Mainpage on mobbing


Risks of enrolling for an advanced degree

Kenneth Westhues
Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo, Canada

June 2016




From Wilfred Cude:

The Ph.D. Trap, Part 1
(8.5 min.)

The Ph.D. Trap, Part 2
(10 min.)



From Michael Jay Tucker:

The Smartest Kid in School
(6 min.)

The Sad Professor
(5 min.)

The Professor Who Wasn't There
(9.5 min.)

Since most of the research on this website is about the mobbing of professors, graduate students sometimes feel left out. “A student can also be mobbed,” they insist – and they are right. Mobbing happens to people in all positions in all workplaces. Academic targets range from presidents, deans, department chairs, and senior professors, to adjunct instructors, secretaries (for an example, click here), and students at all levels.

The eliminative process is essentially the same, no matter who is the target, but there is something uniquely tragic about a capable student’s career being nipped in the bud. The student suffers harm. His or her contributions to academe are foregone. A degree deserved but denied, moreover, raises legitimate doubt about the degrees actually conferred. For all these reasons, every graduate student needs to be aware of the research on mobbing and alert to the possibility of being caught up in this devastating process. Professors need to be aware and alert as well, lest they wrongly gang up on a student, force the student out, damage their workplace, and bring shame on themselves.

Toward understanding how and why graduate students are sometimes mobbed, this webpage recommends five short videos available on youtube. They are listed in the sidebar at left. If you prefer, you can stop reading now, follow the links, and savor the insights these videos offer. Or you can first read the paragraphs below to gain some context and background.

Wilfred Cude

I came across Wilfred Cude's name three decades ago, long before workplace mobbing was in my vocabulary. I was by then a senior professor at Waterloo, researching work and social theory, teaching courses, and supervising doctoral students. I was also active in campus politics, promoting classic ideals of liberal education in opposition to narrow professionalism and job-training. In a controversial public lecture in 1985, I set forth the public purposes that, in my opinion, a university should serve. I tried to serve these purposes not only in my teaching but as book review editor of a little monthly magazine published by the Faculty Association called Forum, which was intended to stimulate discussion and debate of campus issues.

Somehow or other, Wilfred Cude's slender 1987 paperback, The Ph.D. Trap, landed on my desk. Leafing through it, I was struck by the cogency of his critique of doctoral education. In my own department, I had witnessed with dismay the departure of a long succession of bright, hard-working, well-read, creative doctoral students. Some had quit in disgust. Others had been forced out. Cude's book, well-researched and thoughtful, shed light on a problem I could see with my own eyes. An ABD in English from the University of Alberta, Cude seemed himself to be a casualty of a wasteful, defective system. I therefore commissioned a review of his book for Forum.

Regrettably, I chose the wrong reviewer, a casual acquaintance in the English Department whom I thought would be sympathetic to Cude’s critique. He wasn’t. I winced at how glibly he dismissed Cude’s arguments, implicitly defending the Alberta department’s decision to turf him. Still, having commissioned the review, I had no choice but to publish it. Making a mental note to be more careful choosing reviewers in the future, I gave no further thought to Wilfred Cude. I had other books to think about.

Fast forward thirty years. To my surprise and pleasure, I discover now that Cude has been continuing his scholarly career all these decades as an adjunct professor and occasional lecturer, but mostly as a poorly compensated independent scholar, in the home he and his wife built themselves on Cape Breton Island. His analysis of four Canadian novels, A Due Sense of Differences, (which might, in other circumstances, have been accepted as his doctoral thesis) was published by the University Press of America in 1980. In 2001, Cude published a revision and expansion of the book that caught my attention in 1987. It is entitled The Ph.D. Trap Revisited. Concordia Professor W. Lambert Gardiner described it as follows: “Wilfred Cude has spent his life-time in and out of the institution and is obviously fond of it. He has acquired all the tools and mastered all the skills of the scholar. The sound you hear as you read his book is not the hammering of yet another nail into our coffin. He's one of us. It's a wake-up call, a heads-up message to ostriches in a very vulnerable position. We would do well to heed it.”

