Monday, March 18, 2013

Public Shaming as an Administrative Technique

One of the techniques Boston University administrators have elevated to a fine art is what might be called “the ceremony of public shaming.” Over the last ten years I have been loudly and angrily screamed at, called names, and had my character, morals, and performance attacked—both behind closed doors (in department and program meetings in front of junior colleagues, staff members, and secretaries) and in public places (in front of students, their parents, and strangers)—more times than I can count.

A variation on the same technique is for the university to make a public internet posting intended deliberately to embarrass and discredit a faculty member. Boston University administrators have threatened to do that to me as well. (See "A Tale of Two Schools" in the November 2013 postings for more on that particular technique of public shaming.) Another variation is for the university to embroil the faculty member in money- and spirit-draining legal battles against the university to defend what is supposedly already guaranteed by his tenured appointment--in this case by initiating a series of legal battles against me forcing me to defend my academic right to freedom of expression. Boston University administrators have also threatened me with that very public (and very expensive) form of punishment. (See the introduction to "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats--Being Banned in Boston" for an overview of some of those actions.)

As far as I can make out, the administrative goal has been to make my life so painful and my relationship with my colleagues and students so untenable that I would be forced to resign my position, tenure or no tenure—or, in the case of the ceremonies of administrative abuse staged in front of students, that I would be forced to teach to an empty or willfully hostile classroom: Either no one would enroll in my classes or the students who did would have learned as their first lesson, even before they walked into the classroom for the first time, that there were “problems” with me or my teaching. Always bear in mind that for an administrator to berate and dress-down a professor, whether the screaming session takes place in a staff meeting or a stairwell, hallway, or classroom, has a much larger effect than the size of the immediate audience. Colleagues are not slow to learn the lesson (and to communicate to one another) that so-and-so is on the Dean’s, Chairman’s, or program Director’s “shit list,” and to draw the conclusion that they themselves will not only not get into trouble, but may be rewarded, for treating the colleague in a similarly hostile and adversarial way in their own interactions with him or her. Students, on their part, who are forced to eavesdrop on the public dressing-down of a professor in a public hallway or classroom space quickly spread the word to other students about what they saw and heard being said about their professor by his nominal superior.

I have not been alone in being the recipient of this kind of treatment in the College of Communication in the last decade. A number of my colleagues experienced it—and succumbed to it. Their sin, like mine, was only that they expressed their principled views in memos, in meetings, or in their writing, or cast a dissenting vote on an important issue—and incurred the wrath of an administrator who didn’t like what they said or did. In short, the acts of administrative vilification succeeded in their goal, in many cases, and between 2003 and the present a number of the best and most thoughtful faculty and staff members in my College took early retirement or jumped to jobs in other institutions. Only one or two of them still teach at Boston University. The institution was the loser, needless to say, and their students were, of course, the losers most of all. They lost independent-minded, courageous, principled, and moral mentors.

The public and private screaming sessions I have personally experienced have taken place too many times, and occurred in too many different settings, to list them all, but glancing through my files, I found two specific instances where I submitted formal, written memos protesting the treatment I received. I reprint them here, unchanged and unedited. Though both of these examples involve my being yelled at and criticized in public places, I’d note that three other site pages describe similar ceremonies of humiliation organized and presided over by my current Dean (Thomas Fiedler), my past and current Chairmen (Charles Merzbacher and Paul Schneider), and my Film Studies program Director (Roy Grundmann) in a large number of college, department, and program meetings.  For those examples, see the pages titled “Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, ThreatsBeing Banned in Boston,” and "How (Not) to Conduct a Meeting—Shouts, Name-Calling, Personal Attacks, Threats, Punishments," and  "Negotiating with Boston University, Part 2," the first two available via the side menu under the listings for March 2013 and the third available in the side menu under the listings for February 2015. —Ray Carney

* * *

February 21, 2006

Dean John Schulz
Office of the Dean
College of Communication
640 Commonwealth Avenue

Dear John:

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, but wanted to get this to you as soon as I could find some free time. I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation in the hall of the College of Communication building following the January 24 faculty meeting. It was, for obvious reasons, extremely upsetting and demoralizing to me. I wanted to allow a “cooling down” time to make sure that my response (and, I hope, your reading of it) would be reasoned and temperate, but I couldn’t possibly let your remarks to me on that occasion (and on previous occasions) pass without comment.

Let me begin by saying that, once again, I offer you an olive branch. I have done this several times in the past and had hoped that you had been able to accept the offer and wipe the slate clean, but what took place that afternoon brought home to me the chasm that still separates us.

