Back to "Mob Rule" in The Chronicle: the Story behind the Story

Mainpage: Workplace Mobbing in Academe

K. Westhues Homepage


Russ Stratton, Professor of English, Emeritus, University of Alaska Fairbanks, email to K. Westhues, April 21, 2006. Published here with the author's permission; all rights reserved.

I found a great deal of truth in your thesis regarding mobbing, and while I don't want to waste your time, please allow me more comment — as if you could avoid it from another (pompous) academic.

When I first went to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I had formerly been a secondary school teacher for 10 years, with only an A. B. from Princeton; then after finally gaining my PhD at age 41 from a small southern university that will forever go nameless, assistant and then associate professorships at a small Midwestern college (plus all the usual graduate/teaching assistantships enroute to that terminal degree), I made the gigantic leap into the real world of university life — or so I thought.

I was hired at UAF as an associate, with promises of tenure, if possible, within three years. From the start, several in the English department seemed to resent my presence, some because I was making more money than they, some because of my success "outside my field." My field was medieval literature, my modest success as a poet and founder of a little magazine. I also took time to create an opera program on the local NPR station, which became suspect — although strangely enough, not to the music department, which seemed to appreciate anything I could do.

I did achieve tenure, but when I sought a full professorship, a committee of mobsters was formed via a hostile dean (and I surely do not deny being outspoken on many issues). This committee, egged on by a particularly unpleasant colleague (misnomer!), a self-appointed "standard-bearer" who also had salary issues with me, held a series of meetings (which I attended and taped, knowing something unhappy would result) during which they vindictively nit-picked my publications, teaching, service and general personality. This was the first time I had ever heard my name pronounced like a swear word, I must admit, but given the uncivil tone of the entire proceedings, that was the least of my worries.

Interestingly, at its conclusion, a unanimous vote against me, I overheard the committee chairman nervously ask the department head, "Can he sue me?"

Perhaps this was mobbing, perhaps not, but whatever it was, I was barely able to hold my head up for weeks; and I considered suicide (how seriously I still cannot say). Fortunately, my wife convinced me after some time that the whole thing was not worth tearing myself (and her) up about. We bought a motor home that summer and took it all over Alaska and then down to — well, who cares now?

In spite of their hopes that I would leave, for the next several years I managed to survive by ignoring the mob, occasionally telling them to go fuck themselves, and accepting that I would never be promoted. But then another colleague, surprisingly, took up my case, unbidden, and suddenly my work became much more acceptable. With the exception of the original unpleasant colleague, I sailed through and was finally a full bore.

I stood it a few more years, until I was 60, and then, after a department-head election that brought out the worst in all of us, got the hell out of academia and into a comfortable retirement. So as not to gild the lily, I'll admit that since then I haven't written a single poem nor even re-read Chaucer.

I hope you'll excuse my gut-spilling, but I need to tell someone this tale before I'm too old to remember it. Good luck with your work, and thanks so much for delving into what you have. Who was it who said that the reason academic politics is so vicious is that the stakes are so low?