By Alice Dreger, reprinted from AliceDreger.com.
Last night I dreamed I had a date with Donald Trump. We were in the Trump International Hotel and Tower® in Chicago, in a ballroom that looks out over the river. I was wearing my black Banana Republic dress, the one I wore to the Guggenheim Fellowship reception in 2008, with black strap sandals that were so ridiculously high-heeled I could barely stand, no less move.
Northwestern had just let me go, and the funding I had landed for the year turned out to be a fellowship from Donald Trump. I was here, with the other fellowship recipients, to say “thank you.” The organizer introduced me to him. His hair was so orange. I shook his hand and blurted out, “It’s an honor to meet you.”
And in my head, I had exactly that feeling you have when you’re about to have sex with someone you really, really don’t want.
As my ever-amused bedmate knows, my dreams don’t require analysis.
In the dream, Donald Trump was my medical school dean—a guy who doesn’t worry about any dollar figure with fewer than six zeroes before the decimal point. In the dream, as in real life, I had two choices: take money from this guy, or walk.
In the dream, as in real life, I knew that if I walked, I would still have a Guggenheim Fellowship to my name (represented by the dress). More than that, I would still have my Guggenheim book—the one reviewed in The New York Times, The New Yorker, featured in a cover story in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, praised by E.O. Wilson, Steve Pinker, Jared Diamond, and Dan Savage. . . .
But I would also still be feeling stuck, feeling like I can’t move, because I’m (duh) in the wrong shoes.
In about a month, this academic year ends, as does my one-year “renewable” position at Northwestern University. I don’t know if I have a job past August 31. I’ve had nothing in writing from Northwestern telling me one way or another, although I’ve asked. (Repeatedly.)
I honestly don’t know if I want to keep this job. It’s a small, part-time, long-distance gig that I never sought out and never meant to have. When I quit my tenured job at Michigan State University in 2005, it was to become a full-time writer, to keep running ISNA, and to deal with being a mother, not to take on part-time academia. That I kept it so long was in many ways just weird happenstance.
I don’t regret having had the job. Galileo’s Middle Finger happened because of it. So much good happened because of it.
But it’s impossible not to notice that I no longer work at a real university; I work at a branded hospital. You see, a couple of years ago now, our medical school’s faculty practice was bought by the parent corporation of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and the hospital now calls most of the shots at the medical school, wherein I am faculty. I’m now supposed to say I work at Northwestern Medicine®, the amalgam brand under which the medical school has effectively been subsumed.
I was hired into Northwestern University and its medical school specifically because I did daring, controversial work. Until recently, my program directors had always made clear I wasn’t hired to teach—although I did teach, except for the year they owed me for the Guggenheim—I was hired because of my big work and big name.
Northwestern was so happy with my work they regularly featured it. They invited me to do the first TED x Northwestern talk—a talk that went viral and now has close to a million views. They provided me support for my work, including by letting me take a big chunk of my salary as a pre-tax “professional development” budget that I could use to fund my research travel in a way that saved me a lot of money.
For the great bulk of my decade at Northwestern, when people upset with my work contacted my administration, the provost and my deans protected my academic freedom. In fact, I now know they did this more times than I ever realized, because they never bothered to tell me they were getting calls from transgender activists and people upset with my work on prenatal dexamethasone.
Now, since the hospital merged with the medical school, I work at a place where my dean not only doesn’t protect my academic freedom,he himself has actively censored my work. (Read more about the censorship of Bad Girls here and here, if you want; I don’t have the energy today to recount the ridiculous story.)
When I met with the provost in April and asked him to undo the censorship of Bad Girls, I admitted to my provost that I was having a “Pina Colada” song fantasy about him. As you may recall, in that song, a guy bored with his marriage looks at the personal ads and decides to answer one from a sexy-sounding woman. When he goes to meet her at a bar, he discovers it’s his wife, and she discovers it is him. Happily ever after.
In April, in conjunction with my reference to the song, I admitted to my provost that, because of the censorship of my work, because of how it represented the icky shift from university to hospital brand, I had been thinking of running an ad like this in Craig’s List:
Part-time academic with big name looking for new casual relationship with a university. I would like a little money, a hotel room paid for by you when I’m in town, and respect for my academic freedom in the morning. My husband knows about it and is fine with it, but he wants me to tell him all about it whenever I come home.
He didn’t laugh. So I made myself clearer:
“I want a university that protects my academic freedom. I want you to tell me you are that university. That I’m already in the marriage I want.”
He didn’t really answer. So I said bluntly, “I want to work at Northwestern University again. When I worked at Northwestern University, and not at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s medical school, I was able to do great work.”
At that he protested. He told me I did still work at the university. I told him it didn’t feel like that.
The censorship continued, extending well over a year, until I threatened to go public. Then it magically ended, within twenty-four hours of my threat. Disgusted, I went public anyway. (Read FIRE’s letter about it.)
So, last month, I got an email that went out to all medical school faculty telling us we should turn in our Northwestern University ID cards and be issued Northwestern Medicine cards:
“Starting today, the look of your campus access badge will reflect our Northwestern Medicine identity. . . . This will be a powerful symbol to our community and visitors that we’re working together as one unified medical center. . . Carriers of both the NU Wildcard and the NM ID badge will still have access to all the benefits of the Wildcard Advantage program, including dining and retail discounts.”
Make no mistake: If I keep this job, I’ll still get 15% off at local participating restaurants.
Will I have academic freedom?
I asked them to let me know in an offer letter, if one is forthcoming.
But it’s more than the lack of academic freedom. It’s the climate of corporatization, treating patients and students like “customers,” creating fear around doing anything that might sully the brand. It’s wondering if my own freaking dean is going to censor me.
If Northwestern does make me an offer, at this point, it is hard to imagine it being an offer I would not refuse. I don’t want to date Donald Trump. I want to wear flats. I do my best work in flats. And I need to respect myself in the morning.