When exiting graciously isn’t the right thing?

August 10, 2012, 9:00 am

About one hour after I wrote my last post about the importance of leaving an academic position gracefully, I came across this item about the resignation of Annette Clark, the (now former) dean of the law school at Saint Louis University. She didn’t so much resign as she blew up the administrative offices of the university and walked slowly away from their burning ruins. Check out this excerpt from her resignation letter to the university top brass:

…[Y]ou have failed to make good on your assurances to me when I accepted the deanship that you would fully support the law school and our efforts to enhance its program of legal education, national reputation and rankings. From the beginning of my deanship, you have evinced hostility toward the law school and its faculty and have treated me dismissively and with disrespect, issuing orders and edicts that allowed me virtually no opportunity to exercise the very discretion, judgment and experience for which you and the faculty enthusiastically hired me. You have not consulted me on important matters involving the law school’s interests, you have failed to honor commitments that I had assured the faculty you would keep, and you have accused me of being uncooperative and not being a team player when I have objected to these actions.

It is the ultimate irony that a Jesuit university would operate so far outside the bounds of common decency, collegiality, professionalism and integrity. I simply cannot be part of, and I assure you I will not be complicit with, an administration that can’t be trusted to act honestly and in the best interests of its faculty, staff and students. I therefore resign my deanship in the School of Law.

You really have to go read the whole thing, along with a companion letter (significantly less belligerent but no less passionate) to the faculty and staff. In the words of one commenter at TaxProf blog, “Wow. She didn’t just burn that bridge, she sent postcards of it on fire to her superiors and anyone else looking.”

The exit strategy I described in my last post is about walking the moral high ground, being thankful, and setting a positive tone for the next position. I think that’s the best approach, and it’s hard to imagine an exit more at odds with that approach than Clark’s. (Except Clark isn’t actually exiting — she’s taking up a tenured faculty position at the same institution! Talk about awkward!) But if you read the letter to the president and vice president, it sounds as if there was dishonesty and corruption at work at the highest levels that was taking a serious toll on the ability of the law faculty to do its work. My approach may seem best to me because, thankfully, I’ve never been in a position where it got as bad as what Clark’s letter makes it out to be.

There were some choices made here between “doing the right thing” and trying to maintain graciousness and integrity that test boundaries. First there was the choice to lambaste the administration publicly — it sounds like they deserved it (although, do we know the whole story?) and what may serve the greatest number of people is to publicly expose the shenanigans going on behind the scenes. But at what cost does it come? Second, note thatbe Clark’s own admission, her disclosure of the activities regarding some of the financial activity of the university appears to violate a non-disclosure agreement of some sort. So there was a choice between a sort of integrity — staying true to one’s commitments — and exposing what was happening at the university.

What do you think about this? Does not being a jerk extend to refraining from writing letters like Clark’s and making them public? Is there a point past which acting with graciousness isn’t the best course of action?

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