Doctor Cleveland's picture

    Codes of Silence

    There's sad news from Princeton where a lecturer who was apparently in danger of losing his job has taken his own life. That's a terrible thing.

    A number of his students (and other supporters) are campaigning to make Princeton explain more about the events preceding his death, and especially about the danger that he was about to lose his job. That is a very understandable desire. On the other hand, Princeton is very unlikely to do any such thing unless it's in response to a subpoena, and they're right. That will make Princeton look secretive and authoritarian and inhumane, but Princeton will just have to take it.

    Nothing could be less humane than Princeton defending itself at the dead man's expense. If Princeton did wrong here, it's not going to fix that by smearing the man in the newspapers. And if they were in the process of firing poor Antonio Calvo for some legitimate cause, they won't comfort his mourners by announcing that cause at his funeral. Whatever the facts, he deserves a better elegy than that.

    When I was a doctoral student, a brilliant and well-liked assistant professor was turned down for tenure in the department. (Actually, that happened more than once, but this time was particularly unfortunate and surprising.) So the graduate students asked for a meeting with the department chair and graduate chair, to get an explanation. Why did N not get tenure?

    That was an awkward meeting, of course, and also a frustrating one, because the department chair and graduate chair could not tell us. And I, like many of my classmates, saw pretty quickly that they really couldn't. What were they going to say? Were they going to run N down to the grad students, adding insult to injury? Were they going to publicize the reasons for denial while N was trying to find another job, and thereby add real injury to injury? That's the kind of thing that gets you sued, because it's unnecessary and wrong. Whether the department had been right or wrong about the tenure case, N deserved at least a fair shot at a continued career, which definitely couldn't happen if the old school was talking about N's shortcomings in public. And there was no good to be achieved by trying to talk graduate students out of their respect and affection for N. Who would stoop so low?

    Now, it's easy to view closed deliberations as secretive and opaque. Some people call for greater transparency in things like the tenure process, arguing that confidentiality leads to abuses without accountability. It's definitely true that there have been some injustices done behind closed doors in the academy (some of which, although done in secret, became notorious), and decisions without any accountability at all really would invite abuses. But there is a crucial distinction between transparency and publicity. The reason behind N's tenure decision was not a secret. It was confidential. The difference is that N knew the reasons, and knew who had made the decision; the process was transparent to the party concerned. The general public did not need to know the grisly details. Making everything public, including every slighting word said during the process, would have left N without any protection of confidentiality at all and caused material damage to N's subsequent career.

    (For the record, N swiftly got an excellent new job, published a new book, and won a big prize for it. So I still hold that we were right about N and that the people who made that tenure decision blew it. But then, I didn't read N's file.)

    The one thing the department and grad chair were never, ever going to do, although some of us might have been hoping for this deep in our hearts, was to say that they had done him wrong. They weren't going to sit there with their graduate students and say, "We confess! We railroaded N out of the job! We did it because we're evil!" Of course not. They didn't think that they had railroaded him, and certainly didn't consider their own motives wicked. (And if they had, would they confess?) "Tell us why N did not get tenure," is not just one unanswerable question, but two. It asks for reasons that cannot be shared (in part for N's sake), and it also asks for consolation and validation. When we asked that question, part of what we meant was absolutely, "We want you to admit that N has been done wrong." We were upset, and we wanted to hear someone sufficiently powerful tell us that what had happened was not right.

    Something similar, I think, is behind the insistence that Dr. Calvo's death be "explained." His friends and students need to hear a valediction for him, to hear that he was done wrong. That Calvo lost his life, rather than merely suffering a brief career setback like N's, makes his friends' and students' needs much greater. On some level, I suspect many of them want to hear a public statement that says, "Princeton treated Antonio Calvo unfairly, and we hounded him to his death." And Princeton will never say that. No one would.

    Something clearly went very, very wrong, although I'm not eager to know what it was. Calvo was undergoing a routine reappointment review, but it seems clear that Dr. Calvo was removed from his duties with a few weeks left in the semester, in a way that suggests that Princeton had not adequately prepared for someone to take over his courses. That is very peculiar. Clearly, that was not the outcome of the performance review. No matter whether Calvo was getting a new contract or not, he wasn't going to be fired two weeks before classes ended, with all of his final grading left to do. No one at a college gets fired two weeks before exams if anyone can possibly help it.

