The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive


[ I'm not sure I should send out the following to the lists, but the lists
are a part of my life at this point. Last year I taught at Florida Inter-
national University; it was a disaster. Some of you know, in part, what
was going on. The rest, which was just sent out to various sources in
Miami, including a number associated with the school, is outlined below.
While I don't feel blameless, I feel my treatment was highly unethical.
I was railroaded. I could not find out what was going on; as the head of
another department told me, "they've closed ranks behind you."

The account is fairly mild, since I did not want to violate the confidence
of other faculty members (some of whom are references for me), but it will
give you an indication of the situation.
Unfortunately, going up against a university is an absurdist exercise -
nothing will come of it - but I needed to do this as an exorcism of sorts.

At the moment, I'm starting to apply again for other teaching work, but
I'm being much more careful.

Alan ]



To Whom it May Concern:


The following is an account of my termination at Florida International
University. I was led to believe - and sent a letter to the university
newspaper saying such - that the reason was budgetary; I found out later -
after more and more lies - that it was personal. I'm still furious over
this. I've never worked in such a morally corrupt situation in my life
before.


===

Last year I was hired as a full-time tenure-track assistant professor at
Florida International University. On December 10th, my contract was
terminated, and the position - teaching new media in the art department -
was eliminated. At that time, I was told that the reason for this was
purely fiscal; for various reasons, it became clear that wasn't so.

Carol Damian sent me email saying the Dean of Arts and Humanities was
reviewing all the new faculty positions, and she was afraid I'd lose my
job. What I didn't know was that, as far as I can tell, she was orches-
trating all of this. I was the only new faculty let go in the entire
university (this information from a woman in Human Resources), and I had
no warning, no recourse, no probationary period, no due process - nothing.
The head of the union grievance committee (who said this was the worst
case she had ever heard of at the university) spoke privately to the Dean,
who told her that the job loss "did not originate with Arts and Sciences,"
but within the department itself - Carol Damian (the head of the
department), and the "senior faculty." This was backed by an email I
received from the head of the faculty senate, who said "this is what
happens when an individual loses the confidence of his colleagues."

Who these colleagues were - who the members of the "senior faculty" were -
I never found out. A great number of the senior faculty wrote me privately
or spoke to me - that they were sorry to see me go etc. - but there was no
public defense, etc. At one point, in December, I called Damian and said
to her that I "had to know" why I was being let go. She said "Don't go
there!" and when I pressed she said "You don't really want to know." I
said I had a right to know (apparently I did, according to the union), she
said, "Look, I'm married to a lawyer; I know when to keep my mouth shut."

Carol also told me that I had told her and the Dean that I was planning on
leaving at the end of the year - which was a complete lie. What I did ask
was what would happen if I did leave; at that point (early on), I wasn't
sure I could fulfill my teaching obligations because of the poor state of
the equipment and the media studio room (which was, by the way, and still
is, on a flood plain).

All of this began after I was hired at the end of April; I didn't receive
the contract until six weeks later, and the school was of no help at all.
At one point, Azure, my wife, called asking the school information board
if there was a faculty association that might help me with housing; she
gave me the phone and I was routed through until I reached a woman, Mer-
cedes, in the Provost's office. I didn't know what a Provost was, and when
she told me, I said I was routed through in error. She asked what was I
looking for, and I said housing; that the department was trying to help
but didn't come up with anything, and we had very little money to move.
She said she would see what she could do.

All of this seemed minor to me, but I received an email from Damian
warning not to go over her head, that there was a chain of command in the
university, etc. etc. I explained I didn't try to go over her head, that I
was mistakenly routed, etc. She sent another angry note;  I apologized
again.

Our whole relationship was like this. I was told in the beginning that my
salary would be negotiable; it wasn't. I was told there would be startup
funds for the new media area (I presented a budget of $20,000); there
wasn't anything.

When I began teaching, the room had cement floors with dried glue on them,
no working air conditioning, and no drop ceiling. There were dead lizards
and roaches around, as well as various insecticide (I think) dusts on the
equipment. It was impossible to teach in the summer. The sum total of the
equipment, for around 20 students, was 2 computers and one inexpensive
camcorder, which gave out shortly after the semester began. The computers
weren't online, and even though I was constantly told it was the first
order of business to get them online, it never happened. The budget I got
for the entire year was $4000, including repairs and software, etc. The
situation I walked into was impossible.

