Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Firing of Leonard Hitchcock

News broke on May 3rd that Leonard Hitchcock, a professor emeritus who had been employed in a part-time role at Idaho State University, had been fired for writing an opinion piece in the Idaho State Journal that was highly critical of University president Arthur Vailas. It immediately crossed my mind that I should say something about this man, a friend and former colleague of mine, but I thought my personal connection to the story could detract from what I might write of the situation. Weeks later, I now realize that my personal connection to this story and what I know about Leonard Hitchcock is exactly what needs to be told.

Idaho State University is not commenting on the dismissal of Hitchcock, citing employees' privacy rights, but ISU's recent history tells most of the story.

Hitchcock has been a vocal opponent of the current administration of Arthur Vailas at ISU. His vocal opposition has come via an opinion column in the Idaho State Journal that he has penned for several years. Hitchcock's opposition to Vailas and former provost Gary Olson, arose during the tumultuous campus reorganization and dismantling of the Faculty Senate which appeared to be in response to votes of no confidence in both Vailas and Olson. Hitchcock is not the first employee at ISU to be fired for challenging the administration's current direction--the last, Habib Sadid, sued the university for what he claimed was retaliation for his vocal opposition--and will likely not be the last.

What the Idaho State Journal has reported on Hitchcock's firing is that during the week following Hitchcock's op-ed in the Journal, he was called into the office of librarian Jenny Lynn Semenza and informed that word had come from ISU interim provost Barbara Adamcik that he be fired immediately. The dean of the Eli M. Oboler Library was out of the country at the time. In his firing, there was never issue taken with his work performance and it was clear that his firing had absolutely nothing to do with what his service as interim head of the library's Special Collections department. As an at-will employee, a part-time one at that, the administration did not have to give any reason to Mr. Hitchcock for his firing. However, there seems to be no dispute that Hitchcock was fired for his opposition to the administration and the fact that the administration, for whatever reason, had just recently learned that he was on the payroll.

Not lost on the majority of the readers of Hitchcock's column is the fact that in firing him, Vailas has proven the very point Hitchcock was making.  Though he knew it possible for Vailas to fire someone for merely speaking out against the administration, Hitchcock surely didn't foresee that his own job was at risk. By firing Hitchcock, Vailas proved that it is indeed "disappointing for a monarch to discover that there are naysayers within his realm" and that for Vailas, "when this occurs, firmness and discipline are called for." Firmness and discipline that clearly includes the firing of faculty and staff.

Hitchcock told the Journal that he hoped to continue to volunteer, something he had done for five years prior to being placed on the payroll as acting head of Special Collections. Now it appears that Idaho State University, Barbara Adamcik on up, does not want the services of Hitchcock in any form and he has been asked to cease volunteering. The exact quote Hitchcock gave the Journal, rather tongue-in-cheek, was that he would "go back to being a volunteer, unless I'm banned from campus." As of yet, he has not been banned from campus, but given the fact that Sadid was banned from campus, it wouldn't surprise me one bit if they did ban him.

The entire situation disgusts me and for good reason. A bit of how I came to know Leonard Hitchcock, why he volunteered for five years in Special Collections and how he came to serve as acting head of the department:

In the spring of 2006, Hitchcock retired from the library where he had worked for two decades as first a Humanities bibliographer, then interim University Librarian and finally as the Associate University Librarian for Collection Development. That same spring, I spent the semester wading through the papers of former Congressman Richard Stallings, a collection that had received minimal processing and attention in the fourteen years it had resided in Special Collections. With the blessing of the current head of Special Collections Karen Kearns, I wrote a proposal to the Office of the President, then Michael Gallagher, applying for a presidential internship that would place me in Special Collections to undertake the complete processing, indexing and cataloging of the Stallings Papers. When the fall semester began, I had been awarded the internship and had the privilege of meeting Mr. Hitchcock who had decided to spend some of his retirement working along side me on the collection.

To truly understand what we were up against when we began the task of processing the Stallings Collection, you have to understand that neither of us had ever processed a manuscript collection and we had before us 266 boxes to sort through. It was then and remains the largest manuscript collection housed in the department. Having spent an entire semester going box by box looking for one particular thing, something that didn't exist in the collection anywhere, I knew far better than Leonard what was ahead. There is no better way to describe the project than daunting.

For four years, two of them as a presidential intern (the second year approved and awarded by none other than Arthur Vailas) and two as a part-time employee of the library, I had the pleasure of working alongside Hitchcock on what I suspected then and believe now to be the highlight of my professional career. Without Hitchcock's dedication, I would still be at work on that collection and it still wouldn't be open to researchers.

There's more than the Stallings Collection, however. Hitchcock did volunteer his time on it for over four years, but he also volunteered his time on various other library projects. He worked tirelessly on the library's Rare Books Collection, a collection he personally bought and donated volumes to. He was a mainstay of the Friends of Oboler Library. And even in retirement he continued as a bibliographer.