    So something very unfortunate happened. If the sudden relief from duty was a result of Calvo's behavior, or perhaps his health, then there are excellent reasons for Princeton to offer him all the tactful decency they can manage. If such a sudden suspension was unwarranted, it was outrageous, since the step was so extreme and since it came at a clear cost to students' education. But if someone actually committed any misconduct, no lobbying campaign will reveal it. If someone was trying to terminate Dr. Calvo wrongly, the only way to discover that will be through the discovery process in a lawsuit. Universities don't become "accountable" for their misdeeds by voluntarily admitting them; they are actively held accountable through due process. And if the truth of Dr. Calvo's untimely death does not reflect badly on anyone else, it should be forgotten with his burial. The evil that men do lives after them, and the good is oft interred with their bones, but shouldn't it be the other way?


      One of the more reasonable pieces I've read on this unfortunate turn of events.  While there is an understandable desire on the part of many to assign blame, to point an accusing finger, to learn the "real" reason, these people need to recognize that there may be legitimate reasons for keeping some facts private.

       As you duly note, the fact that Prof. Calvo resigned or was relieved of his duties so close to the end of the semester seems to indicate that something beyond contract non-renewal may have been involved.  It would be easy to speculate-- but improper.  

       He lost his job.  He took his own life.  There are more than 10 million unemployed in this country right now.  Few have taken that drastic step.  For those who sadly have chosen that course of action, each had his or her personal reasons.  What was the last straw for each? What was the why?  Some left notes, others just left questions and grieving friends and family.

       For those demanding "Justice for Calvo," no amount of justice will bring him back.  And it is doubtful that the answers will alleviate much pain or the sense of loss.  And they may only undermine what were once good memories of a friend and teacher.

    I'll echo what Anonymous said. It's an excellent piece Doctor, and if more don't comment, it's most likely because they can't find a nit to pick.

    Precisely. I was thinking I should comment, if only to say, "Excellent, thoughtful piece."

    The good doctor nailed it.

    As someone who has worked in academia for a long time, I can tell you that awful things happen behind closed doors. Seemingly intelligent, educated human beings can act like little children. I remember one professor who was denied tenure because he had not published enough. This reason was specious because the man had published three books and nine articles. No one else on the faculty had as many publications as he had. When the man complained, they answered that the publications were not "good quality." The truth of the matter is that the department chair had a personal vendetta against that man and lobbied the rest of the faculty until they agreed. It's the equivalent of back-yard bullying and I've seen it over and over again.

    As a result of what I witnessed, I completely disagree with this article; Silence is not the answer. And, the reason why N never achieved tenure would be in his file, which can follow him to his next position. Most academic positions also require professional references and if your employers dislike you, this in itself, can lessen your chances of obtaining a new position. So, academia can be a trap to those who are denied tenure, or those who are fired. These people know that their options are limited, and that can be the reason why they take strange and drastic actions. It reminds me of the science professor who shot her colleagues after she was denied tenure.

    Anyways, I don't think silence is ever the answer. It doesn't solve the bad behavior; it simply allows for those people to get away with it over and over again. 

    I absolutely agree with you. Silence is not the wright answer. Conocer la verdad siempre ayuda a hacernos todos mejores y permite que cada vez haya menos espacio para la impunidad.

    Oh, it's been quite obvious since the first day that Princeton wouldn't, and couldn't, respond. Head down, lips buttoned, hope it blows over. But are we supposed to feel bad that Princeton might be uncomfortable with the fact that many devastated students and staff members are voicing their objection to what they consider reprehensible treatment?

    Princeton has no procedural protections for Senior Lecturers, not even for those who have given their heart and soul for ten years. No one really expects an excuse from them for what they did to Dr. Calvo, or why - what we expect is for them to implement fair policies and procedures so it doesn't happen again. 

    As Dr. Cleveland has noted, firing Calvo suddenly during the the semester, cancelling his email account, taking his keys etc., seem to be very drastic actions.  You would think the university wouldn't have taken such extreme measures unless Calvo had done something criminal.  But if that was the case would he not have been arrested and charged?  That surely couldn't be kept secret.    But that there seems to be no police involvement or any suggestion that Calvo was being investigated for any crime.  So why was he treated by the university as if he was a criminal?   Something doesn't add up.      

