I didn’t really start to cry until I thought about Dru. I was pulling books off of the shelf, separating what was personally mine and what belonged to the position, when I said Dru’s name and started sobbing. It’s not only the girl herself. It’s all of the students she represents. Students who I love. Students whose rights I think it’s my calling to protect. Students who love student media as much as I do. Students I was leaving behind.
I resigned my position at Oklahoma City University after finishing my 16th year. It wasn’t something I planned, but it’s something I knew was coming.
Some of you probably know my professional story, but here it is for those who don’t. OCU was the only university I ever wanted to teach at. I earned my bachelor’s degree in mass communications in 1999 from OCU. I had an amazing experience there and felt totally prepared for my career in journalism, but I had one little thing to do first. I was getting married. I got married exactly one week after graduation. While most of my peers were panicking about what to do after college, I was too busy planning a wedding to even think about what would come after that. I had a paid internship at the time that would continue through the summer, so I figured it would all work out. I don’t necessarily recommend getting married so young, and I certainly don’t know what the rush was to do it a week after graduation, but I’m happy to report that it worked out well. Jeff and I are celebrating our 20-year anniversary this month.
My college roommate called me while we were on our honeymoon in Grand Cayman to tell me that a newspaper was looking for me. They had called the apartment, trying to find me. I called them from the island, explained that I was on my honeymoon and asked if I could come by the next week. I think they were shocked that I called from my honeymoon. Maybe it made a good impression. They had gotten my resume from a sister paper where I had applied for an internship that I did not receive. They were interested in interviewing me for a reporting position they had open. I went in the week after I came home from my honeymoon and was hired. I never applied for a job. I worked as a reporter and then managing editor for The Guthrie News Leader before I was hired by our major metropolitan newspaper during an interview they requested that I almost didn’t attend. Again, I never applied for a job, but I was advancing. I felt I owed it all to my amazing OCU education.
While working at The Oklahoman, I started taking courses to earn my master’s degree in higher education. I wanted to eventually go back and teach at OCU. During this time I was asked to visit a class at OCU. The faculty, my faculty, invited alums working in the industry back to visit the senior capstone class. During the class, the department chairwoman asked me why I was getting my master’s. I’ve always said that I didn’t know if it was arrogance, ignorance or pure luck, but I said “because I want to teach here.” The department was small, and I’ve often said that I thought someone would need to die or retire before I could get the job I wanted there. Little did I know that the woman working in my position wasn’t being renewed. I received a call from the department chairwoman asking me to apply for the position. I wasn’t ready. Not only did I love my reporting job, but I also was pregnant with our son. But this woman had taught me that you at least explore opportunities when they come your way, so I told her I would come for an interview, then informed her that I was pregnant. Her response was, “Well, then I guess we’d better hurry.”
I’ll never forget the day I interviewed with the man who was then OCU’s provost. My department chairwoman and I walked (I really waddled.) into his office and it’s possible that I audibly gasped. He had this beautiful wood conference table surrounded by big leather chairs. In other words, the exact kind of situation you see in movies when the pregnant woman’s water inconveniently (and hilariously when it’s not you) breaks. Bernie greeted me and asked when I was due. This was not a risky question because I was CLEARLY pregnant. Karlie, the department chairwoman, responded: “She’s due today, so time is of the essence.” I finished my master’s work, had our second child and started my job at OCU.
I was hired on a 2/2 contract. That meant I would teach two classes a semester and advise student media for the other two hours a semester. This felt like a fair deal because I was essentially doing two jobs, professor and student media adviser. At that time, we had a weekly student newspaper and a yearbook. A part-time person was hired to advise the yearbook. I grew the student media program. It went from publishing when everything went right to publishing weekly in print no matter what it took and daily online. I worked with student editors to document student media history, create a publications manual and produce the yearbook after the part-time position was cut. I led a student staff of about 30 students a semester and oversaw a budget of more than $100,000 a year during the good times to serve the campus community with information. And, of course, as the staff stabilized, the awards started rolling in. OCU’s Student Publications staff was successful for the first time since I had been a student there, and it was running like a professional training lab for students again.
