At Princeton, a Life Taken

The suicide of a senior lecturer raises questions about his behavior, and the university's

Courtesy of the Calvo Family

Antonio Calvo
June 26, 2011

The undergraduates in Antonio Calvo's advanced Spanish class at Princeton University had been waiting for 20 minutes, but their instructor still hadn't arrived. It wasn't like him not to show up. As some of the students started to trickle out of the classroom that Friday afternoon in April, they scrawled a message on the blackboard: "Que pasa, Antonio?"

They got an answer when the class met again the following Monday, as another professor arrived to tell them that Mr. Calvo was fine but was taking care of a personal matter and might not be back for the rest of the semester. What no one knew then was that Mr. Calvo had mailed a suicide letter to a friend that same day, then gone back to his New York City apartment and stabbed himself in the neck and shoulders until he bled to death on his bathroom floor.

The death of the beloved teacher, whose job as a senior lecturer was up for renewal, jolted the department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures. So did the details that unfolded after his death. The Friday he failed to come to class, Mr. Calvo—who had worked here for 11 years—had received a letter from his department chairwoman, accusing him of "troubling and inappropriate behavior." Although the letter contained no further details, Mr. Calvo had clashed with graduate students whose teaching he supervised. The letter not only suspended him from teaching—with three weeks left in the semester—but banned him from the campus and said he was not to contact any co-workers or students, pending an investigation.

"To have this intrusion of a corporate-style firing come into the halls of Princeton was shocking in its brutality," says one tenured professor of languages at Princeton who, concerned about the reaction the remarks might draw from administrators and colleagues, asked not to be named.

In the aftermath of the lecturer's death, some professors, students, and members of Mr. Calvo's family are accusing Princeton of arrogantly mishandling Mr. Calvo's job review by leaving him dangling for months, then banishing him without giving him a chance to respond to the charges against him.

The case has created an international sensation—both online, where Mr. Calvo's supporters have established several Facebook pages in his honor, and in the Spanish news media, which seem enthralled by the story of a man who rose from a small and isolated Spanish town to work for one of the most prominent universities in America and was then cast out. It has also highlighted the vulnerability of nontenure-track professors—particularly those who take on important administrative roles in academe.

Two dozen Princeton graduate students, current and former professors, and alumni wrote an open letter to university leaders complaining that it had "mistreated" Mr. Calvo and asking the university to issue a report explaining why. But Princeton has steadfastly refused to discuss the specific charges against Mr. Calvo and has advised professors not to feel obligated to talk, either, arguing that personnel matters are confidential. Most of the faculty have taken that advice. Two who signed the letter refused to speak with The Chronicle, as did the head of Mr. Calvo's department and its graduate students and lecturers. Robert K. Durkee, Prince­ton's vice president for public affairs, told The Chronicle that the university had scrupulously followed its policies and suspended Mr. Calvo only when campus officials became "concerned that this is a person who might be inclined to violence."

But one prominent Princeton professor has written that the accusations of inappropriate behavior amount to a cultural misunderstanding in which common Spanish expressions Mr. Calvo used were mistaken for insults and threats.

If his case reveals the limits of language, it also shows how powerful an institution's silence can be. In a note Mr. Calvo wrote that was found in his apartment after he died, he called the months of waiting to hear from Princeton about his job renewal "emotional torture." And in a letter he mailed to a close friend the day before he was found dead, he said being suspended had taken away his credibility. "I've got nothing left."

Approachable but Demanding

Undergraduates who knew Mr. Calvo say they never saw the threat of violence that worried administrators at Princeton. Mr. Calvo, who came from a rural area of northern Spain, earned his bachelor's degree in Madrid in 1995, then moved to the United States, where he earned a doctorate at the City University of New York. He began working on a nonimmigrant visa as a lecturer at Princeton in 2000, proud to be affiliated with one of the most elite universities in America.

