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Field Report 11: The Spy Gets the Inside Story


When I first left academic research, a big part of me was trying to escape the perpetual ego battles. As someone once told me (I forget who), "There is no money in academics, so professors have nothing to work for but their egos. And that makes them fight all the harder to defend them." I carry my share of scars from those battles, and I wasn't eager to add to my collection. I figured that working in the "real world"--where everyone told me there was money to be made--would be safer.

But that's not how it turned out.

With my wife on the mend after her surgery, it looked like crisis time had drawn to a close. And not a minute too soon. After the emotional roller-coaster ride I had just taken through the American health care system, I was really feeling like I could use a bit of mind-numbing routine. Spending a day writing lessons at the nonprofit seemed like just what the doctor ordered. So that is what I scheduled for my first Monday back at work.

When I walked in the door Monday morning, the look on our administrative assistant Frieda's face told me I had badly misjudged the situation. Frieda has a way of arching her eyebrows as she looks up from her computer that says: "You had better have come armed with a good sense of humor today, because there is some serious stuff happening in the conference room."

As a consultant, I could have turned around and gone home. But I'm a curious (and gossipy) sort of person, and I really wanted to know what was going on in that conference room. Luckily, I make it a policy to be especially nice to the administrative support staff, and today my efforts paid off. Frieda was more than happy to tell me all about the "serious stuff" going on behind closed (to me, but not to Frieda) doors.

It turns out that the full-time staff was having a heated discussion about the nonprofit's 3-year, $1.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. Or rather, it was about the end of the grant, which was less than 6 months away. For the last two-and-a-half years, that grant had been the sole source of financial support for seven full-time employees and assorted educational consultants like myself. Although there were other grant proposals in the pipeline, none of them had yet been awarded and people were starting to get nervous--nervous enough to consider picking up the whole operation and moving to the other side of the state in search of money.

Unlike most educational nonprofit organizations, the nonprofit I consult for has no institutional affiliation. Prior to my arrival, they had been a part of the state university, but ego clashes, greed, and a failed coup forced them to venture out on their own. Although independence provides an enviable amount of creative autonomy, it utterly lacks the security that a large university can provide in times of financial distress.

It also makes it harder to raise money. The NSF is comfortable giving money to researchers in large universities, but they get wary when you tell them your office is in a commercial strip center between a balloon shop and a day-care center for the developmentally disabled.

So the nonprofit was seriously considering an offer to join another, hopefully friendlier, branch of the state university system. But that would entail moving to another city, which none of the employees wanted to do because most have spouses and children. To sweeten the deal, the university offered a tenured faculty position to our executive director's husband, which he immediately accepted. I was surprised to learn that he could accept the offer before the nonprofit had even agreed to move. But apparently he could.

Monday's meeting concluded with an agreement among all the employees to consider the offer. Everyone recognized the precarious position they were in, and no one wanted to be out of a job.

No one, that is, except the executive director. Within the week, and with the ink on her husband's new tenure contract barely dry, she walked into the office and announced that she was quitting. She wished us all well and left.

After recovering from the shock, the board of directors sprang into action. The chair showed up and conducted an entire day of supersecret meetings. At least, they were kept secret from me. But not from Frieda.

The executive director had recommended the director of instructional materials development to the chair as her successor. The director of instructional materials development argued that without the instructional materials she was currently developing, there would be nothing left to be executive director of. So she in turn recommended the evaluation specialist, whose Ph.D. would certainly look good at the top of a grant application. But like Bartleby before him, he preferred not and passed the buck to the public relations person, citing her previous experience in business development. She accepted reluctantly, but demanded a raise to reflect the added responsibility of the position.

Which completely pissed off the director of instructional materials development. She argued (rightly, I believe) that with only six permanent people to do the work of seven, everyone was going to have to shoulder more of the burden. And nobody else was getting a raise.

So the evaluation specialist offered a compromise. He and the public relations person would share the duties of executive director, and their first official action would be to decide on a fair compensation package. This seemed to placate everyone, but valuable time had been lost. The nonprofit still didn't have a grant.

Quite a position, isn't it? Did the executive director manipulate a failing nonprofit to win tenure for her husband? Would the new executive team be able to pull the nonprofit back from the brink? Or would internal tensions tear them apart? Where would it all end!?

Unfortunately, I haven't the foggiest idea. When these questions were finally answered, if in fact they were answered, I was no longer working for the nonprofit. While I had been absorbed in the soap opera, people and events far from me were conspiring to change my life in completely unexpected ways. Stay tuned

The Spy is a scientist living and job-searching somewhere in the Western half of the United States.

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