Kenneth Westhues

Published in FAUW Forum, March 2005, then on the web in December, 2005, in the Tributes section of the K. Westhues Homepage.

During my lectures and workshops on workplace mobbing, I ordinarily distribute a handout summarizing the research. One section of it offers practical suggestions for what to do when a mobbing is underway. The last suggestion is the simplest: “Show kindness to the target. Instead of joining mobbers or bystanders, find ways to affirm the target’s humanity. The mob may then turn on you, but you may possibly save another’s life.”

Is there too much melodrama in my phrasing of the point? Not according to a professor attending my workshop in New York last year. In the discussion period afterwards, she read the sentences aloud and added, “That says it all.”

Her reaction meant more once I learned who this woman is. No shrinking violet. A labour historian by trade, she had been the proud, assertive, elected president of a tough faculty union. Then administrators at her institution charged her with making racial slurs. The charges spread like wildfire across campus. Her name became mud and she was brought down.

When I heard the news of the death of UW geography professor Christian Dufournaud on February 14, the New York professor’s affirmation of the point about kindness on my handout came instantly to mind.

I did not know Christian well. We did not meet in a university context, but through our children’s attendance at the same school. For me, he became one of those colleagues you bump into from time to time, with whom you exchange quick, passing observations on politics and life. I was always glad to meet Christian. He could be counted on for insight and wry wit.

Those Forum readers who were at UW in the mid-nineties will remember that the administration of the day was running a number of professors out of the university on grounds of unethical conduct. The actions and sanctions against me at the time were not quite that severe, but even so, I was mired in what seemed a hopeless circumstance.

Enter Christian Dufournaud. He and another colleague phoned me out of the blue a couple of weeks after the then provost had published an open letter denouncing me. “You need a lawyer,” they announced. “We’re going to bring a good one to your house at noon next Thursday, and we’re going to pay the first $500 of her bill.”

So it was that on July 14, 1994, these colleagues and the lawyer arrived at my door, the colleagues pumped with a kindly adrenalin, the lawyer excited by the prospect of a case, and me overwhelmed by so dramatic and generous a gesture of solidarity.

Christian’s great gift to me that day was not of a practical kind. In fact it cost me money, since I refused the $500 and paid the lawyer’s bill myself, after she tried in vain to get the university to pay it. That surreal adventure reinforced my view that we academics are best advised to settle our disputes without lawyers, to the extent possible.

I have no doubt, however, that by the boldness of his compassion, Christian lengthened my life that day. I owe him thanks. Later that summer he and his wife Agnes invited me to lunch. My life was in such disarray I arrived at the restaurant a half hour late. I still feel badly on that account.

Christian’s life ended too soon. It is unfair that he was given fewer years than most of the rest of us. His gift a decade ago remains with me, and by this tribute I am sharing it: an example of kindness to a beleaguered colleague, an example that beckons to us all and that perhaps excuses the melodrama of that line on my workshop handout.