We were eating breakfast at the Zeitman’s Deli in downtown Bryan, just after doing some shopping at the farmers’ market, when the question came: “So, doctor, I hope you don´t mind my asking. What happened at Duke?” The question came from a Mexican student who is spending some time with us in Texas. Teresa and I looked at each other before responding “We do not know what happened at Duke. They made our lives impossible. You should ask them. Why do you ask?” “Oh, it is because I heard some rumors that do not seem to match . . . ” “What rumors?” “Oh, essentially that you are a very difficult person, conflictive . . . ” “And you heard this in Mexico?” “Yes, from my professors there.”
So, that is how it goes. Were they warning her not to come? We left Duke in 2006, which means sixteen years ago. That is, two years more than we actually spent at Duke as professors. And the rumors persist. They are international now. I suppose I ought to be grateful to my colleagues of those years that they did not spread worse (and falser) rumors, since we all know there are worse (false) rumors to be spread about those you wish to cancel. And there was plenty of malice to go around. So I am grateful. A bit. They say I am a difficult person. Conflictive. Compared to some of the people I have had to share my life with, some of the very people that made us move towards leaving Duke, I do not think I am particularly difficult. Or conflictive. I may be a bit arrogant, sure, which is why I thought back then there were things I should not let pass without responding. After all, I was a distinguished professor at the time (the Anne and Robert Bass Distinguished Professor of Romance Studies and Literature), was directing more dissertations than anybody else in those units, and was coordinating more working groups and organizing more workshops and more conferences than anybody else around. I had given my life to the university, after all. At some cost to my family and to my writing. When things became bad enough, and we were certain that they were after me–banal mobbing, perhaps, but extensive, and it hurt–, we decided to apply for jobs elsewhere, not even thinking, at first, that we were going to leave Duke. We thought that telling them we had offers and we might leave would be enough for them–well, for the administration at least–to tell us they did not want us to do that, that they would support us, protect us. But it did not happen. Yes, the dean was new and knew nothing–only what he heard. He said there was not enough support in the department for him to make a counteroffer. So we left. It just so happened the place we went to did not work out for us, so we ended up regretting it.
We were lucky to receive offers of employment from Texas A&M in 2010, in the middle of the post-2008 hiring crisis. We did not know then that those offers would save our careers. Other options became closed to us, which would have been par for the course, had I not heard several times in later years that there was nothing casual about the rejections or the non-consideration. Everybody had heard rumors, but they would not say what rumors. Duke rumors, rumors of conflict. We were too hot, possibly even dangerous. Things came to a head when the Chancellor at University of California Irvine told me I would be receiving an offer to become Dean of the Humanities at Irvine and the offer never came. A few months later somebody told me the Chancellor’s Office had received an unrequested letter about me and he got cold feet. Never called me. Never told me. I wrote the lawyers at the university and they told me that, yes, there was a letter, but they could not or would not share it with me. I let it go. A few months later something similar happened at University of Southern California, when the dean made me an offer he knew I would not be able to accept. He told me, hard to forget, “you are already making too much money for a Spanish professor.” Later, I heard he wanted me to decline because, yes, there had been some kind of interference from third parties. I never did find out anything else.
So we gave up. Texas was to be our place, and we would eventually retire here. No problem. We are happy enough, we have plenty of time, we have a good life. But those rumors persist, and they are still interfering. I do not know what my professional life would have been like without those rumors, those interferences: perhaps quite different. I no longer care, frankly. I read and I write and I go east in the summer. And I never think of Duke or my old colleagues, why should I? They no longer matter. Yes, the absence of remaining love is disturbing: I thought I had made many friends over those fourteen years, but no, it was a mistake, a delusion.
I no longer have nightmares. I no longer obsess trying to understand what happened or what my own responsibility might have been. I have new friends now, and I continue to have students. Which is what, perhaps mistakenly, perhaps wrongly, makes me write this. There is after all something sinister about the whole thing. Is it hurting my students? My prospective students? Perhaps it is. Who is to say? Only those who know. But I do not know. All I know is that I have always behaved properly, always behaved ethically, have always tried to help others, and I have never engaged in conflict except as a response to attacks by others. Is that not enough? Well, it should be. There is something sinister going around. Still. After sixteen years. Is that part of what one should expect as a university professor? Perhaps, if you think so, you would care to explain why. In any case, perhaps there is something to be learned here by others.