Tuesday, April 21, 2015
Part 7—Threats, Ultimatums, Demands for Secrecy
Controlling Faculty Expression
What Will Not Withstand the Scrutiny of Daylight
Must be Done Secretly and Under Cover of Darkness
Boston University has a long and inglorious history, beginning in the 1970s and extending into the present, of finding ways to control its faculty members’ expressions and of defeating and legally getting around the supposed protections of the tenure system in particular. I have received a surprising number of inquiries from faculty members and administrators at other universities who read the blog regularly and want to know more about the treatment I have received in response to the reports of ethical misconduct and professional misbehavior I have filed and the attempts of Boston University administrators to ostracize, marginalize, and remove me from the decision-making process in the university. This is the final installment in a seven-part posting touching on some of the ways I have, as I note in a previous posting, been “bullied, beat-up, and bludgeoned administratively,” “turned into a persona non grata,” and “effectively expunged, banned, and prevented from doing anything but teaching my courses” in my College. —Ray Carney
There are many things wrong with the ways I and other Boston University faculty have been treated. To terrorize and threaten a faculty member to the point that you hound him away from meetings; to berate him in public places in front of students and others to destroy his reputation; to hold secret and surreptitious meetings with his students to smear his name, poison his relationship with them, drive them out of his classroom, attack his competence, and try to talk them out of taking his courses or studying with him; to ostracize him, tell him that his reports will not be acted upon or forwarded, and exclude him from events; to violate the privacy and confidentiality of his emails and censor what he is allowed to say inside and outside the classroom, what he can publish, and what he can discuss in interviews; to punish him financially, bureaucratically, and pedagogically for reporting problems and speaking his mind on important issues—these and similar actions are disgraceful, and are all the more reprehensible when they are directed against a senior, tenured, highly prolific faculty member with a devoted student following.
Boston University administrators have engaged in a host of unscrupulous and unprofessional actions and a wide range of unethical activity in response to my memos, reports, and statements—and, more recently, in response to these blog postings. Boston University has a lot to be embarrassed by. Its administrators have a lot to be ashamed of.
But I would argue that there is something worse than the specific acts of mistreatment I have been subjected to. It is the administrative culture, the attitudes and beliefs of middle-level administrators, that make such actions possible. For thirty-five years, the previous President of Boston University, John Silber, created and fostered a culture of fear, intimidation, backroom-dealing, and retaliation against independent-minded faculty—or anyone he took a dislike to for any reason at all. Google “Howard Zinn” to see how one of the most important historians of the era was mercilessly tormented because the President of Boston University disagreed with his politics. Silber assembled a large legal department to do his underhanded bidding. He hired, trained, and instructed them in methods that could be used to threaten faculty to bring them into line or to terminate their appointments outright. The lawyers were his right hand in ensnaring, entrapping, and exercising his power over faculty. He taught the members of the legal department to work hand-in-glove with senior- and middle-level administrators “to build cases”—however specious and ad hoc they might be—to justify the removal of faculty who dared to think or act differently than he did. In the process, he created an institutional culture of fear and intimidation. To be a faculty member at BU was always to have to look over your shoulder to make sure you didn’t alienate someone who had the ear of the President or his cronies.
After his more than thirty year reign of terror, Silber was finally replaced by a new President a few years ago, but the sad fact is that, despite the statements of his successor about creating a “new BU,” the current administration has, deliberately or inadvertently, left large chunks of its middle-management past in place throughout the university—including the old-guard legal department. It is a terrible error that is difficult to understand. If personal insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, then institutional insanity is keeping the same people in the same positions but expecting them to do their jobs differently. Maybe there were just too many vested interests fighting to continue in their positions for it to be safe for the new President to remove them. Maybe the current administration is haunted by the example of the man who was supposed to be Silber’s replacement, before the present President. As President-elect, Daniel Goldin announced months after he had been selected and only a few weeks before he was scheduled to be installed in the office that he intended to “clean house” administratively. He would be bringing in new middle- and upper-level management teams. And within days of the announcement, though the invitations to his investiture ceremony had already been sent out, and he had already sold his house to move to Boston, he was told that he was no longer going to be President. The ceremony was cancelled and he was paid off not to sue and to sign a non-disclosure agreement never to talk about the sudden cancellation of his appointment. Maybe that is part of the explanation for the timidity of the man who was appointed in his stead.
