‘How Much Damage Have My Colleagues and I Done?’

Lee Burdette Williams:

Eileen answered quickly. “We don’t know, and neither does our son, because he wasn’t allowed access to the second set of case files.”

“That’s not right,” I said.

“We didn’t think so, so we’ve hired a lawyer, but he’s already missed too much school to graduate. And he’s not sure he wants to go back. We found FACE when we started looking online for help.”

Teresa seemed to shift her thoughts abruptly. “What about you? Is this your first FACE event too? What brings you here?”

“Yes. I’m actually one of tomorrow’s presenters.”

“Oh. Which one?” Eileen opened the folder she had laid on the high-top table nearby. She quickly glanced again at my name tag which, like hers, had only my first name, then at the schedule in her open folder. I was listed as “former student-affairs dean.” The friendly tone our conversation had taken, which I felt I had earned with some seriously hard work, disappeared. “Nice talking with you,” Eileen said, and then looked at Teresa. “We should mingle.” And without another word, they walked away, leaving me alone with my now-empty plastic cup.

I could have, maybe should have, continued to interact with others around the pool deck, but I was shaken, both by their story and by their reactions to me. I looked at my phone and saw a text from my friend Linda. “How’s it going there so far?” Linda was provost during my time as dean of students and understood the challenges this weekend presented. From a corner of the hotel lobby just off the pool deck, I hit the “call” icon and was relieved when she answered.

“It’s not that I’m not familiar with being hated by people because of my job title,” I told Linda. “It’s more that I felt so immediately … indicted? And also inadequate.” She made some sympathetic comments, offered another round of encouragement, and we said goodbye.

Maybe I was naïve. Yes. I was naïve. I really believed that my remarks the next day would shed some light on the hardworking, caring people in my profession, and offer a new perspective on fairness and justice. I was so, so wrong.