Life works in mysterious ways, or maybe I should say, we come to mysterious revelations in places and at times when we least expect them…
There is some backstory here, so bear with me— this backstory is rooted in two personal stories:
1) As some of my readers know, I left UC Berkeley after ten years of dedicated service. I had passed the so-called eye of the needle: the Excellence Review for Lecturers. During your first six years of service in the UC system, you’re employed at will, and your contract only gets renewed if there is a so-called need for your services. At the 6-year-point, your student evals of the past 6 years are carefully scrutinized and if you have not consistently scored between a 5 and a 6 (with 6 being the highest number), you fail the Review, and lose your job. If not, you can continue on with a little more job security, although it doesn’t compare to the job security of senate faculty.
I passed my Review with flying colors, and yet I quit. Why? Why did I quit when I loved teaching and mentoring my students?
You would think that a University that cares about quality teaching would at least show you the courtesy of giving you an exit interview to find out why you are leaving. Forget that. Everybody is replaceable, and especially lecturers.
Truth is, the German Department, where I worked, was far from the “paradise” the Chair promised me when I was hired. The place, with a few quality faculty (and an outstanding staff who often went beyond the call of duty) was also not a center of academic excellence, which I expected to be in place at UC Berkeley, a university that is consistently perceived as being one of the best public schools in the country.
I will not bore you with the details (I already wrote a blog about this. See: Why I Left Academia) but it did have a lot to do with the inbred sexism and sexual harassment cases that are now coming to the surface in a number of local and national media pieces about UC Berkeley.
Mind you, some of my students told me that they didn’t always experience the quality they expected either from a place like UC Berkeley. Many felt anonymous, with Berkeley being a factory, and some of them didn’t find jobs immediately with their Golden Bear diplomas, which made some of them wonder what the added value was of even getting into a school like Berkeley. Was Berkeley really all that it’s cracked up to be for that price tag? Where is the US News and World report on that?
Which universities are truly doing the innovative thing, playing into the fact that jobs are more elusive than ever, and that in four years time, students may get a job that doesn’t even exist yet at the moment? Where is the fluidity, the nimbleness and the pizzazz (and those are not pizzas) of these institutions not to be mired in the past, but be there for the customer/the student rather than being engaged with cutting classes or lecturers or staff just because you want to hire that academic star whom you want to offer a big salary and other perks? Are we truly investing in our kids and the country’s future if parents pay a premium for a good school but don’t get any ROI?
I’ll leave my rant at that.
Here is my backstory #2) The Catholic Church. Yes. Say no more. I was raised Catholic and have considered myself a lapsed Catholic ever since I learned about the Big Bang, Darwin and evolution. The scandals of the Catholic Church made me anti-Catholic and anti-everything that stands for organized religion. Experiencing the religious Right in this country only exacerbated my relationship with religion and Christianity: if there was anything that my Catholic education taught me it has been that some of the bigotry and intolerance of so-called Christian people in this country is diametrically opposed to everything what Jesus said and did: I have a hard time imagining Ted Cruz embracing a prostitute (from an altruistic pov, not a sexual one) or Donald Trump washing the feet of a tired, illegal Mexican worker who picks our strawberries. Just saying. You catch my drift. Or not.
So, in a nutshell: I have been utterly disillusioned with academia and the church, two institutions with sex scandals that make your skin crawl…
But that doesn’t mean I have given up on the idea of education, or an education in which morality, good deeds and ethics may and should play a part…
So, this weekend, Caroline and I visited the open house for admitted students at Seattle University, a Jesuit school, located in Capitol Hill, one of the oldest neighborhoods of Seattle, that is also known as “Pill Hill” because of the number of hospitals in the area.
Maybe it was a matter of low expectations, considering my two backstories. Low expectations are the key to being impressed, right?
Walking into the big hall where admitted students and their parents were welcomed with coffee (yes good coffee, this is Seattle) and baked goods, I was preparing myself for the hype and hyperbole of the usual rhetoric: Dean of Admissions, Faculty, former students overselling the school because let’s be honest, with the kind of money schools are making these days, this is capitalism, pure and simple.
I must say, the entire day was organized impeccably, with students and faculty standing by wherever there was a need or gap in the program, but maybe the biggest impact made was by the opening speakers of the day, the Dean of Admissions, the College President, a Member of the Faculty, and a former student. What immediately came through was a sense of ownership, a pride of place, a connectedness with the very heart and core of the school brand which I NEVER saw at Berkeley, from faculty or students.
The President, an elderly Jesuit priest, was maybe the biggest surprise of the day. He mentioned all the students he had met over the past year, highlighting their stories and showing by example what an accessible person he was on campus, as in the story of the Saudi student who despaired at getting no internships and who walked into his office for help. A few phone calls later, the student was on his way. He closed with a Mary Oliver poem, and made an analogy of a mocking bird and students finding their voice at SU:
[…] mimicking and elaborating,/ he sings with humor and bravado,
so I have to wait a long time/ for the softer voice of his own life
to come through.
The tone was set.
The next speakers emphasized that getting a college education at SU was not just a journey of self-discovery and individuation but about how the self has an obligation to the world and make it better. We are in this together, they seemed to be saying, but only by acting together we can make it better. Faith, yes, but not measured by prayer or church attendance but by truly partaking in the world, doing good works. Getting an education is not the only goal here, but the trigger to do something with it, rather than enrich the self or launch a career. That level of engagement, community, altruism, enlightenment and selflessness is a rare message in the America I have seen in the past few years. I don’t see it either in the presidential candidates/future leader of our country, and I didn’t see it at Berkeley. I had to travel to SU to hear it from the Jesuits.
I became emotional listening to these important messages about education and public service. And it truly came out of left field, in a mysterious but beautiful way.
Coming to our Airbnb, I felt drained and sat outside in the warm sun. The Spring sun was warm, but getting a tan in Seattle is a hard thing to do. Nonetheless, it happened anyway.
Thank you, Seattle University. If there were more universities like you, this country would truly be a magical place…