Whatever the cause, the sad fact is that the culture of administrative underhandedness and retributory punishment that Silber put in place continues on in full force at Boston University. Boston University is still a place where administrators can’t tolerate dissent, and where punishments are doled out to faculty for independent thought and speech. What a colossal waste of time and spirit. How many meetings have been devoted to discussing how to get around the fact that I have tenure? How much time has been devoted to “digging up dirt” to use against me (as my previous Dean brazenly told me to my face was his avowed goal)? How many meetings have been held to decide how to contort my class schedule, room assignments, and course registration listings to punish me? How many meetings have been held to discuss how to force me to remove my faculty web site from the university server and how to word the threats I was issued? How many meetings were devoted to poisoning the atmosphere of my classroom and turning my students away from me? What a waste of energy and effort and time that could have been used creatively.
But it is more than that. The real problem is how this administrative system of backroom scheming, surreptitiousness, and deviousness undermines the entire culture of the university. Faculty become afraid to speak their minds in front of a powerful administrator or to vote on the other side of him on an important issue. They become afraid to communicate freely. Even beyond the fact that their emails are subject to be read and their phone calls monitored by administrators, they know that the legal office is prepared to spring into instantaneous action if they incur the wrath of an important administrator or two. They know that if they are accused of something there will never be an objective investigation of the actual facts and events—an investigation conducted by their peers, by members of the faculty government, or by neutral outsiders. Faculty don’t have those rights at Boston University. The BU way to deal with anyone who incurs the disfavor of an administrator is with a unilateral administrative decision framed as an ultimatum: The faculty member—senior or junior, with or without tenure—is simply informed that he is subject to being removed. He is given an ultimatum one fork of which is a threat (in the typical BU way). He is to choose one of two options and is given a deadline to respond. Option one is to capitulate—to submit his resignation and agree to sign a non-disclosure agreement never to discuss what was done to him. Option two is the threat, the thermonuclear option—to enter into “death by litigation”—to submit himself to the full fury of the BU legal department taking legal action to “terminate for cause” with the support of the BU public relations office issuing press releases maligning him and supporting the university position. Exactly as the BU lawyers intend, it’s a non-choice choice.
Given the fact that BU faculty have no right to an objective, unbiased investigation of anything they are charged with, and are never allowed to present their side of the situation in front of a neutral party (short of in a courtroom), they know that they don't stand a chance inside the university against whatever charges the university lawyers decide to bring against them. And they stand an even slimmer chance of defending themselves outside the university in a court of law. It’s a foregone conclusion that they can’t possibly defend themselves legally against whatever the university is charging them with, no matter how capricious, arbitrary, and unjust the charges are. For someone making the salary of a faculty member, to fight a corporation like Boston University in court is, for all practical purposes, out of the question. Faculty members don’t have a team of lawyers working for them—and can’t possibly afford to hire a team to defend themselves. And they don’t have a press office at their beck and call to issue press releases on their behalf.
That is why, from the Silber era to the present day, the Boston University administration has been able to behave this way. It treats faculty it wants to get rid of ruthlessly, thuggishly, and disrespectfully; it makes threats; it levels charges; it announces its decision to dismiss them, which it denies them any right to appeal—but since it has all the power on its side, it gets away with the thuggish behavior. Not the least important part of getting away with it is demanding that the faculty member sign a non-disclosure agreement as the final coup de gras. His classes and students are taken away from him the same day he receives the ultimatum. His office is taken away from him. He is given thirty days (and often less than that) to choose option one or option two. And, in the end, he is not even allowed to tell anyone what has been done to him and how he has been treated.
