Secrets of the Saints

Michael C. Keith

From all the deceits of the world,
Good Lord, deliver us.
– Prayer Book

Two sentences on Marligold College stationary altered the course of Ah Sook Pae’s life forever.

The Promotion and Tenure Committee has decided against your application for tenure. Your contract with the university will expire at the conclusion of the forthcoming academic year.

The young woman’s first reaction was one of disbelief. Who’s playing this nasty joke on me? she thought, half chuckling.

Ah Sook inspected the envelope the letter came in. It looked official. Her heart suddenly sank. No, this can’t be real. They must have gotten my name mixed up with someone else’s. I did everything I was supposed to do. Everyone told me I was sure to get tenure. This just makes no sense. It’s crazy.

She reread the short missive yet again. That’s all? No explanation? After all I went through, this is all they have to say? Impossible!

Hoping it was a horrible mistake, Ah Sook called her department chairperson, Millie Haywood.

“I’m very sorry, Ah Sook. I just found out from the dean.”

“I don’t understand. I had everything required–– tons of publications, good student and peer evaluations, department and university service . . . What can I do? This is a nightmare,” said Ah Sook, her voice cracking.

“There is an appeal process. Make an appointment with the academic vice president. He should be able to give you an idea of why the vote went against you.”

Ah Sook couldn’t hold back the tears and barely managed to choke out a sentence.

“Can . . . can he reverse the decision?”

“It’s been done, but I don’t think Kline has reversed such a decision since coming to Marligold.”

“Did anyone in our department vote against me? Why would anyone do that? I know the junior faculty was behind me. I thought the senior faculty was, too. I was friendly with everyone. Nobody seemed unhappy with me.”

“Sorry, I can’t reveal the vote, Ah Sook, but I know you were well-liked and respected by us.”

“Then why would the Tenure Committee do this?”

“You can never tell what they’re looking at. Remember, we lack the larger context with which they are dealing.”

“My file was the best the department had ever seen. Remember what everyone said in the faculty meeting?”

“It was exceptional, Ah Sook. You have nothing in your record to feel bad about.”

“How can I not feel bad when I have been turned down for tenure? My career is irreparably damaged now. It’s a black mark against me that will never go away,” blurted Ah Sook into her cellphone.

“I’d make an appointment with the AVP. It might give you some insight, Ah Sook. I’m really sorry. This is understandably very upsetting to you, I know.”

“I worked so hard for this, Millie. For six years my life has been all about getting tenure. I don’t know what to do now. I’m devastated.”

Ah Sook could tell from the silence emanating from the other end of the receiver that her department head had nothing further to say––that she had said all she could or was willing to convey on the subject. After an awkward pause, Haywood suggested that they have lunch the following week and Ah Sook agreed.

*

Staring out of her apartment window at the gray landscape, Ah Sook contemplated her next move. How can I tell my parents in Korea? she wondered, her anxiety surging. They will be so disappointed and wonder why I failed. I did not do enough, they will think. But I did . . . I did. Was there something I missed?

Tears filled her eyes, distorting the view outside. Everything seemed so good. Now my life is ruined. I’m humiliated. How can I show my face to my friends and family? I don’t understand . . . I just don’t get it!

Ah Sook slumped in a chair and cried herself to sleep. It was dark in her apartment when she awoke.Her tenure denial struck her immediately, andshe resisted the urge to scream and throw something. “Why . . . why,” she muttered but then could not contain her raw emotions. “Fuck them!! Fuck them!” she shouted. “They can’t do this to me!” But they have . . . they have, she thought, feeling totally forlorn and defeated. I wish I would die. There’s nothing left.

Two days later she had to appear on campus to teach her classes. She did so with a mix of trepidation and mounting anger. She knew that her colleagues would have heard about the tenure decision. Word on something like this always got out. For weeks, people had asked her if she’d heard anything, and invariably the other junior faculty assured her that she had tenure in the bag. They were so eager for her. Now she would have to respond with her embarrassing news, and she dreaded the reactions she knew she would get. The last thing she wanted at this point was sympathy . . . anything but. What she wanted was a clear explanation from the administration––the dean and academic vice president. After hearing from them, she would decide whether to appeal the decision of the Tenure Committee.

Rather than head directly to her office, she decided to talk with her closest colleague in the department, Mary Connors, about the disaster that had befallen her.

“Oh, my God! That can’t be true. How could they? I’m so sorry, Ah Sook. What can you do? Are you going to appeal? You must. This is completely unfair.”

