He does his teaching well, but just appears to struggle to function outside of the classroom. The few times I've walked past his classroom and heard him lecture, he sounds coherent, confident, and clear, as if, in that one space on earth, in front of the classroom, he is king, and god, and country, all rolled into one. But outside of the classroom, he's a butterfly without wings, wondering where he parked his car, or if he even has a car.
Prior to today, in the more-than-five years I have worked with him, I have never had a conversation with Conan the Confused that I have 100% understood. One time, he followed me out to my car, and I was halfway down the block heading to the post office before I realized he had been asking me to give him a ride home. When I turned the car around, he was still swaying in the same spot on the curb, chuckling to himself, absolutely sure that I was playing a prank on him. I never did admit (until now) that I had completely misunderstood and that it had taken me a minute to figure out that in his ramblings, somewhere, he'd said, "If you could just drop me off, that would help. And the sugar goes really well with the development of civilization."
Sometimes when he's talking to me, I think about what it must be like to try to chew orange juice. It's not entirely unpleasant, but why would you choose to do it? And yet, there he is, mumbling to himself in his academically endearing manner and teaching his classes and getting by with being the campus eccentric (well, one of several). I have observed Conan apologizing to the printer and the copy machine and gleefully sharing a sentence from a poem that has just completely changed his day into one of glorious revelation. "Listen to this," he will shout from his office, and then proceed to share a line of beauty with anyone in the hallway.
When he has visited my office in the past, he has mumbled or laughed to himself about something, then, when I've asked how he's doing, he will blurt out what he needs to say, then remember somewhere he needs to be, rushing off in the wrong direction, swiveling around to remember to say goodbye to me, and then rushing off again in the right direction, leaving me smiling and shaking my head.
Conan the Confused has never had any outbursts or exhibited any behavior that alarms anyone, that I can tell. He just appears to be a very confused for most of the time that he's not in classes. When students visit his office for one-on-one conferences, he meets with them and gives clear feedback, focused and coherent, and they seem pleased with his feedback, so he has never been on my radar as someone to worry about, except to wonder if he's eating balanced meals.
Today, Conan had a moment of clarity when he chose to visit me in my office. Today, Conan told me that someone in our building (but not in our department) has filed a complaint against him. Holding out the official paperwork like a student handing in a late paper, he said to me, "I don't know what to do. Please tell me what to do with this hostile work environment claim." This is the clearest and most confused that I have ever seen him. Someone has claimed that his demeanor is hostile and interferes with their comfort levels at work; in essence, they are afraid of him because he appears unpredictable.
I am not the chair, although I do scheduling for and coordinating of a program in our department. All of Conan's evaluations have been stellar. Like I said before, students love this man! I'm not sure that I'm not half in love with this man. He is so completely endearing and well meaning that it's hard for me to even fathom that someone would view him as hostile in any way. The most hostile I've ever seen him get is to his door, when he attempted to open it with his house key. And even then, he talked sternly to the door, asking it to please open for him. He's just NOT a hostile work environment perpetrator.
This week HR is going to send a team out to interview us about Conan the Confused. In the meantime, he is required to go straight from his office to his classes and back, without interacting with the
And for that, I feel horrible. I've googled "hostile work environment" and have asked our HR people about the case (they told me to wait for the investigation to commence and that they cannot discuss it with me prior to that). Our chair has been notified of the case and also cannot discuss it with anyone. In the meantime, we (my chair and I) want to be able to assure Conan that all WILL be well and to make sure that it will, actually all go well.
Should we be advising him to seek counsel? He doesn't seem to be likely to do so without someone telling him to do so. Should we be stepping back and just letting the process play out? We don't want our involvement to hurt his case, but it is pretty ridiculous. Conan looks scared and small, and it breaks my heart to see him this way. I really just want to help rather than harm him.
FWIW, I asked Conant if I could ask my online friends for advice on this and he consented.