Power, Prejudice, and Porn in a “Catholic” University

June 1983

You know, I really loved the place. And things were going so very well. I’d won a Faculty Research Grant. I’d been picked for summer teaching. I had been asked to develop a course for the honors program, and worked in its guided research division as well. I’d had some other research grants. I’d published The Nuclear Arms Debate. I was on the editorial board of Catholicism in Crisis. I was finished with my work on the media reaction to the bishops’ letter on nuclear deterrence and ready to begin writing, and I had a half-completed major bibliography on the propaganda surrounding nuclear weapons and deterrence already in the computer. I’d met the requirements and more. A good year, all around. The summer, all of July and August, I’d write. But it did seem strange that I didn’t get a Merit Raise. A senior faculty member from another department mentioned the grievance procedures and offered help, but I thought it’s really better to let these things pass. I couldn’t quite figure it but, well, onward.

July 1983

The long Fourth of July weekend would be full of good beach days. House guests and drop-ins, a party on Saturday. I arrived Friday to find that a registered letter was waiting at the post office, but the post office was already closed. I signed for it Saturday and was stunned by the news. The Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs of Fordham was regretfully informing me I’d not been renewed. My contract would run out in August the next year, 1984. Of course, no one could believe it. I called my chairman at his home, but he would not discuss it over the phone. So I would meet him in his office Tuesday noon.

Are you taking notes? George asked. George N. Gordon, chairman of the department of communications at Fordham University, finished a few phone calls and directed his attention across his desk at me, there to find out what had happened. This must, after all, be some mistake. The five tenured faculty had voted me out: Ralph Dengler, S.J., George N. Gordon, Donald C. Matthews, S.J., John M. Phelan, and Edward M. Wakin.

What was their complaint? You do not see the difference between productivity and activity, George Gordon said. We are overtenured. We must make room for younger people. They questioned this, they questioned that. I did not bring in grants. Grants? I asked. The perception was that I was hired as a general fund raiser for the department and I had not succeeded as such. It was a mixed vote, he said. The question was not do we have evidence that she is a bad teacher; the question is do we have evidence she is a good teacher?

But what are you telling me? I asked. I think you have substantially misjudged me. I was not hired as a fundraiser, although I have tried to help with sponsored research where I could. Does my Navy Reserve membership affect this? This is possible, Gordon said. My veteran and Navy status? He agrees. What? He tells me one committee member made remarks about it. You are in the middle of American liberalism, he advises. You should have protested nuclear energy or had a ban-the-bomb poster on your office door. What else? Catholic? You are perceived to be very much engaged in Catholic matters and affairs, he says, and some don’t like it. What else? I ask. There is the subconscious factor that you are female, he says. I recapitulate what he has said and he agrees again. I leave and call a friend. We speak for some time; my friend thinks the whole thing’s silly. They should fire those jerks and make you chairman, he says.

I return to tell George Gordon something. He says regarding the whole thing, You might as well lay back and enjoy it.

I stop in to see the Vice President for Academic Affairs, who tells me he is very surprised. He’d made no secret, he says, that he wanted me kept around here. The vote was 2 against, 3 abstain. Why don’t you take a look at your department’s publication record, he says. You’ll be surprised.

Committees, plans, advice. Stick with the senior people who have had experience in these things. Don’t involve the junior people. Get the students out on your side. No. I will not involve students. It is unprofessional. Meet. Talk again with your chairman. Did he really say those things to you? The President will hit the ceiling when he hears.

August 1983

George Gordon and I have lunch on Fordham Road. It was a ping-pong match, he says. One said, we’re finished with her, let’s get rid of her, another immediately agreed. Besides, then there is no threat of a female tenure suit. There is precedent for a female tenure suit, but not for a female reappointment suit. We walk back, and I say I’d noticed that there was not much publication among the senior faculty. The dissertations were a little strange, too. There seemed to be a preoccupation with sex. I’ve sunk even lower, George says. I’ve written for Screw, Monday’s issue.