    It is hard to speculate on what might have happened, but I do agree with Blue Willow: cancelling his email account, taking his keys, and sending security personnel to do so, just two weeks before the end of the semester is pretty drastic. This is the kind of response one would expect from really serious accusations. If that is the case, and they involve criminal, or near criminal, activities, then the person(s) responsible for them should come up with the evidence, and the authorities in Princeton should explain why they took such drastic action. Secrecy in this matter just throws suspicion either (a) on the procedures and policies followed by the authorities in Princeton and those who may have led them to act in they way they did, or (b) on Prof. Calvo's reputation. On the other hand, who says that students and those faculty members under his supervision have no power? Haven't we all heard about sexual harassment, racial discrimination, etc. etc. etc.? Whatever the case, an independent committee should look into the matter.

    Princeton has no procedural protections for Senior Lecturers.

    The reason is whatever they wanted it to be. We think that needs to change.  

    Well said, and a very helpful and gracious hand of guidance.

    Lets us all be gracious and let the matter rest in it's slumber.

    Thanks for all the comments, folks, and thanks to all the visitors from

    Since a lot of people have already read a fair amount of speculation about the events leading up to Dr. Calvo's death, allow me to point out one thing about most of that speculation: it can't be true.

    It is not true that the people who have been accused in some stories of costing Dr. Calvo his job did that. They could not have done that. The people being accused are people who had less power at Princeton than Calvo did. I don't know what happened at Princeton, and I know none of the people in question, but I do know that lecturers and doctoral students do not have the power to decide whether or not a senior lecturer has his contract renewed. Conspiracy theories that focus on people without power should always be considered suspect.

    I would also say that while the departure from campus before the semester's end could not have been the outcome of the contract-renewal process (because Dr. Calvo's current contract was not up), it is not clear that Dr. Calvo was asked to leave campus because of any accusation of wrongdoing. He could also have been put on temporary leave because he was feeling too ill or too distressed to fulfill his teaching duties. At least one student apparently reports being told on that Friday that Calvo would be back the next week, and having to wait twenty minutes the next Monday before someone showed up to say that Calvo wasn't coming. If that actually happened, it suggests that Princeton was not planning or expecting that Dr. Calvo would not be in.

    If it was because of illness why would they have taken his keys and cancelled  his email?  And why the secrecy?   A member of my department is on leave because of cancer, and the chair sent an email to the department  at time the cancer was diagnosed, and he continues to send periodic updates.    Isn't that what is normally done in the case of illness?


    Unless it was a mental illness or addiction or something like that...but even in that case the secrecy seems strange.  Surely if he had been mentally ill people would have noticed something strange about his behaviour for some time, and perhaps wouldn't be so shocked now.  I suppose some people may have noticed odd behaviour, but don't want to mention it now that he is dead

    The issue of health is one that seemed rather slow in appearing.  As a retired medical worker, my first impression of the published photo of Calvo was that of a person with "facial wastage" that is often associated with serious disease.

    The published photo of Calvo was absolutely not typical and makes him almost unrecognizable (for those who know him). Google Dimiceli Calvo for the many photos on the memorial website, and then try your diagnosis again.

    I liked your original post and found it reasonable, but this reply contains many problematic and unfounded assertions.

    It is true that graduate students and lecturers do not by themselves have "the power to decide" whether or not a senior lecturer will be reappointed.

    But it is not true that graduate students and lecturers do not have the power to influence this decision, and possibly in a massive way - especially considering that the role of the senior lecturer is to direct the language program and to supervise the teaching assistants and lecturers. Their input and feedback (through letters, evaluations etc.) is a very important part of the process. It must already have been solicited and taken into account as part of the departmental review, but if there were any objections at that point, the department (the tenured professors) did not consider them serious enough to recommend Calvo's dismissal. It was between the departmental decision and the university decision that those who were opposed to Calvo's reappointment must have taken some additional steps, either by simply writing to the Dean or possibly by making more serious allegations that might be cause for administrative investigation and disciplinary action. If these allegations included for example any kind of discrimination or harassment, that would be an essential new element which probably would have swayed the decision of the university committee.

