The Not-So-Brave Whistleblower

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I don’t see myself as a brave person. I’m not willing to skydive, I don’t want to dive into the depths of the sea, and I never ever want to orbit the earth. I would like to keep my feet on solid dry land. I’m also afraid of daily life things at times. I’m terrified anytime one of my children runs a high fever, I’m not fond of social interactions full of people I’ve never met, and driving a car makes me anxious.

So, if I’m timid and shy and cowardly in many situations, what made me speak up in a situation that could hurt my grades and reputation in college?

It’s a question I’ve discussed with my older sister who also became a whistleblower where she was employed. We tried to dig through our upbringing and past to figure out what made us brave when we needed to be. (For the record, my sister is a much braver person than me overall!)

All we could come up with was the need for merciful justice. We both stood up in situations where other people were harmed or could be harmed, and deep down, we couldn’t sit by and watch it happen. Things needed to be made right. There needed to be justice.

I have prayed a lot about sharing the details of my own experience on here. In many ways, it is still a raw topic for me, even eight and a half years later. And, while I’m sure most people will never trace this blog back to my experience, nor would some people care, I was instructed to remain quiet by university staff. I am thankful in hindsight that the case didn’t proceed to court because I can speak out. I am under no legal obligation to stay quiet.

It is this experience that has inspired and fueled my novel. I’m creating a fictitious story by weaving my account and my sister’s account of whistleblowing together. The novel explores the emotional ramifications of being a whistleblower as well as the frustration of coming against a university system whose sole purpose is to protect its reputation. There is very little room for true justice in the university setting.

This is a snippet of what happened and doesn’t cover the situation in its entirety. And, I apologize, this is long for a blog post!

________

I have never once in my life tasted beer.

I don’t abstain from alcohol, I just never liked the smell of beer, so I assumed I would not like the taste. And, at the time of the assignment, I was twenty years old, underage, and a rule follower.

“In this assignment, you get to create the product. You need to take beer and give it a unique product attribute. Make this beer different than any other beer on the market. You could change the taste. You could change the packaging.” The professor held up an amber glass grenade. “This is an example of a former student’s project. Create an entire campaign based off of your unique beer and present it to the class. This is fifty percent of your grade. You can bring in one can of beer to demonstrate your campaign.”

I already felt at a disadvantage because I didn’t drink at all at the time. But, it was an assignment, and I poured myself into it as I did every assignment. I created a campaign that was fairly lame about changing the only aspect of beer I knew: the scent.

The day before the presentation came, and I brought my flash drive to the Kinkos on campus. It was swarming with classmates of mine rushing to get their assignments printed and mounted on display boards before the deadline.

“Are you ready for class tomorrow?” One of my classmates nudged another while waiting for their printed pages.

“Yeah, I just have to finish one more thing and then run to the store for the beer.”

“I’m bringing a 24 pack. I talked to someone who took the class last year and they said this is the best class ever. Everyone drinks the whole time. It’s one big party.”

My eyes bugged out, but I was far enough back that the students didn’t notice. Drinking in class? He had to be wrong. Over half of us weren’t old enough, and this was a dry campus.

________

“We wanted to talk to you about the email you sent and get more details.” The dean of the College of Communication looked at me. I felt like I was on trial. Three senior men from the university sat at one end of the table, me alone at the other. I was sitting on a justice scale. The three men sat and weighed down one side, and I sat in the tray that swayed above, weightless with unimportance.

“Okay.” I rubbed my palms on the legs of my pants, trying to wipe off my fear.

“You said the students were drunk and underage.” The dean was the one who still spoke, though the other two men watched just as intently for my answers.

This was the second time I was pulled out from my job at the Student Activities Office. They figured it would be more discreet for me to disappear from work than a class. The first time I only spoke with the Dean of Students, the original recipient of my email.

“Yes,” I replied.

“How much had they consumed?”

“Well, most students had around two drinks. The three or four students in the back corner behind me split a 24 pack. They were the most drunk and the loudest. They didn’t know what was going on by the end of the class.”

“And they were underage?”

“Most of them, yes. There were a few who were 21.”

“What were the professors doing?”

“They were sitting in front of me. They were drinking too. They didn’t seem to care. I guess this class is known for this. It’s been happening for years.”

The three men looked at each other and back at me. They were trying to gauge my honesty.

“And you also wrote that there’s been some sexual harassment?”

“Yes.”

“Can you explain what happened?”

“Part of our midterm was to write a radio spot. We had to have other people come up and help us read the scripts. One girl was acting out what she was reading and was running her arms up and down her sides, hugging herself and pretending to make out with someone. That’s when the first professor leaned to the other and said ‘Do you see how she’s touching herself?’”

I sat that conference room and watched the replay of events in my mind. I never liked this professor who had talked about the gyrating female student. He was an “ad man” and as greasy as a used car salesman. When he leaned over to the other professor he had eyes glazed with drink and a smile dripping with pleasure. I sat behind him shocked and disgusted, but unable to say or do anything at that moment.

“Did anyone else hear him say that?”

“No. I was the only one sitting right there. He said it quietly enough that no one else could hear it.” I squirmed. I know I didn’t have a strong case. I was quiet and timid and rarely noticed in a major filled with personalities who craved the limelight. They had no reason to believe me.

“You also said he spanked a guest speaker?”

“Yes.”

“Can you explain that? Do you remember her name?”

“I didn’t write her name down, so I don’t remember who it was.” My stomach was balling up. I felt like I was losing my case. “The professor was acting as ‘the client from hell.’ He does this every other class or so. It’s supposed to be a terrible client that we have to figure out how to deal with. But, when he walked in on her speech, he spanked her and talked about her chest. She was shocked and obviously didn’t know it was going to happen.”

“But you don’t remember her name?”

“No.”

The three men eyed each other again. They explained to me that what I was alleging was serious. That they would take it seriously, and that they spoke to the professors.

“[The professors] wanted to know who it was who emailed, but we didn’t let them know. You don’t have to worry about your grade.”

“Thank you.” I listened to them talk about the steps they were taking. They would discuss it with the professors. They were talking to police. They would talk to the president and the provost. The sexual harassment investigator would interview me. They would make this right and make sure it didn’t happen again.

I walked out of that conference room with a glimmer of hope that I had done something positive and not foolish, even if I wasn’t the best witness on all fronts. I had at least said something and spoken up.

My hope dissolved the next day when our class was canceled for the week. Within hours students began sending emails, speculating who was the turncoat. That night I received a call from a friend who wrote for the student newspaper, asking for my comment. I had none.

The next day I found out the professors had lawyers and had rallied current and former students to their cause. It turned into a criminal case.

Days later the college swarmed with local media who had picked up on the student newspaper’s story. The Boston Globe interviewed students on campus. I stayed quiet as the rumors circulated, for once my quiet nature was playing to my advantage.

Later that week, students from my class upped the ante. They sent emails around to everyone in our class, asking for us to support our “wonderful” professors. There were links to where we could sign petitions and addresses and names for sending letters to the university administration to petition to retain the professors. The emails grew in support. Students replied that they had done their duty and sent in their emails and asked, “what else can I do?”

It only took a handful of emails before the ROTC student in our class suggested killing the snitch in a back alleyway.

In the end, the professors were slapped on the wrist.

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