1 year after suicide, new details emerge about Calvo’s suspension
A year has passed since senior lecturer Antonio Calvo committed suicide in his Manhattan apartment, and gone are the affectionate notes posted by students, colleagues and friends that lined his door in the days following his death. But his old office in East Pyne Hall still sits empty and unused.
Many questions remain about the circumstances surrounding his suicide on April 12, 2011. But an investigation by The Daily Princetonian has uncovered previously unreleased details about the University inquiry that led to his suspension and how Calvo spent the final days of his life.
In fall 2010, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures recommended Calvo, a senior lecturer in the department, for reappointment to his three-year contract position. Calvo’s case then passed to the University’s Faculty Advisory Committee on Appointments and Advancements, more commonly known as the Committee of Three.
But Calvo soon realized that his reappointment was under special scrutiny by the Committee, only months after tenured faculty in his own department had approved his position. On Friday, April 8, rather than hearing that his contract had been renewed or left to expire, Calvo was notified by Spanish department chair Gabriela Nouzeilles of the University’s decision to suspend him on the basis of improper conduct, effective immediately. Four days later, Calvo committed suicide.
To this day, the University has not wavered from its silence on the case, despite global media attention that continued for months after his death. But despite the University’s decision not to talk, friends and colleagues have continued to gather information over the past 12 months.
Most notably, new details show that Nassau Hall conducted oral interviews of graduate students and at least one lecturer in spring 2011 after receiving unsolicited complaints about Calvo. According to several University documents reviewed, these types of interviews are not a part of the typical reappointment process for senior lecturers.
In fact, the University suspended Calvo before it had completed its internal investigation and before it allowed Calvo the opportunity to challenge the allegations.
While the University contacted these complainants as part of its interviews, it is unclear whether the University interviewed the tenured faculty members in Calvo’s department who had previously recommended him for reappointment.
Furthermore, contrary to the reporting of some media outlets, Calvo had not been in isolation in the days preceding his suicide but had actually been in contact with at least one colleague at Princeton and met with a lawyer.
The ‘Prince’ contacted more than 40 friends, family members and colleagues of Calvo to develop this article, in addition to reviewing University documents related to the case. Many of the interviews were conducted in Spanish, and two sources were granted anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information they disclosed.
University officials either declined or did not respond to repeated requests for comment or confirmation of multiple elements of this article. President Shirley Tilghman said in an email last Tuesday that due to travel plans she did not have time to respond. Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69, Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin and Associate Dean of the Faculty Toni Turano did not respond to requests for comment. Visits to Dobkin’s and Turano’s offices were answered by their staff, who said the officials’ schedules did not allow time to speak with the ‘Prince’ about this story.
Tenured members of the Spanish department, including Nouzeilles, either did not respond or declined to comment.
Following review, suspension nears
Calvo joined the University in 2000 as a lecturer in the then-Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. In 2008, he was promoted to senior lecturer, a non-tenure track position, and given a three-year contract that would expire at the end of the 2010-11 academic year. During his time at Princeton, he was also appointed director of the Spanish Language Program, assuming supervision of over 30 graduate students and lecturers who teach undergraduate Spanish courses. In addition, he had organized the inaugural trip of the Princeton-in-Spain program in Toledo in the summer of 2008.
At the time of his suspension, Calvo was reaching the end of his first three-year term as a senior lecturer and awaited reappointment. The routine two-stage process consisted of both a departmental and an administrative review, as described by the University’s Rules and Procedures of the Faculty.
While his department recommended renewal of his contract in the fall, problems arose once the proposal progressed to the Committee of Three, the second stage of the process, in the spring.
Calvo was well aware of this initial endorsement, several friends confirmed.
“That reassured Antonio,” said a close friend in an email written in Spanish. The friend was granted anonymity because the friend had received threatening emails and phone calls in the past for prior comments on the controversy.
However, complications in the review process arose late in 2010, according to Flor Gragera de Leon, a former Spanish lecturer at Princeton who had left the University prior to Calvo’s reevaluation.
“I started to hear rumors in November 2010 that there was a group of graduate students and a lecturer organizing a campaign against Antonio,” she said in an email written in Spanish.
Calvo’s friends said his anxiety continued to grow during March 2011 as he waited to hear from the Committee.
“Antonio told me that even though the department had recommended him to have his contract renewed in the fall, the process had been delayed by the administration because some of his subordinates had presented complaints,” the friend explained.
