to Destroy a Don
It would be nice if this were an isolated incident; but it has parallels galore. It may surprise academic administrators to learn that the story makes my gorge rise. What’s a human life more or less, they may ask, provided that one’s own fundament is well covered? Kenneth Westhues, from whose work my example is taken, is the world expert on mobbing in universities (the subject of workplace mobbing in general was pioneered by Heinz Leymann, a German working in Sweden). Unlike many academic tomes, Westhues’ books are compulsively readable; and should be consulted by anyone who has any interest in or concern about post-secondary education. It is high time that we had some response from administrators, either claiming that Westhues and his co-authors are mistaken or lying; or stating clearly and distinctly that they do not care; or undertaking to do something to remedy the situation.
I know of no scholar who is doing as much for the real good of universities as Westhues — which is not quite the same thing, as his readers and mine will soon discover, as saving the face of university administrators. Some years ago, a political scientist of my acquaintance described universities as little enclaves of fascism within democratic societies. I discounted the remark as manifest exaggeration — at the time.
My cousin, the late Michael Cullen, was a distinguished ethologist who worked for many years at Oxford, before taking up a professorship in an Australian university. While he was at Oxford, he had a colony of desert rats in the corner of his office; he once told me that he found their behaviour — their petty quarrels, their strife for ranking order, and so on — indistinguishable from that of the members of his college (which might as well, for our purposes, be nameless). On one similarity between the behaviour of rats and human beings he did not dilate; but it was described vividly by that classic in ethology, Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression. Each tribe of rats is in a perpetual state of war with other tribes within their own species. What distinguishes members of different tribes is their smell. Experimenters have sometimes changed the smell of an individual rat, and placed him back among his companions. He welcomes them with the rattish equivalent of open arms; they for their part immediately set upon him to tear him to pieces — at which, I would like to think, the humane experimenter intervenes. Human beings have similar habits of destroying one another, though the precipitating factor is not usually smell; and, except among inadequately supervised adolescents, the victim is not generally killed directly and physically by her assailants. (The qualification is significant, as we shall see.)
About twenty years ago, I was approached by a colleague, call him Dr A, who seemed to be in rather a passion about something, so I lent him an ear. He was trying to block the tenure of a colleague in another department and faculty, Dr B, of whom I had not previously heard. He must on no account get tenure, said Dr. A; look at his articles, none of them are in decent journals. I glanced at the list, saw a journal of which I had heard good things, and pointed it out to Dr. A. Yes, he insisted, but none of the work in reputable journals is recent. I glanced again, and found quite a recent piece in a journal which I had previously supposed was respectable, and again pointed it out to Dr. A. He left me, without further comment, to do something else, perhaps to canvas other supporters for his project of blocking Dr. B’s tenure. Later I got to know and respect Dr. B, who was rather a distinguished scholar, I have heard it said world-famous in his own field. We will meet Dr A again, but for the present I shall set him aside. At the time I had not come across the work of Kenneth Westhues, nor become acquainted with the tale of a certain academic whom I shall call Simpson. Had I done so, I would have identified this interaction for what it was, the first stage of academic mobbing.
Simpson, who worked as an academic in England till his mid-forties, was appointed to the Department of Folklore at the University of Muggsville, Saskitoba, in the early 1980s. In 1993 he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada; soon afterwards the President of the university threw a party in honour of Simpson and the political scientist who had been elected at the same time to the same institution. In 1995 Simpson was expelled from his department and building for seven months, being alleged to have harassed one colleague and two sessional instructors. (The colleague denied, with indignation, that he had been harassed by Simpson, and was, and remains, one of his closest friends. One of the sessionals mentioned her friendly relationship with Simpson at the time, and also denied that she had been harassed. To the second he had made a brief, carefully-worded and thoroughly civil request over the telephone, to which he had received a very rude reply.) Someone else in the Political Science Department, with whom Simpson had no previous acquaintance, convoked a committee to look into the matter. He remarked to Simpson later, when asked to explain his concern, that it seemed odd to him and others that one who a few months before had been held up to admiration as one of the stars of the university, should so suddenly be so conspicuously in disgrace. They sent a letter to the Dean of Humanities, whose reply included the falsehood that Simpson had vacated the department of his own volition.
