Q: You've just published your first novel, Prot U. What is the meaning of the title?
A: Prot U is the nickname for the fictional university I created, Protestant University of the South. I chose that name because the story is set in Texas, and many of the colleges there are affiliated with religious denominations, such as Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, Abilene Christian University, and so on. After all, this is the Bible Belt. Another option for the school's moniker is the acronym PUS. But that's a bit gross. I used it only once.
Q: Why did you write Prot U?
A: Over the years, as I've taught journalism and advised student media at universities in Wisconsin and Texas, I've worked closely with students who aspire to be professional journalists. I've been impressed with how hard they work and how dedicated they are to getting the story and getting it right. Of course, not all are conscientious and principled, but I believe the majority are. It was a joy to work with them, and I found it very inspiring.
Q: I see on the dedication page that Prot U is dedicated to these young journalists.
A: Yes, because I saw that their efforts were often not recognized by the campus community, and often all they heard was criticism. So, in the novel I made the student editor, Mike Carter, the protagonist.
Q: Talk a little about what happens in the story.
A: Let me say first that you have to keep in mind that Prot U is a satire. So everything is exaggerated for comic effect. The story spans a school year, from the start of classes in late August to graduation in May. Mike's a senior and the editor of The Crimson Crusader, the student newspaper. He's struggled financially to get a college education and is counting on graduating. But he has no idea of the problems and threats he's going to face and the hard choices he's going to have to make.
Q: Such as?
A: Mike's antagonist is the dictatorial chairman of the board of trustees, Marlin Lynch. He's a typical Texas rancher, big, brawny and an ardent football fan. He gets the board to go along with a secret plan to improve Prot U's image by putting more money into the football program and making cosmetic changes in the campus neighborhood, which includes closing the main street. Mike exposes the plan in the newspaper and denounces it. That's when his troubles begin.
Q: What else is going on?
A: Well, Mike's faculty adviser is Assistant Professor Angela Goodwin, a young African-American woman who's in her second year of teaching. She's a dedicated teacher and an idealist who wants to do the right thing. But she's facing a tenure battle and learns that sexism and racism are alive and well at Prot U. When the administration tries to control the newspaper, Angela is torn between supporting the student editors and going along with the "good ole boys" whose support she needs in gaining tenure.
Q: So you could say the plot thickens.
A: Definitely, and other characters figure in. There's the mild-mannered university president who only wants to return to teaching biology; a conniving administrative assistant who's a spy; illegal Mexican immigrants who work long hours for low pay on campus; and a self-promoting English department chair and his overworked TA. We also meet football fans, gays, frat boys, a sex columnist, protesters, a corrupt city councilman, and the capricious Texas weather.
Q: Sounds like a recipe for chaos.
A: That it is, and I hope readers find it entertaining. But I'm also trying to raise some serious issues with the book. Beneath the craziness I'm highlighting some of the problems that one can find on campuses today the ordeal of gaining tenure, football mania, pampering of student athletes, exploitation of teaching assistants, low academic standards in the classroom, student apathy, bigotry, and so on.
Q: Are these problems more prevalent in Texas?
A: By no means is Prot U just about Texas. Readers may see this particular campus as a microcosm of our larger society.