Did You Hear the One About the Ungrateful Campus?

Miss can take a joke. Goodness knows, she could not have survived a thirty-year career in academe without a sense of humor. Recently having found herself in a vat of boiling hot water over a satirical essay, Miss was reminded that most academics are a cheerless lot who will go to great lengths to stop anyone, anywhere from finding something to laugh at in their all-too-often risible behavior.

In other words, I understand what Paul Queally must be going through. Mr. Queally runs a highly successful investment firm and is a generous benefactor, as well as trustee, of his alma mater, the University of Richmond. He and his wife, also a Richmond alum, have donated in excess of $20 million to the campus; their most recent gift of $10 million will help fund a new admissions and career services building. It will be in this very structure where the university will make good on the lofty promise of its strategic plan to

defin[e] a spirit of opportunity and welcome to excellent students, faculty, and staff of all means and backgrounds, sustained through a bold program of financial aid, a dedication to fairness in all that we do, and an authentic culture of inclusivity that seeks and prizes diversity of experience, belief, and thought.

Mr. Queally might be wondering about the authenticity of that “culture of inclusivity,” since many of the university’s denizens have been clamoring for his banishment. Not his gifts, though, they can stay. Just him.

Why? Because he made the fatal mistake of joking about Hillary Clinton and Barney Frank. To the upright members of the Richmond community, it matters little that Mr. Queally’s bon mots were delivered at a private party in New York City, and were transcribed by a writer seeking to make a splash by crashing the party and blabbing about what he overheard.

Actually, it’s not the joke about Hillary (something involving a piscine aroma) that has everybody hot and bothered. After all, she’s just a white woman.  The former congressman from Massachusetts’ Fourth District, however, is a different kettle of fish altogether.

Say what you will about Secretary Clinton; she can take a joke.

Say what you will about Secretary Clinton; she can take a joke.

Famously homosexual, Barney Frank is out and proud.  His sexual preferences (none of my business–or yours) were made known in 1989, when his then live-in lover (the ex-representative has had several since then) talked publicly about the romantic way in which the couple met. The Washington Post recounts:

They met on April Fool’s Day 1985. The representative answered a classified ad in the Washington Blade, the local gay weekly. “Exceptionally good-looking, personable, muscular athlete is available. Hot bottom plus large endowment equals a good time.”

The good times did indeed roll, at least until lover boy, or “Hot Bottom,” as he was known in the tabloids, got in legal trouble for running a prostitution ring out of Representative Frank’s Washington, DC bachelor pad.

I wonder if Mr. Queally is asking himself how his innocent, albeit accurate, comparison of the Newton, Massachusetts Frank and the Fenway Frank buns could in anyway be more offensive than the truth. Seriously, is there any joke in the world that could possibly top it?

Leave it to a University of Richmond faculty member to blow aside the smoke from the fire and brimstone to which Mr. Queally has been condemned and get down to the real reason he’s got to go: He might hurt a gay professor’s bid for tenure.

Writing in Inside Higher Ed Assistant Professor of Sociology Eric Anthony Grollman explains:

The personal significance of Queally’s comments and the limited response from the university finally sank in by the week’s end. As a trustee, Paul Queally will be one of the last individuals to decide my professional fate: tenure. I am a queer man, and some of my research is on the lives and well-being of LGBT people. And I just began my first year as a tenure-track professor at the University of Richmond. Life on the tenure track is already stressful and scary enough. Now, add to that the possibility that at least one person has indicated, at least to me, a level of hostility toward me, my community, and my research. After a tight knot formed in my stomach, I felt I needed to lie down right on my office floor. What is the point of working toward tenure over the next six years if the odds are already against me?

Professor Grollman, lips aquiver, continues:

I decided to seek out motivation of the caffeine variety to keep working. I am still doing my best to adjust to life as a professor, which really means I am simply too overwhelmed to stop work to have a mini meltdown over this controversy. At our campus coffee shop, I ran into my dean and a director of one of the social justice offices on campus. They both hugged me and expressed sympathy for my precarious position. There is news of homophobia at the highest rung of the university ladder; they were right to assume how troubling this is for a new, queer professor who studies sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. And, to my surprise, my dean noted that the college would support me, including any efforts to right this wrong that has occurred at the university. I did my best to hold back the tears that threatened to come forward as I returned to my office.

Where presumably he had a good cry into his latte, because–like so many self-absorbed academics–any slight, insult, or joke is all about him.

It is only in the Ptolemaic universe that is the academy where anything and everything derives meaning from how it affects a faculty member up for tenure. When “news of homophobia at the highest rung of the university ladder,” swept across the University of Richmond, no doubt all of the members of all of the departmental, college, and university-level personnel committees, as well as the chairs, deans, provost, and chancellor through which a tenure recommendation must pass threw up their hands in collective and bitter defeat.

Because a trustee made a cocktail party joke about hot dogs.

Don't laugh. You might make Professor Grossman cry.

Don’t laugh. You might make Professor Grollman cry.

16 thoughts on “Did You Hear the One About the Ungrateful Campus?

  1. In academic circles, faculty will blackball a politically incorrect colleague. Excuse me: blackball has a racist tinge. Maybe they would just ball the colleague. Oh, heavens, I am being sexist. It’s so easy to become persona non grata nowadays.

