THE SHATTERING OF BELIEF
A FORMER DEPARTMENT CHAIR
The author of the account below emailed me in response to John Gravois's article on my research in The Chronicle of Higher Education, expressing appreciation for a conceptualization that seemed to fit his own experience. At my invitation, he wrote this summary for publication as part of my website about academic mobbing. His elegantly written story is a fascinating variation on the general theme, and further documents a painful, wasteful reality in today's universities. His story bears uncanny resemblance to the fictional account of the mobbing of a former administrator in Philip Roth's novel, The Human Stain. Sincere thanks to this professor for allowing publication of his narrative here. I gladly honour his request to withhold his name and affiliation. — Kenneth Westhues.
After a very successful career at a major private university, I accepted some time ago an offer from another major private university to become chair of a department that had been in trouble for years, with the mandate to bring its house in order and improve its stature both within and outside the university. With the help of a supportive dean, I was successful beyond anyone’s expectations, bringing the department to national attention and recruiting a sizable number of good graduate students in competition with the some of the best schools in my discipline. There was a widespread perception that I was one of the best department chairs in the university —one administrator described what I had done for the department and the university as a “miracle.” It wasn’t easy, since faculty in my department were often at odds with one another, and one female faculty member was antagonistic to me from the outset, trying to undermine my role behind my back by spreading false stories among the faculty. She had limited success, since, apart from one important supporter, she alienated most of the other members of the department with insults and false accusations.
Some of those who have described their mobbing experiences have characterized themselves as “outspoken,” a trait which is supposed to be protected by academic freedom, but which can unfortunately lead to the active hostility of colleagues. I was just the opposite, supporting and encouraging all faculty and staff, including my antagonist and those who were less competent or productive among the faculty, in both their professional lives and their inevitable personal difficulties. My administrative credo was based on integrity, fairness, openness, and positive support for everyone.
At one point, however, I was forced to remove one of the less competent faculty from a minor administrative role she had abused for years, not only for poor administration and repeatedly upsetting other faculty and students, but because I couldn’t believe anything she said to me. At approximately the same time, I also had to let go a part-time adjunct who, in four years, had proved herself manifestly incompetent in a vital area of the department’s activities. The latter individual was a close friend of the former, and both of them had friends in the department.
In a matter of months, this group had organized its first mobbing effort against me, and joining forces with the original antagonist and her supporter, voted that my appointment as chair not be renewed. The dean was taken aback, interviewed most of the faculty individually, and declared himself “sickened” by their conduct. Nevertheless, he believed I had lost too much support to continue as chair, insisted on my resignation, and admitted in the process that the same group of faculty, if they got their way in this matter, would probably cause further trouble in the future. I am reminded of a story circulated at my previous university about its president admonishing a faculty member about to take a dean’s position at another institution, “Never fire anybody. No matter how bad he or she may be, everyone has friends, and those friends will be after your blood.”
That president’s attitude had seemed to me an inappropriate way to run a university (there were some rather poor officers in his administration), but both his words and those of my own dean proved prophetic, for not only did I lose my chairmanship, but for the next couple of years I was subjected to a series of public slanders from the mob that had ousted me and their male supporter, to the point of where I complained in writing to one of them—my long-term antagonist. What happened afterward was a wholly unexpected shock. A few months later I received a letter from what was by that time a new, interim dean (who was being vetted as the permanent dean), saying that a group of women in my department had accused me of sexual harassment and other offenses, a committee had been appointed to oversee an investigation, and an outside attorney had been hired to do the investigating and report to the committee and the dean. The process was very secretive, in violation of every aspect and safeguard of the university’s own policy (which had never been published and was kept hidden from me and my attorney) as well as in violation of every safeguard for handling such matters published and recommended by the U.S. Department of Education. Nevertheless, the investigator made it clear through numerous comments to me and to several other witnesses, that she not only found no fault with me, but also found my accusers so outrageous that at one point she blurted out, “How can you work with such people?” She also declared that she planned to recommend that the university hire a psychiatrist to assist the department. Her judgment concurred in detail with the more general assessment of the university’s highest personnel officer (also a woman), who declared the ringleaders “crazy and hysterical.”
The report of the investigator was not what the dean wanted, since he couldn’t afford a group of women complaining that he was insensitive to their grievances while he was still under consideration as the permanent dean. He has therefore kept the report under wraps ever since and refused under any circumstances to release it. Meanwhile, from friendly departmental witnesses I learned that the mobbers had been meeting secretly for several months, intimidating and threatening students and staff, and acting in general like a typical lynch mob obsessed with groupthink. I also learned that the investigator had uncovered numerous instances of outright fabrication on the part of the mobbers, in addition to false statements, radical distortion, and pettiness in all their other allegations. Nevertheless, the two faculty committees eventually involved in the investigation were easily misled by the dean and the university’s legal office, documents were withheld from them by university officials, they did not interview witnesses themselves, nor was I given adequate opportunity to respond to either committee. At the end of the investigation, the dean tried to get me to resign my tenure in return for a couple of years’ salary and the threat of dire consequences if I didn’t. I refused, since senior positions in my field are scarce as hen’s teeth and my discipline isn’t marketable outside the academy.
Without my ever seeing the written complaint the mobbers had submitted and without a hearing, the dean then banned me from my department, my salary and benefits were cut, and I was suspended from teaching for a period of time. I do not fault the faculty committees for ill-will, or even overweening arrogance, but for naiveté in being unprepared to believe that there wasn’t anything to the hundreds of accusations the mobbers had thrown at me (their meetings had generated some truly wild stories and hysteria), and for incompetence in running a complete and fair investigation. Sometimes where there is smoke there is no fire, but only purveyors of smoke.
