Thursday, February 6, 2014


I have been thinking about enemies.  I had several in the course of my academic career.  Call them bêtes noires.  I did not seek them out, nor did I do anything consciously to create them, but I suppose there must have something about myself at the time that attracted them to me.  I’m inclined to think it was a kind of innocence.  They caused me, as a young man, endless anxiety and confusion—and cost me all three of the academic positions that were the major part of a career that ended—voluntarily!—more than twenty-five years ago.  I have not missed academia for one minute since I quit in 1986—though I have often had cause to miss the regular paychecks and the attendant benefits.  It has occurred to me more than once that these enemies came bearing a message, one that I refused adamantly for many years to heed: this was not what I was supposed to be doing with my life.  I was always supposed to be a writer, and I knew it…

My first enemies were at a rather well-known university in Southern California, where I arrived to teach Comparative Literature in 1968, with a fresh Ph.D. in hand; or, as they say in the business, ABD (“all but dissertation”; I finished that soon after).  How strange that sounds to me now, more than forty years later!   Come tenure time (six years later), I was attacked, on one flank by a colleague whom I knew at first hand (I mean, directly from a student who had been victimized in this way) to have traded grades for blow-jobs; on the other, by a philosophy professor I’d called on to join me in an innovative program that combined all the arts in a full-immersion semester.  Turned out, it was a bit too innovative for my philosopher, who trashed it in a letter to my tenure committee.

Moving on in my passions from literature to contemporary art, and unqualified to teach the latter at higher education level, I shifted from teaching to administration and took a job as Dean of the College at what was then Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles County.  This was the time of taxpayer revolt, Prop. 13, and so on.  The county Supervisors, those five luminaries who hold sway over every aspect of county government, decided (rightly, perhaps) that the county had no business running an art school—an historical accident, don’t ask—and voted to cut off all funds from the school the day that I arrived.  The school’s Director resigned. I, a total greenhorn in administrative or political matters, became Acting Director as well as Dean. 

My bête noire in this situation was a county bureaucrat, sent over to assist me in finding an alternative future for the school.  Naïve as I was, I trusted him with my most private thoughts and plans, only to discover that he was plotting behind my back with both the school’s governing board and the negotiating team of the school that offered an attractive merger.  Not to mention the wife of a local newspaper magnate, elbowing in on the board to indulge who knows what need for power.  And not to mention his employers, the L.A. County Supervisors.  It took a monumental—and Machiavellian—political effort to get the votes needed to approve the merger; and the final vote was a moment of great personal triumph for me—so I thought—until I returned to my office in great elation, only to be greeted by bevy of officials who handed me my notice. 

A few short years later, I was hired as dean of the arts at a Jesuit university recently merged with a small college run by the nuns of the Sacred Heart of Mary (you will surely guess which one).  The bait was an attractive sum of money to build a new center for the fine arts departments, until that time starved of funds, faculty, and students.  I worked with the university administration, the faculty, the architects to assure the design and construction of the center; alas, toward the completion of the project, the president who’d hired me was eased out, along with the supportive Academic Vice President, the latter replaced by a Carmelite priest (the last of this tally of bêtes noires) who evinced small support for either the fine arts or myself.  Indeed, he tried to get me to return the $250,000 grant I’d applied for to the federal government for a recording studio, on the grounds that it was an unnecessary luxury for my Music Department. 

The final straw came when I caught this worthy pacing out my recently-completed painting studios to see how many desks he would be able to cram into the space in order to use them as classrooms.  With that writing so clearly on the wall, I quit—both my job and my academic career.  I have never looked back with any trace of regret.

Here’s the thing: we are given our bêtes noires for a purpose.  Our greatest enemy, in most Buddhist teaching, is our greatest friend.  We do well not only to listen to them, but embrace them with gratitude for what they have to teach us.  Clearly, in my case, given the history described above, I was unprepared to listen to the wisdom I was repeatedly offered from a variety of sources.  My explanation is that I was young, I was naïve, I was scared of the only consequence I could see if I lost my job: the loss, too, of salary and benefits and the financial security on which I had become dependent, and of the not entirely negligible reputation and identity I had vested in the profession.   The odd thing is that since being cast loose on the ocean of uncertainty, I have found the voyage more enjoyable than I could have possibly imagined. 

I don't have enemies any more, except those within.  How about you?  Do you have enemies?  

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