As we stood outside the mailroom, you minced no words in expressing your personal animosity to me, your hostility to my performance of my role in the college, and your scorn for my published work. Since a little time has gone by, permit me to bring the event back to memory in some detail. It’s not hard for me to recall your exact words, since our encounter was one of the most painfully memorable I have ever endured. While I stood there and listened without responding with more than a few words or sentences to each point, you spent ten or fifteen minutes –

  • telling me in a heated tone of voice “I hate you” (beginning your personal comments with that phrase and subsequently punctuating your remarks four or five different times with those exact words)

  • telling me that you knew I had been an officer in the Navy before becoming a professor, and that the Navy must have “made a mistake” in appointing me because I was “not honorable”

  • telling me that I was a “disgrace” as a  human being

  • telling me that I was “disloyal” to the college

  • mocking the size of my web site and the length of some of the memos I have written

  • denigrating my web site as “bragging”

  • telling me that my vision of education, as articulated on my web site, amounted to turning it into an adolescent game of having students “find themselves”

  • telling me that my philosophy of teaching was as jejune as “something a football coach would say”

  • concluding by saying that these were not only your own personal views, but that you had consulted with my colleagues and “more than ten of them” felt the same way you did in terms of your previous comments

Since I saw and heard how worked up you were, and since most of your statements were couched in a jeering, contemptuous tone, I realized that there was little point in responding. My responses were confined to a few brief comments inserted here and there in the vein of “Oh, John,” or “That’s not fair,” or “Please, John, let’s not reduce things to these kinds of comments.” I told you, as calmly and politely as I could, when you finished, that ad hominem remarks represented a cheapening of our discussion. I begged you to rise above this tactic, and then said to you that as a gesture of good–will I wanted to shake your hand and wipe the slate clean, in hopes we could make a fresh start on our relationship. At which point you began the attack all over again –

  • telling me you refused to shake my hand and ridiculing what you called the “hypocritical” and “deceitful” gesture of my offering it to you

  • then launching into a further personal attack for my having given you a hug six months before at the end of a long (and, at points, fairly similar and equally heated) meeting in your office. You talked about the “hypocrisy” of the hug and how it was no different from the “hypocrisy” of the proffered hand–shake. (Although I didn’t reply, I might as well remind you that the reason I gave you the hug on that occasion, which I explained to you at the time, was that I had been touched by your candor in telling me, near the end of that earlier conversation, how painful it had been for you when you had had to step down as department chairman after having been caught plagiarizing.)

I would note that all of the preceding events took place not in your or my office, but in the public hall in front of the College mailroom. It was a little before 5:30 PM on a Tuesday and students were walking past us in both directions on their ways to or from classes. (You may remember that one of my own students came up to me in the middle of your comments to tell me that he was waiting to see me. I had seen him standing behind you for several minutes prior to that, eavesdropping, waiting for a pause in your remarks, and when he came closer I had to shoo him away by telling him you and I were engaged in a “private conversation” and that he should wait for me upstairs outside my office.)

John, this is no way to treat a senior faculty member. Raising your voice and launching a personal attack of this sort would be inappropriate behind closed doors in the privacy of your office, but it is doubly inappropriate when conducted in a public hallway in front of passing students.

Furthermore, making comments about me to my junior colleagues or asking them questions about my character and motives is unprofessional. Talking to others about me is not only something you admitted to doing at several points in this conversation and other conversations with me, but something I have been independently informed about by some of the people you’ve made the comments to or asked the questions of. You have gone to my colleagues and others and asked them if I have expressed criticisms of you to them, if I have carboned them on a particular email message that you objected to, or what they thought of me.

It’s bad enough to criticize me for expressing my sincere and principled concerns about the direction the Film Studies program, the Film and Television Department, and the College has taken since you were appointed Dean, but it seems even worse to rely on – or to encourage – gossip and tattling as a means of attributing “disloyalty,” “sneakiness,” or “betrayal” to me (to use your own terms from various conversations with me).

The damage done is both personal and institutional. Individuals who speak their minds (the “trouble–makers,” as you once referred to them in a conversation with me where you told me how you were making progress “getting rid of them”) have been forced into other jobs or into retirement, been moved into positions of decreased authority, or been penalized in other ways. In my own case, after seventeen years of teaching at Boston University and more than a decade of directing the Film Studies program, last year, after expressing disagreement with you and the chairman about the lowering of graduate admissions and grading standards, concerns about the enforced standardization of course syllabi and grading standards, and changes in Film Studies courses, curriculum, and mission, I was given the lowest evaluation I have ever received at Boston University. I have seen my “merit” pay taken away. I have been yelled at, berated, and belittled (as detailed above and on many other occasions – in person, on the telephone, and via email) and I have been publicly humiliated when you have made snide remarks about my performance or the state of the program I directed in front of my colleagues. The effects of such a policy of harassment and intimidation on faculty morale (and not only the morale of the individual faculty member being criticized) go without saying.

