Dean With a Bag

Adjusting to administrative life after a medical leave

Zorka Ostojic Espinoza/ Creative Commons

November 04, 2015

People have lately been telling me how good I look. I appreciate it, although I know they are not really making an aesthetic judgment. Instead, they think I look good for a person in the middle of treatment for rectal cancer. I tell them that I must look better than I feel, since I don’t feel so great.

When I wrote the first of several pseudonymous columns for The Chronicle, a decade ago, I felt young and full of life. Newly tenured, I saw a world of opportunity ahead, and I wanted to use that opportunity to make the world a better place for students, colleagues, and my academic discipline. I’ve had a very good run of it: brilliant students, wonderful colleagues, and a chance to do a variety of work in teaching, research, and administration. I find myself at age 50 with the same fervor for making a positive difference.

I also find myself with an ileostomy bag. What does it mean to do my 70-hour-a-week job with an "apparatus" that gurgles uncontrollably at sometimes inappropriate moments and needs to be emptied every couple of hours?

This past summer, I was on leave for six weeks following surgery. (This was after two weeks during which I was at work but my attention was divided between tasks at hand and preparation for surgery.) I spent a couple of weeks in the hospital after surgery, when I had neither the ability nor the desire to work. I think it was the first time since I signed up for an email account in 1991 that I’d gone more than a day without checking my inbox. I’m still catching up on those messages.

After two weeks in the hospital, I came home to recover. I had to figure out how to deal with my body and its limitations. Weeks 1 and 2, I still felt, as I described it to people, "shaky." I felt steadily better in Weeks 3 and 4, as I took care of my body with more care than I had for years and tried to remain mindful about everything I did.

Walking into the office for the first time in six weeks was strange. There were new people, new strategies for managing our academic programs, new directions from above. I’m still figuring out the shifting landscape. Change in academe may be slow, but it’s perceptible when one returns to a relatively fast-paced job after a couple of months on medical leave.

And how has my own perspective changed?

A lot may be changing in higher education, but it is still like Congress used to be: a place where people can argue bitterly but still come together as human beings in times of crisis.
I had a chance to do a bit of reading while on leave — not as much as I wanted to, of course. The first thing I read, in a dark hour, was Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Since returning to work, I’ve tried to maintain more balance in my schedule and leave time for reflective reading (much better current choice: Boswell’s Enlightenment, by Robert Zaretsky), even as my conscious hours have been diminished by the fatigue that overwhelms me at the end of each day.

Everyone has been kind, from the president of the university to individual staff members and students. Universities remain — even in this era of so-called corporatization — remarkably humane places to work and live.

When chemotherapy makes my feet blister for a few days every three weeks, my assistant books a golf cart to take me to my appointments on the far side of the campus. Without my asking, she even located on Craigslist a motorized scooter, which I actually intended to buy. I pictured myself zooming around the campus and competing with the cyclists for terrorizing pedestrians. The purchase fell through, and then my feet calmed down, but I’m still looking into the possibility that the university has some Segways hidden away that I might be able to commandeer for those few days per chemo cycle.

As fast-paced and competitive as my institution is, and as complicated as my relationships here are, everyone has been uniformly kind and considerate, including faculty members with whom I have butted heads. A surprising number of deans, chairs, and directors — many younger than I am — have shared their own cancer stories with me over the past few months. Many of us, it turns out, have been through this, although we don’t talk about it enough.

Indeed, a national leader visited the campus a few weeks ago, and after he heard more than one person say "glad to have you back," I explained that I was dealing with a serious health issue, involving surgery and chemotheraphy. He looked deliberately at the spot where my bag makes my shirt bulge and said slowly, "Do you have rectal cancer?" He revealed that when he was around my age, he had been through it himself. He offered advice and invited me to phone him if I ever needed to talk. More important to me than his generous offer was the example he set of a person who has had a stellar career after battling this form of cancer.

A lot may be changing in higher education, but at least for those of us with tenure, it is still like Congress used to be: a place where people can argue bitterly but still come together as human beings in times of crisis. I cry in my office as much from reflecting on my privilege as from wallowing in self-pity. (The tears hurt either way, especially for the week after my chemo IV drip.)

My privilege as a tenured faculty member has always underwritten my ambitions as an academic. I’ve told myself each time I’ve taken a new appointment that "if it doesn’t work out, I can go back to teaching and research." That’s truer than ever, for obvious reasons. I’ve worked hard to be in the position I’m in, but there’s only one justification (for me, or for others) for such privilege: a commitment to spend all my working hours improving education for students and helping to create knowledge for the world.

My prognosis is generally positive. Whether I end up "dean with a bag" or, if things go well, "dean with no rectum but some semblance of normal functioning" or a professor in either of these circumstances, I’ll have no room for bitterness. Instead, for as many years of career, let alone life, as I have left, I’ll be working hard and enjoying nearly every minute of it.

George Justice is dean of humanities and associate vice president for humanities and arts at Arizona State University.