May 22, 2008

A personal account...

After working for the University for 23 years, I have finally been driven out. I gave up my tenure and resigned in July. Both Spencer, my husband and I have been having problems with our Department Head. This has been going on for five years now, but the proverbial (and literal) final blow came last November when I was assaulted by a co-worker (‘colleague’ is a label he does not deserve). It is quite a long and sordid tale, so I offer the abridged, and yet still long version here. For this story, we’ll call my assailant ‘Bernard’.

A few weeks before the ‘fateful incident’ the same ‘man’ had sent me an email that given my experiences at work the last few years, seemed very much like a threat. What prompted his email was this: In what turned out to be an act of sedition, I recklessly asked him to improve the training given to our teaching assistants (only some of whom speak English, and most of whom suck, but all of whom are among the best paid teaching assistants on campus), and he “cautioned me” not to criticize him. Apparently, striving for improvement and getting people to do their jobs is no longer what we do. He ignored several attempts by me to get him to explain, so I went to his office. I asked him to explain what he meant by his threat (on the day before Remembrance Day no less – lest we forget!) Well, looks like he forgot. He began yelling at me and accusing me of being abusive (!?) and then he slammed his door in my face. He’d have broken my nose if I hadn’t put my foot in the door. There were several awkward moments as he continued to yell, pushing on the door while I tried to figure out how to get me and my foot out of there without getting hurt. Bernard is not a large, nor as it turns out, a strong man. I managed to extricate myself without further physical injury.

Now, I suspect I’ve been very lucky in that the last time any human tried to hit me was when I was about 9. Being a pacifist probably helps. And even after 23 years of dealing with university kids fresh out of high school - some of whom are very unhappy when I fail them - this is the first time someone has tried to attack me at university. I had a very hard time coping. There were, of course, no witnesses.

[Aside: I bought a Siamese Fighting Fish (Betta Splendens) and named it Bernard as part of my own personal therapy. They have much in common my colourful little Bernie and the man who assaulted me. Both are: Small. Angry. Insignificant. AND wear a suit that looks 3 sizes too big. Curiously, I ended up having to buy a second fish because the first Bernard I bought did not survive the night in his new home. My family thought it particularly fitting since we had put him in a vase with a Peace Plant - Bernard couldn’t, apparently, live with the Peace. (Wee Bernie the fish, is now nearly 3 years old, and each time I talk to him I am reminded that I have survived, and he – the human Bernie – is still small, angry and insignificant. It may seem silly, but it helps me.)]

Without skipping a beat our obdurate Department Head suggested that if I felt unsafe having my assailant’s office just down the hall from me, *I* should be the one to move. My office was the last thing I had in that department that I valued since he had already taken or canceled everything else, and unfortunately he knew that. I went on a medical leave and did not return until after classes were over.

Not long after getting back to work I learned that the man who assaulted me had filed a grievance against ME for harassment. Is that A) ironic or B) what? Turns out, the correct answer was ‘B’. I seemed to be the only person surprised by this. I’m learning though. Human Resources refused to acknowledge my doctor’s orders for reduced duties (they really ARE evil, like Dilbert says), and the ever-vigilant Campus Security had conveniently omitted the entire criminal incident from their report – all they said was that I had had an email threat. After all, it’s hard to claim our campus is safe if people go around reporting assaults. Can’t have that. Besides, there’d be all this paperwork. It’s just easier to claim nothing happened. As if that wasn’t enough, THIS year I’d gone all out in trying to implement the university President’s “plan” for a rich undergraduate experience. My students loved it. Not to be outdone by the perversity of a pseudo-police unwilling to enforce law, my annual assessment from the Head pretty much trashed everything I did this year. In spite of the fact that what I do in my classes is publishable work, my teaching was assessed by my head as inadequate. The problem, you see is that I’ve been treating my students as individuals. This is apparently bad.

