Mainpage: Mobbing in academe and beyond

K. Westhues


Commentary by Kenneth Westhues, published online June 2023




In 2001, Scott Gerber was appointed to the faculty of the Pettit College of Law at Ohio Northern University. His career as a legal scholar was already off to a good start: JD and PHD from Virginia, a dozen articles in major law journals, and three scholarly books — on the history of the U. S. Supreme Court, the Declaration of Independence, and the jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas, a jurist he much admires. The next year, 2002, Gerber published his first novel, The Ivory Tower. Its cover forms part of the opening graphic for the present commentary.

Subsequent years saw publication of more articles, more academic books, more novels, and more newspaper op-eds. In 2008, Gerber was named to the Ella and Ernest Fisher Chair in Law at ONU.

There was trouble brewing. Gerber contacted me in 2010, said his experiences at ONU appeared to fit the bill of "workplace mobbing in academe," as described in my articles and books. He said a coterie of colleagues and administrators seemed bent on running him out of the university. "This whole thing started," he wrote, "when I was on sabbatical at Brown University finishing a book that Oxford has accepted. While I was away, my colleagues revoked my chair and gave it to someone who was retiring who hasn't published in twenty years (the written selection criteria require 'sustained excellence in scholarship').  I filed a grievance against the dean, which was adjudicated by the same people who revoked my chair.... The AAUP reprimanded ONU for this, which explains the current discussion about a rehearing."

Before replying to Gerber, I googled his name and glanced through some of his writings available online. Then as now, he maintained an informative website. The libertarian thrust of his scholarship, so much at odds with prevailing outlooks in law, was obvious, but so was the breadth of his perspective. I wrote back to him:

What fascinated me about your webpage was not so much the conservative bent of your scholarship as the fact that you've published novels as well as scholarly books. A very large proportion of professors who write to me, describing what look like academic mobbings, are people who are bigger than their specific professions, scholars who have not enclosed their minds within the walls of specific disciplines but who see themselves in larger contexts and whose identities are more as citizens than as academic specialists. This kind of professor is especially vulnerable to being ganged up on by narrower colleagues. ...
Even a brief glance at what I can find of your work on the web tells me you're a really bright fellow. So now you're in a situation that is a test of how bright, in a practical political sense, you are. I hope and trust you don't let yourself get sucked into internal conflict-resolution procedures that are stacked in favour of your adversaries. I wish you every success in getting yourself situated in a law school that will enable and encourage you to do your best work.




The wishes for Gerber that I sent him in 2010 did not come true. He remained in the inauspicious environment of ONU for the next 13 years, pursuing one after another official channel for redress of his grievances and for protection against his adversaries. His efforts rarely met with success but he at least managed to keep the mob at bay, meanwhile writing and publishing prolifically: two more novels and a further scholarly book, dozens of op-eds and book reviews, and one or two scholarly articles a year. Among cases of academic mobbing I have studied, this one ranks at or near the top in how many years transpired from the beginning of collective action against the target until the target's official elimination.

The axe fell with some finality on 14 April 2023, when armed officers of campus security and town police accosted Gerber in a classroom, in full view of his students, in effect arrested him and escorted him to the office of the Dean of Law. There he was informed that he was henceforth barred from teaching and banned from the ONU campus. He was not told what offenses he was charged with, beyond an allegation of a lack of collegiality.

Much to its credit, the Wall Street Journal published on 9 May 2023 Gerber's own account and explanation of his ouster:

Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” tells the story of Josef K., a man arrested, prosecuted and killed by an inaccessible authority, with the nature of his crime revealed neither to him nor to the reader.

I’m Josef K. Around 1 p.m. on Friday, April 14, Ohio Northern University campus security officers entered my classroom with my students present and escorted me to the dean’s office. Armed town police followed me down the hall. My students appeared shocked and frightened. I know I was. I was immediately barred from teaching, banished from campus, and told that if I didn’t sign a separation agreement and release of claims by April 21, ONU would commence dismissal proceedings against me. The grounds: “Collegiality.” The specifics: None.

