In late August, just before the fall semester began, we were noticed by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
An Administration Shaken, A Department Decimated
Southeast Kansas State University Struggles to Rebuild
When students return this fall to Southeast Kansas State University, home of the Fighting Prairie Dogs, a quiet campus located in the small rural town of Weirton, they will encounter an institution struggling to find recovery and purpose in the wake of tragedy and scandal.
The University’s President, Provost, and Dean of Faculties all resigned last spring after it was revealed that the Provost, Deborah Marvelle Axelrod, had made incorrect statements on her CV—namely, that she had received graduate degrees from accredited universities. Further investigations revealed that the Vice-President for Community Relations, the Vice President for Development, and the Dean of Engineering all made similar incorrect statements. All resigned. (Deborah Axelrod’s husband, Peter Arnold Axelrod, Zane County District Attorney, also resigned his position when it was disclosed that he had incorrectly claimed to be a former Navy SEAL). The Kansas Bureau of Investigation is conducting a review of hiring practices in the state university system.
“It’s been a difficult few months,” says Acting Provost Kermit Keaton. “But we in Kansas are made of stern stuff. We will not be deterred. We will reach the stars through difficulty.”
At the same time that the CV scandal was unfolding, the English Department—“the soul of Southeast Kansas State’s Liberal Arts Program,” according to Mr. Keaton—was facing serious tragedy of its own: the loss of seven popular faculty members.
- Devon Shepherd, 37, who died from a sudden onset of pneumonia.
- Frederick van Buskirk, 74, who committed suicide.
- Nancy Dulmage Buckley, 72, who remains in a persistent vegetative state following an apparent mugging.
- Brenda Seibold, 78, and Theodore Shuey, 47, who were killed in April along with 13 others when a tornado ripped through Weirton.
- Courtney Katherine Keaton, 54, who died in a house fire.
- T. Wheeler, 68, the Department Chair, who resigned following allegations of financial impropriety.
Also missing from the department is graduate student Shawn Cudahy, 25, who died after being mauled by dogs.
“Our English Department has taken a massive hit,” says Acting Chair Earl Renner. “But we’re seeing this series of tragedies as an opportunity to re-commit to academic excellence.”
And so forth. Annuit coeptis.
The only thing that bothered me about the article was the headline—“Decimated Department.” I’m enough of a fussy academic to prefer the archaic root meanings of the word “decimated,” meaning not just the death or loss of large numbers, but the death of one in ten. The SEKSU English Department didn’t lose a measly ten percent of its faculty—we had losses of almost forty percent.
Yet Old Earl was correct when he said these losses were an opportunity.
The same week the Chronicle article came out, I was awarded tenure and promoted to Associate Professor.
Three weeks after that, I won the Prairie Dog Award for Teaching Excellence, which came with a check for $10,000.
“You’ve done really amazing work,” Kermit Keaton told me when I got the award. “And your students do outstanding work! Why, every student you had last year got an A! I guess it must really be a testament to your teaching ability.”
I took the check, of course. Then I took Sally and Lynnie to happy hour at the Tri-State to celebrate.
“To Devon Shepherd,” I said, holding up a shot of Jägermeister.
“To us!” Lynnie said.
Sally said, “To the Revengers!”
In late September, the department finally got around to holding a memorial service for Brenda and Ted and Courtney. It was a much more sedate event than the ones Courtney had organized earlier, without the Prairie Dog Brass and without any poetry. Without prayers. There were only two speakers, Dean/Acting Provost Keaton, who was just a little hungover, and Old Earl. While they spoke of the lost colleagues, slides were projected on a screen showing the dead professors doing various academic things. If two of the three honorees hadn’t been embezzling murdering rapists, it might have actually been kind of tasteful.
I sat with Lynnie in our usual place, off to the side and up a little bit. Sally sat with Earl in the front row. The new faculty members—seven of them, five women and two men—all sat together in the second row. Only one of the new people was hired for a tenure-track position—Jody Horowitz, our second candidate in the original search to replace Devon. The other six new people had all been hired as Visiting Assistant Professors, with the hope—and there was actual, true hope now in the Southeast Kansas State English Department—that they could or would or even might at some point be converted into tenure track positions.