In reaction to what had been done to me, I attempted, at great expense, to sue the university, but without success—my suit was dismissed on a technicality. Private universities can get away with vastly more misconduct than the courts allow public universities. However, I did obtain detailed information about the dishonesty that attended this matter from beginning to end, not only on the part of the complainants, but on the part of the dean and the university’s legal office. The information, to me, was worth the price of the lawsuit. The subsequent decade has been difficult, in part because of the detailed information about injustice that I uncovered and have been unable to use to any effect. Even though I have interviewed elsewhere as a finalist for several administrative positions, the necessary disclosure of my difficulties with my present university terminated each of those possibilities. Openings for senior professors in my field have been rare, and although I’ve been a finalist for both positions I’ve applied for, in each case I lost out to younger candidates.
My professional life at my university is now filled with ironies. My teaching has been restricted to an introductory course for nonmajors that others in my field don’t want to teach, nor am I allowed to do any interdisciplinary teaching or teaching in other departments, even though in the past I had taught highly successful interdisciplinary courses and courses in two departments other than my own. Fortunately, the students who register for my present course are mostly quite good, and I receive some of the best student evaluations in the university despite the deadening effect of teaching the same thing year in and year out. But I have no opportunity to work with majors in my field, and I am deprived of being part of the life of the university, which I always enjoyed. On the other hand, since I am not included in or asked to do anything other than teach my course, I have far more time for my own research and publications than ever before.
Outside the university I have an international reputation for my scholarship, integrity and personality, and I am treated with great friendship and respect by colleagues elsewhere. I am frequently invited to international conferences and asked to speak and give workshops on endowed series at other institutions. I’ve served on doctoral committees at other universities and on review committees for departments in my field, including the Ivy league. I’m constantly asked by younger colleagues for fellowship recommendations, and by department chairs for tenure and promotion evaluations, including some from the most prestigious departments and universities in the country. I am regularly asked to do peer reviews for the most important journals in my field.
No one either inside or outside the university who knows me believes any of the allegations of the mobbers, and the effect of my being disciplined and rusticated has been to bring disapprobation from colleagues all across the country on my university, my former department and the colleagues who mobbed me. In the past decade the department has been mostly ruled by the mobbers and their supporters, and each in a series of chairs has ruined a specific aspect of the department. The once thriving graduate programs have either disappeared or are hanging on by a thread; no longer are there applicants from important undergraduate departments in our field. Recruiting of new faculty has also been problematic because of the widespread negative reputation of the department. These chairs have further fouled their own nest by retaliation against faculty and staff who supported me or who even insisted on remaining neutral. Firings of faculty and staff over the past decade have been legion, including non-tenured faculty who were outstanding in their subject areas. Even the university administration is fed up with a department that is the source of constant problems. Nevertheless, the dean not only overlooks this kind of behavior, the university has refused to investigate numerous thoroughly documented grievances of serious retaliation, despite piously advertising each year that it does not permit retaliation of any sort. Many current faculty stay away from the department, only showing up for their classes and avoiding as much contact with its ruling clique as possible. All this has happened in the decade in which I have been gone from the department and had no influence over it whatsoever, so I clearly was not the problem. Almost all faculty and all of the staff are afraid of the current chair, who was the leader of the mobbers (this appointment alone illustrates the irresponsibility and cynicism of the dean). The department is now in almost as bad shape as it was before I arrived. Recently the university has instituted a code of conduct, emphasizing professional integrity, which all faculty are required to sign, but whose standards none of the department chairs who followed me, nor the dean himself, who is widely criticized throughout the university for dishonesty, could ever meet. But of course, they will never be held to account.
How have I coped with all this over the past decade? It hasn’t been easy. On the one hand I have very few duties and still receive a full-time salary and benefits, even if somewhat reduced, and can continue to do so as long as I wish. This is comforting financial security. As an academic cousin of mine put it, “You’re in academic Heaven—you just had to go through academic Hell to get there.” When I talk to colleagues at other universities about my situation, they sometimes jokingly ask, “How can I get such a deal?” But I hardly view it as heavenly. In my innermost being I’m a teacher—at my previous university I won all the major teaching awards—and it’s very frustrating not to be able to expand my teaching into new and interesting areas or to be able to engage majors and graduate students in my field. It’s difficult not to be able to share in the life of the institution through committees and interactions with colleagues—something which I always found interesting and rewarding, even if sometimes overly time consuming. I had for decades been an active and forceful supporter of women’s role and rights in the academy, but I now find myself uncomfortably suspicious of women in a way I never was. I now wonder what someone to whom I’ve been pleasant, supportive, and helpful might be plotting behind my back.
Perhaps most difficult of all, however, has been the shattering of my belief in the societal role of universities as committed to truth and as bastions of justice and ethical conduct. I’ve seen plenty of bad behavior by both individual faculty and administrators over my long career at four different private institutions, but I had never before encountered or even heard of a systematic, sustained Orwellian environment, not only within a department, but at the central core of a university. The very foundation of why I became an academic in the first place has been dislodged, and I find myself in that otherworld of big brother who officially declares that black is white and who defines reality, not according to facts and objective judgment, but according to what is expedient for the pursuit of authoritarian power and control. I feel like an alien in my own country, a refugee with no place to flee. I’m sure that most other “mobbees” are in far worse circumstances, though probably not any more angry, than I.