But I would argue that the more important consequences are institutional. You hold an immense amount of power over the livelihood, professional successes, salaries, and promotion opportunities of the faculty and staff under you. Even the perception that differences of opinion about policies and programs are frowned on – let alone will be retaliated against – has a fatally chilling effect on the expression of divergent views. Individuals bite their tongues and remain silent in debates for fear of accidentally pushing one of your “hot buttons” (in the phrase some faculty members use to describe how they verbally tip–toe around certain issues in your presence to avoid “setting you off”). Worse yet, individuals are pitted against each other, and the cultivation of gossip and innuendo replace normal channels of communication and evaluation, as individual faculty and staff members are encouraged to report (what you call) “disloyal” statements, “sneaky” comments, or things said “behind your back.” This loss is greater than the mere reigning in of one opinion or point of view; it represents a diminishment of openness and free expression for the entire culture. The university becomes more like a corporation in which everyone is expected to march in lockstep, and less like the free marketplace of ideas it is supposed to be. The message quickly goes out that if someone wants to get along, they had better go along. The message goes out that when you as an administrator express an opinion about a program or policy, individual faculty members should vote to ratify your proposal, even when they have reservations about it, to avoid future problems with you. Critical inquiry, discussion, and debate wither and die on the vine. This is anathema to the conduct of a university. If an academic institution is about anything, it is about the free and open exchange of opinions and ideas. To equate “loyalty” with agreement or the absence of dissent is the greatest possible loss.

John, again I hold out my hand to you. I cannot promise that I will agree with you about every issue and decision, but I do promise that I will work to do everything in my power to improve the students, the faculty, the curriculum, and the program I am involved with at Boston University to the utmost of my ability.


Ray Carney
Professor of Film and American Studies

* * *
I would note that the “peace offers” I make at the beginning and the end of the preceding letter went unanswered and unreciprocated. The Dean refused my offer of conciliation, and the public (and private) abuse I endured continued unabated, as the date of the following letter demonstrates, through 2010 and beyond. —R.C.

* * *
June 23, 2010

Paul Schneider, Chair
Department of Film and Television
College of Communication
640 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston University
Boston, MA 02215

Dear Paul,

Though I have generally made it my policy in the past few years to “bite my tongue” and neither complain nor object when I have been subjected to abuse from administrators and colleagues, I didn’t want to let the events that took place last Friday afternoon pass without comment.

I am sure you remember what I am referring to—the public dressing-downs which you loudly administered in front of others. The first time, I was standing a step or two below the second floor landing of the West stairway, twenty feet above you, and you were standing on the ground floor in the stairwell shouting your criticisms of my performance up at me. The second time, ten minutes later, you were sitting behind your desk and I was standing in your office doorway, having just concluded a conversation with your administrative assistant about an unrelated matter, at which point you continued the critique of my performance that you had begun in the stairwell. I not only take exception to the fact that, rather than conduct a civilized, polite conversation with me, you chose to shout out your criticisms of my alleged professional deficiencies; but that, on both occasions, you chose to do it in front of current or former students (and anyone else who may have been in the vicinity to overhear your words). In the first incident, while you were upbraiding me in the stairwell, shouting up at me from the floor below, a group of students was standing (frozen in place, stunned and surprised by what they were overhearing) just behind me and to my left. In the second incident, not only was your administrative assistant, a former undergraduate student of mine, sitting at her desk only a few feet behind me (much closer to me than you were), listening to everything you said about me, but students passing in the hall four or five feet away from me were free to eavesdrop on your criticisms of me.

Paul, this is not an acceptable—or respectful—way to treat a senior colleague. These are not the right places—or the right ways—to inform a professor of his alleged professional deficiencies. Beyond that, to publicly embarrass and humiliate a teacher in front of students (or in front of anyone else, for that matter) is wrong, no matter how strongly you feel about the necessity of administering the critique—and both the volume and the emotion of your voice made it clear to me and everyone around me that you felt very strongly.

Please accept my sincere best wishes for a restful, restorative, and creative summer.


Ray Carney
Prof. of Film and American Studies

P.S. I am at my house in xxxxx xxxxxx right now, without internet access or email contact, so have decided to mail this note to you.