I did get the room fixed up by constantly badgering everyone - by which
time Carol had to be working to get me out of there. By the end of the
semester, I had excellent student reviews; I had been able to make con-
tacts in Miami for exhibitions and work-study for them, and my own car-
eer had evolved to such a degree that I was asked to speak in England,
Scotland, at the Sorbonne, in Minneapolis, and Toronto. I was working with
one of the faculty to bring in visiting artists as well.

But the conditions were so bad, that by late October, I was already
seeking and getting counseling with the faculty counselor; she asked what
the problem was, and I could only say that I didn't trust anyone, that the
entire administration I was dealing with would say one thing and do either
another or nothing. I saw her twice and then thought things were getting
better; later, when they got worse, I had to take medication for stress,
for the first time in my life; I also ended up in the hospital after a
panic attack. (I'm still on medication.)

Because I had no idea what was really going on - and still don't - I
stopped going to faculty reviews; I couldn't trust anyone, and found
myself so depressed that I was close to suicide. It was the worst
situation I've ever been in. I heard there was a faculty meeting in which
Damian declared that my position was terminated and "there will be no
discussion" - and that in the minutes it read that my position was
terminated - "there was no discussion" - implying that everyone agreed.

I should add that she made this decision without a faculty meeting or
vote, over the beginning of the Christmas break. The faculty were informed
of it as a fait accompli.

Meanwhile, I gather that Damian has been promoted to the promotions and
tenure committee of the faculty at large. This in spite of the fact that
she is responsible apparently for my position and the faculty line
disappearing, and hasn't raised much of a fuss over the loss of the
student gallery, which the Miami Herald had been covering.

I can add a great deal more to this - Damian yelling at me that I said
that the university wasn't any good at all - which wasn't true - that the
students said I was depressed - which I was, but still got excellent
evaluations, etc. But the worst thing was her letter to the Miami Herald
in which she announced an electronic classroom and media studio for the
department - and it was, I gather, the same old thing, the same computers
(I did manage to buy a third computer, a new cheap consumer camcorder, and
a very cheap digital still camera on that budget). The reason this letter
was upsetting - I was still the head of the new media area, and hadn't
been told a thing about this. I spoke to a number of faculty (even now),
and none of them heard anything as well. But backtracking seems to be a
standard way of dealing with things in the department.

This situation was absolutely horrible to my wife and I. Before we moved
down, our budget for the year in NY was $12000 approximately. The move
cost us all our wedding money and put us wildly in debt for the first time
(we're still paying off). It was a difficult move, in spite of the $1500
the university gave us; from New York, it cost several thousand. And to
come down, to an unfinished classroom, no monies to work with, students
who were - in some cases - already furious over the lack of equipment,
with a faculty who didn't particularly care, and a department head who was
openly hostile from the beginning - this was intolerable. I've taught at a
lot of universities, mostly as a visiting artist, sometimes tenure-track,
and I've never seen anything like this. The breakdown I had was quite real
and frightening.

I'm writing this in the hopes that someone puts a stop to these sorts of
practices. I was the fourth person in five years teaching in this position
- Elizabeth Hall and Christine Tamblyn were both miserable in it, and
Manny Torres, one of the regular faculty, took it over until I came in.
Both Hall and Tamblyn left, furious, I was told, again for administrative
reasons.

I realize Florida coasts along on image everywhere, but this was ridicul-
ous, and hurtful to the students, who deserve a lot better.

The Dean, Art Herriot, did let me go legally, one full semester before my
last, which is within the collective bargaining agreement. But the shady
ethics - the fact that I still don't know what happened - and the miser-
ably poor situation of the new media area, or what's left of it, needs
investigating. (I do have a collection of emails by the way covering some
of these things.)

I'm not writing that justice be done etc. - I have no faith in that at FIU
- but only that these practices be made public, and stopped. I was told if
I went public, I might get Damian "censured," but that it would have no
practical effect at all.

(By the way I waited until now because I've been afraid of reprisals from
the university; I was warned about this. For various reasons, including my
own mental health, I feel the need to speak out at this point.)

Alan Sondheim
sondheim@panix.com
718-813-3285

432 Dean Street
Bklyn, NY, 11217

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