BU does this on regular basis. It is only not more widely known because it is kept secret. This very scenario, in fact, played out a few weeks ago in my own department with a senior, tenured colleague. He incurred the wrath of the administration (and trust me; I know the details intimately; whatever his personal merits or demerits, this particular case was a completely fabricated, put-up job; but he never had a chance to investigate and ferret out what was really going on—the dictatorial one-sidedness of the BU lawyer-scripted and stage-managed accusation-and-judgment system and the quick deadline to avoid imminent legal action are both designed to prevent that). His classes and students were taken away from him. He was presented with options one and two in writing by my Dean—a thuggish ultimatum either to submit his resignation posthaste or face the university in court—and a short deadline to make the choice before the university unleashed its threatened power on him. There was no due process. There was no investigation. There was no objective, unbiased examination of the issues by neutral third-parties. (Talk about a conflict of interest: The Boston University method is to have the university lawyers themselves conduct the so-called “investigation” of the charges. Got that? The lawyers are the ones who “investigate” the charges they themselves are making against the faculty member; they are both the prosecutors and the judge. You can imagine how objective that process is.)
That’s how senior, tenured faculty members are treated at BU. Unilateral administrative decisions to remove someone, with absolutely no objective investigation of the truth or falsity of what is being alleged, no right to appeal the decision for the faculty member, and the shortest possible deadline attached to the whole course of events to prevent the faculty member from having the opportunity to actually gather information and defend himself against the surprise notification. It’s all over in a matter of days. That’s all the faculty member is given to respond. That’s the BU way. Ultimatums, false choices, imminent deadlines, and threats of legal Armageddon if you don’t capitulate. That’s what seniority and tenure are worth at BU. Precisely nothing. To top it off, once you do cave in, you are required to sign an NDA. That’s always part of the deal the university exacts. Otherwise no deal. It’s all hushed up. It never happened. In the case I just described, virtually no one in my College, the College my colleague has been a tenured, senior professor in for twenty-five years, knows anything even happened. They think, if they think of him at all, that he is on medical leave; and he is forbidden to tell them any differently. He is forever forbidden to criticize the one-sidedness of the process that railroaded him, forever forbidden to criticize the university, in any way.
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There is something profoundly wrong with this culture of legal and administrative intimidation, threats, surreptitiousness, and secrecy. It pollutes the very institutional air, and its ramifications are everywhere in the faculty—in the fear, intimidation, and chilling of discourse that exists as much as it did in the Silber days. It’s Boston University; be careful what you say; be careful to keep your students happy; be careful not to alienate your boss or you might be in big trouble; be careful never to take a principled stand on the other side of an issue from a powerful administrator; above all, be sure you don’t report ethical or professional misconduct in an administrator above you. (My unforgivable sin.) No one is safe; tenure and seniority mean nothing. Don’t risk being the next target. It doesn’t matter what the truth is; you will be confronted with a series of cooked-up, made-to-order charges and given a quick deadline to respond if you don't want to be annihilated by the university's team of lawyers, which means you will never have an opportunity to discover, let alone present, the truth, the facts behind the factitious charges—and there will be no objective outsider to present the actual facts to in any event. You'll have to make your case to the very people who are charging you. Good luck convincing them to drop the charges once they have already decided to get rid of you. And even after the dust has settled and you are gone, just in case you were thinking of warning others, warning them about working at BU and the way you were railroaded, the whole series of events will be covered up behind a veil of secrecy and confidentiality—secrecy and confidentiality that were not accorded to your telephone calls and emails when you worked at BU. That's the BU way. Hide it; cover it up; deny it ever happened. The Boston University President and Provost, like the BU lawyers, understand that what will not withstand the scrutiny of daylight must be done under cover of darkness.
Posted by Ray Carney raycarney1(at)gmaildotcom tenured Prof. (Film and American Studies) at 8:18 PM