Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Part 1: Ten years of Administrative Retaliation for Speaking Up to Defend the Freedom of Academic Expression Inside and Outside the Classroom.

An overview of the situation of a faculty member who dared to speak “truth to power” at Boston University. The university has a long and ignoble history of bureaucratic, financial, and personal retaliation against faculty members who write memos or speak up at meetings to express ideas the administration does not agree with. 

If you prefer a shorter summary of the past decade of financial and bureaucratic punishments, pedagogical failures, violations of academic freedom, verbal harassment, threats to destroy Prof. Carney's reputation via web postings and to bankrupt him with legal actions, and a variety of other forms of administrative misconduct and academic misbehavior at Boston University, see: “A Summary—Ten Years at Boston University,” available under June 2014 in the side menu on any page.


In the ten years between 2003 and 2013, I went from being awarded the highest possible performance evaluations for my teaching and mentoring of students, chairing and sitting on the most important university committees, and being asked to hold major administrative positions in my College, to suddenly being the recipient of the lowest possible evaluations, being removed from and banned from serving on committees, and being forced to resign my administrative position. The only important thing that changed in 2003 was the arrival of a new Dean to run the College and my decision to express my principled objections to a range of measures he proposed to lower admissions, academic, and curricular standards. There is something deeply, profoundly wrong with this picture, and something deeply, profoundly wrong with any university that functions this way.

But context is everything and I’d emphasize that the treatment I personally experienced is part of a much longer history of faculty-administration problems in Boston University that extends back four or five decades—and has affected the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of other faculty members during that period of time. Boston University has a long history of abusing, mistreating, and retaliating against faculty members who say things administrators don’t agree with. Google “John Silber” and “Howard Zinn” to read the highest profile, but by no means only, instance—in that case involving the administrative abuse of one of BU’s most distinguished history professors for more than three decades because his politics did not coincide with those of the administration. I was, in fact, warned about the faculty-hostile situation before I arrived at BU (many academic friends told me to avoid the school at all costs), and during my time here have witnessed a number of the most creative faculty members being driven away by administrative high-handedness and stupidity. The university continues to have faculty recruitment problems on this count. Although there have been a few administrative changes at the top in the past six or seven years, not much has actually changed in terms of the attitudes of some of the middle- and upper-level administrators who cut their teeth, and formed their anti-faculty attitudes, under the old system. Many of them are still in place and continue to perform their duties no differently than they did ten or twenty years ago. As any MBA “Introduction to Organizational Behavior” course teaches, a large bureaucracy fights change tooth and nail. It takes more than a few changes at the top, or a Kumbaya speech from a new President, to change an entrenched institutional culture. File under “Democracy in Iraq.”

The current President, a guy named Robert Brown, talks big about leaving the bad old BU behind, but, if my situation and the treatment I have received (some preceding, but much, even most, of it taking place during Brown’s administration) counts as evidence, he has not done anything to alter the unethical behavior, anti-faculty attitudes, and anti-intellectual understandings of the function of a university at the middle- and upper-management levels. Most of the faculty think Brown is simply too naïve to understand the depth of the problems he inherited—or too imperceptive about human nature. (His background is in science.) Others say he is afraid to make real changes. For a good sardonic laugh, look up what happened to the man who preceded Brown, a guy named Daniel Goldin, who announced that he was actually going to “clean house at BU” and that he intended to remove the worst-behaving individuals in middle- and upper-management and put the university on a completely new path. He made the announcement one day, and a few weeks later was canned—by the very individuals he sought to remove! They went to the Board of Trustees and had him fired! Many BU faculty members consider it a “lesson learned” for Brown. He learned it was OK to talk a good line, as long as he did not actually rock the boat by doing anything to threaten the entrenched powers. (There’s only a skeleton account of this on the internet, but enough to read between the lines, since as much as possible was hushed up by the university with a multi-million dollar buy-out and a non-disclosure agreement. That’s BU’s customary way to deal with “problems.” They buy silence and keep them out of the paper with payoffs. There are lots of unmarked graves.)

Well, that’s the university I’ve devoted the best part of my career to for something like 22 or 23 years. Everything went terrific for me for the first thirteen or fourteen of them, and I received the highest possible annual evaluations for all of the obvious reasons: I am one of the most prolific, high-profile scholars in the entire university. My books have been translated into seven languages. I have participated in scholarly and popular events all over the world. Internally, at Boston University, I was entrusted with the most important and highest-level committee assignments, and asked to speak at major university functions. My classroom teaching and professional mentoring of students was judged to be superb—and my student evaluations have been (and continue to be) among the best in the university. Prior to 2003, I was even asked to play several administrative roles, serving as the Director of the program I teach in for close to a decade, and serving as department Chairman during the regular Chairman’s leave of absence.

