May 18, 2020

Was This Professor Dangerous?

Michael Jay Shively was rigorous — on that much, everyone agrees.
Over his 26-year career at Utah Valley University, the biology professor took pride in the anatomy courses he built and the hard work they required.
Students who made it through often credited Shively with their successful medical careers. He prepared them for the demands of urgent care or of the emergency room. Other students were less charmed by his deadly multiple-choice exams. The workload, they felt, was beyond reasonable.
He also butted heads with colleagues, including a junior faculty member in the department, who saw him as an imposing micromanager.
For a while, frustrations with Shively stayed dormant. Last year, they erupted. On March 25, 2019, Shively received a single-page letter from the president that listed six types of misconduct. The letter accused him of arbitrary and capricious course requirements and grading, and of violating the academic freedom of colleagues. The letter also accused him of  intimidating and threatening students and employees.
That day, he was suspended and escorted from campus.
An investigation ensued. According to his family, Shively grew anxious and depressed. He felt investigators were withholding details that would enable him to defend himself.
Nearly five months after he was suspended, before a decision was announced, Shively died by suicide. He was 73. This February, his widow sued Utah Valley, claiming the investigation had caused Shively to suffer “a spiraling decline.” Utah Valley denies any responsibility for Shively’s death.
...In early 2019, a group of students who’d been privately swapping concerns about Shively decided to speak up. A couple began collecting stories and eventually sent complaints through EthicsPoint, the university’s anonymous reporting portal, as well as emailing administrators directly.
On January 4, a visually impaired student filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, alleging that Shively had failed to accommodate him in a timely manner. (The case was closed in July after the office found insufficient evidence to support the discrimination claim.)
The next day, Steve Baker, a recent Utah Valley graduate and former department assistant, filed a complaint through EthicsPoint.
...That the university grossly mismanaged the investigation, and that the complainants raised legitimate and serious concerns. 
That someone can be a good friend to some, the faculty member wrote, while quietly abusing others.
What looks like guidance to a senior colleague can feel like control to the more junior. A professor’s high expectations can feel like impossible ones to students.
And what looks like discretion during an investigation can feel like isolation to the person under the microscope. Allegations can feel like an avalanche.
You might not see the damage. You might not have meant to do it. But it’s done.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free and confidential support for people in distress, and for those who need to help someone else. To reach the hotline, call 1-800-273-8255. More information can be found at

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