January 27, 2009

Cases of political psychology

Southern Illinois University and the American Psychological Association (APA)

In this case, an SIUC faculty member was mobbed by the university administration with the help of some of her departmental colleagues because they disliked her opinions, which were expressed through grievances, guest columns and letters to the editor, speeches, union activism, and by joining in a suit with other faculty members against the board of trustees to protest the firing of a popular chancellor. As a result, her office was moved out of the department and her mail was stolen. Frequent whispering campaigns were held in the hallways by colleagues who quickly scattered behind slammed doors when she was sighted. She was unjustly blamed for negative tenure votes and missing department materials. The nameplate on her door was vandalized and she learned that she was referred to as "the little twerp" by some.

The university administration then hired a licensed psychologist who, the faculty member was told, would conduct counseling and conflict resolution for her deeply divided department, but who instead wrote a report for the administration indicating that the faculty member was destructive and in need of discipline and professional help. The administration disseminated the psychologist's report to over 20 people on the campus.

In this case, the psychologist made an unsubstantiated assessment of the faculty member based solely on what the faculty member's "enemies" had said about her. The psychologist made no effort to verify any of the rumors she had heard and instead wrote them as fact in her reports and made recommendations based on them. As part of the counseling and conflict resolution process, the psychologist also carried on e-mail communication with the faculty member but forwarded this communication to the university's administration without the faculty member's knowledge or permission. The psychologist never told the faculty member that there would be any limits to confidentiality nor did she tell her what process she would be following or that she would be writing reports to the administration. Obviously, if there had been any legitimacy to the psychologist's conclusions and report, the matter would have been handled privately and compassionately by the university's human resources staff.

After complaining about the psychologist, the faculty member was horrified to discover one day that someone was following her car and later saw correspondence between the administration and the psychologist's lawyer-husband suggesting that private investigators be used to seek a way to fire her. Indeed, notes associated with a meeting among university administrators and its chief counsel show that a detailed plan for her termination seemed to be in place.

The faculty member sued the provost, department chair, and psychologist in federal court for conspiring to chill her first amendment rights. She also sued the psychologist for malpractice and filed complaints against the psychologist with the American Psychological Association (APA). The three defendants in the federal lawsuit received legal defense services by the university. The federal lawsuit was settled out of court, with the faculty member receiving a public apology from the university, a year off with pay, and substantial monetary compensation. The malpractice lawsuit against the psychologist is still being prosecuted after five years. The psychologist's position in the claims against her is that consulting psychologists function as management consultants and do not have to follow the APA code of Ethics. Despite having a current state license to practice psychology, serving as head of a university's counseling center at the time, and holding offices in the American Psychological Association, this psychologist essentially didn't consider herself to be a psychologist and seemed to believe that only therapists need to follow ethical codes.

One of the most troubling aspects of this case is the scandalous lack of action by the APA. When the faculty member first filed a complaint with the APA Ethics Office, the Ethics Office opened an investigation and then dismissed it for lack of sufficient evidence. The faculty member then deposed the psychologist and sent the deposition testimony to the most renowned psychologist ethics expert in the U.S. who found numerous serious ethics violations by the psychologist. The faculty member sent the deposition transcript and the expert's report back to the APA and requested that the case be re-opened. This time the evidence was solid. Although the APA technically re-opened the case, it stayed the investigation when the psychologist was elected President of the Consulting Psychology Division of the APA. The APA claimed it was staying the investigation because there was pending litigation; however, it did not stay the investigation the first time, with pending litigation, when there was less evidence available and when the psychologist did not hold a high office. It has been 5 years since the faculty member first filed a complaint with the APA, and to this day, no known disciplinary action has been taken.

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