Old Earl introduced Brenda’s family—husband, two daughters, a few grandchildren—and Ted’s family—his mother and sister. Courtney apparently didn’t have surviving family, but Ted’s mom and sister cried enough to honor all the dead.
“I don’t know,” Lynnie said. She looked over at me. “You think they really loved him that much?”
I shrugged. I thought for a moment about hearts. About mysteries. I said, “Maybe. Who knows?”
When the service was over, we ducked out through a side door. We fistbumped until later, and then Lynnie went back to her office in Fontenot, and I went back to my office in Reeb.
Over the summer I had moved up in the world—I’d inherited Fred’s enormous old office. Once Fred’s family had moved out all his books and furniture and porn, the university let me choose my own color for the new coat of paint. I chose Cajun Teal, a pleasant peaceful dreamy dark blue-green. I filled the bookshelves with my books and with Devon’s books, too. I had a nice cute photo of Fuzzhead sitting on the windowsill, and, next to it, in a little holder, Devon’s iPhone that I had rescued from Courtney’s house. In an old ashtray next to the phone was the mood ring Courtney gave me, and whenever I tried the ring on, it glowed a healthy deep blue.
And so after the memorial service I sat in my calming soothing office looking out my window at always-desolate Weirton, watching gray clouds scud above the broken grain elevator. I sat—and, after a while, I heard voices. Muffled voices, coming from the office next door. From Ted’s old office. And then I heard—crying.
I went out in the hall and found Ted’s mom, Karen, and his sister, Jenny. They were finally boxing up Ted’s office, his books and papers. I shook my head—there were probably photos of Ted’s penis in there, and poems about raping dead women. I started to turn and go back to my sitting and staring—to my brooding—but Ted’s mom noticed me.
“You teach here!” she said.
I stopped. “Yeah,” I said. “I do.”
Karen quickly came over and hugged me. I stood there stiffly, inhaling her heavy patchouli perfume. Jenny sat at Ted’s desk, smiling softly at me.
“Teddy loved everyone here,” Karen said. “All his friends and all his students—it was all he ever talked about at Christmas.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “Well, he was a very important part of the department.”
“Mom’s just always been very proud of Ted,” Jenny said.
“All these books!” Karen said. She had her left hand on my chest, fingers looped around a shirt button, like she was going to drag me all the way into Ted’s office. With her right hand she pointed at Ted’s bookshelves. “He read all these books! It’s amazing!”
“He loved his work,” I said. I suppose he did, at least at first, in a way—no one goes into academia—especially into English—unless they really, really love the subject. Ted probably did love poetry. I said, “He was a sharp guy—he really knew teaching poetry.”
“Oh, I know,” Karen said. “Teddy was my dream.” She let go of my shirt button and went back to Ted’s desk. She picked up his nameplate and started crying again. “I just wish they’d find his body, though! Why do you think they can’t find his body?”
And that. Lynnie had been busy with the Schwable brothers over the summer, helping them round up grant money to pay for filling in the mineshafts. Work was scheduled to begin in November. If everything went well, the odds were very good that Ted’s body would never be found.
“Mom,” Jenny said. “It was a big tornado.”
Karen nodded, still crying, and Jenny came around the desk to hug her. I stepped back and eased down the hall to my office.
And you know what?
I’d kill him again if I had the chance.
I’d kill him ten times if I had ten chances.
Poking around in Devon’s Dropbox one evening, I found a folder containing PDFs of Devon’s teaching evaluations. She’d taken the time to scan in the written remarks students had added to the scantron forms, saving the good and the bad alike. Some of the evaluations were excellent, most of them were good, but a few were terrible. Nasty. Hateful. A lot of Devon’s classes didn’t quite come together, for some reason. Courtney and Nancy had always just assumed that Devon was incompetent and stupid, and they’d even tried to get her fired halfway through her first year. Tee took Devon’s side that one time—not because she had any faith in Devon as a teacher, but because the department couldn’t afford to run another job search. Tee thought it was cheaper to keep her, incompetent or not.
What a fucking place Gulag State was.