“I spoke with Antonio a month before his suicide in mid-March. Antonio was worried, he told me he had not slept in months and that he felt the pains of having to go to work every day,” Gragera de Leon added.
The Daily Princetonian had access to an email that Calvo sent to a friend on March 24 detailing his growing worries at Princeton. In the email, Calvo expressed frustration that his reappointment process had been upset by personal attacks and complaints despite the fact that he had already earned his department’s nod of approval. Calvo also doubted whether he would continue in the academic world if his contract were not renewed.
Even though Calvo’s frustration grew in the days following the email, the friend said, his commitment to his job did not wane. The friend saw him for the last time a week before Calvo’s suspension and said that by then Calvo was not eating or sleeping well.
“I saw him spend four hours working on the schedules [of the Spanish language program] for fall 2011,” the friend said.
Although Calvo confided worries about his job security to his friends throughout the last few months of his life, his family and undergraduate students had little idea he was going through such a difficult moment, they said.
Santiago Calvo, Antonio’s brother, said he remembered hearing that his brother’s worries about his contract renewal did not seem to be too serious.
“He told us only as a passing note — that there were some issues and that by apologizing they would be solved,” Santiago said during an interview when reached in Spain.
But not everyone close to Calvo knew the lecturer was under such stress. Ricardo Lopez ’12, a Spanish concentrator who met Calvo his freshman year and later took Calvo’s course SPA 307: Advanced Spanish Language and Style, said he had not noticed anything different in Calvo’s health or behavior.
“We ran a Spanish open house ... and he was fine,” Lopez said, referring to an event that took place only days before Calvo’s suspension and suicide. “We agreed to have dinner a couple of weeks from then.” The open house was the last time he saw Calvo.
A torturous weekend
On Thursday, April 7, Calvo received an email from Nouzeilles, the chair of the Spanish department, according to a former colleague who was granted anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information.
The email asked Calvo to come to Nouzeilles’ office the following day at noon before his regular SPA 307 class at 12:30 p.m. At that meeting, Nouzeilles informed Calvo of his suspension and handed him a letter signed by her. The letter, which cited “multiple sources,” accused him of “engaging in extremely troubling and inappropriate behavior in the workplace,” according to a report published in The New York Times at the time. The letter did not provide more details on the allegations.
A plain-clothed security guard was waiting outside Nouzeilles’ office to collect Calvo’s University ID card, keys and student coursework. The security guard then escorted Calvo to the steps of East Pyne, the former colleague said. Calvo also lost access to his University email account.
Later that day, no instructor substituted for Calvo to teach his Friday class. “He wasn’t there Friday, and there was no email or anything explaining why he was gone,” Rachele Gyorffy ’13 told the ‘Prince’ last April.
There is still no explanation as to why a substitute teacher was not assigned even though Calvo’s scheduled meeting with Nouzeilles suggests that she knew he would not be able to teach his class that day.
Nouzeilles did not respond to a request for comment.
The ‘Prince’ had access to previously unpublished sections of Calvo’s suspension letter that shed light on how further communication between Calvo and the University would proceed.
The letter said Calvo should expect a phone call at his home in Chelsea, N.Y., from Associate Dean of the Faculty Toni Turano on Monday, April 11, at 9:00 a.m. Turano would inform Calvo of the specific accusations made against him and provide him with an opportunity to respond. Only if he had not received a call by 9:15 a.m. was he to contact Turano himself.
No sources interviewed by the ‘Prince’ could confirm if the phone call ever took place.
The letter added that Calvo could present an appeal to the Committee on Conference and Faculty Appeal. However, because Calvo had to set up an interview with Turano, he would effectively have had to present his appeal to Turano first and then request a formal appeals process with the Committee.
Since the University would no longer sponsor Calvo’s work visa, he would have to return to Spain within the month if he were not reappointed. As Calvo noted in the email sent on March 24 to a friend, Calvo had not looked for a new job at the January 2011 Modern Languages Association Convention where most language lecturers are hired.
Marco Aponte-Moreno, a former Spanish lecturer at Princeton who now teaches at University College London, said in an email to the ‘Prince’ that, after receiving the suspension letter, Calvo planned to contest the decision.
“The weekend was unbearable for him, he couldn’t sleep. At first he wanted to fight the case. He knew he had not done anything wrong. He was going to show up at Princeton with a lawyer,” he said.
However, Calvo’s resolve to defend himself apparently broke over the weekend. On Saturday, April 9, Calvo made an entry in his notebook. “The emotional torture of the months-long wait has become unbearable in my job,” it read, according to a translation provided to The New York Times.
