The Way Princeton Behaves

The strange case of Antonio Calvo,  the Princeton lecturer who slashed himself to death last April, is the subject of  long front-page article in the July 1 Chronicle of Higher Education. After his suicide, Princeton put out a formal statement saying that Calvo had been on leave from the university. That was not true. Princeton had suspended him with three weeks left in the semester, relieving him of all duties and banishing him from the campus. He was cut off from the email system and told not to talk to faculty or students before clearing out.

Calvo, 45, had been a senior lecturer up for renewal in the department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures. In a suicide note, Calvo said that months of waiting to hear from Princeton about  his job renewal was “emotional torture,” and that  being suspsended had taken away his credibility.”I’ve got nothing left,” he wrote.

What had Calvo done to deserve this treatment? The Friday before his death he received a note from his department chairwoman accusing him of “troubling and inappropriate behavior.”  There had been some friction between Calvo and a few students and he had made two startling statements, which a colleague, Professor Ricardo Piglia, said were cultural misunderstandings– common Spanish expressions had been mistaken for insults and threats

The issue now is the apparent brutality of Princeton and  its procedure, which in this case looks somewhat like the star-chamber methods that Harvey Silverglate denounced here.  Why was Calvo thrown off campus, clearly humiliated, then  told he could phone an associate dean to get a hearing and learn what the charges were? University president Shirley Tilghman told a group of complaining students that all appropriate procedures had been followed in Calvo’s suspension. To us, that sounds like a confession of  institutionalized incompetence.

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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