The journey of a journalist (Part 7) -MY RETURN TO MINNESOTA
Posted on October 10th, 2009

Shelton A. Gunaratne ©2009

 On a Wednesday morning (April 17, 1985), as I rose from the bed, I got an unexpected telephone call from Moorhead State University (which became Minnesota State University Moorhead in 2000) inquiring whether I was interested in the advertised vacancy in journalism. Martin Grindeland, the new chairman of the mass communications department, was at the other end. He put me on to an assistant professor, Bill Hall, who was a graduate student of mine at Central Missouri State in 1972-73. When I expressed interest, they promised to arrange a telephone interview with the faculty on Friday.

On Friday (April 19), the conference call came at 7.30 a.m. Those interviewing me at the other end were mass communications faculty members Martin Grindeland, Bill Hall Jr., Melva Moline, Alan Carter and Robin Hatfield. The interview lasted 40 minutes.

On Thursday (April 25), Grindeland telephoned me again and offered the job of associate professor at the ceiling of the advertised salary range. However, he said, the job would not be tenure-track until after one year because the university did not have all the papers related to me. Later, a letter dated April 25 came from President Roland Dille enclosing a contract for an associate professorship (step 10) during the period Sept. 9, 1985, to May 28, 1986. I signed the contract with the following proviso: “I accept the contract subject to U.S. immigration clearance and the possible delays it may cause.” The starting date was later amended to Dec. 2, 1985, as it became clear that CIAE was reluctant to grant me special leave until I completed the second semester.

On Saturday (April 27) morning, David Nelson, dean of business and industry, and his secretary Carol Thede said they would send me a form J 129B (petition to classify non-immigrant as temporary worker or trainee) to enable me to get a visa. On Aug. 8, I mailed my Australian passport and my application for a visa to the U.S. Consulate-General in Sydney. Within a week, I received my passport with an H-1 multiple-entry visa to enter the United States.

Meanwhile, I lost my Sri Lankan citizenship on May 17, 1985, when I became a citizen of Australia by pledging allegiance to “H.M.  Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia.”

 

Remarkable Coincidence

I believe that my father’s prediction just before his death that my prospects would be better from February 1975 was a decade off the mark. My godsend job offer from MSU came just a month after my great disappointment with the CIAE Council’s response to my reclassification appeal at its meeting on March 18, 1985:

The Council finds that, in terms of the criteria for reclassification of lecturers and the governing policy conditions, Dr. Gunaratne is not eligible for reclassification to senior lecturer … The Council finds that Dr. Gunaratne has not suffered in his career from the impact of any mistake of denial of natural justice in administrative decisions affecting his position.

The Council expresses its regret that unproductive turmoil has been going on for many years and hopes that this response to appeal terminates it. Council commends Dr. Gunaratne on his worthy contributions to the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (e.g., Four Winds, success of journalism students) and looks forward to his constructive contribution to the corporate function of the School and the Institute.

I, “Weligama Podda” from Pathegama, was soundly trounced by the old boys’ network of institutional power wielders. The one-sentence accolade for me was a mere PR prank. I read the semantic interpretation of the Council’s message thus: Kowtow to Mellick or leave. I could not imagine how I could continue as a supine servant of “Devadatta.”

 

Past Failures

I first tried to apply for reclassification in January 1977. Both Sadler and his deputy Bob Hay called me for a meeting and advised me to withdraw it because they could not support me fully “at this stage.” But that stage never arrived during my decade at CIAE. Appleton in a letter dated Sept. 14, 1977, declined my application for reclassification. Hay explained that the basis for the decision was the non-existence of a substantial area of teaching that I could lead. Acting Director Ron Young in a letter dated July 26, 1979, yet again declined reclassification for the same reason.

Registrar Brian Bartley told me during a conversation on Nov. 11, 1980, that I had no chance of reclassification until Sadler, the chairman of SHSS, stood by me. Sadler had maintained that journalism was not a distinct area for a senior lectureship. The third rejection for reclassification dated June 30, 1982, came from Bartley in his role as chairman of the Staffing Committee. “Staffing Committee further believed you have failed to demonstrate an equivalent contribution to the Institute, which would be required for the establishment of an Institute Senior Lectureship,” Bartley added.

When I requested the Staffing Committee to review its reclassification decision, Bartley arranged for me to appear before a sub-committee comprising Bartley, Appleton, Sadler and faculty member Grahame Harvey on Oct. 25, 1982. During this hour-long “farce,” where the “accused” party was sitting in judgment of itself, Appleton insisted on my answering the question whether I believed the institute was practicing racial discrimination, I said there was a high degree of possibility.  

Two months later (on Dec. 22), I was allowed to appear before the full staffing committee to add to my previous oral submission before the subcommittee. I spoke on three themes: ethics of the appointment, false assumptions, and application of reclassification criteria. I expressed my dukkha on Appleton’s superciliousness at the subcommittee meeting.

At this stage, I was convinced that the best recourse for my academic career advancement was for me to return to America. Ten years of service to Queensland, partly at Sri Lanka taxpayers’ expense, was enough. I was merely testing out the intra-institutional appellate procedure as a means of self-purification.