Josef K. never learns what he’s alleged to have done wrong. The offenses I’ve allegedly committed haven’t been revealed to me, either. But I have an educated guess. Like many universities, ONU is aggressively pursuing “diversity, equity and inclusion” initiatives. I have objected publicly as vice chairman of the University Council, an elected faculty governance body, and in newspaper op-eds and on television, to DEI efforts that don’t include viewpoint diversity and would lead to illegal discrimination in employment and admissions.

A great many individual professors, politicians, and journalists, as well as organized academic bodies, have publicly condemned ONU for its treatment of Scott Gerber. Here are half a dozen:

  • The letter of 14 May 2023 from Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars, to ONU President Melissa Baumann. Wood suggests that Baumann "apologize publicly to Professor Gerber and explain to your board that you made a grave mistake." On 12 June, Wood followed up with a detailed, illuminating reflection on Gerber's ouster.
  • For FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Senior Writer Angel Eduardo issued on 3 May 2023 a statement calling on ONU "to immediately provide Gerber with the specific allegations against him — and if his suspension is based on nothing more than expression protected by ONU’s academic freedom policy, the university must reverse it."
  • Tristin Kilgallon started a gofundme page to help pay for Gerber's legal case against the university, saying that "with your help, we can make sure Scott receives the justice he deserves." The page includes links to many statements supporting Gerber.
  • On 24 May 2023, prominent legal commentator Jonathan Turley published a strongly worded post pointing out that ONU's conduct "seems wholly at odds with core principles of due process."
  • In a letter co-signed by more than 50 other professors, Harvard's Randall Kennedy told ONU Law Dean Charles Rose that they expected him to uphold due process, that Gerber appeared to have been punished before any determination of fault.
  • On 12 June 2023, Greg Piper published an account of the conflict in JusttheNews, highlighting on the one hand AAUP's criticism of ONU, and on the other hand the ONU Law Dean's bravado.



L'affaire Gerber as a case of academic mobbing

I have read a fair bit of the information publicly available on the conflict between Gerber and the powers that be at ONU, but my study of the relevant evidence has not been thorough enough for me to say conclusively that this conflict is a case of academic mobbing. That, however, is the direction in which the evidence points, especially given ONU's physical expulsion of the professor on 14 April 2023. ONU's intended endgame is by now explicit and undeniable. I believe this conflict would score high if my standard checklist of mobbing indicators were systematically applied to the evidence.

I am also confident that among the many factors that have precipitated the mobbing of Scott Gerber, the following three are essential to any adequate explanation.

First, the factor I suggested to Gerber a dozen years ago, that he is bigger than his professional identity, that his talents, aptitudes, perspective and loyalties are not confined to law nor to ONU. They are broader and higher, a fact that threatens colleagues and administrators who live in a smaller world.

Second is the factor identified in the title of my most comprehensive book on academic mobbing, The Envy of Excellence. By standard measures, Gerber is not a plodder, not an also-ran, not a yeoman. He is a live wire as opposed to dead wood. Like workers of all kinds, professors tend to prefer a co-worker who makes them look good to one who, even if quietly, shows them up.

Third is the obvious fact Gerber himself cites in his WSJ op-ed, that he is intellectually at odds with the leftist, woke, politically correct, postmodern mentality that has come to dominate law and many other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. I wrote in my 2020 update to The Envy of Excellence: "In the majority of the academic mobbing cases I have studied these past two decades, the targeted professor has been in some way politically incorrect, said or done something contrary to the new orthodoxy." Recent examples are Frances Widdowson and Ricardo Duchesne. Gerber's case is a different variation on the same theme, as evidenced by his admiration for Clarence Thomas and his dissent from the diversity-equity-inclusion dogma.



A lesson for ONU from Medaille University

To appreciate the gravity of Gerber's elimination from ONU, it is helpful to reflect on it in relation to news that came out this spring at about the same time, about Medaille University in Buffalo NY. Both ONU and Medaille were founded in the nineteenth century as small, private, liberal-arts colleges. Both had originally a Christian character, Catholic at Medaille, Methodist at ONU. Both began as schools for training teachers, expanding gradually to other fields.

What put Medaille in the news in this spring of 2023 is that the institution has at long last bit the dust. Attempts at rescue through reorganization or merger having all fallen through, Medaille is scheduled to close its doors for good at the end of August 2023. Its website describes arrangements now underway to transfer current students elsewhere for completion of their degrees.

