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I Needed Help, Not Ostracism

By William Frawley
Sunday, December 2, 2007

In our zero-tolerance times, when a public figure melts down, everyone wants answers -- right now. Explain yourself! voices demand. Take responsibility!

But as someone who has suffered a calamitous breakdown, I know that anyone at the center of a public storm needs months to comprehend what happened, move away from shame and give a coherent account of events. In the meantime, the impulse to self-punish and angry demands for retribution from others help no one heal.

Earlier this year, while president of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, I was, Lindsay Lohan-like, charged with two DUIs. But where Lohan and other celebrities are nourished by their public embarrassments, my meltdown cost me my job and may well have cost me my career. As I grapple with the aftermath, I wonder whether things had to turn out as they did and what lessons should be learned from my crisis.

As is true for most people, college presidents' behavior doesn't always match our ideals. But when we do something embarrassing, the gap between the two is highlighted and our sins are broadcast to all. Then, as Jeffrey Rosen wrote in his book "The Unwanted Gaze," the public quickly mistakes mere information about us for genuine knowledge of our characters. But there's always more to the story, and that critical extra needs to be told openly and in its proper course. A rush to explanation is just as treacherous as a rush to judgment.

I came to the presidency of Mary Washington in 2006 with a solid record of achievement: I had been a dean at George Washington University, published more than a dozen books and hundreds of papers and reviews, won recognition for my teaching, raised millions of dollars. But the way I left -- with no apparent consideration for my illness or my record and no support for my family's transition to a new life -- contrasted sharply with the exits of other university presidents in similar situations. What it shared with them was the realization that the first casualty in such crises -- but the only thing that saves you in the end -- is honesty.

My April meltdown was of my own making, as I've repeatedly acknowledged and publicly regretted. I've always said that I should not have been driving, and I'm thankful that I alone was hurt. I know that my actions cracked the trust that the UMW board and community had placed in me. But their hard-edged reactions also cracked my trust in them.

For 45 years, I had self-treated a case of undiagnosed depression with compulsive work and, lately, alcohol. New heart problems and allergies added to the mix, as did the stress of separation from my family, which remained in Maryland. I wouldn't listen to those who urged me to slow down, and even foiled an arrangement by one of my vice presidents to get me to do so. I didn't want to know myself.

On April 10, I got up at 4:30 a.m., as always. Racing around, I was afraid I'd be late for my autistic son's assessment in Bethesda, which I had already postponed twice. On the way there, I felt as though I was going to have a nervous breakdown. To calm down, I drank some wine (after taking allergy medication) before I got on the road.

I'd never driven to Bethesda from UMW before, and I took the wrong exit off I-495. Confused, distracted and on a twisting road, I went off a curve and flipped the car. I recall little of what happened afterward, except for telling the emergency crew not to defibrillate me because of my history of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, an electrical problem of the heart. That evening, I awoke in the intensive care unit of Inova Fairfax Hospital. I argued my way out, insisting that I had to work the next day. At 1 a.m., I drove back to Fredericksburg. I have no idea how I made it there in my exhausted and still-sedated state.

I got up again at 4:30 a.m., wrote some e-mails (which I later saw were gibberish) and went to work. My startled staff sent me home, but I couldn't rest. Jittery and consumed again with the feeling that I was about to have a breakdown or a heart attack, I drove up to horse country, parked, took in the scenery and drank again. On the way home, I hit a pothole and blew a tire but continued on, sleepless and disoriented.

Thankfully, someone noticed my erratic driving and called the police, who surely thought I was a nut case heading into . . . well, the UMW president's driveway! Filled in by some of my staff who had shown up at the scene, the police recognized what was happening; they charged me with DUI but, more important, took me to the hospital.

The upshot of that 26-hour sequence was six days in the hospital, a newly diagnosed cardiac problem -- and scandal. My story was splashed across the local and national papers and (endlessly, it seemed) on television and the radio. I felt relentless shame.

Two days out of the hospital, I traveled to Fredericksburg to give the board of trustees an explanation. The scene was Kafkaesque. I don't believe I told the story very well; nor did the board listen very well. UMW's legal counsel, a representative from the state attorney general's office, instructed the members to say nothing. They listened in preternatural silence without being able to ask any questions to help them understand my story. My attorneys had advised me to limit what I said, so I wasn't able to give a full account, even if I'd had one.