Students describe a dedicated teacher with a sly smile who firmly pushed students to do their best. Mr. Calvo had a wide range of interests, including music, art, and photography, and was known as an approachable professor. Even undergraduates with majors outside his department came to him for advice. He regularly gathered with students over dinner to talk and joke at the Spanish-language table in Butler College, one of the university's six residential colleges, and every summer he took about 30 undergraduates to Toledo, a museumlike city in central Spain.

Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, who just completed her sophomore year at Princeton, says students didn't know much about Mr. Calvo's personal life, because "he was always talking about you." She adds: "He'd ask how you were doing, and when you said fine, he'd say, 'No, how are you really doing?'"

She went to Toledo last summer with the Princeton in Spain program that Mr. Calvo had started. "He wanted me to get out more there because he was afraid I was studying too much," says Ms. Thomson-DeVeaux, recalling that Mr. Calvo took her to a bookstore and bought her "a terrible translation of Wuthering Heights into Spanish."

Mr. Calvo was friendly, but he could also be demanding. "I handed in my junior paper, and he was unhappy with one part and said, 'I could fail you for this,'" recalls Philip Rothaus, who graduated this spring with a degree in Spanish and Portuguese. For the paper, he had translated President Obama's Inaugural Address into both languages, then compared them. "I left upset because he had been harsh with me," says Mr. Rothaus. "But he gave me a week beyond the deadline to hand it in, then he gave me an A. He wanted me to do the best I could."

One of Mr. Calvo's professors at CUNY's Graduate Center recalls that he had a good sense of humor but could be fiery. "Once he was shouting at me because he disagreed with something," says Isaías Lerner, a professor of Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages. "He was a strong defender of his ideas." But Mr. Ler­ner, who sat on Mr. Calvo's dissertation committee, never took offense. In fact, he delivered a tribute to his former student at a gathering of the program's alumni late in May that took some swipes at Princeton. The irony, says Mr. Lerner, is that it is precisely because Mr. Calvo upheld Princeton's high standards for graduate-student teaching that the university threw him out.

In 2008 the university was apparently happy with Mr. Calvo's teaching, promoting him to senior lecturer and director of its Spanish-language program. Although the job lacked tenure, it was crucial to the department. All Princeton undergraduates are required to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language—and Spanish is the most popular one on the campus. The director is in charge of supervising the 30 graduate students and lecturers who teach Spanish-language courses each year to around 800 undergraduates.

By many accounts, the job—which offered a three-year contract with the possibility of renewal—is a difficult one. It is up to the senior lecturer to decide who teaches early-morning classes, to discipline instructors who fail to show up for class, and to deal with undergraduates' complaints.

"You have to please everybody," says Celia Pérez-Ventura, who left as director of the Spanish-language program in 2006 before her contract expired, because she found the job overwhelming and felt that the department didn't appreciate her work. A predecessor had nearly lost the position because of a run-in with professors. "The job is rife with conflicts," says the language professor who asked not to be named. "There can be graduate students who don't want to teach language because they see it as an inferior activity and they want to focus on their dissertation or on teaching literature."

Mr. Calvo seemed to relish the job, but that didn't mean he didn't have conflicts. In particular he clashed with a lecturer named Paloma Moscardó-Valles, who came to Princeton in 2006, when the university hired her husband, Alexander Glaser, an assistant professor and nuclear-energy expert. As acting director of the Spanish-language program at the time, Mr. Calvo typically hired lecturers after consultation with the department head. But he told friends that Princeton had sidestepped the usual process in hiring Ms. Moscardó-Valles, because of her husband. He also told friends that she did not treat him with the respect a boss deserved and had tried to discredit him.

In an e-mail message sent through Princeton's public-affairs office, Ms. Moscardó-Valles says there is "no truth" to Mr. Calvo's accusation. And Mr. Durkee, the vice president for public affairs, says that "it is outrageous that she has been targeted for as much abuse as she has received" in the wake of Mr. Calvo's death. Ms. Moscardó-Valles, says Mr. Durkee, is among some Princeton professors and trustees who have received anonymous e-mail messages that contain threats of violence and photos of bloody bullfights. Princeton has turned the e-mail messages over to the police.