Reading the news of Medaille's impending demise brought back memories of the academic mobbings at that institution — just as wrong as Gerber's mobbing is now at ONU — that I studied and wrote about twenty years ago. Click here for my basic analysis, published by the AAUP in New York Academe. The article begins like this:

Since mid-2001, an uncommon but severe organizational pathology has infected Medaille College, an institution serving 2,000 students in Buffalo, New York. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of individuals at the college have been harmed. Two tenured senior professors, Therese Warden and Uhuru Watson, have all but lost their professional lives. The harm is needless, serving no purpose but to weaken the college and jeopardize its future.

I begged all "who have the best interests of the college at heart" to apply the research on mobbing "critically and constructively toward restoring the college to organizational health, lest the lives of two professors be wrongly ruined, and lest a cloud of disgrace hang over the college’s future for as long as it may survive."

I was more sanguine then than I am now. I remember carrying a copy of that basic article to the office of Medaille's president, and sending a copy by post to each member of the college's governing board. None of them sent me an even perfunctory reply. Although the wrong done to Professors Warden and Watson was eventually rectified to some degree, the college never did come to grips with the poisonous academic context out of which the collective action against them had arisen. A lot of money was spent on the inauguration of the new president in 2003.

The point of making the Medaille comparison here is not to suggest that Ohio Northern will similarly cease to exist some years down the road if it does not turn back now this mobbing of a high-achiever on its faculty. Whether an institution survives and flourishes or languishes and dies depends on dozens of factors, many of which are outside the institution's control. The mobbing of two professors in 2001 is not at all the only reason, nor even the main reason, why Medaille University is closing its doors in 2023. If ONU goes under ten or twenty years from now, the mobbing of Scott Gerber will not be the only or main reason.

There is nonetheless a lesson for ONU in Medaille's demise. The lesson is that far from being just a quarrel over one professor's job, an academic mobbing is an organizational ill, a malfunction, a breakdown of normal academic dialogue, debate, and squabbling, a breach of healthy academic politics. It is a symptom of something organically wrong in at least one corner of the institution, probably in the institution as a whole. A publicly funded university or a private one with a huge endowment can more easily survive this organizational ill, being more able to afford the waste of resources a mobbing episode involves. A small private institution like Medaille or ONU, on the other hand, lacks the financial and academic capital required for such waste.

In the midst of the culture wars that continue to rage in academe throughout the Western world, I should note that the mobbings at Medaille in 2001 were not perpetrated by politically correct, postmodern academics. Mainly, they were the work of administrators and governing officials on the opposite side of the culture war, brash conservatives intent on turning Medaille into a paragon of classic academic virtue. In the ONU case, the mobbers appear to be mainly from the woke side of the culture wars, but that is fundamentally beside the point. Whatever the particular reasons for an academic mobbing, the very fact of it is a sign of an institution in trouble, an institution in need of reform.



Insight from Turkey

Over the past 30 years, researchers all around the world have taken up the challenge of explaining the nature, origin, and consequences of academic mobbing. I urge everybody concerned about Scott Gerber, the Pettit College of Law, and Ohio Northern University to search out the relevant literature online. There is lots of it, with abundant insights into the strange phenomenon that appears currently to be afflicting ONU.

A good starting point is a new article published in 2023 by Burcu Erdemir, formerly of New York University, now a professor at Middle Eastern Technical University in Ankara. The title is Destructive Leadership and Organizational Culture as the Predecessors of Academic Mobbing. I'll close with a quote from Erdemir's summary of the main findings of her research:

the perpetrators of mobbing were the directors who adopted autocratic and laissez-faire leadership styles and had good relationships with in-group members; academic culture was described with threat, fear, jealousy, humiliation, high-power-distance and collectivisms, all of which triggered mobbing; the targeted faculty were determined, strong, and self-confident in nature as well as impulsive and aggressive at times; mobbing predominantly ended in resignation, psychological and psychosomatic problems, and the lack of belonging; the top two coping strategies were getting social support and facing the mobbers; and the most frequent suggestions were for leaders to ensure meritocracy, for faculty to leave the mobbing-prone institution the soonest time possible, and for the state to create a mobbing law. It is recommended that democratic and transformative leadership styles be used and independent expert groups inspect universities.