The following is the fourth of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is available for Kindle and for other ebook formats. A print edition can also be ordered from Amazon. The author welcomes your comments.
The banner headline in the Jeffersonian read: “Walker Stands! Clay Crumbles.” Below was a photograph of Professor Cowper in his academic gown standing defiantly in the path of a bulldozer bearing down on Walker Gym.
Everything had gone as Rowan had hoped. Speaking from Walker’s steps the next day, Clay explained that in proposing Walker’s demolition, he was merely carrying out President Jacoby’s wishes. “I’m as happy to see it spared as you are,” he declared, receiving a roar of approval from the crowd, which prompted him to announce an additional donation to renovate the gym to accommodate the dance program.
Standing alongside Clay, Rowan raised the benefactor’s hand as if he had won a prizefight, but at his first opportunity the president slipped away.
He had just gotten back to his office when Easter appeared at the door. He greeted her with a “bravo” and round of applause, and she reciprocated with a dramatic curtsey. Her controlled delight was so captivating it made Rowan forget the distasteful charade he’d just been through with Clay. At the podium, when Clay placed the blame on President Jacoby, Rowan had felt sheepish for not setting the record straight. Then again, what would that have accomplished? Now Clay, by dangling a further gift, would keep Rowan on a leash. This is what I’m being paid for, he thought.
Rowan pored over a printout of the College’s budget until midnight, trying every so often to reach Sara at their apartment in New York. They had planned a quiet weekend at Jefferson, and he still didn’t know when she would arrive.
On his fifth attempt, she answered.
“It’s working! My chem experiment! Everything’s falling into place. There’s nothing more exciting than discovering something no one else knows.”
“Telling the world about it, perhaps?”
“That’s good too, but there’s an exquisite moment when you’re the only person in the world who’s in on the secret.”
“You sound like you just came in the door. I bet you haven’t had a bite all day.”
“Not since breakfast. Hang on while I grab something.”
He pictured her trim figure, thick auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail, and he wished he were there.
“Here I am,” she said, her mouth full. “We’re low on food. Nothing but canned tuna and ketchup.”
“Then what are you eating?”
“A dead cookie.”
“We’ll get you some decent food this weekend. Margaret asked me your favorites. When does your plane get in tomorrow?”
“You know, Rowan…the redecoration seems to be proceeding without me, and I’ve just now got my apparatus running. I really want to be in the lab. I’m sorry, but…would you be terribly upset if I didn’t come out this weekend?”
He folded and unfolded a corner of the printout before answering.
“Sara, you haven’t been here since moving day. I’ve been looking forward to spending the weekend together.”
“You could come tomorrow and stay through Monday morning,” she suggested. “We’d have two nights.”
There was no use forcing the point. Time together mattered more than where they spent it. “I’ll have my secretary Chloë push back my Monday appointments. Congratulations on your experiment. Now order in a pizza before you keel over. I’ll take you out for a proper dinner tomorrow.”
To save money, Rowan had proposed that Jefferson’s traditional Inauguration ceremony be scaled back and folded into a regular all-College assembly. So, toward the end of October, he turned his attention to his inaugural address, still a week away, but he soon realized that a constant stream of calls and visitors made it impossible for him to concentrate in his office. Even his house felt public. He asked Chloë if there was a vacant, secluded space somewhere where he could work without interruption and she suggested a little-used room on the top floor of the College Archives, a small building on campus.
Chloë had it furnished with a desk, sofa, and phone, and Rowan added an electric kettle, a small refrigerator, and a pillow and quilt for the sofa. He tacked prints on the walls, and on his desk, placed his favorite memento—an ivory polar bear carved from walrus tusk, which he’d inherited from his grandfather. For as long as he served as Jefferson’s president, this room in the Archives was to be his sanctuary.
On Inauguration Day, Sara sat in the front row with the wives of Jefferson’s other senior administrators and gracefully played the role of the president’s wife. Since June, they’d managed to spend only a dozen or so days together, and Rowan was relieved and grateful that she’d made it to the ceremony. Wilfred Knight, surrounded by his fellow trustees, formally dubbed Rowan B. Ellway President of Jefferson College, and charged him with the safekeeping of the College Scepter and with upholding Jefferson’s hallowed traditions.
His acceptance speech outlined an ambitious agenda, including greater ethnic diversity, more women faculty, the abolition of residential visiting hours, more freedom for students to take courses of their own choosing, and a voice in College governance for all stakeholders in College affairs. Rowan believed that much of the recent strife in academia could have been avoided if the traditional governors of colleges and universities—trustees, administrators, and faculty—were routinely exposed to the viewpoints of student and staff representatives, and included their input in decision making.