But everything—and I do mean everything—changed in 2003, following the appointment of a new Dean (the highest administrative position in my college). He was an absolute terror—and a horror—as an administrator. Shortly after he moved into the office, he demanded a series of changes in graduate admissions, course requirements, and student evaluation and grading methods that would significantly lower academic standards in order to attempt to bring in more tuition dollars. (He was nothing if not candid about his reasons.)

If the Dean’s ideas were bad, his character and morals were worse. He was emotionally off the chart—with, as a psychologically-minded colleague put it, “major anger-management issues”—uncontrolled rants, rages, tirades, and explosions of anger, garnished with obscene language (“asshole” was the special term of endearment I personally earned) and actual physical threats—believe it or not. (“If I meet you in a dark alley and have a baseball bat, watch out…,” was one uttered at a gathering of faculty and staff members, and the friend who told it to me was pretty sure the Dean wasn’t talking about playing a night game of fungo with her; she was scared.) Morally speaking, the Dean was completely beyond the pale (guilty of an uncounted number of ethical and procedural violations). He administratively punished faculty “enemies” (his designation for anyone who wasn’t in favor of his changes or who asked embarrassing questions about his violations of procedure) and rewarded faculty “friends.” The first group had their leaves denied, their perquisites withdrawn, and was berated, yelled at, badgered, or as I say called obscene names or threatened with bodily harm. The second group was given high evaluations, pay raises, money for research and travel, promotions, and, yes, last but not least, teaching and service awards at Commencement. (Could someone make this stuff up? Would anyone believe it if it was in a novel or a movie?)

Absolutely everything was “personal” for this guy—and nothing too low or too unethical for him to stoop to doing it, including gaming the faculty evaluation and review system to achieve the results he wanted. To illustrate the depth of the Dean’s paranoia and retaliatory machinations, though it sounds comical to mention it, this guy even enlisted specific faculty members to serve as “spies” to report back to him if someone said something negative about him in a closed-door meeting, the better to speedily punish the offender. Needless to say, there were individuals willing to do this; there are always individuals willing to do such things.

I’d emphasize that both the Dean’s bullying personality and his thuggish behavior were established facts long before he was appointed, since he was appointed from within as they say, and had behaved similarly as a college faculty member and department Chair—and had, in fact, been forced to resign his Chairmanship a few years earlier after being charged with plagiarism. Only at BU could a faculty member guilty of that degree of academic misconduct be promoted to the Deanship a few years later. And only at BU could he continue in the Deanship with this sort of behavior, because virtually everyone on the faculty was either too afraid—or bought-off with bureaucratic bribes—to protest. Good old Boston University. The Dean was John Silber’s personal choice for the position of Dean, and nobody, but nobody, dared to argue with Silber.

It’s a basic principle of bureaucratic behavior that when the person at the top not only endorses shady practices, but pressures the people under him to achieve certain kinds of results, the sleaze can spread like an oil slick throughout the organizational flow chart. The Dean taught the people under and around him what was and was not acceptable behavior to deal with faculty “troublemakers” (another of his tender terms, directed at me personally on more than one occasion), and other college administrators (not all of them, but more than a few) were not slow to learn the lesson, particularly when they were being given raises, promotions, and awards for being good soldiers. Much of the same unethical behavior (tweaking faculty evaluations and reviews to achieve “desirable” results, punishing individuals who expressed reservations about the Dean’s plans to increase tuition income, etc.) started being practiced by administrators in my own department shortly after the Dean came to power, and these administrators or their successors continue many of the same shady practices right up into the present.

Leopards don’t change their spots and a situation like this does not magically heal itself if the person at the top leaves. In point of fact, the Dean had to resign his position in late 2006, after he was charged with a series of additional, unrelated ethical violations, including lying on his résumé. (Thanks to the predictable generosity of the university senior administration when it comes to supporting one of its own, even after these events, he was not drummed out of the university in disgrace, but remained on the faculty and continued to collect a fat salary—those tuition dollars he was so obsessed with pulling out of students’ pockets now being used to support him.) But, as I say, the Dean’s resignation didn’t change very much, given that most of the other administrators who had worked hand-in-glove with him to carry out his orders remained in place after his departure, and the additional fact that, by the time he stepped down, the practices he had pioneered had become generally accepted, especially by my department Chairman and most of the program Directors. In summary: even after the Dean stepped down, very little changed, particularly in my department.