Mr. Calvo was not shy about expressing his displeasure with lecturers and graduate students who he believed were doing a bad job. In one instance, which his friends say he was asked to apologize for, he told a female graduate student that she deserved a slap in the face, then slapped his hands in front of her. Mr. Calvo's friends say such a gesture is sometimes used in Spain with misbehaving children.

In another instance, he used a Spanish expression in an e-mail message to urge an Ameri­can graduate student to work harder. Translated into English, the message told him to "quit touching your balls and get to work," say friends of Mr. Calvo.

"Anybody who speaks Spanish knows it's really got nothing to do with" male anatomy, says Marco Aponte-Moreno, who worked as a Spanish lecturer at Princeton and now teaches business at the University of Surrey, in Britain. "It's like saying, Quit sitting on your ass." Neither of the graduate students—who had complained to Princeton—responded to The Chroni­cle's request for comment.

Mr. Calvo told many of his friends about the run-ins. Margarita Navarro, who was a senior lecturer in Spanish for 10 years until she retired, in 2002, recalls thinking, "Oh, my gosh." Using a crude Spanish phrase with an American graduate student was unwise, she thought. "If you say things to a graduate student like this, and he is not a Spanish person and doesn't under­stand, he will take these as an offense," she says, recalling that she asked Mr. Calvo if he had apologized, and that he said he had.

High-Level Review

Last fall his department began a review to decide whether to renew Mr. Calvo's contract, which was due to expire this summer. By November, he told his friends, the department had approved him for another three years, despite the problems he had had with graduate students. He was relieved. His visa to work in the United States was tied to his job at Princeton. If he lost the job, he would have to quickly find another one or face a return to Spain.

But the department didn't have the final say in Mr. Calvo's reappointment. Although he worked off the tenure track, a high-level panel that considers all faculty appointments and promotions at Princeton also would consider his renewal.

The panel is called the Faculty Advisory Committee on Appointments and Advancements but is commonly known here as the Committee of Three, or C3, because at one time it apparently had just three members. It now comprises six professors plus the university's five highest-ranking administrators, including the president, Shirley M. Tilghman.

Senior lecturers typically know their fate with the C3 by February of the year in which their appointment expires. But in Mr. Calvo's case, February 2011 came and went (and the committee approved the renewal of a senior lecturer in French and Italian) with Mr. Calvo's case remaining unresolved. At some point, his friends say, it became clear to him that members of the C3 were concerned about the complaints from the two graduate students and had started an investigation. If Mr. Calvo knew of other complaints, he never mentioned them to his friends.

As the months wore on, and Mr. Calvo still had no word from the C3, he became increasingly worried. Already thin at 6-foot-4, he lost weight. Students noticed a change in the classroom. "He looked strained," says Audrey Hall, an undergraduate who took the advanced-Spanish class with Mr. Calvo this past spring.

By the time Ana Martín-Sevillano, who had known Mr. Calvo from their undergraduate days in Spain, visited Mr. Calvo in New York for several days at the beginning of April, he was consumed with worry. "He told me that he couldn't understand why, if he was doing his job properly, suddenly those interactions with graduate students were being made so important," recalls Ms. Martín-Sevillano, who is now an assistant professor of Spanish at Queen's University, in Canada. During her visit, she says, she and Mr. Calvo had coffee, ate dinner in his apartment, and walked around the city—something he loved to do. But even as he worried over whether he'd keep his job at Princeton, he spent hours working on the course schedule in Spanish for next fall.

When she asked him about the worst-case scenario, she says, he acknowledged that his job might not be renewed. And he knew it wasn't a good time to find another position. Language instructors are often hired at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, which was in January. Mr. Calvo knew there was a possibility that he would fail to find a job and would have to return to Spain, where his elderly father, sister, and two brothers lived. He was close with his family and spoke with them on the phone once a week, but he had made a life in Manhattan that he loved.