    Concerning your speculation about an "illness" or "temporary leave" being the cause for Calvo's removal from campus, such an initiative would have had to come from Calvo himself, ie he would have had to request that leave. But clearly his removal, by a security guard (!), minutes before his class where his students waited for him, shows that this was a unilateral action by the administration. A faculty member is not "put on temporary leave because he was feeling too ill" without his consent. Also, it appears that the university disabled his email access - was he also "feeling too ill" to use email??

    Well, anonymous, thank you for both the comment and for the kind words about the original post.

    The early newspaper reports are full of allegations and alleged details, but almost none of them come from sources who are clearly in a position to know the things that they allege. And so I'm not willing to take any of those as proven. (This is especially true since none of the people giving quotes to the media so far say that they spoke to Dr. Calvo between April 8 and April 12.)

    I gave the most weight to the student eyewitness who says he had to sit waiting in Calvo's class on April 8 and April 11, because that witness was clearly in a position to know what he says he knows. He was in that class, Calvo did not turn up, and eventually in each case someone did show up, first telling him that Calvo would return on the 11th and then telling him that Calvo would not. That suggests that Princeton, for whatever reason, did not have its act together, and had not really planned for Calvo not to be back. 

    Most of the other details that are in the news are things that the sources being quoted have no clear way of knowing. Worse, they give no explanation of how they know. So I don't fully credit those things.

    The worst of all are the claims about what problems there might be in Calvo's contract review, because no one talking to the press seems to have direct knowledge of what was in that review file. The people who have claimed to speak for Dr. Calvo so far are people who would clearly NOT have access to that information.

    This is why pointing the finger at specific parties, especially parties who are themselves professionally vulnerable and powerless, is so ugly. These accusations are made by people who do not know the facts of the case, against people who did not have the power to make any of the decisions involved. These are accusations without evidence. Do you seriously not see a problem with that?

    No one's going to get justice for Antonio Calvo by trashing or railroading other people. That is simply a way to create new injustices and new wrongs.

    No good is served by keeping the files secret in this case; I disagree entirely with you, Dr. C. For one thing, people do not simply bury friends' deaths and walk on. For another, clearly something, or several somethings, went badly wrong along the line here, and the light of day may prevent another such case.

    It's no secret inside academe (though it's often a surprise to outsiders) that the players are often less than sane and moderate. Nor is it a secret that administrative power is sometimes used harshly or abused. But no good comes of closing one's eyes when these things happen.

    Stories like these make me very glad I never had any interest in becoming an academic. To live in an environment where the jobs are so few, the self-importance so vast, the politics so filthy, the cast of mind so narrow, and the inclination to close ones eyes is so times I think it can be ascribed only to a failure of imagination. Surely this is not the only way to teach, if teaching's what you're after.

    Who said anything about keeping files secret? Certainly not me.

    There is a difference between "secret" and "confidential." That difference is semantic; it has very real consequences.

    "Secret" would mean that Princeton never gives an accounting to anyone. That is clearly unacceptable. "Confidential" means that Princeton gives a private but full and complete accounting of events to Dr. Calvo's survivors (such as his family members, for example). If the account Princeton renders is not satisfactory to Calvo's survivors, they should drag Princeton through the courts like Achilles dragging Hector. In either case, it should be up to Calvo's survivors, not to Princeton, to decide what gets made public and how.

    Princeton absolutely has to explain the events leading up to Dr. Calvo's demine. But they shouldn't explain them to me, or to you. I'm sorry if that pains you, but Princeton also doesn't have the right to determine who was close enough to Calvo, or was fond enough of him, to be given access to his private information. In life, that was for Dr. Calvo to share, or not. Now it is up to his legal survivors, particularly family members. And if Princeton decides to "clear the air" by telling the whole Princeton community about Dr. Calvo's medical history or by repeating allegations against him, then Dr. Calvo's family would have every right to sue Princeton for *that.*

    Princeton does not get to unilaterally decide how much privacy Dr. Calvo is entitled to in death. And if people suspect Princeton of treating him badly, that's not a better reason for letting them violate his privacy.