Still I persevered – after all, we live in modern times, no? Violence against women is no longer condoned, especially in an enlightened Science Faculty, and even more so during a time when there are almost weekly news stories about how we need more women in IT (information technology). And besides, I come from a long line of people that do not give up easily. Can you guess what happened next? Machiavelli would have felt right at home. The brand new Dean of Science found ME guilty of harassment. Somehow, I am to blame because Bernard felt the need to hit me. My punishment: I was to be banished (they forced me to move out of my office WHILE I was still on a medical leave); I was to enroll in courses that would teach me how to get along with people, and if I bothered poor Bernie again I could be fired. Interestingly, when Spencer (who is in the same department as me) asked the Dean why I had to move my office to a different building, and to the top floor no less (a point as far away from the students as was possible), the Dean told Spence it was so I could be close to my HUSBAND. Isn’t that progressive of him? After 23 years of professional service, I am still just a wife. That’s when I realized I would not survive five years under this man’s “leadership”, nor would my staying make any difference. Tyranny wins. Sigh.

Ah, but the story doesn’t end here. Oh no my weary friends, there’s more. Administrative positions at the university come up for renewal about every five years, and this year it was our Department Head’s turn. A man known to be dishonest (he was caught in a lie during his “re-appoint me” talk!), who is known to treat some people like royalty and relentlessly bully others, was,…wait for it….RE-APPOINTED for another five years. The Dean clearly has a use for the likes of him, and that can’t mean good things. Our department has gone from a place that used to supply graduates to some of the coolest places on the planet to work (Disney, Industrial Light and Magic, Jet Propulsion Labs, …) to one of which I am ashamed, and who’s graduates are wanted almost nowhere. And, it seems Spencer and I are not the only ones who feel this way. The department HAD about 45 faculty, among them 9 women. Besides me, we lost two other faculty this year (one woman; the other world-renowned in his field), and by my last count we will loose 6 more this year (2 of them also women, and none of them due to retirement). Those are only the ones I know about, there may well be others. Tragically, Spencer is still there, but since he has a few years left before retiring, he has arranged to be one of the six leaving this year. This summer Spencer will be moving to the Faculty of Environmental Design. I think it will be interesting to work with architects. Spencer’s not so sure – but it’s bound to be better than working with reprobates. Meanwhile, the department that used to be one of only two in the country visited by Bell Labs recruiters continues to circle the drain.

So the moral of the story is…. (some) Universities remain mediaeval institutions where men get to be men, and women, well, they need to remember their place. It leaves me, for the first time as an adult, without a job. It is hard not to be bitter (as if the last two pages weren’t clue enough), but I’m working on it. Spencer and I have learned much about who our friends are, and it will take us a long time to heal. I know I for one will never again offer my loyalty freely to a place – only to people. On the plus side, through my experiences I have met a whole pile of very nice people who have been similarly abused by this University (not just women), and when I have some time I plan to write a book about it. It seems this institution has quite a history of what mobbing and bullying expert Ken Westhues calls “the envy of excellence”. He says that most people targeted in this way possess a perilous combination of traits: excellence AND integrity. A menacing pair of traits, huh? Clearly something a university must control.

In the mean time, if anyone knows of any job openings



Anonymous said...

Universities ARE medieval institutions. Except that they have themselves been bullied into pretending to be businesses. Except that British (and many other) universities are also state institutions and part of a Stalinist command economy (RAE, QAA, etc.) Somehow they manage to combine the worst of all three.

I look forward to the demise of this obsolete monstrosity. Someday academics will be free professionals networking on the Internet, dealing directly with students, and university bureaucracies and hierarchies will go the way of the monastery.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,
I too was 'bullied out' after 18 years as a tenured full professor at a midwestern US university. Some of the same tactics were used with me: moving my office in the dead of winter to an office yes-on the top floor--so I "could be closer to students" (not true). Also, had administrators who projected ALL their shadows onto me--I was accused of being the bully (but only after I was writing and publishing about it). Oh, yes, and in spite the lying and trust and self-esteem erosion tactics my administrators spearheaded against me until I had to go on medical leave, I was told I was the one who needed "interpersonal skills." I endured over 5 years of this-so I could get time in rank and well, just Live! In the end, I decided that I needed my life back and I retired (early). Like you, this is the first time in my adult life since college that I am not employed. For people who have not gone through this ordeal, it's hard for others to understand the complexity of emotions and levels of distress--- and I have quickly learned that most therapists don't know about mobbing. It's going to be while before all what's happened to me is processed, integrated and healed. Wish you peace.