The students listened attentively and, heartened that someone was at last addressing their concerns, gave the speech a standing ovation. Rowan came away feeling buoyed and optimistic, but when at last he and Sara were alone that evening he was taken aback by her lack of enthusiasm.
“You know, I’m seeing things differently now that I’m teaching. Unless students at Jefferson are considerably more mature than the ones at NYU, they won’t be able to handle all that responsibility.”
“Telling them what to do makes them rebellious, not responsible,” Rowan countered. Increasingly, talking college politics with Sara felt like sparring with his own faculty. She wouldn’t let the matter drop.
“It seems to me that just as I’m trying to climb the academic ladder, you’re trying to tear it down.”
“Nothing that happens at Jefferson will have the slightest effect on NYU,” Rowan protested. “Your colleagues can’t possibly be interested in what we’re doing.”
“You’d be surprised. They read The Chronicle of Higher Education, and it’s covering Jefferson. Are you feeding them stuff?”
“The PR office may well be,” Rowan admitted. “We do want to get our story out.”
“Well, it affects me. Every time Jefferson’s in the press, I’m on the hot seat.”
Rowan looked at her hard, stifling a surge of anger that he realized came from feeling trapped by the situation their conflicting agendas had put him in. “I understand,” he finally said wearily. “You’re tenure track, and you’ll need your colleagues’ votes. What do you want me to do?”
“Please, just dial it down a bit. I’m afraid that if they see you as an opponent, they’ll see me that way too.”
The Commission on Jefferson’s Future met every Wednesday at four. When there were disagreements along student-faculty lines, Easter often stepped in to mediate. Once, when conflict loomed between Rowan and a professor over creating an interdisciplinary program in the arts, Easter finessed the matter by suggesting that it be referred to a subcommittee, one that included her, but neither Rowan nor the professor. Rowan, noting her adroitness, raised no objection, and a confrontation was avoided.
After Commission meetings, Rowan’s route to the President’s House coincided with Easter’s to Sojourner Truth House, and they soon established a pattern of leaving together and reviewing the day’s work as they strolled home.
One Wednesday evening, near the spot where their paths diverged, Easter said, “Today, I had the feeling that you were somewhere else.”
“I’ve heard most of these arguments before. Yeah, my mind was wandering.”
“I’ve been reading Doctor Zhivago. Today I was daydreaming about the Trans-Siberian Railway.”
“That sounds exciting. I’d like to see Siberia someday.”
Winter hadn’t come to Michigan yet, but the harsh November wind was cold on his face. For an instant he pictured them together in a compartment on a Russian train, a steaming samovar, tea for two. He quickly changed the subject.
“Where will you be for Thanksgiving?”
“In Chicago with my folks. And you?”
“I’ll miss our walks. I look forward to our talks…after the meetings.”
“I enjoy them, too.” His breath froze, and vanished in the space between them.
“Have you noticed that our initials have the same three letters?” Easter said.
Where was she going with this? he wondered. “Yes, I noticed the ‘ERB’ on your card. Mathematicians call that a ‘permutation.’”
“What’s the ‘B’ stand for in Rowan B. Ellway?”
“I was afraid you’d ask; my middle name makes me feel like a kid on the school bus. We teased each other about that.”
“C’mon,” Easter said, poking his arm.
“Okay, but don’t laugh. The ‘B’ is for Bartolomeo.”
“So you have Italian ancestry?” To his surprise, she hadn’t even smiled.
“It was my Italian grandfather’s name. I secretly like it, but I never use it.”
“And where does ‘Rowan’ come from? It sounds dashing to me.”
“That was my Scottish grandfather’s name, after the rowan tree. It’s related to the hawthorn and has white flowers and red berries. Pasternak sees rowanberries as drops of blood, metaphorically.”
“Red and white, and I’m Blue,” Easter mused. “The French tricolor, again, and the American flag for that matter.”
“So, what does your ‘R’ stand for?”
“‘Rakiya.’ It’s African. My father is proud of our African heritage, and he tucked the name in there hoping I would be too. It worked. I wish you could meet him.”
“Perhaps next year, when you graduate. He teaches history at the University of Chicago, right?”
“I’m very proud of him. He had it so much tougher than we do today. His father was a sharecropper, and his father’s father was a slave…until the Emancipation. That’s as far back as we can trace our family.”
“I have a feeling you’re going to do your ancestors proud. You know, that’s how the Chinese see it—your accomplishments bring glory not to your descendants, but to your ancestors, in recognition of the fact that it was their sacrifices that put you in a position to do what you do.”
They had reached the spot where they parted ways. “Happy Thanksgiving, Bartolomeo,” she said.