Contrary to initial reporting, Calvo did not spend the weekend before the phone call in isolation. A former colleague said Calvo met with a lawyer on Saturday to discuss his legal options. Calvo was also in touch with the faculty members that would take over his courses.
Calvo spoke that weekend by phone with Alberto Bruzos Moro, a Spanish lecturer and now acting director of the Spanish language program. Bruzos Moro replaced Calvo as instructor of SPA 307 after Calvo’s suspension.
“I spoke with him for an hour. We talked about classes but also about personal matters,” he said in an interview in Spanish. “The conversation did not give me any clue nor any impression of what was later going to happen,” he added.
On Monday, April 11, Calvo’s students in SPA 307 were met by Bruzos Moro, acting as a substitute teacher.
“Our sub on Monday just said that [Calvo] was taking time off for personal reasons and that he didn’t know how long Antonio would be gone,” Gyorffy, the student in his class, said at the time.
“The line we got was that he was fine, that there were some personal problems. We all just assumed that something had happened in his family,” said Flora Thomson-DeVeaux ’13, who was not in Calvo’s class but expected to meet Calvo at a Spanish language table that evening.
Meanwhile, Calvo mailed a package that Monday containing a copy of his suspension letter attached to a personal note to a close friend in New York, Christopher Neely, a fact confirmed by multiple sources including Calvo’s brother. After receiving the letter on Tuesday and failing to reach Calvo by phone, Neely visited Calvo’s apartment.
Neely did not respond to a request for comment. Santiago Calvo, who talked to Neely, recounted how the events unfolded.
“In that letter, [Antonio] didn’t say what he was going to do, but he wrote many hard-hitting things, and the friend suspected that something was going on,” Santiago said. “He went to [Antonio’s] house, and, when he saw he wasn’t opening the door, he asked the doorman, who told him that without the presence of the police he could not open the door. This was on Tuesday morning,” he added.
When the police entered the apartment, they discovered Calvo’s body.
“Passed away” or suicide?
According to his brother, Antonio Calvo had left his computer on and had typed the name and phone number of a family member, who resides in the United States, on the screen for the police to contact when they found his body.
Santiago Calvo said the family member informed relatives in Spain at 4 a.m. Spanish time Wednesday morning.
Although the family learned of his death that day, the University did not release a statement announcing the news until 10 p.m. on Friday, April 15, saying that Calvo had “passed away” and was “on leave at the time.”
Only on the following Tuesday did the press reveal that the cause of death had been a suicide.
The family said some relatives knew since the beginning that Calvo’s death was a suicide and that he was not simply on leave at the time of his death.
“Only my sister and my other brother knew [it had been a suicide],” Santiago Calvo said. “My father didn’t know because we didn’t tell him.”
Part of Calvo’s letter to Neely said that Calvo did not want his father to know he had committed suicide.
The family arranged a funeral for Calvo on Tuesday, April 19, in his hometown in Spain where his father and other family members still reside.
Those who attended the funeral were not told about the real cause of death, Santiago Calvo said.
“I wanted it to be a quiet funeral. If someone asked [about the cause of death] we responded that we didn’t know yet,” he said.
Meanwhile, on Monday, April 18, the University revised its online statement to reflect new information about the date of Calvo’s death. However, the note was never updated with the information about the suicide or the fact that Calvo had been suspended on April 8 rather than choosing to go on leave.
On Tuesday, Philip Rothaus ’11, a Spanish concentrator and a self-described friend of Calvo, circulated an open letter to Nassau Hall in which he said that Calvo had committed suicide following his suspension and condemned the University for what he claimed were misrepresentations of the facts.
“To the administration: You are denying us the information we have a right to know about our professor and our beloved friend. You are denying us closure,” he wrote last year.
“He thought that by apologizing the issue would be over.”
A full year later, the University has not released information about the exact allegations against Calvo. After approaching multiple faculty members for an explanation of the suspension, Rothaus said he came to an understanding that the department was not allowed to speak on the matter.
“More than one professor told me that I was not supposed to know about any of this,” he said in an interview last week.
Friends and family of Calvo said the senior lecturer clashed with some graduate students and a lecturer.
Several sources repeatedly mentioned the names of three graduate students in particular. These three students had also taught SPA 102: Beginner’s Spanish II under Calvo’s direct coordination in spring 2008, according to data retrieved from Blackboard. However, no one in the University confirmed their names or involvement in the case. None of the implicated students responded to requests for comment by the ‘Prince.’