A member of the Law Department advised Simpson to ask for an independent inquiry into what had happened to him. The administration refused, with a letter which said that such an inquiry would not be ‘constructive’. The letter was signed by another member of the adminstration; but discrete investigations revealed to Simpson that the decision had been made by the dean, who, in Simpson’s opinion, had more to lose than anyone else by such an inquiry. On Ash Wednesday of 1998, Simpson was expelled from the University at large, accompanied by the head of Security, a good man who was kind enough to express sympathy with his plight. Of the reasons later given to him for his expulsion, the main was that he issued a number of threats. Simpson admits that on one or two occasions, with some vehemence, he had told colleagues that he intended to take steps against his tormentors, mentioning the law and the press. That he made threats of any other kind, he denies. He was permitted to enter the university library for two hours every two weeks, at first accompanied always by a member of Security, later with the insistence that he should always arrive at the same time by exactly the same form of public transport, along with the warning that he would be monitored. Such remained the situation up to nine years after Simpson’s expulsion. In 2007, due to the real civility and kindness of the previously-mentioned head of security, he was permitted to enter the library when he pleased; but was still banned from everywhere else on campus.
Simpson had no idea at the time that his case was quite typical of universities; he discovered this when he was asked to comment on a preliminary draft of Westhues’s The Envy of Excellence. Another scholar, who we will call X, has written of his experiences with the administration of his own university, which did not quite succeed in getting rid of him. They had made the tactical error, from their point of view, of consulting an external assessor; this gentleman, after dragging his feet for months, and breaking several deadlines, finally decided in X’s favour. Over several chapters of his book, X describes the prolonged agony of waiting; other chapters are written, with a fine irony (X, like Westhues, is among the more elegant of academic writers), in the form of advice to administrators as to how most effectively, and with least risk of reprisal, to torture and finally eliminate their victims. Westhues himself excoriates ‘mobbing’ as ‘a social process that violates truth, hurts people, wastes money, and degrades academic life’. (Of course, such things never happen in one’s own university — unless one is about to retire or take up another job.) Simpson, who had suffered from endogenous depression ever since his adolescence, admitted to suicidal feelings when he found the mobbing unbearable, and this was held against him by the authorities. The same authorities had, forsooth, received a medical note, not solicited by Simpson himself, asking that he be treated with special consideration due to his depressive illness. This, one might say, was exactly what the authorites proceeded to do, though perhaps not in quite the manner envisaged by the doctors who wrote the note.
In cases of mobbing, an escape by the victim from her assailants is rare. The cards are all in the hands of the victimisers. Westhues says that these cases are not really analogous to war, where a certain approximation to equality in power between the belligerents is generally assumed; but rather like the games a cat plays with a mouse. Just occasionally, as he says, a bedraggled mouse is able to get up, to everyone’s surprise, and swat the cat on the nose. This happened at a university in Western Canada when a swimming coach was accused of rape by one of his students. His account of the matter was that the girl had been sending him suggestive messages, which he had told her must stop. A kangaroo court was called to which the coach was summoned; but he was advised not to go by his lawyer, so failed to show up. The authorities reacted by sacking him. However, he had hard evidence that his alleged victim had sent him indecent proposals after the date of the alleged rape. When he produced this evidence, the President, who had prided himself on the atmosphere of zero tolerance of abuse which he promoted on his campus, had a nervous breakdown, and later resigned. The coach was reinstated.
The phenomenon anatomized by Westhues in academic life has many analogues elsewhere. There is shunning, disfellowshipping, and excommunication in churches; blackballing in voluntary associations; lynchings and witchhunts in local communities; and imprisonment and exile in national societies. By the time of the writing of his first book on the subject in 1997, Westhues had seen enough people physically and psychologically destroyed in workplaces to conclude that ‘elimination’ is not too strong a word; that calling by this name the process in question honours rather than diminishes the victims of ethnic cleansing and the holocaust. The fact is that little holocausts are happeniing every day in the workplaces of civilized societies. As victims of the process in the academy would tell Westhues, ‘I have become a non-person’; ‘My life is finished’; ‘They are trying to kill me’. Shortly before, a British academic administrator had attained some notoriety for admitting, in a book, that he had tried to hasten the death of an undesirable colleague. The expulsion of pariahs from a social circle is an awesome business; we are apt to mitigate its enormity, especially when it is near home — ‘My role in the affair was minor’; ‘Something had to be done’; ‘His heart condition was bound to catch up with him sometime’; ‘The fact is that she was unhappy here, and really wanted to leave’. X remarks that Eliminating Professors may be taken as a how-to guide for administrators; would you, if you were an adminstrator in the process of eliminating a scholar, want to botch the job through ignorance or lack of sufficiently careful planning? You are used to such rational planning on enrollment, the curriculum, and the budget; you should apply it to the business of eliminating your target. Tolerance of others’ peculiarities is traditional in universities, so you may feel some twinges of guilt. Don’t; it will only make you less efficient in doing what has to be done to gain your end.