A similar reaction came from two other colleagues, and then it was time for her to meet with her class. The very idea now seemed like an additional cruelty. She loved teaching, and now that was about to be taken from her. As soon as she entered the classroom, she broke down and had to leave. Her students were left baffled and concerned, and when two asked the department chair what was wrong, they were told she had received some upsetting news. But Haywood could not and would not elaborate on what that news was.

By the end of the day, word about Ah Sook’s bad fortune had spread throughout the department. The news appeared to upset and puzzle everyone. That someone so obviously entitled to a positive outcome from the Tenure Committee could be turned down raised disturbing questions in the minds of other tenure-track faculty about their own prospects for achieving tenure at Marligold.

*

Ah Sook’s meetings with the dean and AVP only compounded her frustration and deepened her depression. Both had told her that the Promotion and Tenure Committee was dissatisfied with the direction of her research and her inability to secure grants. They did not elaborate on the former, indicating that the latter was extremely important for faculty at a school seeking top tier status among elite institutions of higher learning.

“Our mission is to achieve parity with Research 1 institutions. To achieve that, we must bring in at least $40 million in annual federal support. The Tenure Committee did not believe your work was likely to generate meaningful funding,” explained the AVP, Don Morrow, impassively.

Ah Sook countered that it was difficult, if not impossible, in her particular field of research to obtain grants––that few avenues of research support existed in the discipline of rhetorical studies. It was a known fact amongst her Communication Department colleagues when she was hired. Her protest received no measure of appreciation or understanding, and realizing this, Ah Sook excused herself, turning her back on the AVP’s extended hand.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll find a place that fits your estimable talents,” said Morrow, as Ah Sook quickly left his office.

Despite the strong urging of her colleagues, Ah Sook decided not to pursue an appeal. Everything she had heard had convinced her that doing so would not change her fate and might just provide the institution with further opportunity to demean her. Moreover, conversations with other members of the department led her to suspect that someone among her own senior faculty had raised concerns about her. What they might have been, nobody could imagine.

Why would anyone in the department do this? They know there’s no funding in rhetorical research, if that’s the criticism. None of them have received grants either. And they never mentioned this in my fourth year review. Why was someone here out to get me?

Ah Sook obsessed over the issue in the days that followed. The only answer she could come up with was that they were actually envious of her substantial productivity because they did virtually no publishing themselves. Her suspicion was corroborated when a contract member of the department, Cary McCormick, expressed his view that certain senior faculty had also blocked him when he sought to have his position converted to a tenure-track line.

“The old cadre here think they’re the saints, the holy order, of the department, and they don’t want anyone to draw a breath from their rarified air, especially not those who might make them appear unworthy of their lofty status or head the department someday. They made tenure when Marligold was a very different place, a lowly commuter college, with no ambitions to join the hallowed ranks of research institutions. Not one of them would get tenure in this school today. They do so little, and what they do is third rate. Yet, they sit in judgment of those of us who do genuine scholarship, and they assassinate anyone they perceive as a threat to their hold on the status quo.”

“You really think one or more of the senior members went against me? That there’s this cabal against anyone who works hard and gets recognition in their field?” asked Ah Sook, feeling her entire body stiffen.

“That would be my informed view. What else? I’ve seen it happen many times before. They anoint those who share their mediocrity and eliminate those who defy it. Cornwall is the worst, too. Look what he’s done over the decades he’s been here. Maybe two pubs and those in second tier journals.”

“But he’s so friendly. Always comes into my office and talks to me. Acts like a mentor. I can’t believe he would vote against me,” replied Ah Sook, looking at the floor.

“That’s his game––seduce and slay. I’m sorry, Ah Sook. You deserved better, like so many others. Do yourself a favor and get out of here. Have you been interviewing?”

Ah Sook sheepishly admitted that she had not even applied elsewhere because she had been certain she would be granted tenure at the college.

“I was blind, I guess. I never saw anything but a positive outcome.”

“They lulled you into a false sense of security. That’s their technique.  When they see that someone has the potential to outshine them and possibly lead the unit, they scheme their demise.”

“I feel so stupid . . . so naive,” responded Ah Sook, tears beginning to stream down her face again.

“You aren’t. You were just a trusting person in a place where that is a very bad mistake,” said McCormick, handing her a tissue.

Ah Sook thanked him for his views on the matter and then cancelled her last class of the day. She felt hollowed out and highly agitated and didn’t want to face her students in that condition. She cared for her students. They deserved more, too.

*

It was just as she had thought. Her parents, who had always pressured her to perform at the highest level, did not understand why she was refused tenure. Rather than consider that she might have been cheated of a just outcome, they assumed the decision was due to her failure to meet the standards established for gaining tenure. From their old world perspective, institutions were always in the right. The Paes recommended that their daughter return home and seek a husband. That was something she could not conceive of doing, but in order to avoid further displeasing her parents, she did not raise objections.