When the CIAE Council approved (on Sept. 15, 1982) an exchange arrangement for me to spend the 1983 calendar year as a journalism teacher at  Fullerton College, California, while Fullerton’s Larry Taylor would fill in for me at CIAE, I thought it was an enormous gesture of goodwill.

However, as I expected, the CIAE Council denied my appeal for reclassification on March 18, 1985.

I surmised that internal appeal mechanisms are never likely to deliver objective judgments on questionable personnel decisions taken in the past. I did not want to spend the time or the money to resort to legal action. Winning or losing a legal battle would have other negative ramifications on my career. Since everything was anicca, I could well afford to let go the past and look for the future thereby keeping dukkha at bay.

 

The Transition

On special leave from CIAE for the first semester of 1986, I arrived in the United States on Nov. 23, 1985, so I could assume my duties as an associate professor from Dec. 2 to May 28, 1986.

My adjustment to Moorhead went very smoothly to everyone’s general satisfaction. MSU was ready to offer me a tenure-track position and sponsor me for permanent residence in the United States. I had to return to Australia to apply for my Green Card.

So I was back in Queensland on May 31, 1986, to do my final bout of teaching at CIAE during the second semester, obtain my Green Card, submit my resignation to CIAE, and get back to Minnesota to resume teaching beginning Dec. 1.

However, I had to face more roadblocks. The CIAE had appointed David Myers as principal lecturer to replace Sadler as chairman of SHSS. He was both amiable and obnoxious at times””‚another Jekyll and Hide split character, I thought. He intruded into my classes to force student evaluations, and insisted that I teach broadcast journalism to enable Mellick to go on his sabbatical leave.   On Oct. 8, Myers met with me and suggested that I submit a letter of intention to resign, and also write the external notes for Public Relations before I left. I was furious with him because he was clearly trying to place additional burdens on me based on confidential information I informally passed on to him: that I was awaiting a U.S. immigrant visa to resign my lectureship.  Grahame Griffin, my former CIAE colleague, told me recently that Myers “might have been a little erratic as you say but I found him to be a generous and inspiring person.” [Myers, who died in 2007, became initiator of Idiom 23 literary magazine in 1987, professor of comparative literature in 1991 and founding director of the CQU Press in 1993.]

 

Although I hired an immigration lawyer in Minneapolis to expedite matters, the U.S. Consulate-General was in no hurry to issue me a resident visa until it had police clearances from the four countries where I resided””‚Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Australia and the U.S. It was only on Nov. 3 that Carl F. Troy of the consulate-general interviewed Yoke Sim and me in Sydney and issued us the visas. On the same day, I submitted my letter of resignation to CIAE.

Back in Rockhampton, Myers met with me on Nov. 6 to inform that CIAE had accepted my resignation. He gave me a memo from Director A, S. Appleton (dated Nov. 5):

Your memorandum to the Personnel Officer of 3rd November has come to me together with a memorandum from Dr. Myers which indicates that the School of Humanities & Social Sciences is able to accommodate your resignation and departure on 27th November 1986.  I have sought the opinion of t he Executive Council on your request, and am pleased to inform that it has been agreed to accept your resignation from 27th November 1986 so that you may migrate from Australia on that date.

Myers circulated a memo to SHSS staff announcing my resignation. “I am sure that we all wish him well for his future career,” the memo concluded.

 

Minnesota Nice

When I returned to Fargo-Moorhead with my family on Nov. 28, the Grindeland family was at the airport to welcome us and then take us to our apartment in Windwood Estates, Villa Drive, Fargo””‚our home for the next six months. While staying there, we purchased a land allotment on Village Green Drive, Moorhead, where we built a house.  That’s what we still call our home.

Despite the long cold winters, Minnesota State proved to be a congenial academic institution which accommodated many of my academic and scholarly needs. I was able to sense my academic freedom again after a decade of repression and humiliation in Rockhampton.

Not that everything was perfect at MSU. But it provided me with tranquility of mind to become a communication scholar of some repute ensconced in a tenured professorship.

At MSUM, I initiated a course in International Communication, and taught Reporting, Copy Editing, Public Affairs Reporting and Computer-Assisted Reporting for 22 years before I retired. But my scholarship in communication covered a much broader area.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors placed me on a six-week minisabbatical at The (Longview, Wash.) Daily News in summer 1989 to work as a reporter and editorial writer; and on a three-month minisabbatical with the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. in summer 1991 to work as a feature writer and journalism coach. In summer 1990, I served for six weeks as an external consultant for the World Association for Christian Communication in London.

In my sabbatical year 1994, I taught English Composition in the foreign languages department at Tianjin University, China (February through June), and I joined the international communication program of the department of media and communication studies in the school of English, linguistics and media at Macquarie University, Sydney, July through November. I spent the summer of 1997″”‚June through August””‚as the external examiner at the department of communication, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi.

We became U.S. citizens on April 18, 2002.

Next: Part 9 My Contributions to Communication Scholarship

[The writer is a professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead. He dedicates this installment to the memory of the late John L. Hulteng (1921-1996), dean of the school of journalism at the University of Oregon in the late 1960s.]

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