Resignation is by and large the best solution for all concerned. In this case the target more or less gracefully takes your hints that she is not wanted. You can even arrange a farewell party, at which good wishes and other mutual civilities are exchanged. Fabricated resignation is sometimes feasible — that is, you can pretend your target has resigned, and make the pretense stick. (So it was that a certain Canadian university succeeded, only temporarily as it happened, in getting rid of one of the best mathematicians in North America.) A dean or department head might solve the problem by transferring the offending party to the other end of campus; but such action would evidently be of no use to a president or vice-president. There are, of course, sundry ways for an administrator deliberately to hasten someone’s death without being likely to be faced with a murder charge. By piling work-related stress on the target you increase his chances of a stroke or a heart-attack. Or she may take her own life, like the researcher I mentioned earlier. At least, by ‘staying on her case’, you lower the resistance to disease of the target’s immune system, increasing the probability of early retirement, long-term disability, and physical and mental illness.
There may be a day when the target comes into your office shouting, or perhaps uttering through clenched teeth, threats of legal action. This should be music to your ears. If the threat should be implemented, your legal team will tie him up in technicalities, and soon bleed him dry. Once he has re-mortgaged his house to pay legal fees, he will probably be glad to settle out of court. If by any chance, by dint of unusual stamina and exceptional depth of pocket, she should win the legal contest, the university, in accordance with Canadian law, will merely have to pay a month’s salary for every year the target has served — no very grievous penalty. In the United States, greater caution is advisable, since American law allows juries to award more substantial damages.
What are the typical marks of undesirability? The target doesn’t usually look bad when one consults her curriculum vitae; her students may report that her teaching raises more questions than it answers. She is apt to speak on the authority of research outside the consensus of her academic peers, and even to show a certain irreverence towards administrators. She is probably active in research, with a publication record equal to or above the average of her colleagues. Indeed, her productivity might make her seem to uninstructed outsiders the kind of professor that most universities would be glad to have on their staff. Some examples of dissident opinions held by targets are: that most administrators have forgotten the difference between truth-telling and lies; that her department’s degree programmes are in urgent need of external assessment and reform; that women and visible minorities should not be given preferential treatment in the academy; and that social research is best conducted ethnographically as opposed to quantitatively and statistically, or vice versa. One should distinguish potential targets from those charming jokers who often say outrageous things, but can be relied upon in the long run not to disturb the collegial consensus. What makes her sort of quirkiness intolerable, as opposed to that of others? Somehow she is a threat, perhaps because she shows her colleagues up in some way. ‘The envy of excellence’ cannot be ruled out. (The ‘resentment’ often felt against those who are felt to be somehow morally, intellectually or spiritually superior, was pointed out as a significant factor in human affairs by Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Scheler.) She is seldom or never among the dead wood of which, as every informed person knows, universities have a plentiful supply; and which is one of the main drawbacks to the system of tenure. On the contrary, one might say the trouble is that she is toxic in her aliveness. If a professor under your authority gets under your skin, it can only be because she constitutes a danger to the group you represent, of whom you have been chosen to be head.
