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Math Profs Get Mobbed

Kenneth Westhues, 2007

To judge by emails sent to me and news that reaches me, departments of mathematics are second only to those of music and fine arts in the incidence of workplace mobbing. Many of the brightest mathematicians seem to rankle mightily not only their colleagues but even more, the bureaucratic minds increasingly dominant in university administrations. This may be an instance of the conflict between artists and technocrats that Patricia Pitcher described in her important book.

EDMONDS. The case that launched my research program on academic mobbing was that of Jack Edmonds, an eminent member of my home university's Department of Combinatorics and Optimization. Edmonds was ousted in 1991. In response to worldwide protest, the university reinstated him in 1993, with half salary and no duties. Winner of the von Neumann Theory Prize in 1985, Edmonds was awarded an honourary degree from Syddansk University (Denmark) in 2006.

BONDY. In 1995, another prominent mathematician at Waterloo named Adrian Bondy was ousted: formally dismissed for ethical misconduct. Ironically, he had publicly supported Edmonds's ouster. The circumstances of Bondy's elimination were no less bizarre than in Edmonds's case, enough that the iconic Paul Erdös resigned his honourary degree from Waterloo, Vasek Chvatal wrote a poignant lament for the demise of decency in academe, and Jeffrey Shallit published a scathing critique of the arbitration award that upheld Bondy's firing. Bondy has contrinued his successful career at l'Université Claude-Bernard in Lyons, France.

LEPOWSKY. Click here for a video of an informative discussion of workplace mobbing and bullying. Participants include not only psychologists Gary and Ruth Namie, leaders in the campaign for education and legislation on work abuse, but also William Lepowsky, a mathematician at Laney College in Oakland, California, who was targeted for harassment, punishment, and humiliation by college administrators in 2001. Thanks to Lepowsky's rare combination of book smarts and social skills, the attempt to mob him out of his job backfired on the aggressors.

BECKER. Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale, Jerry Becker has excelled in teaching, scholarship, grantsmanship — just about all aspects of his work except for pleasing his departmental colleagues. John Gravois described Becker's troubles in his Chronicle article in 2006, and I gave some background in an online article about the anti-mobbing movement among professors at Carbondale, and Becker's important role in it.

BERMAN. Available online is my essay, "Stephen Berman: Scapegoat," which analyzes, on the basis of the arbitration documents, the formal dismissal of Saskatchewan's leading mathematics professor in 2006. Published with the essay are critical responses I have invited from Berman's colleagues. I stand firmly behind my analysis in terms of the mobbing conceptualization, and therefore welcome and encourage publication of complementary and contrasting interpretations.

VIRO & JÖRICKE. Thanks to a colleague on North America's west coast, I have learned of the resignation-under-duress in 2007, of two prominent mathematicians at Uppsala University in Stockholm: the Russian Oleg Viro and the German Burglind Jöricke. As is common in academic mobbing cases, their foreign accents and imperfect command of the vernacular tongue appear to have been factors in their elimination. Viro has made relevant documents and transcripts available in English online (click here for numerous documents in Swedish). The European Mathematical Society has collected critical commentaries, including a strong critique by Karl-Heinz Fieseler et al., and published an account by Ulf Persson and Martin Raussen on p. 15 of its Newsletter (June 2007). Aisha Labi has published a summary of the Viro and Jöricke cases in The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 25, 2007).