Rowan had to repress an impulse to give her a hug. Flustered, all he could manage was, “You, too.” He regretted his lame response.
Word spread at Jefferson that something was brewing, and nervous faculty told their colleagues at other colleges. Articles in Jefferson’s student newspaper were predicting Armageddon. Among the letters to the editor was one from Donald Bentley, announcing weekly brown-bag lunches for “faculty interested in clarifying Jefferson’s historic mission as a traditional liberal arts College.” When Rowan read it, he faced the facts: Sides were being drawn for the battle to come.
The buzz emanating from Jefferson attracted national media. The New York Times ran a story on educational change that featured Jefferson’s plans, and CBS News invited Rowan to be on a televised panel about the reforms sweeping American campuses. Though the timing meant he’d have to fly back that same evening to keep a commitment to chair an all-college forum the following morning, he didn’t have to think about it; it was a great chance to represent Jefferson on national TV.
Rowan left for New York the day before the broadcast and met Sara for an early dinner at their favorite French restaurant. Excited by the prospect of his first appearance on TV, he told her about a new program that Jefferson was initiating which would enable students to design interdisciplinary majors.
During the meal Sara said, “I’m sorry I won’t be able to watch the broadcast. I have to attend a party hosted by the chairman of the chemistry department. It won’t look good if I skip it.”
Rowan nodded. He knew that junior faculty had to show the flag at social events or risk the consequences, but he was disappointed.
“Hey, I’ll ask the department chair to turn the show on during cocktails. He keeps asking to meet you; I think he’s got his eye on administration. Can I tell him you’ll see him next time you’re in town?”
“Stoking his ambitions doesn’t sound like fun.”
“C’mon Rowan, I need this guy’s support. It won’t hurt you to talk to him.”
As he opened the door to the President’s House, the phone was ringing. It was too early for Sara to be calling.
“Hi, Rowan, Steve Hobson. Just wanted to say ‘well done.’”
“I wasn’t too blunt?” Rowan asked, hoping to draw Hobson out.
“Straight, I’d call it. The other panelists came off mealy-mouthed. Ironic detachment just doesn’t cut it in times like these. You stole the show.”
Hobson was always supportive, but what made Steve different, what had won Rowan’s respect and trust, was the specific nature of his assurances, plus the occasional criticism. Rowan thanked him for calling and settled down in front of the TV to await Sara’s call.
The phone kept ringing. Wilfred Knight was full of superlatives; a trustee with media experience offered a less-than-flattering critique of his TV persona—“Speak faster, lighten up” was the gist of it. The dean of the College thought the national exposure would make Jefferson’s faculty more likely to follow their new president’s lead.
“What about ‘a prophet has no honor in his own land’?” Rowan asked.
“We’re going to repeal that one this time around,” the dean replied.
It was getting late and he realized Sara couldn’t have gotten through, so he called her.
In the afterglow of the show, Rowan was feeling optimistic. “The phone has been tied up,” he said. He was grinning. “Everyone seems to have something to say about the show.”
“My colleagues were watching,” Sara said.
“So, what did you think?”
“You looked great on TV, Rowan. I was happy for you, it’s just that what you said…well, it led to a big argument at the party.”
“Ouch. But I guess I’m not surprised.”
“It put me in an awkward position.”
“I couldn’t get by with platitudes. If your colleagues were more—”
“It’s not that simple,” Sara cut in. “I have to live with these guys.”
There was an awkward silence, then Sara asked, “Does your faculty back these changes?”
“Some of them agree with your colleagues. But there’s a lot of support for reform, especially among the junior faculty. The vote will be close.”
He was relieved when Sara dropped the subject to remind him that they were spending Thanksgiving with her parents on Long Island.
Then Rowan paced, stopping to gaze out the rear window down the frozen moonlit yard. Though he tried not to, he often took Sara’s solicitousness toward her colleagues as a lack of support for him. With a shiver, he turned away and climbed the stairs to the second floor. As he was undressing, the phone rang again.
“Hi. Hope I’m not calling too late, but I knew you were up…your line’s been busy.”
“Hi, Easter. Yes, the phone’s been ringing.”
“Everyone watched. You made us proud.”
“Thanks. I’m glad it’s over.”
“See you tomorrow?”
“Yes, at the commission meeting, and afterward?”
“Afterward, too. Good night, Dr. Ellway.”
“Good night, Easter. Hey, wait. Since I call you Easter, you should call me Rowan.”
“Oh, I’d like that.” He could tell she was smiling. “Rowan,” she said, as if testing his first name on her tongue. “Yes, that sounds good. Sweet dreams, Rowan.”
To be continued…