Calvo’s position required extensive interaction with graduate students and lecturers to supervise their teaching. According to Aponte-Moreno’s statement, some graduate students did not fulfill their teaching responsibilities properly — including arriving late or canceling classes altogether — causing clashes between them and Calvo.
“There were some graduate students and lecturers under his supervision who didn’t like him,” Aponte-Moreno said.
There were at least two incidents in which Calvo used particularly harsh language with graduate students to express his disappointment in their work. The first involved an email sent to a male graduate students, in which Calvo told him to “stop touching [his] balls and get to work,” in Spanish. According to Calvo’s friends, this Spanish colloquial expression was taken too literally by the administration.
“He had told us that an email he sent had resulted in a stir, but that it was nothing more than an anecdote since he had offered apologies,” Santiago Calvo said. “He thought that by apologizing the issue would be over.”
In another incident, Calvo allegedly threatened a female graduate student by stating she deserved to be slapped in the face for her lack of effort. He then apparently clapped his hands in front of her face to illustrate the point.
Calvo indicated in a March 24 email to a friend that he was aware he was facing allegations from his subordinates. Calvo added that a friend at another university had had similar problems with graduate students, but Calvo did not elaborate on the nature of these issues.
On top of these clashes, Calvo also ran into problems with at least one lecturer in the department.
Santiago Calvo said he remembered that his brother had expressed frustration about having to hire Spanish lecturer Paloma Moscardo-Valles in 2006. “The reason was that he was forced to work with her when she was unqualified. It was all because her husband had been hired to work at Princeton,” Santiago said. The University has in the past come under scrutiny for allegedly attracting a professor by offering a position to his or her spouse.
Moscardo-Valles did not respond a request for comment.
Far from routine, a series of oral interviews
The ‘Prince’ review of the circumstances surrounding the case show there are a number of inconsistencies and gaps in the University’s explanation of the events.
While friends of Calvo openly confirm that the administration had been conducting oral interviews of graduate students and lecturers, members of the Spanish department are reluctant to speak about the additional review. Tenured faculty members did not respond to a request for comment on these interviews, and one lecturer neither confirmed nor denied that they took place.
“If I had been interviewed, I would not be able to say anything because that process would have been confidential,” said Bruzos Moro, the lecturer who taught Calvo’s class after his departure and took over his position as director of the Spanish Language Program.
However, Jorge Mendez Seijas, another Spanish lecturer, said he had heard about these interviews.
“Everybody knew that interviews were being carried out,” Mendez Seijas said, noting that this happened during his second semester at Princeton so he could not say whether this process was normal.
These interviews may have been instigated by the complaints presented by some of Calvo’s subordinates, effectively launching a new investigation. Even if members of the Spanish department had been aware of these allegations, they still chose to recommend Calvo in the fall.
It is unclear whether tenured faculty members were consulted in the spring 2011 investigation. However, all of the sources that spoke with the ‘Prince’ shared the view that the administration did not circle back with the same faculty members that had previously recommended Calvo for reappointment.
The University’s decision to conduct oral interviews was a departure from a routine review process but within the authority of the Committee of Three. The Office of the Dean of the Faculty posts all forms required for faculty reappointment and promotion on its website.
When recommending Calvo’s reappointment to the Committee, Nouzeilles would have had to follow the instructions listed in the “Department Chair Checklist for C/3 new appointments and promotions” form that was current during that spring. According to this form, the Committee would consider supporting materials such as course evaluations and letters from students and lecturers. Nowhere on the form are oral interviews mentioned.
Following Calvo’s suicide, the administration posted a new department chair checklist specific to the reappointment of senior lecturers and also updated rules regarding the reappointment of senior lecturers. These updates, however, still do not mention interviews.
These interviews represented an investigation into Calvo’s work and conduct that was separate from the routine reappointment process and may offer an explanation as to why he was suspended midway through the semester rather than letting his contract expire.
In an April statement to the ‘Prince,’ Tilghman explained that the Committee of Three has the power to initiate an investigation.
Tilghman wrote that “if any allegations of improper conduct arise in the course of the review, they must be thoroughly investigated and the findings reported to the [Committee of Three].”
According to the University’s Rules and Procedures, grounds for suspension are limited to “(a) substantial and manifest incompetence, (b) substantial and manifest neglect of duty or (c) conduct which is shown to violate the University rules ... or substantially to impair the individual’s performance.”