Yet Devon had had some good classes, classes with kind students. Classes that were successful, where learning happened. At least I remembered her talking about classes like that.
There was one time we were driving to Joplin to go to dinner and do some shopping, a 30-mile or so drive past cutover wheat fields, pastures of shaggy cattle, lonely cemeteries, and Devon talked about a good class she’d had, a section of Advanced Fiction that she’d taught during the fall of her second year.
“I think they actually liked me!” Devon said.
Like all academics, Devon wanted to be liked by her students.
I certainly did. I always hoped the young people liked me.
But Devon wanted it more—maybe she needed it more.
“Of course they liked you,” I said.
“It was a small class, you know?” Devon said. “There were only eight students, and I’d had all of them in previous classes—some of them in more than one class. And so they all knew me, and they were used to me—and, you know, they liked me.”
“Sounds nice,” I said.
“Yeah!” Devon said. “It was! And they all knew each other and liked each other, too. And we got so much work done! And it was such good work. Everyone’s writing improved—and a couple kids got their stories published. It was the kind of class you just want to go on forever.”
And—I knew. I understood that. Maybe every teacher did—college, primary, secondary. What it was like to be accepted, to have your ideas listened to, to watch students discuss and understand difficult concepts, to just sit in a room with a bunch of smart people and talk for hours about something you loved—a subject you’d devoted your fucking life to. Being in a good classroom—anybody who’d been in one knew there wasn’t anything else like it.
But for Devon, being in a good university classroom was something even more than just a good or special experience—it was something more complicated, something spiritual, a sort of weird rapturous golden haunting dream. I know she had fantasies about what it would be like to teach at a good university, in a good English department, in a place where she would be valued, a place where she would be respected, a place where she would be honored, a place where she could spend her time between classes in a comfortable, windowed office, beneath bookshelves filled with beloved books, sipping tea while interesting students came by to discuss their writing, their reading, their ideas, their futures—a place where she had time to do her own important creative work—a place where she was valued, respected, honored. Devon was sentimental. She was an idealist. She was a Romantic. She truly believed that her sentimental idealized romanticized academic life was out there, somewhere—and she believed that it was something she might actually achieve for herself, if she worked hard, if she was a little lucky—that those were reasonable goals: talented students, friendly colleagues, an office with a window. She really believed that! And if her friends from grad school would tell of their sometimes-unfortunate experiences in the profession, and if her own experiences as a post-doc or a visiting prof weren’t so great, and if the Chronicle of Higher Education published depressing downer articles about life in academia—well, Devon could accept all of that as fact and still hold in her heart that crazy golden longing—that yearning—for a good life doing something she loved. That love—that desire—that hunger—it glowed inside her all the time. I knew it was there—I saw it. You could touch her wrist and feel that glimmering glow inside her, that hope for a good life, a life where she would do good things, where people would care about her—where she would be valued and respected and honored.
What Devon actually got, though, was a shit job at Gulag State University, a vile corrupt cesspit of psychopathy and mediocrity.
And—I was complicit in the cesspit. I didn’t act until it was too late.
I remember once at happy hour I was hanging around with Devon and Lynnie, and we were all complaining about the university, and Lynnie said something like—universities are graveyards of broken dreams. I agreed with her. I guess that’s probably true of a lot of things, a lot of institutions, not just universities, but Lynnie was talking about universities that day, about how delicate academic dreams get killed and buried and left to rot, and on that day it made sense to me. But in the year after Devon died I came to learn that there are sometimes second chances with dreams—times when, if you’re lucky, you get a chance to catch and resurrect a dream and set it to healing.
So. I was staring out the window, watching oddly silvery light peep through the clouds and light up the grain elevator, thinking about Devon, and about Devon. I could hear Ted’s mom’s sniffling coming through the thin walls. Then there was a soft knock on my door. I slowly wheeled my chair around and there was—a young woman, standing in the doorway. A student in one of my classes, I think, from one of the sections of Intro to Lit. I recognized her face—brown hair, glasses—but I couldn’t recall her name. It was still early in the semester.
“Hey,” I said. “Come on in. Sit down.”