Mr. Calvo would have turned 46 in mid-May. He was gay and, while he had no partner and lived alone in a Chelsea building filled mostly with businesses, he had many friends. One of his favorite pastimes was to stand with a friend on a street corner near his apartment and people-watch, making up plausible stories about passers-by. He also loved word games and took pictures of English words on signs and buildings. A close friend found albums full of the pictures in Mr. Calvo's apartment after his death.

"He was always full of life, and I knew whenever we were together, he'd lift my spirits," says the friend, who asked not to be named because he wants to avoid the media spotlight.

While Mr. Calvo was open with his friends about the trouble his reappointment faced at Princeton, they heard nothing about the suspension letter he received on Friday, April 8, either that day or over the weekend. On Monday he mailed a copy of the letter to his close friend, along with a short note.

"This is to inform you that we have received information from multiple sources that you have been engaging in extremely troubling and inappropriate behavior in the workplace," said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle. It told Mr. Calvo that he was relieved of all his duties and should leave on his desk all student work, grades, and his Princeton keys and ID. It instructed him to call an associate dean that Monday to set up a time for an interview. "In that interview you will be provided an opportunity to respond to the allegations," the letter said. It told him he could appeal the decision.

Mr. Calvo's friends and family members say it was unfair of Princeton to ask him to respond to allegations without telling him the details in advance. And they say the university treated him like a criminal by banishing him from the campus and made it harder for him to respond to the charges against him by cutting off his access to e-mail messages that he might have used in his defense. "He was practically put in isolation," says Marie-Hélène Huet, a professor of French at Princeton.

Members of Mr. Calvo's family, who have been staked out by the Spanish news media, do not want to speak on the record. But a family statement sent to The Chronicle says: "We think it was unfair for Princeton to schedule a meeting with Antonio (or any other person) to defend himself without stating the specific allegations so he would have a chance to properly prepare a defense. The family believes that, at a minimum, Prince­ton should have heard Antonio's side of the story before it suspended him."

The policy under which Princeton suspended Mr. Calvo says faculty members "shall receive a statement in writing of the reasons for the action ... ." In an e-mail message to The Chronicle, Mr. Durkee says the policy does not "specify the level of detail to be provided." Princeton clearly felt it had fulfilled its obligation. Mr. Durkee says Mr. Calvo would have had ample time to make his case in the meeting with the associate dean if he had made the appointment.

But Mr. Calvo's supporters say Princeton made other missteps in handling the case. The policy the university says it used to suspend Mr. Calvo applies to professors, never mentioning senior lecturers, a fact that Mr. Calvo's supporters say would have made it confusing for him to know how his case was being handled.

The policy also says the president is responsible for suspending professors—but the letter Mr. Calvo received was signed by his department head and said the final decision on his employment would be made by the dean of faculty.

Mr. Durkee says that Princeton's general rules and procedures on faculty employment make it clear that full-time lecturers like Mr. Calvo are included in policies that govern professors, and that the dean of faculty serves as general administrator of actions taken by the C3. The chairwoman of Mr. Calvo's department, Gabriela Nouzeilles, signed his suspension letter simply because she was conveying President Tilghman's sentiments, Mr. Durkee says. Ms. Nouzeilles declined to respond to The Chronicle's request for comment.

'More Than I Can Take'

A copy of Mr. Calvo's suspension letter, accompanied by a note from Mr. Calvo, reached his close friend by mail in New York on Tuesday, April 12. When the friend failed to get a response after trying Mr. Calvo by telephone and text message, he went to Mr. Calvo's apartment. He didn't have a key, and neither did the building's landlord, so they called the police. The officers who came removed the door to Apartment 1201 and went inside. What they found was Mr. Calvo, dead in the bathroom, with multiple slash wounds to his neck and shoulders.

"This is more than I can take after five months of waiting with no updates or information about the proceeding," said Mr. Calvo's note to his friend. And a notebook entry the friend found in Mr. Calvo's apartment said: "It is better to leave it here instead of continuing this road toward a greater torture, left exposed as if I were guilty of a crime when in reality the committee refuses to see the merit of my work, focusing instead only on the fact that I raised my voice at my subordinates."

