The Death of St. Antonio: At Princeton, An ‘Abrupt Leave-Taking’

The people of Princeton University tend to communicate in a shared code. “The Dinky” means the train. “Wawa” means the

The people of Princeton University tend to communicate in a shared code. “The Dinky” means the train. “Wawa” means the store. “The Street” is the metonym for the eating clubs that line Prospect Avenue, the mansion-lined thoroughfare that bisects the campus. Discussion sections are better known as “precepts.” And when the university suspends a popular lecturer with two weeks to go in the semester, it’s not a suspension, or a dismissal, but an “abrupt leave-taking.”

Or at least those were the official words used about the events of April 8, when Antonio Calvo, a senior lecturer at Princeton’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures, beloved among the students, who called him St. Antonio, was suddenly exiled from the campus where he had worked for the previous 10 years.

“It’s a euphemism I don’t think you’ll find on Wikipedia,” said one lecturer, ahem, “preceptor” at Princeton.

Calvo’s case garnered international attention when the maligned Spanish lecturer killed himself four days after he was told abruptly to leave Princeton. In the controversy that has surrounded his death, rumors have been floated as to the reasons for his dismissal, but the true circumstances of his suspension–and why he apparently was not given a chance to argue his case before he was told to leave–have not been made clear.

Princeton University’s president, Shirley Tilghman, who has refused to divulge even the most general details of Mr. Calvo’s particular leave-taking, has said only that it “came out of a review whose contents cannot be disclosed without an unprecedented breach of confidentiality.” This statement, a Princeton University spokesperson told The Observer, “really is the extent of the information.”

But it is very easy to discover that it is not. The narrative that has cohered amid the administration’s cavernous silence, in the hundreds of comments on the school newspaper’s Web site, in the pages of major newspapers in the United States and Spain and in what Dr. Tilghman quaintly calls “the blogosphere” is this: On April 8, Calvo received a letter from the chairwoman of his department, Gabriela Nouzeilles. According to The New York Times, which was leaked a copy, the letter stated, “We have received information from multiple sources that you have been engaging in extremely troubling and inappropriate behavior in the workplace.”

The letter did not give specifics about the inappropriate behavior and, reached by phone at Princeton, Dr. Nouzeilles declined to provide any. According to Calvo’s friends, the complaints that Calvo was aware of before his dismissal consisted of an email where he was said to have reprimanded a graduate student, in Spanish, with an order to “stop touching your balls” (a Spanish expression roughly akin to “stop sitting on your ass”). In the second incident, Calvo is said to have told a graduate student on an office visit that she deserved a slap for failing to do her job well. These exhortations, his friends said, were not meant to be taken literally.

According to The Times, the letter from Dr. Nouzeilles informed Calvo that he was suspended with pay and relieved of his teaching duties, and had to surrender his office key and university identification. On April 12, Calvo stabbed himself in his left arm and neck.

‘The issue of protecting the confidentiality is a convenient dodge,’ said Potter.

THE story of Calvo’s dismissal has exemplified an uncomfortable conflict at elite universities, where procedures of hiring and promotion are determined by a strict caste system that gives rights to tenured professors that it does not afford to those who staff its lower ranks. Even supposing Calvo committed actions that would mandate immediate suspension–something his friends and former students vehemently deny–the very process of his dismissal is striking some as unfair.

“The issue of protecting the confidentiality is a convenient dodge,” said William Potter, an alumnus who also works as a lecturer at Princeton and wrote a column in The Daily Princetonian asking for greater transparency in the Calvo case. “Any fear the university had of a defamation suit died with Professor Calvo. It’s hard to see whose interests they’re protecting.”

Calvo started working at Princeton a decade ago, when he was still a graduate student in Spanish literature at CUNY. For graduate students at CUNY, teaching Spanish at Princeton was a good way to make some money, get teaching experience with crack students and gain access to Princeton’s well-stocked libraries. By all accounts, Calvo also happened to love it.

In 2007, after he finished his Ph.D. on Langston Hughes and Federico Garcia Lorca, he applied for and earned the position of senior lecturer in Spanish at Princeton. In this job, Calvo not only taught classes but also coordinated all the Spanish teaching at Princeton. Because of Princeton’s mandatory language requirement for undergraduates, he therefore managed a lot of sections. He was also tasked with managing complex relationships between outside lecturers, graduate students and the tenured faculty.

It was a job fraught with politics. At Princeton, the tenured faculty has minimal involvement in the nitty-gritty of teaching students the basics of Spanish grammar, reserving their energies for more lofty pursuits. Spanish is instead taught by two kinds of lecturers: graduate students from inside the university, who have to fulfill a teaching requirement, and those, such as Calvo, who are from outside the university. In the hierarchy of academia, people in Calvo’s position are at the bottom of the academic totem pole, despite their Ph.D.’s and teaching duties, something some of Calvo’s professors said they warned him about when he first became senior lecturer.

“He decided to accept a job that I consider very, very dangerous, particularly for a foreign person who needs a visa that’s always attached to the institution that hires you,” said Isaías Lerner, a professor who served on Calvo’s dissertation committee when Calvo was a student at CUNY. “That creates a sense of power in the institution that is very unpleasant.”

Dr. Lerner acknowledged, however, that it’s hard to turn down a brand name like Princeton, Harvard or Yale. “Those are very seductive places,” he said. “You have unbelievably intelligent and very selective students who you teach.” And, he added, “they loved him.”

The Death of St. Antonio: At Princeton, An ‘Abrupt Leave-Taking’