The elimination process can be divided into five stages, of which the first two are ostracization and harassment. Marking the target out as the one who does not belong is usually a slow process that can take months, even years — and may be so imperceptible that one can easily deny what is going on. A number of techniques of torment are to be used at these preliminary stages. In effect, you send messages to the target to remind her that she is no longer valued in your academic unit. You delay acting on matters important to her, while insisting that she herself observes deadlines strictly. Most targets in one study reported a sinking feeling, even a difficulty in breathing, at their place of work at this stage. The chair of a department knew that a corner had been turned when a colleague said, in a pained voice, that it was a pity that so much of what Sam said was true, but he had to be isolated for the good of the department. A skilled eliminator will be sensitive to the temper of the times, as to the hatred of Jews in Europe up to the end of the Second World War; or the fear and suspicion of Darwinism in the largely Christian United States a century ago. Has the target said or done anything that could possibly be construed as a threat of physical harm to others? One should also consider any scrap of evidence that he might be a sexual predator. Occasionally, of course, there are cases which go so wrong that they hit the headlines, as with the shooting-spree of Dr. Valery Fabrikant, perhaps the classic instance of the ‘culmination of a mismanaged case of eliminating an undesirable professor.’ (I take it that no-one approves of Dr. Fabrikant’s action; but there may be conflicting views of the lessons to be learned from it. The real trouble here, of course, was not so much the loss of human life, as the fact that the institution concerned, and the eliminators with it, got a certain amount of egg on their faces.)
The initial stages of the elimination process are subtle, involving informal ostracizing from the community, and administrative put-downs and hassles which take place under the guise of routine decision-making. With stage three, the incident, it comes to be understood that something has happened which makes the target unfit to continue in her position as before, and that the administration has told her this. As gossip has it, ‘I’m told there was an incident about three weeks ago, I don’t know the details, but I hear it’s being taken quite seriously.’ The incident is a common means by which senior administrators get to know about ‘a long-standing problem’, and as a result of which the chair of the department may insist that ‘now, at last, something has to be done.’ The most likely issues now will be sexual or racial harassment or abuse, threats of violence, research fraud, or unauthorized absence from campus. Disagreements with colleagues over theoretical or administrative issues can be construed as ‘uncollegiality’. Portrayal of the target as essentially callous, anti-social, or indifferent to the needs and feelings of others, is essential to the later stages of the elimination process (aftermath of the incident, and the elimination itself). Eliminators will find accusations (or at least innuendos) of sexual harassment particularly useful at this stage. (Female targets are often smeared as sluts or sleepers-around.)
At this point some administrator is likely to emerge as Chief Eliminator. A letter is duly sent to the target, which includes sanctions calculated to humiliate her, and to drive her out of the institution by one of the exit-doors other than outright dismissal. The difficulty here is that the alleged cause for dismissal may be thought inadequate by the president or by an arbitrator. (Most presidents, though, will be very willing to take the word of their subordinates. In Simpson’s case, however, the president actually took the trouble to tell him that he was sympathetic with his plight, and not responsible for it. The next president, being more collegial, played the role required of him in Simpson’s ejection from the institution.) Normally, the result of humiliation for the target will be a progressive withering on the vine, issuing in early retirement, long-term disability, suicide or whatever. It should not be forgotten that administrators often have great moral power over those that are subject to them. (A retired academic psychologist of my acquaintance tells me that he despises administrators; but he is an exception.) In one case, a professor of renown was rendered utterly abject by an assistant dean who seized on a student complaint against him.
In the process of eliminating one’s target, the yardstick of hard evidence should definitely be kept out of consideration. The indictment must be formulated in such a way that such evidence does not apply to it. As Westhues remarks, the accusers of Socrates set a good precedent here; the charges of misleading and corrupting youth, of making the worse cause appear the better, and of having the wrong gods or none, hardly turned on physical evidence. Accusations of bullying, leering, arousing fear, and our old friend uncollegiality (all taken from Westhues’ research), will be to the eliminator’s purpose, since they are conveniently elastic. Anyone claiming to have been victimized by the target should be coddled and rewarded — especially if female, non-white, disabled or a single parent. If the first stage has been carried out properly, the target will already be known as an enemy of the people — that is, of the institution; if the second, she can hardly fail to be behaving oddly. As to the importance of keeping hard, physical evidence out of play, the case of the swimming coach has already been mentioned. Without the crucial email and pictures, truth would have remained as small a matter here as with Socrates and most of the cases of academic mobbing known to me.
