Students Question Death of Princeton Lecturer
Undergraduates ask whether unfair treatment drove Spanish lecturer to suicide
One Friday morning this month, a security guard showed up at the office of Antonio Calvo, a popular Spanish instructor at Princeton University, to escort him from the building. Friends and former colleagues say Calvo was abruptly dismissed from his job, and because he lived in the United States on a temporary visa, he faced a compulsory return to his native Spain.
Four days later, on April 12, he fatally slashed himself in his Manhattan apartment.
Calvo’s suicide has devastated a tight community of scholars and students who so valued his generosity and vivacity that they called him St. Antonio. And on the Princeton campus, private grieving has erupted into public recrimination, with Calvo’s admirers faulting the university for how it handled the episode.
It is unclear what exactly led to Calvo’s hasty departure from the job. Princeton officials said Thursday that he was on leave at the time of his death but declined to provide other details. “To preserve the privacy of our employees, the university does not speak to matters of personnel, which are not public,” a university spokeswoman, Cass Cliatt, said.
Several former colleagues said that Calvo, who as a senior lecturer did not have tenure, was being evaluated for reappointment in the department of Spanish and Portuguese languages and cultures, and that a few graduate students and a fellow lecturer had mounted a campaign to block that renewal. As director of the university’s Spanish language program, Calvo supervised graduate students, who are required to teach undergraduates; the graduate students, his friends said, criticized his management style and singled out comments that they felt were inappropriately harsh.
In one episode earlier this academic year, Calvo told a graduate student that she deserved a slap on the face and slapped his own hands together. In another, he jokingly referred to a student’s private parts in an email, using a common Spanish expression that implores someone to get to work.
Calvo also expressed frustration with the graduate students, who he felt did not take their teaching duties seriously, friends said. Angelina Craig-Florez, a lecturer in Latin American and Iberian cultures at Columbia University, said she last spoke with him at a conference in February.
“He was very upset because he was undergoing a review, which was normal, but some of the graduate students were not following what they had to do,” she said. “Some didn’t even show up to classes that they were teaching, and it’s his responsibility to make sure that the language program runs smoothly.”
Some of Calvo’s undergraduate students complained this week that Princeton had not been forthright with them about his departure or death. They said they were not notified that he had died until three days later, in an email that said simply that Calvo “has passed away.”
James Williams, a sophomore from Pittsburgh who took an advanced Spanish class with Calvo, said that on the Friday the instructor was escorted from the building, the students waited for 30 minutes in the classroom. As they left, they asked the department chairwoman where Calvo was.
“She said he had to leave early today for personal reasons and that he’d be back next week,” Williams recalled.
The day before the suicide, the students again waited for Calvo. After 20 minutes, another professor entered the room and announced that he was taking over the course indefinitely, again citing personal matters that Calvo was attending to.
After class the following week, Williams said, the new professor told him that Calvo had killed himself. Williams has created a Facebook page titled “Justice for Calvo: Forming a Student Response” and scheduled a strategy session for Saturday. “Definitely more questions need to be answered,” he said.
Calvo “never seemed to be the type of person who would commit suicide,” Williams added.
“If there was an indiscretion on his part, this should all be left alone,” he continued. “But if there’s a fault on the part of an individual or group or institution that perhaps treated him unfairly or unethically, that needs to be addressed and actions should be taken.”
At a memorial gathering on Tuesday, students voiced their anger and confusion. “I really want to know more about what happened,” Molly Bagshaw, 19, said. “I want the holes to be filled before I can move on.”
They remembered a lively teacher with a love of colorful shoes and a quick wit. One woman recalled the time that Calvo charmed bartenders in Toledo, Spain, where he oversaw a summer program, into giving his entire class free rounds of drinks. Another student said Calvo would stop students on campus to chat about their lives.
“He had such an energy about him,” Williams said. “He wouldn’t just walk into the classroom. He would bounce.”
Friends of Calvo said the timing of his dismissal put him in a difficult position. Since he was in the country on a work visa sponsored by Princeton, he would have to find another job — and sponsor — quickly.
“Antonio had lived in the United States for over 10 years and made a life for himself in this country,” said Marco Aponte-Moreno, a former lecturer in Spanish at Princeton, who now teaches in England.
“The loss of his job also meant that he would have to leave his life in the U.S. behind.”
Copyright 2011 The New York Times Company. reprinted from The New York Times, New York region, of Friday, April 22, 2011.