your assistance. 

Church-related institutions have to be held accountable, when they violate the rights of workers and also of gay people. Many church-related institutions have gotten away with murder in the past simply because they're given the benefit of the doubt because they are church-related.

They're also institutions with financial clout, and university presidents have the ability to use the legal system to bully others precisely because they draw huge salaries and have a lot of money at their disposal. As the story we discussed yesterday suggests, though, money does not make right.

It is not right to trample the rights of employees, to treat employees like so much soiled and crumpled tissue to throw in a wastebasket, to play ugly games with employees who happen to be gay simply because the law in a particular area allows you to play such games and get away with it. 

The United Methodist Church should be ashamed of itself, when it allows any of its institutions to behave in this way. If I am beaten up all over again in the courtroom in the next two days by a historically black United Methodist university that already raked me over the coals as a gay employee when I worked there a number of years ago, I want to be prepared to go public with this story in the widest ways possible--and I will gladly use any help any of you can provide me in spreading this story.

Finally: this trial opens tomorrow on the birthday of my grandmother in 1888. Like the pope with his grandmother Rosa, I was privileged to have a grandmother, my mother's mother Hattie Batchelor Simpson, who played an enormous formative role in my life as a young person. My grandmother was a strong, loving woman who held a family together when her husband died in 1930 just as the Depression hit, leaving her a young mother with six children of her own and a stepson to raise. When the banks failed, such savings as my grandparents had set aside vanished. She told my mother at the end of her life that she received a nickel for every dollar my grandparents had in the bank.

Because she managed to bring her family through these years with grace and dignity--and much hard work on everyone's part--and to send two daughters to college even with the financial strictures she faced, my grandmother was adored by her children, and with good reason. She could be both steel and tender-hearted compassion, and both simultaneously, and this behavior set a standard for all of us who loved her: be like steel when matters of principle are at stake; but love tenderly through it all.

The last time I ever saw my grandmother was a week before I graduated from high school. My family and I were with her on Sunday. She died the following Thursday. The next Sunday, I had to stand up--with fear and trembling--and present a salutatory address to my high-school class, with my grandmother's funeral the day before as the backdrop. And with her strength and love pushing me on as I spoke . . . . 

On that last Sunday when I took leave of my grandmother, she called me back to her as I walked toward my family's car. She was standing in the screen door of her kitchen, watching us leave. When I came back, she said to me through the screen door, "I am so proud of what you've accomplished. When you were born, you had eyes that seemed to be looking for something. I hope you find what you're looking for in life. I expect great things from you."

Those were my grandmother's last words to me. They have pushed, prodded, cajoled, impelled me through life, and, in particular, through lions'-den experiences like the one I'll face tomorrow on her birthday. My grandmother will be with me in that lions' den. I would be grateful if you would, too.

(Later: well, I should be scrupulously honest and say that my grandmother never spoke about herself to us grandchildren using the first-person singular pronoun. When she spoke of herself to us, she spoke in third person, calling herself what we called her, Mama. So what she said to me in her final words to me was, to be very exact, "Mama expects great things from you," etc.)

The photo is one of the last taken of my grandmother in spring 1968, with my mother and my mother's sister Pauline.

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