Jason Lanier had served in public relations at Altamaha College for twenty-five years. A lean, distinguished fellow with thinning hair and a slight comb-over, Jason had once worked in local television until the first of many presidents he had worked for at Altamaha lured him away with a little more salary and better benefits. Raises, though, had not been regular in the state of Georgia and benefits tanked despite tax hikes through the years to solve financial woes. If Jason could do the math, he would’ve learned he actually lost more money through the years than if he had stayed on at the local TV station making the same salary.
The sixth, and most recent president Jason worked for was a politician. It was a miracle that he had survived twenty-five years, with all of the different presidents. President Madison Lester had been able to secure funding for the neglected college, but his attitude toward employees had sent morale to an all-time low. There were many times he didn’t acknowledge employees at all, passing them in the halls; and he didn’t attend many events at the college because of fictitious appointments where he had been sighted at a local pub with other politicians. He also bullied employees, and when ideas where raised he considered shallow, he played the role of gadfly, like Socrates.
Jason had seen the path to president change from an academic one to one of business leaders, lawyers, and politicians being selected by systems to run colleges and universities, and the college machines ran better and were more efficient. Standards had dropped, and enrollment and funding had increased.
Jason tapped on the door frame of President Lester’s office as Lester was busy typing an email on his computer. “Yeah.”
“You want to work on the story?”
“Come on in. Let me finish this.”
Jason sat in the wing back chair, looking around the office at the photos of handshakes of Lester with politicians and donors; one black and white of Lester and his wife some twenty years prior at a ball; and a black and white photo of Lester’s parents by a convertible in Florida with a beach backdrop. Jason wondered if desk and office photos were extensions of personas, how they attempt to fool others, how lying always comes back to haunt, and why he had to have a role in this. He knew he couldn’t retire. He needed the money with one child in college, a wife struggling with depression and diabetes, his house not paid off, insurance bills mounting. He hated playing along, no more than he liked playing kickball at recess when older, bigger students always won, or playing hit the piñata with adults guiding the blindfolded guests so they didn’t hit the piñata and get all the candy and saved it for the birthday boy. Jason knew he had to play along and wondered how Lester might want to spin Ansley’s departure.
“Well, I was thinking we could start the article with Ansley’s previous work and accomplishments, then the donations that came while she was here, the growth we saw in the pre-law program, and then mention that she’s moving on to better things and how we’re better for her having been here.”
Jason didn’t know what Lester wanted exactly, but knew he didn’t want the truth in the newspaper–that Ansley and Lester had been spotted doggie style in the dark room by the photography faculty member late in the afternoon, when the faculty was normally gone, and had told a few folks. Unfortunately, he was up for tenure with a MFA, and the President already determined the faculty member would be gone, despite recommendations from a department head and dean, who also served at the pleasure of the president; the rumor had eventually made its way to the Baptist church, and even Ms. Lester had gotten wind of it. Rumor was Ms. Lester threatened to put him on the road if he didn’t put Ansley on the road first. Of course, the president had denied the sex act, had denied earlier rumors of taking a bribe in the form of a special allocation for a building project to hire her from a congressman in Atlanta, had denied he’d broken human resources policy in hiring her, had denied that her pre-law program stole students from the Humanities because of her broken promises to students of law school admissions, had denied private money was being funneled to the foundation from her family to provide study abroad experiences to pre-law students and paying her huge stipends.
Lester reared back in his chair, three his oxblood wingtips on the desk. “Include she was popular among the students.”
“Mention that as founder of the pre-law program, she recruited more students than any other program on campus.”
“Right.” Jason knew that she technically had, but those students didn’t come from outside the institution; they were bailing on other majors.
“Make sure to include that donations to that department were at an all-time high under leadership.”
“Okay.” Jason knew that was also technically true, but there was no leadership and donations came from family to the foundation only to come back out of the foundation to her.
“She resurrected study abroad for the institution, something that hadn’t happened in years.”
“Jason, you know, these deadbeat academics just don’t get it. They’re clueless. They need to get off their lazy asses and do stuff.”
Jason left the president’s office and exchanged pleasantries with Paula, his administrative assistant, but felt drained and tired and sick to his stomach. He knew he could rationalize most of the article and would try and stick to the facts, not adding in too many positive adjectives. That would make Jason feel better about writing what would become history. He knew Lester would throw him under the bus to anyone who questioned the article—at home, on campus, or in the community. He’d done it before: “That’s not what I told him to write,” or “You can’t tell anybody to do anything anymore” or “I’m supposed to review it and it went out without my approval.” Jason knew when the article was published, most wouldn’t read it because readership had declined through the years at the newspaper. Those who did read it wouldn’t wonder why there were no stories for other employees who’d left the college. Jason just hoped he could make another year since staying one more would increase his bring home when combined with Social Security upon retirement.
When he reached the top of the stairs, which he always took to try and strengthen his calves, his loafer caught on a lose nail and he lunged forward, tumbling down the stairs and landing catawampus and unconscious. Jason regained consciousness some time the next week in the hospital with casts on an arm and leg and didn’t recall anything about that day he fell–the meeting, the article, or the fall. The administrative assistant had taken over temporarily and written the article for the paper. During rehabilitation, the Human Resources manager visited Jason and explained how he could be on temporary disability for six months, and then use his annual and sick leave putting him on target to retire with even more income. Jason took the deal, and the administrative assistant wrote a piece for the paper on Jason’s long tenure and outstanding career.