To many academic administrators, the notion that their behaviour is so irrational will appear the height of absurdity. Of course you, as an administrator in a university, no less, are rational in your professional actions. But it may be worth keeping cool enough to learn something from your enemy. It was in 1984 that the term ‘workplace mobbing’ was first coined by Heinz Leymann, a German who worked in Sweden. It must be said that Leymann had a scant appreciation of the need for solidarity among coworkers, and none whatever of those who take advantage of the undoubted fact that the collective humiliation of a misfit can be used to build up team-spirit and enhance productivity. In the late 1980s, Leymann set up a clinic for victims of workplace mobbing, of whom he counselled more than a thousand. His interviews brought to light illegal actions taken against these victims, mainly by employers. Naturally this would not do at all; the clinic was boycotted by the Swedish national health-care system, and has since closed. Leymann found mobbing to be an all-or-nothing process which seldom occurs by half-measures. The overt reasons for it usually obscure what he takes to be the real reasons, such as the target’s higher level of skill or rate of pay than the average, or the fact that she is a ‘whistle-blower’ outraged at some illegal or unethical practice in her workplace. The phenomenon is by no means uncommon; one survey indicated that one in a hundred Norwegian workers had at some time been mobbed. The costs to an organization are high; more sick-leave, lower rates of production, and heavy demands on the time of managers, external consultants, and health professionals.
As to the targets, the most conspicuous consequences of their ordeal are emotional and psychosomatic disorders of various kinds. As a result of this, they are then subjected to what Leymann refers to as an ‘overkill’ of ‘ignominious psychiatric examinations and diagnoses.’ Their coping resources are apt to break down due to isolation from their work-group; they feel helpless and desperate, and a sense of rage at not being able to find legal redress. Often they cannot get work at all after expulsion, since it is the regular practice for prospective employers to telephone previous ones about applicants for jobs. (Simpson was invited to apply for a position at Harvard, a university of which some of you may have heard; but one member of the appointing committee said that his candidacy should not even be considered, if he had ever been accused of harassment. He was twice asked to apply for a job at Yale, and did so; he does not know the reasons why he failed to get the job in either instance, though he has his suspicions.) The mobbed worker’s state of mind is often diagnosed by psychiatrists as paranoia (as in Simpson’s case); some victims cited by Leymann were forcibly detained in hospital for that reason. Suicide is quite a frequent outcome; it has been estimated that from ten to fifteen per cent of Swedish suicides have a background of mobbing at work. Leymann was shocked to find no single case where employers admitted fault or gave any redress to the target.
The collection, Workplace Mobbing in Academe, begins resoundingly with Westhues himself on the concept of workplace mobbing, and his provision of a checklist of twelve indicators — lack of due process, secrecy, resistance to external review, impassioned rhetoric, and so on. There follow three autobiographical accounts by academic targets of their experiences. (Here Simpson has his moment of glory, but under another name.) It is perhaps a trifle bothersome to reflect that each of the three, on paper, might be considered a real contributor to her field, and a credit to the institution that employed her. Next, in case these narratives may be dismissed by the reader as biased or self-serving, there are third-person accounts of the use of ecclesiastical power in the removal of professors, and reflections by schoolteachers on their mistreatment by principals. What kind of milieu predisposes educational institutions to mobbing behaviour? One author relates ‘campus CEOs’ and state politics to the mobbing of exceptionally competent professors, while another depicts racial politics at the University of Toronto as ‘beyond reason’. There is a funny but frightening account by Irving Hexham of the manner in which genuine academic misbehaviour, in this case frequent and copious plagiarism, was denied and then covered up by a university administration; who first accused the whistle-blower of ‘uncollegial behaviour’, then attributed the plagiarism to overwork, and finally kicked the culprit upstairs to be the head of a college of higher education in a neighbouring province. (It happens that the plagiarist was none other than our old friend Dr A.) The last three parts of the collection contain respectively reflections on elimination, suggestion of ways of resistance and recovery, and strategies of prevention. The last essay deals with the role of law in combatting workplace mobbing and bullying.
The other book authored by Westhues is a detailed study of one particularly notorious instance at the University of Toronto. I am sorry to say that a Catholic college mobbed and finally eliminated an outstanding Protestant theologian whom they had hired at a time when ecumenism was more fashionable in the Catholic church than it has since become. It appears to me that what underlay the process of elimination in this case may have been a bone-headed misreading, perhaps understandable on the part of an administrator rather than a scholar, of the insistence of the then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope, that Catholic teachers at Catholic institutions should not teach as consistent with Catholic doctrine what in fact is incompatible with it.