Soon enough I find out what Screw magazine is.

September 1983

The deadlines are upon me. I have ninety days to file my grievances. I file with the Faculty Grievance Committee on the Merit Raise, with the Tenure and Reappointment Appeals Committee (TRAC) on Reappointment, and with the President on Academic Freedom. I wait. Once I actually see it in print, I tell the Vice President for Academic Affairs that Gordon has written in Screw. More than raunchy. And the book, Erotic Communications. It is all stunning. The Vice President says, tell the Catholic League. Or, better, tell this man who’s at Morality in Media. He is an alumnus. He’ll get it to the President. And so I do, and so he did, but nothing happens. The President’s aide meets with me, just to gather facts, he says. The statutory procedures will follow in due course. Or so he says.

October 1983

Three letters will be enough. They go to the President from Frank Barnett, President of the National Strategy Information Center; Rear Admiral Bruce Newell, USN, the Navy’s Chief of Legislative Affairs; and the Most Rev. John J. O’Connor, Bishop of Scranton. I’m not so sure they ever got an answer. And Gordon keeps on publishing in Screw.

November 1983

TRAC turns me down. I’ve never found out why. I never got any report. Appeals? I begin to talk with more faculty. Screw magazine upsets me. How can they not do anything? I write to the U.S. Department of Labor to ask about U.S. Code Title 38 protection of my job. I’m a Naval reservist. Can they fire me because I am a member of the armed forces?

December 1983

The Faculty Hearing Committee upholds my Merit Raise. No procedures for evaluating teaching, they find. My work compares favorably. But where’s the raise?

The senior faculty outside the department start to get concerned. They will visit the President, and give him a copy of Screw magazine, and show him what Gordon has written, and ask for my reappointment. Fr. Lauer will lead them. Off they go: Rev. Richard Dillon, Associate Professor and Chairman of Theology; Rev. Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, S.J., Professor Emeritus of Sociology; Dr. Elizabeth Kraus, Professor of Philosophy; Rev. Quentin Lauer, S.J., Professor of Philosophy; Dr. Andrew Myers, Professor of English; Dr. Roger Wines, Associate Professor of History. They pass along my regrets on having to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but the time is running out. I must preserve my rights, even if I do not exercise them. And nothing happens.

January 1984

I meet with the President at my request to find out if he will act on the Academic Freedom Grievance. These things must be taken in order, he says. On Screw magazine: I’ve lifted up a corner of the carpet of the university and uncovered something disgusting. He gestures toward his rug. There is a committee of administrators to decide what to do. These things must be taken in order. The Faculty Hearing Committee deals with academic freedom, not me.

And nothing happens. They cancel my graduate course. They won’t give me permission to apply for early tenure. Where is the Merit Raise? I go to see the people at EEOC, who tell me Fordham cannot retaliate against me. No Merit Raise, no “due process.” The Merit Raise is overturned by the Administration.

February 1984

The Vice President says he didn’t want to do it, but he was told to overturn the Merit Raise. The Faculty Hearing Committee is suddenly re-constituted. Three of the five members are replaced for various reasons.

March 1984

Conciliation. That is what should happen. The Navy assigns a Navy Reserve lawyer to monitor, investigate. He comes with me to meet with the Vice President for Academic Affairs and the Fordham lawyer. Dr. Zagano is in a rats’ nest, the Navy lawyer says, she could not get a fair hearing from that crowd. What do you want? the Vice President asks. A fair hearing, a reappointment. They offer neither, not even a two-year contract in another school of the University. The Vice President and the lady lawyer seem happy to wait me out.

The statutes say that if I establish a prima facie case, I will have a formal hearing before the Faculty Hearing Committee. We meet informally.

