The storm was nameless, too weak to merit an identity of its own. It was a mere tropical depression, a meteorological funk, a bad mood with rain. Nevertheless, this anonymous storm shook Pascagoula by the neck and it flooded Mobile, where two boys drowned while their mother watched. Pensacola saw tornados, but they did not touch down. In Tallahassee, the rain fell horizontally, if that makes sense, blown into the sides of buildings, where it flowed in sheets into the sandy ground. Fans were blown off of the stocky palm trees and Spanish moss from the limbs of live oaks. A few wires came down, but the storm was unnamed and Tallahassee was used to such. Tomorrow’s Democrat would carry news of it back on page 4, gruesomely featuring the drownings in Mobile.
Inside Love Hall at Florida State University, in the classroom on the second floor where the Mathematics Department faculty was meeting, there was an academic depression that could more than match the tropical depression outside. As the rain flew against the window glass of the room, and leaked where some caulking was missing into puddles on the floor, the faculty—nineteen men and two women—sat around the classroom and variously tilted their heads back and looked at the ceiling, stared belligerently at each other, doodled or read. No one spoke. The meeting was more than two hours old and if there were barometers to measure departmental collegiality and academic good sportsmanship, those instruments would be bottoming out and forecasters as far away as Coral Gables would be studying their dials, nodding their heads and deciding that this storm was about to bear a name.
“Then do we stand adjourned?” The chairman of the math department looked around the table, smiling broadly and without warmth. It was mid-morning, ten-fifty by the clock next to the portrait of Gauss. The meeting had been sufficiently contentious that even Gauss seemed dismayed.
“Not without a motion to that effect.” The speaker was the leader of the opposition. His tape recorder was running, and he was making copious notes, which would be sent around tomorrow as Alternative Minutes of the Faculty Meeting of May 17, 1983. The tapes he kept under lock and key in his office. Really.
“Christ.” An unidentified speaker.
“Move we adjourn.” The man sitting to the right of the chairman spoke. He was the informal vice-chairman of the department. That there should even be an informal vice-chairman of the Mathematics Department was one of the many grievances of the opposition; moreover, the informal vice-chairman was a rather obvious and unrepentant seducer of undergraduate coeds, and that, too, was one of the many grievances of the opposition. This department was one in which academic politics, for now, reigned. The faculty was sharply divided; wounds were open, and for two hours and forty-five minutes now, the salt had flowed freely, notwithstanding the rain.
The leader of the opposition wrote the name of the seconder into his notes, then spoke again, staring the chairman in the face. “Move for a secret ballot.”
A fence-sitter scraped his chair, rose and walked out of the meeting. The leader of the opposition noted the departure in his notes.
“Is there a second?” the chairman asked, trying to sound sardonic, but managing only exasperation.
Without looking up from the journal she was reading, Anna Browning raised her hand. “Second.”
“Assistant Professor Browning seconds the motion,” observed the chairman.
“Let the record indicate the emphasis the chair has placed on Professor Browning’s untenured status . . .”
“What emphasis? What nonsense. And in any event, Dorothy, the record indicates what I say it indicates . . .,” the reference being to the departmental secretary who was taking the official minutes, and who would later complain at length about the meeting to her boy friend, who was a carpenter, bored with Dorothy’s whining about her job, and thinking about calling his previous girl friend.
“Noted,” said the leader of the opposition.
“. . . furthermore, it is clear that a motion for a secret ballot on a vote to adjourn is offered only to delay the meeting and embarrass me and I take personal umbrage . . ..”
“In a department where all semblance of academic freedom has been destroyed by the deliberate campaign of harassment undertaken by the present, and, we can only hope, short-term chairman, there is no motion too trivial that votes should not be shielded from the chairman’s retribution. Nor do I particularly give a shit about whether I embarrass the chairman or not.”
“How elegant, Professor,” said the chairman, who was made uncomfortable by profanity. “You have such a charming way with words. And may I note that, if we are speaking of the harassment of Professor Browning, you, the chairman of her publication review committee, are in a much better position to harass her than am I?”
The chairman and his opponent were now into it again beyond immediate extraction. They grew red in the face as they shouted at each other, interrupted each other and banged the table. No one else spoke. Most of the professors around the table sat back and waited, again, for the argument to subside. No one said “Gentlemen, please . . ..” Those inclined to make peace had paid the price of peace-making in the past. Most were not inclined to.
Anna Browning turned the argument’s volume down by concentrating on the article she was reading in the American Journal of Probability and Statistics. The article, she was beginning to realize, might have some impact on her present work. She picked up a pencil and began to underline, circle, question-mark, and sketch out equations in the margin. She skipped back to the first page of the article and glanced again at the author’s name. Jablonski. Never heard of him. Iowa State. Iowa State? The argument raged on around her. And about her.
Fellas, I’m not crazy about being discussed as if I were not present. She didn’t say it, but she thought about saying it. You might find a slightly better time and place to discuss my tenure and my career path. She imagined her voice dripping with sarcasm; she imagined her colleagues shamefacedly apologizing. She imagined herself walking out of the meeting, aloof. Department politics did not interest her, and it annoyed her that she had been asked in advance to second the motion for a secret ballot. What horse crap. But her refusal would have been noticed, and that would have annoyed her, too. Her husband Ben would have known exactly what to say, and how to say it for maximum impact and embellishment of his reputation, but then he had tenure. She kept quiet.
This transformation here does not look correct. She cocked her head to the right, scratched the part in her hair with the eraser on her pencil, and studied the equation.
“Is it your intention, Anna, to second this motion?” the chairman asked.
Enough of her attention was still on the faculty meeting that she heard the question and did not need to have it repeated nor even to pause. “Yes.” She didn’t look up, and continued to write in the margin.
This second transformation should look like this . . .. He can’t mean what he says here. It’s too simplistic.
Or elegant, she heard a worried voice in her head observe. Or it’s too elegant.
“The motion is for a secret ballot. Is there a motion to make this vote secret?” The leader of the opposition did not respond, spoiling the irony. The vote was eight to five, in favor of secrecy, six abstentions, one absent and the chair not voting. The chairman now seemed resigned to go through with the thing without a fight. The ballots were passed out. Anna marked hers Yes without removing her attention from the AJP&S.
“The vote is fifteen yeses, no noes, five blank ballots. We are adjourned. I want to thank you personally, Harry, for that little exercise, and apologize to all of the rest of you for the extra time it took . . .”
“You are no longer in the chair, this meeting has adjourned, so shut the fuck up,” said the leader of the opposition. The tape recorder was still running. The chairman stood up and left, and slowly the professors drifted out of the classroom where they had been meeting and back to their offices. Anna let her colleagues leave before she glanced up from Jablonski’s article. She spoke to no one, afraid that her annoyance at the whole proceeding would show, and no one spoke to her, though she heard her name mentioned in whispers among three of them. She looked around the room, at the portrait of Gauss, at the puddle on the floor, at the unerased chalkboards, holding proofs from an earlier class in Algebraic Structures, and out the windows, into the raging, nameless storm. Finally, after several minutes in the empty classroom, she stood up and walked out the door and back to her office, where she tried to regain her composure in the quiet world of stochastic processes.