But the procedures for suspension have not been updated since 1951 and only refer to assistant, associate and full professors. Calvo’s position as a senior lecturer is not referred to in the rules.
Furthermore, the rules say that the power to suspend a faculty member does not lie in the Committee of Three or in the academic departments; it lies in the president and the Board of Trustees. It is not clear, then, why Calvo’s suspension letter was signed and handed to him by Nouzeilles, the department chair.
In addition, a suspended faculty member “shall receive a statement in writing of the reasons for the action and shall be entitled to ... a hearing before the [Committee of Three].”
Calvo was not told the reasoning behind the suspension in the letter. Instead, he was to be informed of the allegations against him in an interview with Turano, an associate dean of the faculty, according to his suspension letter.
In that same interview, he would be asked to respond to allegations that would be presented to him for the first time. Only after that interview would he have the opportunity to appeal his case.
The letter also makes clear that the University suspended Calvo before it had closed its investigation into him.
In addition, Calvo’s department is not among the academic departments and programs listed in the University’s Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. The document instead includes the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, which ceased to exist in 2001. This section of the rules has not been updated since 1994.
These inconsistencies indicate that the University’s Rules and Procedures is still out-of-date in many respects.
Tilghman declined to comment when presented with these observations last week. Durkee and Dobkin also did not respond.
However, the University has not always been as tight-lipped about faculty suspensions in the past.
In 1971, when civil and geological engineering professor Roger DeWiest was suspended for neglecting and not attending his own classes, the letter sent to him was made public. It was signed by then-University president Robert Goheen.
More recently, in 2004, when English professor Lee Mitchell was suspended for misuse of funds, Durkee told the ‘Prince’ that, given the circumstances, people deserved to know the reasons for his suspension.
One year later, a silent University
The University has only spoken about Calvo’s suspension three times.
In a statement on April 25, after mounting public pressure, Tilghman told the University community that standard procedures had been followed in Calvo’s case but refused to disclose any details to “protect the privacy of the individual faculty [member] and his or her family.”
But Calvo’s family openly admits their disappointment with the way the University has handled the case, although they are reluctant to point fingers at specific individuals.
“What it all comes down to is that I think [Antonio’s] father deserves respect, and no one [from the University] ever reached out to him,” Santiago Calvo said. “The only thing we would have contented ourselves with is if the University had contacted my father and, at least, cheered him up.”
Antonio Calvo’s friends have also expressed similar sentiments toward the University, criticizing the evaluation process itself, the lack of known reasons to validate Calvo’s suspension and the handling of the actual suspension.
“Why was he treated like that? Why did no one talk to him before he was banned from campus and from his office? Who was interested in having Antonio fired?” one of Calvo’s friends said.
The second University statement came in the form of a rebuttal sent to El Pais, a prominent Spanish newspaper, after then-Professor Ricardo Piglia had written that “in Calvo’s 10 years at Princeton, there was not a single fact that justified the decision [to suspend him].”
Cass Cliatt ’96, the University spokesperson at the time, replied to the newspaper that Piglia had “no firsthand knowledge of the information available to the Committee.” Piglia had been at the University in fall 2011, teaching and participating in the departmental review process, before embarking on a sabbatical in the spring semester.
Piglia declined to comment for this article.
But by far the most controversial University response was made by Durkee in an email sent to The Chronicle of Higher Education late last June, explaining that Calvo’s suicide had validated the University’s concern about his potential violent tendencies.
Calvo’s family, however, has constantly challenged this claim.
“He wasn’t aggressive, and here lies the proof: His students liked him,” Santiago Calvo said. “That is a lie.”
Not only have his friends and family been affected by the suicide and the speculation in the press that followed, but it has also taken a toll on the Spanish department.
“The group of people that works here had a very bad time,” Bruzos Moro, the lecturer, said. “With time I think we have been able to get over it, although it is clearly something that cannot be forgotten,” he added.
However, Santiago Calvo said that no one from the Spanish department has contacted the family. Calvo’s friend also questioned the department’s silence.
“Antonio always spoke wonders about his colleagues, but now no one has spoken up,” the friend said.
Questions abound for Calvo’s friends and former students, who also lament the way he was treated by the University.
“Why didn’t the University give him a chance to defend himself before asking him to leave the premises?” Aponte-Moreno said.
“Frankly, I would like to know why they suspended him,” Lopez said.
But Santiago notes that Calvo’s death has left them powerless to answer these questions.
“The University may say whatever it wants,” Santiago Calvo said. “He is no longer here to defend himself.”