It’s not hard to tell where this is headed. My mortal sin—like Howard Zinn’s two or three decades earlier, and like that of other fired or discredited Boston University faculty members before and after Zinn—was that, starting in 2003 and continuing right up through the present, I dared to argue against the lowering of academic standards and had the audacity to object to the ethical and procedural violations I witnessed or was told about. Just call me stupid. I made the mistake of speaking out on the basis of my intellect, my conscience, and my principles—not based on calculations of what would curry favor with the Dean and his successors, or with other college and university administrators.

A few others in my college also spoke up over the years, but it was never more than a handful. The overwhelming majority of college faculty and staff serve on renewable, limited-term contracts; they couldn’t possibly speak up about these things without being fired; but I was different. I had tenure. This kind of situation was, as far as I was concerned, the reason tenure existed: to allow a faculty member to speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves (particularly students who are unknowingly being defrauded of receiving a first-class education, even as they take out enormous loans to pay astronomical tuitions in the expectation of obtaining one), and to defend the highest possible pedagogical, procedural, and ethical standards (even as the administration headed pell-mell in the opposite direction). I spoke up at meetings; I wrote memos; I sent emails; I held face-to-face meetings with the Dean and his successors and with administrators inside and outside the college to express my concerns.

But, as should be clear by now, taking principled stands and reporting ethical issues has always been hazardous to one’s health at Boston University, and as the past decade of my experience proves, it continues to be extremely dangerous. The response of the entire administrative system at Boston University, right up to the present moment, has been to attempt to force me to shut up, and if I won’t be silenced, to savage me. I have been attacked and punished in every way possible—personally, professionally, pedagogically, financially, and emotionally. My annual evaluations (which, as I said, had been the highest in my department before I began speaking up) have been reversed and are now at the bottom; my pay has been docked; support for my research has been withdrawn; my student advisees have been taken away from me; my courses have been assigned to undesirable times (how about one class that meets 8AM and another that meets at 9PM, and on the same day—worse hours and a longer workday than the building custodian would be given) and impossible locations (all-too-easy to do to a film teacher—all you have to do is force him to show the films on a tiny TV so that students can’t read the subtitles—while other teachers’ classes, on the very same days and times, are assigned to a movie theater classroom); and, to add insult to injury, I have been abused and reviled—had my morals, character, and performance of my duties viciously attacked—in a series of truly unbelievable ceremonies of public and private humiliation (staged both behind closed doors and in public places to humiliate me in front of students, staff members, and junior colleagues).

Perhaps most unethically of all (though it’s hard to rank the circles of hell to which these individuals have descended), when my department program Director, my Chairman, the Dean whose conduct I have described, and others designated by them saw that I was not going to stop speaking up or writing memos no matter how much they docked my pay and lowered my evaluations, they held meetings with students to publicly criticize my teaching and the performance of my duties and instructed them to complain about me, with the student being pressured to submit a criticism of something I had published or said in class, with the administrator coaching the student what to say or actually editing or writing the text, all the while concealing the meetings and the coaching and editing sessions, with the goal of making the complaint look like it was spontaneously initiated and written by the individual student. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine how this affected my teaching and relationship with students. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture what a teacher’s classes are like after the students’ minds have been poisoned in this way—after this kind of toxicity has been created by a trusted administrator telling students vicious (and false) things about their teacher—or after a student has seen his or her teacher being yelled at and upbraided in a public place by an administrator.

Another strand of the retaliation involves censorship, or punishment directed against me if censorship fails, for what I have written or said. To give credit where credit is due, I want to acknowledge that the Dean whose behavior I have been describing apparently initiated the censorship plan. He deserves full credit as the first one to scream at me at the top of his voice, in private and public, that things I published be changed or suppressed, and was the first to threaten me with bureaucratic punishment if I did not comply. (Him to me, in his most bellowing, threatening voice: “There will be consequences ... there will be serious consequences….[if you don’t retract what you wrote].” And, of course, there were.) But, as I noted, the Dean was a master at getting others to do his bidding, and around 2004 or 2005, he enlisted my Chairman and the new program Director (I was forced out of my position as Director at the Dean’s insistence, of course) as his allies and surrogates, which ensured that the censorship efforts continued, and, in fact, even increased, after he was forced out of the Deanship.