It took a couple of days for word of Mr. Calvo's death to reach Princeton. Students and co-workers created a memorial at the door of his office, 334 East Pyne Hall, tacking up a broken pink heart and a sheet of white paper with the words: "We Won't Forget." White lilies and orange roses were left to dry in the mail holder by his nameplate, and a colleague photocopied a picture of Mr. Calvo—with a Spanish poem—that some of his colleagues taped to their doors.

Distraught over what had happened, about a half-dozen of Mr. Calvo's undergraduate students asked to meet with Ms. Tilghman. During the hourlong meeting, they say, the president—who expressed sympathy over Mr. Calvo's death but was at times prickly in responding to their questions—told them that the policy under which Princeton suspended Mr. Calvo fit into longstanding tradition at the university. While some of the details might not be spelled out, she told them, the university had followed proper procedures. By the time the students returned in the fall, she added, Princeton would have reviewed its policy.

When they asked why Mr. Calvo had been banished from the campus, the students say, the president insinuated that he had faced several complaints that hadn't been made public. "She said we wouldn't like what we heard if we found out about them," says Ms. Thomson-DeVeaux, who was in the group that visited the president in Nassau Hall. Had Mr. Calvo been allowed to defend himself? the students asked. Had Ms. Tilghman heard what he had to say? The president said she had never met him.

The students say that by keeping the charges against Mr. Calvo a secret, Princeton has encouraged people to imagine that he did something horrible. But Ricardo Piglia, a longtime professor of Spanish at Princeton—and the only one in the department who has spoken out publicly—published a letter in May in a newspaper in Buenos Aires, where he is on leave, in which he said there was no basis for the "horrendous" way Princeton had treated Mr. Calvo. The gradu­ate students' complaints against the professor, Mr. Piglia wrote, were a misunderstanding "about the way in which metaphors, expressions, and cultural styles were interpreted."

Princeton quickly issued a response, saying that Mr. Piglia—who will retire in September—was on leave this past academic year and had "no firsthand knowledge of the information available to the committee that led to Antonio Calvo's abrupt leave-taking." Yet the university did not take the opportunity to set the record straight. Since Mr. Calvo's death, it has refused requests to reveal exactly what prompted his suspension. In a statement that Ms. Tilghman released in April, she said Princeton could not do so "without an unprecedented breach of confidentiality."

According to Mr. Durkee, the details of a faculty member's suspension are determined "on a case-by-case basis" by the Committee of Three. Princeton's decision to ban Mr. Calvo from the campus has been validated in the wake of his death, Mr. Durkee argues. "Other students and faculty have come forward in confidence to recount experiences in which they observed inappropriate or intimidating behavior on his part," he says. Given the way in which Mr. Calvo killed himself, he adds, the university was right to be concerned. "If you look at what he did several days later, what he did was a very violent act. We would not want that violence directed at anyone in the community."

Those close to Mr. Calvo stop short of blaming the university for his suicide—other people lose their jobs and don't kill themselves, they acknowledge. Still, "it's clearly what pushed him over the edge," says the friend who called the police. It wasn't the loss of his job so much as that of his credibility, and of his pride, that friends believe caused him to take his life. Some people at Princeton plan to press the university to clarify its suspension policy to make sure that nothing like this happens again.

In the face of Princeton's silence, people are left to continue arguing over whether the complaints lodged against Mr. Calvo were warranted and whether the university handled the matter appropriately. The comments section of an article in The Daily Princetonian about Mr. Calvo's suicide has been turned into both a memorial and a forum. In one entry, a former graduate student called Mr. Calvo "quite problematic" and guessed that the instructor "probably would not have survived this same process of assessment in any other university." But the student (who did not respond to The Chronicle's request for comment) also noted "the absolutely inhumane way in which the administration proceeded to throw him out."

For Mr. Piglia, the Spanish professor, the case is more straightforward. In all Mr. Calvo's years at the university, he wrote, "there was not a single fact that would justify the decision taken."

If there was, Princeton is not talking about it.