More surprising still, I discover now that among those who value Cude’s critique of higher education is my longtime colleague and friend at the University of Wollongong, Australia, Brian Martin, whom I know for his incisive analyses of mobbing and other forms of suppression of dissent in academe, as well as for his hard-nosed studies of conflict and nonviolence. Martin is so prolific I cannot keep up with all he writes, and I had overlooked until now his two thoughtful and appreciative reviews of Cude’s The Ph.D. Trap Revisited: here and here.

The two videos at left draw on the coverage of Cude’s book and personal story by the CBC TV newsmagazine, The Fifth Estate. So far as I know, this publicity has had no effect on doctoral education in Canada. Its flaws remain about the same as when Cude exposed them long ago.

Michael Jay Tucker

It is a long way from the Canadian Northeast, where Wilfred Cude makes his home, to the American Southwest, where Michael Jay Tucker lives. Apart from both being intellectuals and independent scholars in the humanities, the two men do not seem much alike. Cude is more classical, respectful of the canon of English literature even while insistent that some Canadian authors belong in it. Tucker is less solemn, more sardonic, inclined to irony and satire. Cude plays things straight while Tucker teases and jokes. In 2006, Tucker published a well-received book on the politics of Seward Collins, a colorful New York publisher in the 1930s and 1940s. Tucker is editor-in-chief of the literary house, Belfort & Bastion.

Tucker is like Cude, however, in having abandoned studies for the Ph.D. not altogether voluntarily, without the degree. Tucker is also like Cude in having drawn lessons worth sharing from his academic misadventures. Current doctoral students, and anyone contemplating an application for doctoral study, ignore these lessons at their peril.

Tucker’s lessons take the form of a series of animated videos, at once caustic and whimsical, about types of professor a student may encounter in a doctoral program. “The smartest kid in school” – actually, the one who needs to be so – brought to mind a line from Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting: "and finally she hoped she could at least become one with her students, which meant she always forced them to think and say exactly what she thought and said, and together they formed a single body and a single soul, a single ring and a single dance" (as quoted in John Fekete’s Moral Panic). I have bumped into Tucker’s sad old narcissist dozens of times during my years in academe. Same goes for the type he calls “the professor who wasn’t there,” an embodiment of David Riesman’s otherdirected personality.

My own experience

Pondering these videos and current scholarship on doctoral students being mobbed (like this splendid article by Florencia Peña et al.), I thought back to my own three years as a graduate student, 1966 to 1969, at Vanderbilt University, and asked myself what lessons might be drawn from that experience. I did not even come close to being mobbed. On the contrary, I sailed through the program pretty smoothly, finishing my doctoral thesis three years after I entered, and successfully defending it a few months later. How can my success be explained?

For at least three reasons, I might easily have become a departmental pariah and been forced to quit. From the start, I knew much less sociology than the dozen other entering students and was ill prepared for grad work in the field, having majored in philosophy as an undergraduate and taken just four one-term courses in sociology. Second, my B.A. was from an obscure little college in rural Missouri, while my fellow students hailed from the Free University of Berlin, Harvard, Marquette, Reed College, and major state universities. Third, I was among the less docile and deferential members of my cohort, wilful and argumentative. If professors or fellow students had gone looking for an excuse to gang up on me and run me out of the program, they would not have had to look very hard.

Why didn’t that happen? Indeed, so far as I remember, it didn’t happen to other students either, though there were conflicts of various kinds and not everybody finished the Ph.D. Here are six factors that made the Vanderbilt sociology department a decent, supportive environment for my doctoral study in the mid-1960s. Like Cude’s and Tucker’s insights, these factors are probably worth reflecting on by current and prospective doctoral students in the present day.

  1. Postmodern culture had not yet engulfed sociology as a whole, certainly not the department at Vanderbilt. The program was modern as opposed to postmodern (for a discussion of the distinction, click here). Debates turned on logic and evidence. Politics was more about policy than identity. We were concerned about the war in Vietnam, inequality, and racial segregation, but not much about today’s standard litany of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and so on. The concept of “political correctness” was not yet discussed, presumably because there was not yet much need for it.