By the time the conversation ended, Ah Sook was nauseous and trembling. She had not experienced such a sense of hopelessness since the year before, when her boyfriend of three years had fallen for another woman and ended their relationship. Even then she had had her career to keep her from going under completely. Now she had nothing to hold on to and felt as if she were sinking in a bottomless sea.

Ah Sook’s lunch with her department chair did not improve her dark mood. To the contrary, if anything, it deepened it. Haywood’s unwillingness to reveal any information about the senior vote and her growing coolness convinced Ah Sook that the roots of her trouble existed in her department and extended from there to the Tenure Committee. This view fanned her rising hostility toward the senior faculty and administration alike.

“So, you’re not going to appeal the decision, Ah Sook? That’s probably smart. It may spare you more unhappiness,” observed Haywood.

“I couldn’t be more unhappy with this place if I tried. But I’ve become convinced that it will do me no good at all to throw myself at the mercy of the Marligold hierarchy. There’s clearly little compassion in the hearts of certain people.”

Ah Sook gave Haywood a harsh look and excused herself, pushing her half-eaten salad aside as she rose from the table to leave the restaurant.

*

Later in her apartment, Ah Sook reviewed her years at the college, looking for anything that might reveal a gap or breakdown in her performance. Would they have acted against me without a legitimate reason?  Her self-doubt, coupled with her suspicion about the motives behind the college’s decision to terminate her, made it increasingly difficult for her to function normally. She took to her bed for several days, prompting the department secretary, Betty Sampson, to phone and email her numerous times until Ah Sook finally responded.

“Are you all right?” asked Sampson. “I heard about what happened, and I’m so amazed and upset by it. How can I help? Do you need anything?”

“Thank you for calling,” answered Ah Sook meekly. “I’m just having a hard time right now, but I’ll be in tomorrow.”

“Do you want me to get you anything? I can drop by your house. Maybe you need company?”

“Oh no, but thank you, Betty. That’s very sweet. You’re so kind. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Ah Sook did meet with her classes the next day without breaking down. She offered no explanation about her previous behavior to her curious students, but it was soon apparent to them that something was terribly amiss with their professor. After taking attendance, she launched into a rant about the treachery of duplicitous communication.

“Be careful of false rhetoric. You cannot always believe what people say. Behind words often lays deceit. You’ve heard it said that people often say one thing and then do another? Well, I can tell you that that is something I have experienced first hand at Marligold. Do not be led astray by hollow and contrived expressions of friendship and approval. Understand that there exists ill will in many people, and it is shrewdly disguised in all forms of mock geniality . . .”

Ah Sook’s verbal tirade lasted half of the allotted period, and she dismissed the class without addressing student questions. She repeated the same cautionary diatribe in her next class. At the conclusion of her teaching day, she felt satisfied that she had alerted her students about the rampant deceit that she had recently come to believe existed in human nature––more than hinting that it was present in alarming abundance among the institution’s upper echelon.

*

As the semester came to an end, Ah Sook’s mood had eroded further. She had distanced herself from everyone in the department, including those who had been closest to her. She had also isolated herself from the few friends she had outside of the institution. Given her single-minded pursuit of tenure since arriving in the area, her social life had been virtually non-existent, and following the breakup with her boyfriend, she had devoted all of her time to research and publication.

In her seclusion, she grew more and more morose, at once deriding herself for failing to succeed at Marligold and, then, condemning those she perceived as the cause of her failure. Soon, she stopped responding to all attempts to communicate with her.

“You’re a loser! Pathetic! Just nothing! Better off dead!” she spat at her image in the bathroom mirror.

Upon closely examining her reflection, Ah Sook beheld a haggard figure. Her youth was gone, leaving behind the dire effects of despair and remorse.

“You don’t deserve to live,” she whimpered. “What good are you?”

In the middle of the night, she woke with a start, hearing loud voices outside of her window.

“Ah Sook, is not good enough,” proclaimed a familiar voice.

“She is inadequate,” declared another.

“Subpar,” agreed a third.

Ah Sook moved to the window and peeked out. In the glow of the streetlight stood Haywood, Cornwall, as well as the dean and the academic vice president. She gasped as their faces took on grotesque characteristics.

“Inadequate! Not good enough! Subpar!” they chanted as they morphed into hideous monsters.

“No!” screamed Ah Sook, closing the window and drawing the curtains.

She ran to her computer and tapped its keys frantically. On the screen appeared a list of local gun shops.


About the Author

Michael C. Keith is the author of an acclaimed memoir, numerous story collections, and two-dozen non-fiction books. www.michaelckeith.com