What's most important to understand about Hitchcock's recent paid employment is how it came about. Keeping in mind, of course, that he was making $11 per hour, 20 hours per week, with no benefits (at least a third of what other department heads make at ISU).

Last November the head of Special Collections, Karen Kearns, was put on catastrophic medical leave after suffering a heart attack. Karen's absence left the department understaffed and by understaffed I mean there was an administrative assistant and a volunteer, Hitchcock. When the new semester began, it was apparent that the department needed direction. Hitchcock stepped in as acting head of the department, a position he did not seek out and one he did not necessarily want. He accepted the position when no other option presented. Putting someone in place proved crucial, Karen Kearns passed away in March. ISU had made no attempt at beginning a search for Kearns' replacement prior to or following her passing. In fact, Karen was serving in dual positions as University Archivist and Head of Special Collections as well as University Records Manager because the position of Records Manager was never filled when it's occupant left ISU more than four years ago. The responsibilities of Records Manager were merely combined with Karen's workload. Hitchcock took on the responsibilities of the records management program in her absence.

If Hitchcock's past schedule is any indication, it's safe to say that the 20 paid hours per week were not his only hours at the library devoted to Special Collections. While working on the Stallings Collection, we were often at the library and off the clock after hours and on weekends. At $11 an hour, 20 hours per week, the library was getting a steal. In the five years he volunteered, his time and commitment to library projects was invaluable.

In firing Hitchcock, the Vailas administration may have given themselves the momentary pleasure of ridding themselves of a thorn in their side, but they've created problems in so doing.

Special Collections lacks much needed institutional memory. The loss of Karen Kearns is felt in numerous ways, perhaps the most important being that no member of the library faculty and staff has the grasp on what resides in the manuscript collections, rare books collection, and university archive as well as how the university's records management program operates that Karen did. Kearns came into the position after the untimely passing of her predecessor, Gary Domitz. There are many questions that Karen had to find the answers to herself after taking the position after Gary's death. There were many questions that Leonard had to find the answers to on his own after Karen's passing. When ISU finally gets around to beginning a search for Karen's permanent replacement, that person will be in the dark and left with many questions to answer for themselves. Whether or not Kearns' replacement will have access to Hitchcock is unknown. The wealth of knowledge Hitchcock accumulated in the few months he was in the position could prove quite useful to the next head of the department.

Without Leonard Hitchcock in the department, there is no longer anyone employed by the library with any experience or knowledge of Special Collections' largest manuscript collection, the Stallings Collection. Even Arthur Vailas once believed the Stallings Collection to be important in the advancement of ISU's research mission, saying that it provided research infrastructure for the university for years to come. The administrative assistant currently staffing the department has no knowledge of the various finding aids created for research in the Stallings Collection. This may seem inconsequential and yes, I am invested in the collection, but consider this: The Office of the President paid for 4 semesters of tuition, 4 semesters of health insurance and nearly $9 an hour, 20 hours per week for 4 semesters to employ me alone on the processing of the Stallings Collection. That's not including the 2 years I worked as a part-time employee of the library itself. In addition to my pay, the library employed a part-time student assistant who worked with me for almost a year. None of this includes the cost of supplies for a project of this size. It wouldn't surprise me if the final tally for the cost of processing the Stallings Collection and preparing it for researchers, including labor and supplies, amounted to $30,000. And to what end?

At the time of his firing, Hitchcock was preparing a display to highlight a large donation by former state legislator, newspaperman, and long-time public utilities commissioner Perry Swisher. Swisher donated the remainder of his papers to Idaho State in August of 2010 to accompany his collection that was processed by ISU in 1985. The collection now complete, the display being prepared by Hitchcock was an public acknowledgment of Swisher's donation as well as a way to educate library patrons of the great resource housed in Special Collections. In the wake of Hitchcock's firing, the display may never come to fruition.

Whatever Vailas hoped to accomplish by firing Hitchcock, he surely failed to consider that the firing would have a devastating impact on one university department that has found itself floundering in recent months. Whether it sends a message to potential donors who might otherwise have chosen to donate their collections to ISU remains to be seen, but the message it has sent to two donors whose collections already reside at ISU is clear.

If a professor emeritus who devoted nearly three decades to Idaho State University has no right to speak ill of the current administration without a retaliatory firing, I shudder to think what Arthur Vailas won't do. Discontent at ISU amongst the faculty and staff will continue as long as Vailas conducts business the way he has and, mind you, with the blessing of the State Board of Education.

The firing of Leonard Hitchcock isn't about free speech, though that aspect is one of the troubling components of this story, and it isn't about what Hitchcock said in one particular column in the local newspaper. The firing of Leonard Hitchcock is about how much damage Arthur Vailas is willing to do to the university and how quickly he is doing it.

1 comment:

N. Speth said...

Sounds sordid!