    • Why not? There are plenty of poor bigots running around. Like the ones who are refusing, apparently, to accept Mr. Queally’s repeated apologies for comments that were blameless in the first place.

      Unless you are saying that women and gays are off-limits for jokes. What a grim place you must inhabit.

      • His apology was accepted by the UR students at a forum. All he said was that he was reading from a script and the comments did not reflect his own values. If so, why say them? The comments were not harmless. Words matter… My place is hardly grim! It’s full of happy people who don’t need to deride others for things they cannot help in order to laugh.

      • Since I was not invited to the private party at which Queally made his jokes, nor did I crash it, I have no way of knowing “why” he read from a script. An initiation ritual, perhaps?

        The comments were harmless. No catfish were injured because of the joke about Mrs. Clinton, and I would be horrified to learn her presidential chances have been dimmed. The last time I checked Representative Frank is still gay and, although he is married now, still has a very public history of promiscuity.

      • And furthermore…. in Virginia you can be fired simply for being gay, no reason given. You can be refused employment simply for being gay. The professor was right to be concerned, therefore, about tenure. Why are you assuming his “lips (were) aquiver?” or that he cried “into his latte?” or that’s he’s “self-absorbed”? Seems to me you are making assumptions about him just because he’s gay.

      • Carol, I did not “assume” the good professor’s lips were quivering; I know they were–because he said so: “I did my best to hold back the tears that threatened to come forward as I returned to my office.”

        You are correct: the professor could’ve gotten teary over his triple shot espresso, cuppa joe, cafe au lait, or hazelnut mochachiccino– “I decided to seek out motivation of the caffeine variety to keep working”–does it really matter what he was drinking, or am I missing something here?

        Since the dean and chair who hired Professor Grollman just the year before know he is gay, it defies logic to assume they would be party to his “firing” for this irrelevant fact. It is not clear to me how tenure could be denied him if, when he comes up for review, he meets the stated criteria and is given positive recommendations by his peers. Trustees must abide by their own policies, too, you know…whatever their thought crimes might be.

        Thanks for the heads up about the law in Virginia, of which I was unaware. I sincerely hope that this does not mean that no gay staff or faculty are employed in the Commonwealth. Please tell me this isn’t true.

  2. There are gay employees in Virginia but if they work in private companies or institutions they are subject to firing for simply being gay and that is a scary thing. Those in state employ are protected but only at the decision of each governor. As for your descriptions of the professor, I thought you chose words to deliberately trivialize his reaction but perhaps not. It is possible to hold back tears without quivering lips; he sought a coffee break rather than give in to his feelings of fear and concern. Trustees with money carry weight even if they don’t decide tenure. The men at that party (and they were all men, I think, and certainly all rich) have a frat boy mentality, an attitude of privilege, and I find their humor disgusting and unfunny. But to each his/her own.

    • True enough.

      Here’s the link to the New York Magazine article about the Wall Street party Queally attended. There were oodles of women there–some of them, who hold leadership positions within the club sponsoring the party, appear to have been among the ringleaders of the hijinks.

      Again, thanks for the elaboration of VA law. The University of Richmond has a clearly stated policy prohibiting discrimination against gays and others: “The University prohibits discrimination and harassment against applicants, students, faculty, or staff on the basis of race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, disability, status as a veteran or any classification protected by local, state or federal law.” This policy applies to the board and governs any action it might take on a personnel issue.

      • I counted maybe 50 women on the membership list, which doesn’t seem like oodles, but I’ll concede that women were there and I should have said “mostly men”. If one goes by the photo, many of those appearing to be women are the neophytes in drag. I’m aware of UR’s policy. Still, I don’t fault the professor or any gay employee at UR for being concerned. When Ken Cuccinelli was Attorney General, he ordered all state universities and colleges that had a policy such as UR’s to take gays off the list, as it was a classification that the General Assembly had not approved. The University of Virginia and other state colleges refused to do so and told Cuccinelli to sue them if he didn’t like it. He didn’t, and now, thank goodness, he’s out of office and we have an AG who has declared Va’s ban against gay marriage to be unconstitutional.

  3. Just one more thing, and then I’ll leave this alone. The students can be and are grateful for the trustee’s gifts to the school. That doesn’t mean they have to like what he said. Students were offended by it … the school’s reaction wasn’t all about tenure of one person.

    • You are right–of course they don’t. As these students mature, however, I hope that they come to understand that a silly little joke is worth about the same amount of time taking offense as it took to tell that joke. And, while I don’t mind this kind of posturing on the part of students, who probably will grow out of it, I take deep offense at the vitriol directed to Queally such as was expressed in the letter I link to from a UR alumnus/a. Far better this kind of passion be channeled into activism that seeks to change the murderous policies against gays in Uganda, Iran, and many other countries in the Middle East.

      I want you to know that I have really appreciated your comments–I hope you will continue to comment when you disagree (or maybe even occasionally agree) with what I’ve written.

      • I appreciate the dialogue! I work with a number of LGBTQ teens and what may seem like a silly joke to others is hurtful to them. They spend their lives trying to be themselves and “themselves” is what the world tells them not to be. I think they are very brave.

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