A sample selection from Kenneth Westhues, ed., Workplace Mobbing in Academe: Reports from Twenty Universities, Lewiston: NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1998.
When Graham Nanton, who had come from an English university in 1981, was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 1993 – at the time, he was the only member of his faculty to have been so honoured – he might have been forgiven for thinking that he was in reasonably good standing at the University of Muggsville. Nanton was by all accounts quite successful as a teacher, and had the impression that he was generally liked not only by his students, but also by colleagues and staff.
Later in the same year, an endogenous depression which had dogged him since adolescence culminated in an episode so severe that he had briefly to go into hospital, where he was prescribed anti-depressants. He was advised to take some weeks off work, which he declined to do, having always found hard work an antidote to depression (the fall term was about to begin). The psychiatrist who interviewed him wrote a note to his head of department and his dean – this note was not solicited by Nanton himself – asking that he be treated with special consideration due to his depressive illness. What consideration they in fact showed will be the main topic of what follows.
The case seems fairly typical of those Westhues described in Eliminating Professors (Mellen, 1998). Most of the “ten specific clues” mentioned in his more recent book characterize this case as well: a “popular, high-achieving target” (at least as compared with the average of his colleagues), absence of due process, odd timing, resistance to external review, and prior marginalization (see Administrative Mobbing, Mellen, 2004, pp. 30f). There is no space here for a detailed account of the whole business, so I shall confine my attention to three episodes with their antecedents and fallout: (1) the initial charge of harassment against Nanton in 1994; (2) his temporary ejection from his office and building in 1995; (3) his final expulsion from the university, on the pretext of illness, in 1998.
The Department of Folklore included two female sessional instructors, who were in their thirties. One of them, Susanna Charles, Nanton hardly knew; though on social occasions within the department she gave him a strong impression that she disliked him. Some might have found her attractive; although, so far as Nanton was concerned, her somewhat pre-Raphaelite style of looks was offset by her sulkiness of disposition. The other, Celia Kendal, had been a pupil of Nanton’s some years before in a graduate class. She was rather shy in manner, but pleasant-looking. One day in the late 1980s, in the common-room of the department, Nanton had ventured to compliment her on the dress that she was wearing. She took the compliment with evident pleasure, and remarked that her husband always chose her clothes. “Snap!,” said Nanton; “my wife always chooses mine.” That evening, Nanton told his wife the story; and the latter commented, that it was rather a strange woman whose husband selected her clothes. Nanton said he thought this was rather sexist of her, as she always chose his clothes, and he was very glad that she did so, as her taste was vastly better than his own. Ms. Kendal had shortly afterwards gone to another university to take her Ph. D., for which she had asked for and obtained a reference from Nanton.
It must have been about four years after the incident just mentioned that Nanton took occasion to compliment Dr. Kendal (as she was by now) once again, in the same place and to the same effect. Dr. Kendal just smiled; but later in the week he was summoned to the office of the head of department, Vincent Noseworthy. Dr. Kendal was sitting there, and asked in a constrained voice that Dr. Nanton should not in future make reference to her clothes, as it got her in such a state that she did not know what to put on in the morning. She also asked that Nanton not talk about sex in her presence – which he had no recollection of doing. Nanton was rather disturbed that she had made such an official issue of these matters; why could she not just have let him know her feelings at the time? He reminded her, in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere of the meeting, that he was not Hitler, or even Genghis Khan. Two significant things which he did not know at the time he discovered later. Dr. Kendal’s husband had recently left her for another man. And he was told years later, by a close female friend and former pupil of his, that while Dr. Kendal was a good teacher, she did seem unduly obsessed with sex.
At all events, Nanton was more distressed by the incident than he should have been, and next day (which was Saturday) walked round to the home of his colleague and staunch friend Herbert Innes, to tell him how upset he was. Innes, and his anthropologist wife, treated Nanton with great kindness, and told him he should not be unduly concerned by the antics of someone whom Innes considered an unduly “uppish” sessional. But Nanton felt more damage control was in order, and rang up another sessional, Dr. Wendy Underwood, with whom he had had many conversations on academic and other subjects. He asked her whether, if she heard unpleasant rumours about him, she would stick up for him, and assure any offended parties that he deeply regretted having annoyed them, however unwittingly. He blurted out, rather to his surprise, that he felt quite suicidal about the matter. He did not mention Dr. Kendal’s name, but Dr. Underwood guessed it for herself. She also treated Nanton very kindly, and said she would be glad to discuss the matter at greater length with him as a friend; but she thought he might need professional help. Next he rang up Ms. Charles, who, in spite of her dislike, he thought regarded him with respect, for reasons which would take us too far afield to state. The whole conversation between them could not have taken as much as half a minute. Just as he had done with Dr. Underwood, Nanton asked Ms. Charles whether, if she heard unpleasant rumours at his expense, she would stick up for him. Ms. Charles’s reaction was rather disturbing. First she said, in a voice dripping with sarcasm, that it was “not her place” to help Dr. Nanton; and then she shouted, “and don’t ring me up at home!” – whereupon she banged down the receiver.
The next Monday morning, to Nanton’s amazement, he found that he had been accused, in a letter from Noseworthy to Dean Fetter, of “harassing” Dr. Innes, Dr. Underwood, and Ms. Charles. (Later, Innes and Underwood both denied that they had been harassed by Nanton, the former with indignation; but that made no difference.) This got him what is called a “counselling letter” from the dean, as well as a rather painful interview with him. But the interview ended on a fairly positive note, when Nanton had not only insisted that he had harassed no-one, even on the widest interpretation of that notoriously elastic term, but begged Fetter to consult Innes about what was really going on in the department of Folklore. Fetter assured him that he would do so, as they shook hands. However, when Nanton passed this message on to Innes, the latter, who had a much lower opinion of Fetter than did Nanton at the time, told him that he never would, in spite of his assurances; and Innes turned out to be right.
It was largely Nanton’s efforts to get what seemed to him this monstrous and insulting charge of harassment overturned, or at least properly and independently investigated, which led to his expulsion from his department and building a year later, and his ultimate banning from campus. Nanton should, according to a man in the Law Department who later advised him, have officially “grieved” this “counselling letter,” as well as another which he received a few months later; but he did not do so, partly because he did not want to annoy Fetter, whom he still regarded as his friend, and acting on misinformation; and partly because he did not realize the degree of danger that he was in. Poor fool, he thought that he was of some value to the university; had not the President thrown a party in honour of himself and a political scientist when they were elected to the Royal Society?