Guest Post: The Dark Side of the Ivory Tower by C. T. Collier (and a new Professor Lyssa Pennington mystery!)

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After a rough semester, Professor Lyssa Pennington just wants to post her grades and join her husband, Kyle, in Cornwall for Christmas. First, though, she’s expected to host an elegant dinner for Emile Duval, the soon-to-be Chair of Languages at Tompkins College.

Too bad no one told Lyssa murder is on the menu. And, by the way, Emile Duval is an imposter. Who is he really? And who wanted him dead? Without those answers, the Penningtons can kiss Christmas in Cornwall goodbye.

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The Dark Side of the Ivory Tower
by C. T. Collier

For decades, authors have written murder mysteries set on university campuses, but how believable is that? Do highly educated people, such as professors and college presidents, really get hot enough under the collar to kill? Or dastardly enough to be killed? Surely not. After all, such people are the crème de la crème in an institution dubbed The Ivory Tower. Naturally, the elite experience strong emotions such as personal ambition, a desire for more money, and anger at discovering a colleague has plagiarized their work. But strong enough to murder?

What could possibly go on in academia that would motivate murder? In my experience, plenty! Just as plenty happens in Miss Marple’s lovely English village that results in murder.

In many ways a college or small university is similar to Miss Marple’s English village. The academic departments (Math and Science, History and English, Languages, Business) range around the campus Quad, much like the homes around a village green. Set slightly apart, like the village church, the college’s administration building is the symbol of ultimate power and leadership.

Within each academic department, personal ambitions play out in the battle for plum committee assignments, preferred courses and schedules, the better offices, salary advances, public kudos, and, possibly, ascendance to the powerful position of department chair. The faculty member who survives six years, jumps through every hoop, and ultimately wins the endorsement of everyone in his or her pecking order is awarded tenure and has the job for life. Tenure is a messy process, and the battle for tenure is fierce. Failure to achieve tenure means you’re out of a job, disgraced, and starting over somewhere else. No one takes it lightly.

Beyond the politics of the academic department, the college as a whole has parallels with an English village. Just as the village Sewing Circle, Church Choir, and Festival Committees play important roles in the operation of the village, so do the college committees—promotion and tenure; budget and operations; research and grants; library and curriculum; policy and ethics; academic discipline. The committees operate at the behest of the administration, draw their members from various departments, and carefully consider matters of importance to the college community. Who is deserving of tenure? Which departments will receive budget increases? Committee recommendations greatly impact departments and individuals. Committees hold power.

In short, there are many opportunities within and across academic departments for individuals to seek and wield power and, sadly, many people with Ph.Ds and other advanced degrees are both mean-spirited and very clever. Some enjoy the sport of exploiting the vulnerabilities of colleagues for their own amusement. Others play off the prejudices and fears of those in power, to advance their own agendas. Some are geniuses at finding and exploiting weaknesses in college operation. As a result, these ill-intentioned elite exercise invisible power that destroys careers, siphons off resources, and targets whole groups of people to be marginalized and disenfranchised.

This dark side of the college is more like the underbelly of a city than the charming cottages and flourishing gardens of a village. Like any dark side, there you’ll find desperation, fury, simmering hatred, and other intense emotions that fuel murder. Ask any victim if they’ve thought about murdering their tormentor, and you might get an honest affirmative.

In reality, there aren’t many murders at colleges and universities, just as there probably weren’t many murders in the typical English village of Miss Marple’s day, not nearly as many as her investigations would have us believe. Curious about the actual data on campus murder, I used a tool provided by the US Department of Education, College Safety and Security (https://ope.ed.gov/campussafety/) to search crime statistics for the many institutions I have attended or worked for or both over the years.

There were only two murders or willful killings reported, total, for more than a dozen institutions, ranging from small college to large university; these occurred at two different universities; neither was committed on the college campus itself. Frankly, the very low number of real murders year after year surprised me, given the backstabbing, undercutting, and vicious cruelty I’ve witnessed in the ivory tower. But I respect the data.

I’ve been reading academic mysteries for decades, from authors like Amanda Cross, Louise Penny, Peter Lovesey, Joanne Dobson, the list goes on and on. I’m currently writing the fourth book in my academic mystery series, The Penningtons Investigate, whose setting is fictitious Tompkins College right here in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York. While none of the plots are actual events they do draw from the endless intrigue of my higher education experience and the brazen exploits of highly educated colleagues who surely knew the consequences of their misdeeds. I wonder how similar my experience has been compared with others working in academic settings.


About the Author

C. T. Collier was born to solve logic puzzles, wear tweed, and drink Earl Grey tea. Her professional experience in cutthroat high tech and backstabbing higher education gave her endless opportunity to study intrigue. Add to that her longtime love of mysteries, and it’s no wonder she writes academic mysteries that draw inspiration from traditional whodunits. Her setting is entirely fictional: Tompkins College is no college and any college, and Tompkins Falls is a blend of several Finger Lakes towns, including her hometown, Seneca Falls, NY (AKA Bedford Falls from It’s a Wonderful Life).

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