Excuse Me for Living

by NotDownOrOut

I wrote a letter to the dean of the law school where I used to teach because I could not accept the decision to terminate my teaching. I wanted to work. I needed to work. Work is part of my identity. I teach. It is not for the money. The pay for adjunct teaching is terrible. I have to teach six or seven classes a semester to make a modest living. I teach because it is my passion. My eighth grade class photo in my yearbook says “teacher” beneath it. I knew back then that I wanted to teach. I may occasionally grouse about something that has happened in one of my classes, but I would not trade teaching for anything else.

I got in the car and drove two and a half hours because that would be my longest drive to school during the week. There was no pain. I went to the Dominick’s and walked every aisle because I wanted to be sure I could walk from my car to class and back again. There was no weakness.

I came home and sat on the couch and realized that I would not be teaching my 10 a.m. class the next morning. I cried. Was I supposed to accept a colleague’s judgment that I was no longer reliable because I was diagnosed with cancer? Who was Susan to make this judgment? Had she ever had a colleague with cancer who let her down or was her prior experience with people she did not supervise? I cannot recall a sick peer during my five years at DePaul. I called a friend who worked with her at another university. He could not recall anyone in my situation.

I decided to write to the dean of the law school. He is new. We have not ever met. But I have two concerns: 1) will the law school pay me the remaining $3000+ of my contract and 2) will he have any comment on this decision to terminate my teaching responsibilities.

Dear Dean Mark:

I am writing to request that you confirm that the law school will not breach its obligation to pay me for the remainder of my adjunct professor contract. As set forth below, I was terminated yesterday for having been diagnosed and treated for cancer.

Until October 11, 2011, I was an adjunct LARC professor at DePaul who has taught various writing courses for the law school since Fall 2006. For Fall 2011, I taught one section of LARC III that met Fridays at 10 a.m. On Monday, October 3, 2011, I went to see my physician for evaluation for an emergent health issue. I was taken immediately to the emergency room and then was admitted at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center. The next morning I was diagnosed with uterine cancer and told that I required laparoscopic surgery that week. I immediately contacted Professor Martha Pagliari, my direct supervisor. At the time, it was thought that I would have surgery almost immediately and be released by the end of the week. My doctor stated even then that I would be able to work the following week. Professor Pagliari and I arranged for her to meet my students for individual conferences already arranged for October 6-7, 2011.

Following surgery on Friday, October 7, 2011, the hospital released me Sunday, October 9, 2011. I have no restrictions that would prevent me from working. Indeed, my doctor believes that work would be good for me. I called Professor Pagliari the morning of Monday, October 10, 2011, to inform her that I was prepared to teach my class this week. She insisted that I stay home this week and said we would discuss my returning the following week.

Yesterday, I received the attached email from Professor Susan Thrower, the Director of LARC. As it indicates, she made the decision to terminate my contract and employment because of my health even before my treatment. She explained that, based on her experience with others, I might not meet my obligations in the future.

The email does not state whether I will be paid the remaining amount of my $5000 contract for teaching LARC III. I assume that DePaul intends to pay me as that would be consistent with the expressed concern for my well-being, our contract, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Illinois Human Rights Act. However, I understand that Professor Thrower generally does not communicate with me about compensation and contract terms. Your office does.

I ask that the law school confirm in writing that I will be paid for the remainder of the semester even though a decision has been made by the law school to terminate my contract and employment because of my health. I also have grades to submit for assignments my students have completed. Please let me know to whom to submit them—Professor Thrower, Professor Pagliari or Dean White.

I look forward to your response and, at some future date, the opportunity to return to teaching, and to meet you.

The dean decided not to respond to me directly. Instead, Susan answered.

Dear Cheryl,

I hope that this email finds you in continuously improving health and spirits.

Dean Mark let me know that you contacted him with concerns about receiving the balance of your Fall 2011 LARC III contract pay. Rest assured that you will receive the remainder of your contractual stipend. Should you have future concerns or questions about correspondence from or decisions by me, I hope you know that you can always come to me first to seek clarification.

With respect to your inquiry to Dean Mark about your students’ grades, please send them to Martha by November 1, 2011; she will ensure that your students’ new instructors get them.

Thank you for your work and your diligence this semester. You have my best wishes for your health and productivity.

Susan

I am not feeling better. If anything this is worse. In practice, had my client received a letter like the one I sent, then I would have hoped the matter would be referred to Human Resources. I would have hoped that Human Resources contacted me for advice. I would not have asked the person perceived as having discriminated to remain the primary contact of the person who complained.

It is insulting to me to have to respond to someone who hopes I will return to the fullness of living–as if I am half dead now. It is insulting to me to have there be no comment from the dean on whether or not I am terminated.

I am aware of two jobs that I could now apply for, but I cannot because I have to list myself as having been terminated in the middle of a semester by a law school. I have called two friends in the recruitment industry who have read the original letter from Susan. Both believe I now have to explain this situation to potential employers. That means having to address my health situation.

Look at how well that went over at DePaul. I will not get hired by anyone who shares Susan’s views of the reliability of cancer survivors.

I called my friends, most of whom are lawyers. They were shocked by the decision to reassign my students on the day of my surgery. I have confirmed with a former student that she learned of her reassignment on Friday, October 7th while I was still in surgery. It is every bit as bad as it sounds.

I looked again at the biographies of Susan, Martha and the “Dean of Faculty.” All three are attorneys. Two of these attorneys have practiced in the area of employment law. One founded and supervises a clinic to assist the disabled protect their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. How could these people decide to terminate my teaching this way? I would have defended the rights of a stranger who received such a letter.

Getting paid the rest of my contract stipend alleviates a financial concern. It does not address my disappointment in the institution that regards me as less than fully alive, less than fully reliable, and less than fully human. I am deeply hurt by this judgment of my skill, my character, and my professionalism. I cannot apologize for wanting to work for the pay. Excuse me for living.