It’s a well-known fact that a good part of my publication record involves reflections on issues affecting film and arts education in American universities. For close to a decade now, BU administrators have asserted their right to censor, suppress, edit, or otherwise meddle with what I publish or say on this subject—or, if censorship fails, to punish me (in my evaluations, pay, and perquisites) for what I have said or written. I have been forbidden to talk about certain things when I give interviews. I have been told what I can and cannot say in my classes. I have been told not to tell my students about the challenges of the job market. I have been told I should not have written confidential memos pointing out problems in my department. I have been told to remove my web site from the BU server because it had views about education that the administration disagrees with.

The catch-all criticism (and justification for the subsequent negative evaluations and hits on my pay) is that I am “not being a team player”—though why in the world I would want to be a member of this sort of intolerant, dictatorial, censorious, anti-intellectual, and unethical “team” has never been explained to me. I had thought I was hired to follow the dictates of my conscience in ethical issues and to think with my own brain in intellectual ones. I had thought that that’s what my job was: to think as originally and creatively as possible; but I was mistaken. BU clearly hired me to think with its administrators’ brains.

In terms of the censorship issue, if the facts weren’t so appalling, they might make for an absurdist black comedy. Since it may be good for a laugh, or at least to demonstrate that the BU administrators have no sense of humor, I’ll mention that the two pieces that subjected me to the most vicious administrative attacks and the most serious punishment (lowering my evaluations and pay based on my “uncollegiality”) were two interviews I gave: one was with a reporter from the UCLA Daily Bruin, titled “A Modest Proposal: Let’s Replace Film Production Programs with Majors in Auto Mechanics (at least majors would be able to get jobs...),” and the second was with a former BU student, titled: “About Art, Life, Hollywood, Independent Film, Critics, Professors, Universities, and How to Make a Fortune in Real Estate.” (I include excepts from each on later pages of this blog. Look for the titles there.) As the titles indicate, both were semi-comic in nature, but about serious issues—from the false values fostered by academics who fawn on celebrity speakers and host movie-star events; to the consequences of staffing the professoriate with Hollywood-trained (and entertainment-addled) writers and directors; to the pernicious effects of journalistic film reviewing on American film appreciation and commentary (and the bad effects of including newspaper reviewers on the faculty); to the shocking lack of intellectual content in most film production courses; to the dishonesty of film programs representing themselves as preparing students for meaningful careers. I was told in no uncertain terms—and with the financial and institutional penalties I have described—that these subjects were no-nos. They were things I was not supposed to say. They were bad for student recruitment; they would hurt enrollment; they could affect student morale; and heresy of heresies: what I said might actually encourage students to major in something other than film—an absolutely unthinkable outcome to administrators more interested in defending departmental turf—by maintaining course enrollments—than in helping students pursue their true callings. I was not allowed to say such things. Since this material appeared on several pages of my official faculty web site, I was given a formal, written order by my Chairman to take the entire site down, and given a deadline by which to do it. The over-the-top extremity of my Chairman’s demand—the fact that it also meant censoring hundreds of other pages of writing and interviews (probably close to a thousand pages in all) that did not contain material that had been objected to—or that could not possibly be objected to even by individuals as intolerant and narrow-minded as my college’s administrators—was central to the punishment. It would not punish me and my work sufficiently if I was forced to remove only five or ten or twenty pages of writing and interviews and was able to leave hundreds of other pages in place. I was told to remove everything I had published on the internet. I was told that if I did not immediately remove everything and shut down my faculty web site by a specific date given to me by the university Provost, my Dean, and my Chairman, the university would smear my name and attempt to destroy my professional reputation by making a posting attacking me on the internet, on the official Boston University web site. (See "A Tale of Two Schools" available in the side menu under the month of November 2013, for another perspective on this last threat, and further insight into the difference between the Boston University administration and that of any other university in America.)

