< < < The Westhues essay: "Stephen Berman: Scapegoat"

< < < Mainpage: Workplace Mobbing in Academe

< < < Homepage: K. Westhues




Response to the Westhues Essay
on the Dismissal of Stephen Berman

Was Stephen Berman a Scapegoat?

Mik Bickis, University of Saskatchewan

The dismissal of Dr. Stephen Berman from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Saskatchewan is a genuine tragedy, but as in many tragedies, Dr. Berman is the author of his own misfortune. Prof. Westhues' sympathetic review of the situation is based largely on the report of the arbitration panel, and although addressing some of the large issues in academic discipline, it appears to be uninformed about the underlying situation that led to this unfortunate development.

Let me begin with full disclosure: I am the Department Head at whose appointment the feuding in the Department allegedly began, and I am one of the professors who transferred to the Department of Computer Science "to separate the warring parties". I am also apparently one of the targets of Dr. Berman's mischief. However, I played no part in the dismissal proceedings. I myself laid no complaints against Dr. Berman, and my advice was not sought in the decision. I was not called to testify at the arbitration hearings, and my only knowledge of that (outside of rumour) is what was published in the tribunal's report. However, I am intimately aware of the dynamics in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, and the realities at the University of Saskatchewan. My intention in writing this article is to correct and clarify some of Prof. Westhues' perceptions.

I myself feel that Dr. Berman's penalty was excessive. Although some remedy was required, to me it seems brutal to summarily dismiss a senior career mathematician who has contributed greatly to his community over the years because of what amounts to little more than malicious electronic graffiti. However, one should bear in mind that the U of S Collective Agreement does not provide for any kind of progressive discipline. The only options open to the Administration were reprimand or dismissial. Since they felt that a reprimand was too mild for an offense whose intent was far worse than its actual result, dismissal was the only choice.

Personally, I would have been satisfied if Dr. Berman had made a public apology to those whom he had maligned. Prof. Westhues refers to an apology in which Dr. Berman "wrote to all the members of his department that he was sorry for what he had done". I did indeed receive such a letter. Its effect was much dampened by the fact that it was not sent until many months after the dismissal proceedings had begun. Moreover, it was not public, but placed in an envelope stamped "Confidential". It was not a personal letter, but a form letter sent to all members of the Department, and was bulk mailed from the office of the Faculty Association. Given these facts, one can see how the apology was viewed as "lack[ing] substance and genuineness".

The most serious misconception, however, is that Dr. Berman was "the sort of scholar who avoids administrative quarrels and academic politics." On the contrary, throughout his tenure, he played a key role in the running of the Department. His ability to muster support, his stature as a mathematician, as well as his eloquence, were very useful in furthering causes that he supported. On the other hand, any initiative that did not have his favour was doomed to fail.

The feuding in the Department had been going on for decades. It came to a climax during my Headship, a few weeks after Dr. Berman returned from leave. It is disingenuous to suggest that his 18-month absence prevented him from being involved in the factional quarreling. He was in continuous contact by email, and was indeed back in the Department during the summer of 2000. He was lobbying very hard to undermine my Headship. Shortly after his return in 2001, he circulated a letter stating that things had never been as bad since I became Head. Curiously, the letter was dated January 1999, the month on which my Appointment as Head became official. The rambling complaints target many issues, most of which had little to do with me, and some of which happened many years earlier.

My Headship did not have Dr. Berman's favour. There was another faculty member whom he would have preferred in that role. It was no surprise that this person took over as Head after my resignation. It is strange to read that "no one claims Berman was the source or centre of the conflict", since that would not be the perception of anyone who was present. That impression might be given by the tribunal's report, since the Adminstration chose to concentrate on one particular offence. There were no doubt many reasons why they wanted to get rid of Dr. Berman, but to raise these in the case against him might have confused the issue, and have focussed on questions of academic freedom.

Consultants brought in by the Administration did give a dire report about the situation in the Department, including "rumours ... of impending violence". Because of confidentiality, no names were mentioned in the report, and so of course, "The documents do not say who was the focus of concern in this regard", but then how can one conclude that "it does not appear to have been Berman"? In my 20 years in the Department, I have heard of only four cases of physical assault. One of these involved graduate students, the other three involved Dr. Berman. (There have been many cases of verbal assault --- Dr. Berman was too genteel to succumb to that.)

It was the consultants' recommendation to split the Department, and the transfer of seven professors to Computer Science was voluntary and for our own protection. The Dean made it quite clear that this arrangement was not the result of any fault on our part. It is true that the second group of consultants reported "an alarming lack of collegiality, with many hurtful things said and written." One should also note that their mandate was to evaluate three competing proposals for the future of Mathematics and Statistics at the U of S. It was about the proposal of the non-transferred group (including Berman) of whom it was stated: "we are very disappointed with this submission's failure to recognize the need for internal change. It is simply not accurate to blame the administration and the transferred faculty for all the difficulties".

And what about the issue of "mobbing". Dr. Berman did experience this phenomenon, but not as victim, but as instigator. A number of members of the Department have been "mobbed", myself included, by individuals aligned with Dr. Berman's interests. The list is long, but I here mention only Dr. Alex Chigogidze, who was about to become Department Head instead of me. Shortly before the confirmation of Dr. Chigogidze's headship (which had been supported unanimously by the Department), Dr. Berman invited him for lunch, and presented him with a letter signed by many of his colleagues urging him to withdraw, as he posed "a danger to mathematics in Saskatchewan". Dr. Chigogidze did not have Dr. Berman's favour. And two years later, after many hours of debate (I am told), Dr. Berman convinced Dr. Chigogidze to sign a gentler letter aimed at me.

It is tugging at straws to characterize Dr. Berman as a "foreign-born high achiever with a discernible foreign accent". Dr. Berman was born in the United States, and a discerning ear can detect the shadow of a New England accent. He was in no way an "outsider". There are several members of the Department who are more foreign-looking and sounding than Dr. Berman.

So, was Dr. Berman a scapegoat? In ancient Hebrew times, two goats were brought to the high priest. One was sacrificed, but on the other, the priest laid the sins of the people. This second goat, the "scapegoat" was allowed to escape to the wilderness, carrying the community's sins with it. The Berman affair has had a purging effect on the Department, and in a sense he has escaped to the wilderness, so perhaps the analogy is apt. But that does not mean he was an innocent victim, nor a sacrificial goat.