  2. Power resided mainly in the faculty. We students organized ourselves to exercise countervailing power and we voiced our concerns in campus media, but we were blessedly free of what Kors and Silverglate later called the shadow university, the censorious bureaucracy of grievance offices, appeals committees, harassment tribunals, and so on, that is supposed to resolve conflicts but more often makes them worse, while undermining a university’s academic goals.

  3. At a time of expansion of higher education across America and especially in Canada, there were jobs aplenty awaiting students who completed the sociology Ph.D. – a circumstance that obtains today in many STEM fields but in few of the social sciences and humanities. We students did not want to hang around in graduate school any longer than we had to, and the faculty did not want us to. The doctoral program was selective, designed to admit able students and speed them through.

  4. The dozen professors running the program were, by my recollection, decent men and competent professionals. Nietzsche urged distrust of anyone “in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.” My teachers at Vanderbilt were not like that. I found them kind and trustworthy. I’ve published a tribute to my supervisor, Mayer Zald, but other profs — Omer Galle, Phillips Cutright, Emilio Willems, Eugene Weinstein, J. D. Thompson, and more — were also talented and civilized. In my first teaching appointments later on, I had senior colleagues with more scintillating minds: Werner Stark, Joseph Fitzpatrick, Ivan Illich, and Dorothy Dohen at Fordham, Helen Constas and Walter Simon at Guelph. No matter. The Vanderbilt faculty were good enough. They taught us well and evaluated us fairly, on the basis of the quality of our work.

  5. I began the program at the age of twenty-two, just after graduating from college. I was unattached, mobile, with no money, no pedigree, no standing in any field. I was not much of a threat to anyone. Generally, the doctoral student most vulnerable to being mobbed is older, with a record of prior academic achievement. Such a student is more easily seen as too big for his britches, a tall poppy in need of being cut to size, or (the Japanese proverb) a nail that sticks up and must be hammered down.

  6. Finally, I had the good luck my first year to live in the graduate men’s residence and become friends there with about eight other incoming grad students, mostly in sociology but also in history, philosophy, and political science. We gave ourselves a name, “The Currey Hall Forum.” I learned more in the Forum than in my classes. It served not just as a context for learning and fun but as what’s called now a support group, a buffer against uncongenial events in the formal academic program.

Concluding reminder

Every organization tends to exaggerate its worth. A doctoral program is no exception. In overt and subtle ways, students are made to believe that failure to meet the program’s expectations implies intellectual or moral inferiority, the shameful condition of being “not good enough.”

Maybe so, maybe not. What such failure actually signifies is just a lack of fit between the program and the student. There can be any number of reasons for it. Maybe the program and its professors are so screwed up, being flunked out is a sign of intelligence and sanity. Maybe the program works well for most students, but not for those outside some modal category, or except for special occasions when the destructive passions that define mobbing are unleashed.

I do not doubt the senior professor at Saskatchewan interviewed in one of Cude’s videos, who said if Cude had submitted his book for the Ph.D. in the Saskatchewan department, he would have had “Dr.” in front of his name for the rest of his life. By the same token, I suspect that in no small number of doctoral programs in sociology in the 1960s, I would have been humiliated, expelled, and deprived of the title of “Dr.” for the rest of my life.

One of my closest friends at Vanderbilt, a student who entered at the same time as I, was a German fellow named Rolf Schliewen. He was five years older than I, far better educated, good-humored, well-mannered, well-read, cosmopolitan, critical. He did well in his courses. His incisive contributions to discussion of whatever topic earned him respect from both professors and fellow students. For whatever reason, he could not bring himself to finish his doctoral thesis. In fine, I think, he was too smart for sociology as it was taught to him in America. He told me once, “Ken, you have to admit, sociology is not quite serious.”

Lacking a Ph.D., Schliewen could not survive in academe. He eventually started what became a successful consulting company in Ottawa. At our last meeting sometime in the 1980s, Schliewen proudly told me he had numerous Ph.D.’s on his staff. Never, so he said, not even in his company’s darkest days, did he ever wish he had stayed in academe.

Somebody should draw up a list of major contributions to history – in science, the arts, business, politics, other fields – made by men and women who once enrolled for a Ph.D., but later quit or were flunked out. When that list is available, every aspirant Ph.D. should study it carefully. In the meanwhile, Cude’s and Tucker’s videos are available online.