I might as well add that when the censorship threats against me were initially made, my first response was to tell my Dean, Chairman, and everyone else that if they didn’t like what I said, and felt that their views needed more visibility and publicity, I would gladly engage in a public debate with them on these issues, and if they didn’t want to do that, I would be delighted to post their responses to anything I had said on my faculty web site that they disagreed with, complete and unedited, at any length they submitted them, prominently displayed next to my own statements so that no one could miss them. The offer was rejected out of hand (and jeered at as “a trick”). So much for the commitment to the free and open exchange of ideas at Boston University. No, no, no—dialogue, conversation, the expression of a range of views and opinions was emphatically not what BU administrators wanted. They demanded that their ideas and only their ideas, their views and only their views be represented. They repeated—frankly, I have to admit I’ve lost track how many times a BU administrator, month after month, year after year, angrily yelled it at me, both in public and in private, screaming at me in front of students in a hallway, in front of junior colleagues at a faculty meeting, or pounding the table in an office—that I was not to have published these opinions, and having published them, I was to be punished for having done it. The administration position was non-negotiable and unyielding. As my Chairman told me several times in front of the entire department faculty, if I wouldn’t take down the web site “voluntarily” (a new and different sense of the word than the one I was familiar with), university administrators would “bring in the lawyers” and do it themselves. He was not asking; he was telling. The web site would not be tolerated. I would be (and indeed, in fact, became and still am) the only Boston University faculty member not allowed to have a faculty web site in any shape or form. (I may well be the only faculty member in America not allowed by my university to have a faculty web site.) That the story of academic freedom of expression at BU. At last, BU is first and best at something--the censorship of faculty publications (which is, of course, what a web site is).

That's the BU way. If I didn't immediately comply with my Chairman's orders, my name and professional reputation would be smeared on the internet, and I would be financially destroyed and bankrupted with legal fees if I attempted to resist the administration's unilateral demands. That is the way Boston University treats its senior faculty. That is the way it enters into "negotiations" with its faculty members. B.U. administrators threaten to destroy them financially and to destroy their reputations if they hold another point of view about education. They give them drop-dead deadlines to comply with their censorship orders. These orders and the accompanying threats, it is worth mentioning, still stand to this day. Not one of them has been retracted or rescinded.

(I’ll pass over the sheer institutional stupidity and counter-productiveness of his fiat. My BU site was arguably the largest, most important, and most highly visible site by a BU faculty member. It was known all over the world, read by as many as 50,000 viewers a month, and was one of the major recruitment tools for BU’s own graduate programs. Now that it has been suspended and discontinued, all of the benefit it provided the university has, of course, been lost.)

It bears repeating that the financial, bureaucratic, and personal punishments administered to me have been doled out not for anything I have done or failed to do as a teacher, advisor, or mentor, but for the expression of my ideas, for my reports of ethical issues—in meetings, memos, and emails—and for the statements about film education I made in my writing and in interviews like the two I mentioned. To anyone who has devoted his entire professional career to academia, this is the most shameful, most destructive action a university can take: to punish a faculty member for the principled expression of his or her views. In my definition of it, this is the reason that a university exists, and the thing that most distinguishes a university from a profit-making corporation—namely, that its faculty are not only allowed, but as the very heart and soul of the performance of their duties are required to speak the truth and to defend the honesty and integrity of their dealings with others. That’s what it is to be a professional with professional standards of conduct, and not a wage-slave doing the bidding of a corporate boss to shill a product to turn a profit. But that distinction is clearly something administrators at Boston University are unable to grasp. My Dean (Tom Fiedler), my program Director (Roy Grundmann), my Chairman (Paul Schneider), and others treat my job as if it were about generating flattering press releases, not about telling the truth—and they are willing to punish me for my non-compliance with their gag-orders.

My point is that the issues these administrative actions raise have nothing to do with the merit of any particular idea I may express. My Chairman always told me, as justification for his censorship, that my ideas were “wrong” or “put things in a false light”—as if that made it all right to suppress them. Of course I disagreed with him; my ideas were not wrong. But the rightness or wrongness of my views is not what ultimately matters. What matters, supremely, to the lifeblood of the university is that I and other faculty members be accorded the right to express our ideas, to say what we honestly think and believe, without fear of censorship or punishment.

That’s what academic freedom is about—not about pleasing people, and certainly not about putting the acceptability of a faculty member’s ideas up for a vote—as my Chairman did before telling me that I was not allowed to publish what I had—and that I was being formally censored for having done it. Now that was an experience I’ll not soon forget—sitting through four months of department meetings where excerpts from my publications were projected on a screen, distributed in Xeroxed packets, and read aloud by my Chairman and others while, in an orgy of abuse personally orchestrated and presided over by my Chairman, I was called names, yelled at, and had my morals and character viciously attacked for what I had published. That’s how BU treats faculty who “think differently.” All I could think while the rigged, one-sided “show trial” went on (at an early point in the proceedings I was told that “no one is interested” in anything I might say in my own defense so that for most of the time I was forced to sit there and take the hurled abuse in silence) was that it was good practice if I—or any other BU faculty member who similarly said something BU administrators disagreed with—ever ended up teaching in China, Iran, or North Korea.

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End of Part 1
Part 2 appears on the following page.