I have been fired three times, although they didn’t always say the words, at least not that I can remember.
Over the years, I have had many opportunities to be with friends and colleagues who were living with anxiety about being fired. I understood the fear. I had lived through the embarrassment.
“What do I do?” “What do I say?” “What will people think of me?”
The second time I was fired was in 1980, at Sacred Heart University.
I arrived at Sacred Heart in September 1978, excited to be restarting my academic career. After Finch College closed in 1975, it looked like no problem. I was immediately offered a much better position at Glassboro State, part of the New Jersey state university system, but that August I’d gotten the bad news. Funding had been cut. My new job was one of the positions which had been eliminated. For the next two years, I did some political organizing work which was exciting but paid minimally, and I had a consulting gig at South Beach Psychiatric Center which kept me financially afloat.
When a full-time, temporary position opened up at South Beach — the chief social worker was taking a year’s sabbatical, would I be interested in filling in? — I grabbed it; and I was very good at it, mostly training staff in group therapy and community meetings, then a key element in the milieu therapy initiative which South Beach was implementing in all inpatient and day treatment programs.
I had a great time. South Beach was a major innovator in providing real leadership opportunities for social workers and psychologists on all its interdisciplinary teams. We organized a wonderful conference which presented the “new ways” of social work practice which South Beach was piloting.
But the year was coming to an end. I began looking for another job, and I got two offers — one from Sacred Heart where they were hoping to develop an accredited bachelors’ program in social work. I had the skills to help with that, they said. The second offer came from Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. They were building an incredible Family Practice Residency Program and were looking for people like me who could help teach future doctors how to talk and even more importantly how to listen to patients and their families.
I was leaning toward Sacred Heart, although I wasn’t sure it was a good fit. I was being pulled back toward my dream of an academic career, the dream which had been inspired by Alan Blum in the final years of my doctoral program, the dream of making a career out of thinking seriously.
And then, South Beach learned that the person I had been filling in for had decided to stay in Israel. The job was mine, permanently, if I wanted it. If it had been offered two months earlier, I would have been ecstatic. But I had been forced to go out and look for a new job, and I hated that process. Now, having put myself through that flesh-market interview hassle, I wasn’t going to make a waste of that effort.
There I was, a fish out of water at Sacred Heart. I look back now and think, “Maybe it wasn’t Sacred Heart. Maybe I didn’t fit in academia.” I was more comfortable hanging with the undergraduate social work students than with my faculty peers.
I did have a couple of friends among the junior faculty in the department, and I crashed with them one night a week to reduce the frequency of my commutes, but I never really fit in at Sacred Heart.
This was already clear as I began my second year there. When, two students, in separate incidents, jumped from the roof of the dormitory and died, the faculty, to its credit, was shaken. At the next meeting of the university faculty, someone from the floor asked, “What’s being done about the suicide situation?”
Thank God someone had the nerve to raise this. I certainly didn’t.
“The suicides are not the concern of the faculty,” we were told. “The administration is dealing with this.”
Not another word. Silence.
I wasn’t a troublemaker at Sacred Heart, but I did open my mouth once. It turned out to be once too often. The Department chair and I had been at NYU together. We were socialized as professional sociologists together. At NYU, being chair of the department was a burden which was rotated among the senior faculty. Taking on the chairmanship was a sacrifice made for the good of the department, a sacrifice which took productive scholars away from their really important work.
Meeting with the Sacred Heart chair, I wondered who she thought should be the next chair. I assumed she couldn’t wait to give up the “power.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I had made a mistake. Not only was she in no hurry to surrender the chairmanship, it was the thing in her professional life she valued the most. I knew that I had inadvertently become a threat. Did she think I was angling for her job? A few weeks later, she informed me that I would not be invited back for the following year.
I had failed in academia, and I was ashamed. I didn’t want anyone to know. I was fortunate though. Just in that moment, a line management job was opening up at South Beach, an opportunity to lead the outpatient programs in the Midwood section of Brooklyn.
So that became the story I told to pretty much everyone, for years. I told the story of the student suicides, how this was “not the faculty’s concern.” I had to get back to a world in which staff took suicides seriously, I told everyone. I needed to work with colleagues who felt the professional obligation to look carefully at their practice and to learn: What might we have done differently? What might have led to a happier outcome? I was energized by the opportunity to return to mental health. There was nothing about being fired in my story.
It became a true story. I never really looked back. Twenty years later, after a reasonably successful career with the New York State Office of Mental Health, mostly at South Beach, I retired for the first time.
It became a true story, but not before I was fired again.