Board members responded to my sincere questions -- "Why would I throw away a 30-year career?" and "Why would I hurt such a good institution?" -- with quizzically tilted heads. I asked them to allow me to begin treatment under a team of medical experts and not to act precipitously.

The university rector came to the president's house the next morning. Standing in the kitchen, I asked him whether I'd be able to preserve my tenure as a distinguished university professor. "They want you out of here," he said. I asked for a medical leave. "They don't want to do that," he replied. I would have to resign all association with UMW or be fired.

Ten days later, I accepted a severance package in exchange for my resignation. But in a surprise move, it was pulled off the table that same day, and I was fired. I was instantly left with no salary or benefits, no severance, no tenure. Our zero-tolerance times have seemingly produced zero tolerance for tolerance.

I spent the summer in a deep depression even as I began six months of intensive treatment at clinics, hospitals and an inpatient rehabilitation facility. On July 13, I accepted another board-approved severance -- this one negotiated by an independent mediator. But in October, I learned that the state attorney general's office had rejected the settlement. The mediator was the only one more flabbergasted than I was.

The DUIs were resolved in September. My attorneys wanted to go to trial, but I insisted on Alford pleas, a form of guilty plea. Justice was not blind to the extenuating circumstances of these incidents: My suspended sentence and fines and the loss of driving privileges in Virginia recognized that the DUIs were the culmination of a long, complicated series of events.

But the public reaction was mixed. Many faculty, students, community members and even strangers wrote to me with sensitivity and expressing support. But many others wrote to the Fredericksburg newspapers suggesting that I had gotten off easy or had been handed a sweet deal. Letter writers compared me to Michael Vick and Virginia Tech shooter Seung Hui Cho. If I read the letters correctly, it seemed that for many my first sin was not the DUIs, but my reported salary as president.

In the push of public scrutiny, many observers cited their "right" to know details about my personal life. To what extent does the public have a right to know a public figure's medical history and personal past? When does the clamoring for personal information become mere prurient interest? The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star questionably dredged up a decades-old incident in which I had confronted a stalker who had harassed my wife for many years. I went from pillar to pilloried, and the debasing revealed a great deal about the community's expectations, social values and public and private faces.

Close on the heels of public humiliation came institutional erasure. I was immediately cut off from the UMW e-mail system and couldn't even receive the e-mail notice of my firing. At the board's summer retreat, the strategic plans I had set in motion -- buying the nearby shopping center for major expansion, building a new facility at the Navy research site at Dahlgren, Va. -- were reaffirmed. But I was told that when someone asked who had recommended the excellent retreat site and my name surfaced, others gestured to silence the speaker. I had become, Harry Potter-style, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

Some in situations similar to mine have outlived their disasters. In 2004, an Emory University vice president faced serious charges. He accepted responsibility, sought help and eventually returned to his position. Wisely, the university allowed him to take leave for treatment. Blessed are the judicious.

Others, like me, have had their fractures brutally displayed. American University President Benjamin Ladner had to resign in 2005 because of alleged financial transgressions; in 1990, Richard Berendzen had also been forced to resign as AU president after being charged with a sexual misdemeanor. The firing and vehement self-defense of Eastern Michigan University's John Fallon -- dismissed this past July purportedly for his handling of a campus rape and murder case -- have reached the "Larry King" show. Yet these institutions, recognizing that trauma involves a whole family, offered severance packages to ease the transition to a new life. Berendzen even returned to his tenured professorship.

But as I endure the vicious new cyber-punishment of permanent exposure on the Internet, I am challenged to remake my reputation while being simultaneously denied the opportunity for redemption that I accorded others.

As a longtime teacher, I know that there are lessons to be learned from my situation. I've learned that honesty can guide you through dissolution into hope. My family is no longer four people living alone together. My wife and I are committed to a new future. My pre-teen daughter endured teasing with grace and has grown in the process. Recently, she asked me how I was feeling. "Pretty down," I replied. Her response was full of insight: "Why don't you go to a meeting?"

Another lesson is that institutions must keep the past an open book and spread the wisdom gained from uncomfortable situations. But that doesn't mean we can't have regrets. UMW can speak for itself, but I regret losing the chance to help students, faculty and staff discuss and deal with compulsion and substance issues. I regret, now that I'm healthy and my problems are cured or managed, that I can't teach and learn at UMW again. These are deep regrets from a permanent and painful loss.

wfrawl@gmail.com

William Frawley works as a language and higher education consultant. He is writing two books about his experiences.

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