    Early statements from the family suggest that they indeed want answers to the many open questions. But I'm wondering whether the University will indeed provide all the answers, because the "confidentiality" of the process does not involve only Dr. Calvo but also other parties concerned: his "accusers" for example (if allegations were made against him, which seems likely), the colleagues and students who wrote confidential letters, and possibly even the members of the committee that decided his case. They would all have to consent to the release of the information pertaining to them. Unless the courts get involved, I'm skeptical whether the truth will come out even if the family pushes for it.

    Yes. That's why the beginning of my original post says that this will take a subpoena.

    That's why the comment you just responded to says:

    If the account Princeton renders is not satisfactory to Calvo's survivors, they should drag Princeton through the courts like Achilles dragging Hector.

    I don't know how many times and how many ways I can say it: if there is wrongdoing, the only solution will be courts of law.

    As a university HR administrator, I agree, this piece is spot on.  There is usually more to the story, and sometimes much more to the story, with a situation like this.  I am glad to see that others see that as well. 

    Such a sad outcome to a troubled life.  I have to believe that one event, no matter how traumatic, rarely leads one to suicide.  That final act comes after long periods of despair, often effectively hidden from even those who are closest. 

    Doc, your beautifully written account takes no sides and doesn't need to.  It serves no purpose to dig deeper in order to find the cause.  There is a family grieving and Dr. Calvo surely led a life that deserves to be acknowledged beyond innuendo or speculation.

    This sentence is particularly haunting.  I've felt this way about other stories for which I've felt an attachment:

      Something clearly went very, very wrong, although I'm not eager to know what it was.


    Given all that, never mind the tragic death that followed, the University must recognize its duty to the larger community. As one student summed up during a memorial service on April 19, “I don’t think anyone is going to find closure until we have some kind of understanding.” (James Williams  ′ ’13 quoted on April 20 in the ‘Prince.’) Closure indeed. What then should be done? Three things:

    First, professor Calvo’s estate and family should be delicately asked if there is objection to the full disclosure of the circumstances of his “abrupt leave-taking.” If they do not object, then the file should be opened and the “closure” process would begin, even at the risk of much second-guessing.

    Second, regardless of the first, the University should enlist a respected “special reviewer” from outside the University. He or she would have full access to the Calvo files and all relevant personnel procedures to provide the University with an account of the matter and with his or her recommendations for any changes to “procedures” for the future.

    Finally, the work of this “special reviewer” should be considered by an independent committee — i.e., independent of the “Committee of Three,” who apparently made the final decision leading to Calvo’s “abrupt leave-taking” — and report to the Board of Trustees on his or her findings and proposals for change, if any.

    Doubtless no one could have foreseen that Antonio Calvo would take his own life after his sudden dismissal, but surely it was predictable that he would experience great anguish. The question now is whether that anguish was unavoidable, or could it be repeated  again someday for someone else.

    R. William Potter ’68 is an attorney in Princeton and a frequent preceptor in law-related courses at the University. He can be reached at [email protected].

    Family of Deceased Princeton Professor Questions University's Silence

    By Emily Witt

    May 6, 2011 | 2:20 p.m

    The family of Antonio Calvo, the Princeton professor whose April 12 suicide was preceded by a controversial suspension, has issued a statement about the university's silence surrounding the circumstances of Dr. Calvo's departure from Princeton. The statement further undermines university president Shirley Tilghman's stance that no details about his situation can be disclosed, "on the principle of confidentiality and of respect for Antonio Calvo's privacy and that of his grieving family."

    The following, said to be from Mr. Calvo's brother, was forwarded to The Observer from someone with the pseudonym "Anticlimacus Cus" who says he (or she) is a former Princeton graduate student. It has also been posted in the comments section of The Daily Princetonian's web site, where a thread attached to one April 25 article is now 50 pages long.

    Statement from Antonio Calvo's family
    (Issued by his brother Santiago Calvo, and translated by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux)

    The family of Antonio Calvo wishes to thank Antonio's students, colleagues, and friends for all the displays of affection and support that they have received. We are particularly grateful to his students for the events they have organized to honor Antonio, both as a professor and as a person.

    The family of Antonio Calvo, like many, is left with doubts about the way Princeton University has acted. They have received no information from Princeton about the reasons for any action with regard to Antonio's employment. The family would like to express its disappointment with the April 25th statement issued by the president of Princeton.

    The President's primary concern has been to defend the university's contract-renewal process, without taking into account the human consequences that such a process can have.

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