25 Years Ago: My Greatest Failure

Today I found out I was promoted to professor of journalism at Auburn University.

But twenty-five years ago, in April 1992, I suffered my most humiliating and career-threatening failure. The staff I directed requested that I be removed as their supervisor.

Even worse, the request took place in a meeting with my superior. It was death by a thousand insults. A memo or a meeting without me would have sufficed, but for whatever reason they chose to outline their feelings in my presence.

I was director of public information at Azusa (Calif.) Pacific University at the time. My supervisor, Guy Adams, concurred that he was disappointed in my performance, though he was disgusted by how they had chosen to respond.

At the same time, Guy told me that it was obvious I wanted to be a college professor more than I wanted to be public information director.

He was right. I had started my master’s degree in public relations and was teaching one course a semester, and both were pleasing, stimulating distractions.

Guy helped arrange for me to teach three classes a semester at APU as an adjunct instructor, while I finished by M.A. at Cal State Fullerton. I supplemented my income by free-lance writing and even working at a summer camp.

In 1994, as I completed my degree, I was hired by Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina, as an assistant professor of mass communication. “Assistant professor” — I still remember the thrill when those words were applied to me.

While at Campbell, I completed a Ph.D. in mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, earning the title of “Dr.” in 1999. Again, the title brought me pride.

In 2003, my alma mater, Auburn University, called me home, as an assistant professor of journalism. In 2009, I was granted tenure and promoted to associate professor.

In 2016, supported by my school and faculty, I published my first book, Frick*: Baseball’s Third Commissioner. (Forgive the plug; you can check it out here.)

Then, on Feb. 15, 2017, I received a letter from Auburn President Dr. Jay Gogue, informing me that on the recommendation of the faculty and his approval, I was promoted to full professor, the highest faculty rank.

Shortly before the promotion process ended, I read an excerpt by J.K. Rowling, where she described the failure she experienced before writing the Harry Potter series. Speaking at Harvard’s 2008 Commencement, she concluded:

“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”

I can’t add much to that, but I can tell you that J.K. Rowling’s encouraging speech (text is here) encouraged me, as I awaited a final decision. We don’t get many tries at a path like this, but somehow, after that soul-crushing setback, I had traversed 25 years, directed and empowered by my Christian faith, to get to this point.

For 14 years and counting, I have had the privilege of teaching at the place where I became “me,” where I grew the most — intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. I can strive to be to students what Auburn faculty were to me.

The promotion encouraged me to focus not only on the moments of success, but on the moment of failure that started me here. April 1992 will always be a part of my life; but February 2017 will never be taken from me.