As the years went by, university budgets were cut. The editors voted to cut the yearbook to save the newspaper, website and staff salaries. Positions in the department were cut too. I’ve taught overload classes for as long as I can remember, typically teaching 4/4 and advising student media instead of the 2/2 I was hired to teach. I’ve been asked how I did all of that. I’m not really sure. I taught the classes because the students needed them and I was the only one left in our department who could teach them. I gave more and more to the university, even while protecting student press freedoms on our small private campus and becoming known nationally as a student media expert. I did it because this is my professional identity. Being a student media adviser is who I am. I take care of students.
During this time I also fulfilled my additional obligations to the university. When I was hired, I agreed to seek a terminal degree. I was told I had five years to enter a program. Once the program was complete, there would be a national search for my position, and it would be converted to tenure track. Of course, there was no guarantee that I would be hired in the national search, but I would have the advantage of already being there working with the staff and students. The problem was that there was no PhD in journalism in the state at that time. The provost who hired me encouraged me to take a sabbatical and complete the degree, but I had two small children and no one else could advise the student media staff. If I left, it would no longer exist. I couldn’t abandon my students.
I heard a rumor that the University of Oklahoma was looking to start a journalism PhD program. I went and talked to the faculty about it. I started taking master’s-level classes that would apply to the PhD before the program was even approved by the state regents. It was my only option in the state, so it was my best option to fulfill my OCU contract. Once the PhD was approved, I was not admitted in the first cohort of candidates. The reason was pretty simple. They wanted full-time students. Even if I found someone to teach my OCU classes, there was no one to advise student media. If I took two years to complete my PhD full time, the program would cease to exist. I couldn’t do that to my students, so I just kept taking classes full time and doing my OCU job full time. I wasn’t going away. I was accepted into the second cohort of PhD students. It was a long road, but I defended my dissertation and completed my PhD in December 2015.
After the completion of my terminal degree, current university administrators refused to honor the agreement I made with former administrators. They would not do a national search or convert my position to tenure track. I applied for promotion, the only thing I was eligible to do at the time and was denied. The committee said my dissertation did not count as “peer reviewed research.” I appealed, but the dean agreed with the committee.
Honestly, I thought about leaving then, but there wasn’t another academic job available in Oklahoma that I really wanted. Plus, my students. I couldn’t even think of leaving them. So I decided to stick it out. After all, I had the autonomy to teach what I wanted, when I wanted. I loved my colleagues, and I adored my students. I wasn’t happy with administrators’ decision not to honor their part of the deal, but it seemed I was still meant to be at OCU.
We learned last semester that the university has a significant budget deficit. This comes just a few years after the university went through a “prioritization,” cutting faculty and programs. My colleagues and I were called into a meeting last semester with the deans and told that we may be asked to give up our course release. In other words, we might be asked to teach a 3/3 or 4/4 overload without being paid for it. I would essentially be advising student media for free. I said no. I would not do both. Apparently I wasn’t believed.
Another meeting with the deans without us knowing an agenda was called May 7. I was told that my course load would change to a 3/3. My pay and responsibilities would remain the same. I was told that the future of student media is uncertain at best. I walked out, which may not have been my most professional move, but the conversation was over for me. I packed my office, and I left.
It’s been 16 years. Sixteen years of contractual promises that were kept only by me. Of fewer faculty, increasing workloads and at least a decade without any pay increase, much of which was during a time when I was pouring money into my terminal degree to fulfill my side of the agreement. There comes a time when you cannot continue to be disrespected and taken for granted. So I walked away.
I walked away from colleagues who are my family. I walked away from a university that changed my life as a young person and once held my heart, where I went eight years without dreading a single day at work. I walked away from my professional identity and a presidency in the national college media organization. I walked away from Dru. And Emily. And Paul. And Jessica. And Maddie. And Luke. And Clara. And Trae. And Carson. And Amanda. And all of my other students who nicknamed me “Momma Hen” because I protect them.
I hope that my chickens come to understand that, by walking away, I’m still protecting them. I’m still speaking for them. I hope they see that I’m teaching them not to let others take advantage of them or treat them poorly. I don’t know what is next for me or them, but I hope they know that I’m always here.