On April 12, 2011 — seven years ago today — a much-loved senior Spanish lecturer at the University killed himself. The University had suspended him without due process, and in seeming violation of its own procedures. In the time since, there has never been an independent investigation of what the University did. Whenever I think of my Princeton experience, the University’s actions around the death of a beloved community member is what I remember most of all.
Have you heard of Antonio Calvo? Or has his name been erased on campus?
In my first year at the University, I went on a summer language program that Calvo organized in Toledo, Spain. We visited museums, drank one-euro wine, and occasionally learned Spanish. In the middle of the month, Calvo noticed I looked disheartened, and sat me down to check if I was okay. He told me it was normal to have ups and downs in a program like this, that the middle is always the tiring bit. I think he drew a graph in the air of fun-ness over time, with a craterous dip in the middle. Antonio had a way of smiling that made you feel that the world was a joke, but that you were in on it together. In that moment, he made me feel that my well-being mattered to someone.
That’s the whole of my personal Calvo story. It isn’t much, but it meant a lot to me. My friends who knew him better remember him just as fondly and with even deeper gratitude.
Then, in my senior year, Antonio killed himself. The University had suspended him a few days earlier and abruptly evicted him from campus. As a non-U.S. citizen, without his University contract, he would face the prospect of having 30 days to pack up his life and leave the country (in honesty, when the new federal government came to power and the University made statements about the importance of rights and due process for immigrants, I couldn’t help but be sick at the hypocrisy). I wish I could tell you exactly what Antonio was accused of, but the University stonewalled all questions about why they had suspended him. The Daily Princetonian did an excellent job of covering the story at the time, and again in a detailed investigation on the one-year anniversary; there was even extensive coverage in the New York Times. But nobody could ever identify what had actually happened, because the University diligently refused to talk. The administration claimed that it was protecting “the privacy of his family,” but it was certainly insinuated in private that Antonio had done something horrific.
I don’t want to assert anything here that I couldn’t possibly know for certain — anyone who watches the news these days knows that sometimes your heroes devastate you — but I cannot believe that Antonio did what the University tried to imply he did. What I’d really like to highlight, however, is how completely unsatisfactory the University’s response is regardless of what actually happened. Either the University is covering up something terrible Antonio did, or they’re covering up an abuse of their own procedures by pretending that they’re covering up something terrible Antonio did. I know which one I think it is, but either one is unacceptable. In neither case does the University’s silence serve the community’s interests.
I don’t think the University can be held directly responsible for Antonio’s suicide; I’m not saying they could have known he would kill himself in response to their actions. But they are to blame for suspending him without due process, and they’re responsible for their reaction after his death: sweeping everything under the rug, as powerful institutions have done since time immemorial, instead of facing the difficult truth that mistakes were made and need to be reckoned with.
At the time of Antonio’s death, a local attorney wrote a measured column in the Prince suggesting a “special reviewer” from outside the University should look through the University’s files to see if University policies were followed correctly, and to suggest any necessary changes to policy or implementation or both. The University didn’t respond and didn’t investigate.
But it still can. And it still should.
The other day I looked at my online calendar, with its annual reminder for Antonio’s anniversary. It stretches out indefinitely: April 12, 2018, and ’19, and ’20, and then ’70, and ’71, and 2201, and 2202, and onwards into eternity. Of course, none of us will live to see those years, in any case; I will be gone soon, and so will you. But universities live for centuries, so their courage or their cowardice lives for centuries as well. There are people reading these words right now who have the power to launch a proper, independent investigation into Antonio’s death, and to finally tell the community what really happened and what went wrong. The human capacity to avoid difficult truths or difficult actions is almost infinite (I am not here to judge: it took me seven years to write this), but some of those people also know in their hearts that a terrible injustice occurred and needs to be reckoned with. What will they do? What will you do?
Uri Bram is a University alumnus from the Class of 2011.