One important obstacle to seeing these things as they are is what one might call the depravity/incredulity (DI) factor. People simply cannot believe that a state of affairs, and the persons responsible for it, are as bad as they appear to be. Dear old Jones would never behave in such a way; look how kind he is to his cats! The general is an assiduous church-goer, so he couldn’t possibly have quite unnecessarily sent multitudes of young men to their deaths; the affable octogenarian in his slippers could never have been the commandant of an extermination camp devoted to ethnic cleansing. But as W. S. Gilbert’s policeman ruefully remarked, it may well be that ‘when the coster’s finished jumping on his mother, he loves to lie a-basking in the sun.’ The DI factor is also a great help in tarring and feathering the target — ‘There must have been something ropey about Dr. X’s behaviour, or dear old Jones’ etc. As the representative of the faculty association told Simpson, he had clearly behaved very badly to at least one of the two women he was said to have harassed, but had forgotten about it; otherwise the administration would never have acted as it did. Another source of distorted perspective is what might be termed the UV or ‘Uncle Vanya’ factor. In the old Soviet Union, most people had a fairly close relative who had ben sent to the Gulag. Devout communists would still say that the majority of those so punished were enemies of the people who got everything they deserved. But, they would add, ‘the authorities do seem to have made a mistake in the case of my Uncle Vanya’. A Catholic was once expressing his horror at the abuses and cover-ups of his Church in Newfoundland some fifteen years ago, to a social worker who had been a priest; and concluded his diatribe with the remark that things there were evidently exceptionally bad. Said the social worker, ‘Whatever gave you that idea?’
Simpson was surprised by the sheer venality of some of the health professionals who were employed by the university to degrade and humiliate him. One made his pile by telling insurance companies what they wanted to hear, and was rumoured to be getting on the windy side of the law; a few months later, he was castigated at length for his paractices by the more respectable of the two local newspapers. He reported contemptuously that Simpson was unfit for any profession, and declared, on the basis of a confession by Simpson that he believed in telepathy (on which he had read quite extensively, published an article, and co-edited a collection) that he was incurably superstitious. Other health professionals too found for the university. However, a psychiatrist who had known Simpson well for some years, and had treated him for depression, said he was ashamed of his profession for the way in which it had permitted itself to be used by the university administration in trashing Simpson. He wondered why he had not himself been consulted, and immediately answered his own question; no doubt the administration thought he might not give them the answer they wanted to hear. A psychoanalyst declared in his report that what Simpson needed was not psychiatry but justice. (It is a remarkable fact that the dean said, on receiving this report and in Simpson’s hearing, that they must find another psychiatrist.) But perhaps one should not be too hard on those ‘caring professionals’ who gave their judgment against Simpson; the university no doubt paid them well, and they had a chance of being as substantially imbursed for dealing with subsequent cases if they did what was obviously required of them. Who, in these postmodern and post-moral days, could be expected to resist such a gravy-train as that?
When Ken Westhues first suggested that I give this talk, he said he wanted me to give it specifically from the point of view of a theologian. I disagreed with this; the viewpoint needed, I said, was that of ordinary decency and veracity, which could be secular as well as religious. Ken replied that in his experience nowadays only theologians thought in terms of good and evil. I confess I was shocked. I was reminded too of Bernard Lonergan’s baleful dictum; that a civilization in decline digs its own grave with relentless consistency. As to evil — the unjust infliction of intense suffering is evil if anything is; it is difficult to say whether it is more deplorable when it is open and deliberate, or when it is due to studied inadvertence — ‘flight from insight’ as Lonergan would say.
The penultimate chapter of my book is called ‘Vultures and Ostriches’. I now think that a more detailed classification is desirable. Einstein tells us that physical space is somehow warped within the neighbourhood of large gravitational bodies. It seems to me that social space is rather similarly warped in the neighbourhood of great social evils, so one finds vultures, victims, ostriches, don’t cares, rabbits and reformers. How should the reformer proceed? Comfort the victims and help them find redress; shame the don’t-cares; startle the ostriches; hearten the rabbits; and above all confont and expose the vultures, or at least stop enabling them.