April-June 1984

I am invited to a formal hearing, I present more documents. The Committee said to argue from my strengths, why I am good. Pages from Erotic Communications show my chairman’s values. He’d shown a pornographic film to a class at Hofstra University in 1978 and asked them questions: “… physically produce ‘the itch’ as you watched?” “Describe the scene or sections which you found repulsive.” “Which … best describes the dominant sexual activity in your life?” This man told me I was “too Catholic.” My own work ought to speak enough for itself. Teaching, research and publications, university service.

July 1984

The Faculty Hearing Committee finally meets. There is a University lawyer there, another one, who controls the meeting. My witnesses are not permitted to testify fully to my credentials. We are not here to determine the merit of your work, the lawyer says, only what facts you have to prove your academic freedom has been abrogated. But they did not give me the procedures for the meeting before it started. My department is meeting with the administration before the hearing, on a “department matter.” They troop in one after another with the same story. Fr. Lauer is with me. And another Navy lawyer, again to monitor. Exhibits are handed in, and never seen again. We know we’ve lost. How foolish. So this is what a kangaroo court is.

August-December 1984

Papers, filings. The State has taken over the EEOC charges. They are investigating. We meet for conciliation purposes, but no conciliation is offered. The Labor Department decides to take another look.

I file suit. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I have been discriminated against because of my sex and my religion, and therefore denied equal protection, terms and conditions of employment. I file pro se, by myself. This is so obvious, they’ll understand they’ve lost before it’s begun. But they don’t. They’re going to fight.

Happily, at this point Charles T. Duncan and Harry A. Poth, Jr. from Reid & Priest, agree to take the case pro bono.

January-May 1985

The papers go back and forth. The Vice President swears he never received the complaint. The process server swears he did.

We go to court. The Fordham lawyer complains bitterly about the documents and wants the whole thing under seal. She does not want Gordon’s articles in the public record. Technicalities. The student newspaper covers the appearances.

“I wrote them because of my personal relationship with Al Goldstein,” Gordon tells The Ram, the student newspaper. “I would do it all over again if I could.” The University defends his right to publish in Screw.

June-August 1985

National Review arrives. There we are. “This whole case is cause to wonder about Fordham’s attitudes toward women and Catholic values as well.” Letters, back and forth. Cardinal O’Connor writes Fordham President O’Hare: “I have been unable to shake from my consciousness or my conscience, over the past two years, the question of the employment and retention of a writer for a pornographic magazine.” President O’Hare writes National Review: “At the same time, I recognize that a tenured faculty member’s decision to publish in Screw, however personally offensive many of us might find it, could and would be defended as an exercise of academic freedom.”

September 1985-February 1986

Document discovery begins. We give them everything they ask for. “The Les Kinsolving Show.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The National Catholic Register. The Wanderer. Fidelity. American Education Report. National Catholic Register. Campus Report. Chronicles of Culture. The New York Post. They don’t return the favor.

March 1986-May 1986

“After investigation, the Division of Human Rights has found PROBABLE CAUSE to believe that [Fordham] engaged in or is (are) engaging in the unlawful discriminatory practice complained of.” Sex, religion, retaliation.

The Village Voice. Human Events. The Ram. Thomas Sowell’s column. The Ram again. And again. The Wanderer again. The Ram, this time by an alumnus. Catholicism in Crisis, twice in a row.

Fordham files for a reopening of the State case. I answer, this is just obfuscation and delay; Fordham is at-tempting to adduce what ought to be adduced at the hearing. I am beginning to talk like Della Street.

Examination before trial begins. Depositions. Court reporters.

Campus Report. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Eastern Oklahoma Catholic, another alumnus. The Center for Women and Religion.

Donations from Fordham alumni. “I hope you will see it as an indication of my unqualified support of your cause.” Christmas greetings from strangers. “I want you to know that I fully support you in your efforts to seek justice in this situation.”

No hearing scheduled yet on the State case. The Labor Department is still investigating, Fordham has been promising them witnesses since June. More depositions. Seven- hour days. Fifteen of them so far.

I am a teacher. Doing nothing would have been far more destructive than doing something.

By

When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.

MENU