i recently sat through an overly long meeting which included our institution’s attorney. at the end of the meeting he observed that every time we meet he hears mention of at least one instance of a student being inappropriate to university staff: yelling, using naughty language, being belligerent, etc.

“do you have a protocol for instances like these?” he asked. “do the students get written up? notified that their behavior has been recorded?”

we stared dumbly.

i am of that generation that “would never have.” i would never have spoken to a grown up like that. or, more simply, to someone who is older than me. perhaps anybody, really. i would never have assumed that my righteous indignation deserved public air. i would never have been so rude, out loud, ever.

but nobody on our staff has ever suggested that we actually reprimand students for treating us badly. instead of holding people responsible for their actions, folks on staff simply — but more problematically — simply avoid. they avoid answering the phone. and then they avoid returning calls to certain students. eyes are rolled over student threats,  and we always at least try to do due diligence to help us understand the validity of students’ claims, but once that is done we withdraw again, settling into those tried-and-true avoidance maneuvers.

i have never worked somewhere like this, where a culture of fear and anxiety is bred so long and so deeply into people’s working bones that depression and low morale are the spirits du jour. where people feel so completely powerless in the face of negativity that they take it — or not — but regardless, they won’t call people on their lack of civility.

and i am more than a little embarrassed that it took an outsider to bring this to our attention, to suggest that we give staff the power and authority to say to someone “you can’t treat me like that,” or maybe even “if you choose to treat me like that i will walk away.” i feel like my good sense as an administrator — as a feminist — hell, as a person — has gone missing. and i don’t like that, not one little bit.

i pondered all this while i poured a cup of coffee to bring back to my desk. and then it occurred to me that it isn’t just “staff” who is suffering: i have my own variation on this malaise. i have a co-worker — now an ex-coworker, thanks to two job shifts that relieved us of each other’s presence — whom i do not like. not personally, not professionally, not intellectually. she is a terrible administrator, a perpetuator of gossip, an outright malingerer, and, well, an idiot intellectual lightweight.

this is not the first time i’ve worked with such a person. but this is the first time i have had to stop myself from calling a colleague like this to the carpet. from saying, to her face, i know you are lying. from saying, to her face, what gives you the authority? from saying, to her face, truly, my dear, you are an idiot.

that isn’t like me. i can snark (mac says i can’t, at least not very well, which i think he means as a compliment, but i’m pretty sure i can) but i am, under it all, quite a civil creature. if i snark, i tend not to do it out loud. rather, i am the queen of the eternal internal monologue.

and i prefer myself that way. i do not like this version of myself, this person who has to stop herself from saying unforgivable, unprofessional things. this person who works amid such intense negativity that she has lost her own sense of civility. (well, almost. i haven’t said any of this out loud. yet.) and it’s no far leap, then, to this person who agrees to perpetuate avoidance, this person who allows other women to take abuse of any sort. i do not like that this institution brings out such things in me, even as it quashes other, certainly better things.

i considered submitting an application for a job at Nearby University, which was due yesterday. i chose not to. and today i wonder how long it will take me to fully regret that decision.