Thursday, March 14, 2013

How Marketing and Branding Considerations Limit What Teachers Can Tell Their Students—Or Suggest That They Read at Boston University

The following letter was written in response to a nasty email I received from my Dean, Thomas Fiedler, scorching me for having sent emails to my students and former students in the summer of 2011 that included links to articles in the New York Times and asking questions about the meaning of a film education and the value of majoring in film production. The articles made a series of obvious, important, and indisputable points: First, that many of the most important filmmakers of the past fifty years had not majored in film production (or even studied film in a university setting at all). Second, that the number of actual jobs available for film production or scriptwriting majors was vanishingly small. Fewer than one in twenty film production and screenwriting majors would actually end up working in the area of their major. And third, that the intellectual value of a film major was questionable in itself—with or without the prospect of a job upon graduation. As a field of study, film was intellectually insubstantial, jargon-filled, flakey, trendy, and fashion-obsessed in the worst ways, hopelessly compromised by commercial considerations, and corrupted by the adolescent artistic values and stunted intellectual development of most of the individuals who taught, administered, and worked in the field. In one of the emails to the students, I also pointed out that many of the generalizations in both articles did not apply to a smaller or less ambitious “second-tier” film program like the one that existed at Boston University, but only to “top-tier,” “major league” programs like those at UCLA, USC, and NYU.

Dean Fiedler blew his stack at my having sent these links to my students, and at my categorization of the BU film program as “second tier.” He swore at me, told me I was “pissing in [my] soup” by ventilating unflattering realities about a field many of my students were majoring in, and told me that mentioning the occupational challenges film majors faced once they graduated was “discouraging”—and therefore something I should not have exposed my students to. In a word, I was formally, sternly, and angrily reprimanded by my boss for having communicated with my students as I had, and was put on notice (if I valued my job, my perks, and my pay raises, since he determined them) never, under any circumstances, to communicate such facts to students again. Dean Fiedler's message was not hard to take in: I was to "boost" the program, to "sell" it, to "sing the praises" of a film major, and its "value" as an occupational preparation--with the goal of increasing enrollments and tuition dollars. That was, clearly, what it was all about. My emails had not done that. And I was being formally reprimanded in writing for not doing it.

I took Dean Fiedler’s objections seriously enough to write him a thoughtful and detailed reply. It is reprinted below. (Since it goes into many painful and embarrassing facts about the inadequacy of the Boston University film program and its failure to serve student needs, I wrote it as a confidential memo, for his eyes only.) His attempt to de facto censor what a teacher said to his students was extremely worrisome to me. It violated central aspects of a university professor's academic freedom to teach, advise, and otherwise interact professionally with his students as he or she saw fit and judged to be in their best academic interests. The Dean was taking those rights away from faculty members. (When the man who determines your pay sternly criticizes your actions, make no mistake about it: He is telling you what you can and cannot do, and you do what he says, unless you are a self-destructive fool or masochist. He is your supervisor and boss, and when he viciously criticizes your words and actions, he is exercising control over you; he is not asking but telling you what to do; he is attempting to censor and control what you say and do--what, in this case, you are allowed to say to your students--in the future.) 

I also took advantage of the Dean's claim that BU was a “top tier” program (and not a “second tier” one as, in his view, I had mistakenly asserted) to raise a series of issues about the overall quality of the film program. I honestly still can't decide if he really believes that the BU film program is equivalent to something like the UCLA one; it would be incredibly silly to think that, but administrators get funny ideas about the programs they administer, and of course the faculty have every reason to mislead the Dean about the quality of their own teaching and creative work. To call BU second-rate on both fronts is to compliment it. The faculty of the Boston University film production program (with a single exception) and the courses they teach are third- or fourth-rate at best. At best.

The only reply the Dean in turn offered to the response I reprint below was to mock the length of what I had written. He did not reply to any of the points I made in my memo, and clearly did not take it to heart or give it any deeper thought. In his mind, it obviously did not deserve a real reply. (Mockery and sarcasm have been the responses of Boston University administrators to virtually every important memo I have submitted for the past ten years. I have reported ethics violations, violations of academic freedom, and dozens of instances of serious professional misconduct. All I have received in response, time after time, has been mockery or sarcasm--followed by lowered evaluations and hits on my pay.) But I did eventually receive a more substantive and more tangible reply from the Dean in this case--the same final response my other memos have been accorded. He informed me that my salary for the following year would be frozen--to punish me for the views I had expressed in this memo and elsewhere. Dean Fiedler clearly aimed to control not only the content of my communications with my students, but my communications with him. I had not replied in the correct way (e.g., by apologizing or claiming I was misquoted). I had not promised never to communicate with my students again about the forbidden subjects. I had not promised to function in the future as a salesman shilling a product. Shame on me. 

His subsequent punishment of me showed I had been right all along about the fact that he viewed faculty members as glorified salesmen. My job was to “promote” my program, not to expose students to challenging intellectual experiences. My job was to bring in tuition dollars, not to educate and inform. His punishment of me showed that he was not really interested in allowing students to hear the truth, or in protecting a faculty member’s academic freedom of expression. He honestly believed that he had the right to control what I said to my students; he honestly believed that censoring what they were told was acceptable. He honestly believed that when I refused to accept being censored, refused to allow my communications with students be controlled by him (and, in fact, clearly threatened to "misbehave" in similar ways in the future), I deserved to be financially and bureaucratically punished.  —Ray Carney

P.S. I would emphasize that the incident described above (and replied to in the memo below) is far from the only time that my present Dean (and his predecessor) and my department Chairman have spied-on and attempted to control my presumably private email communications with others. There have been numerous similar instances, and the situation continues right up into the present. Only a few weeks ago (in Spring 2013), in fact, I wrote a memo to my Chairman and Dean protesting their admitted monitoring of emails I had sent to an individual not connected with the university, emails which both of them had read without my knowledge or permission, and had subsequently called me on the carpet for having written. (An excerpt from this memo is reprinted on the following site page: "Violations of Privacy and Confidentiality--A Continuing BU Saga.") Is this the way all Boston University administrators treat private communications by faculty members with third parties, inside and outside the university? Do faculty have any privacy in what they write others? Is any confidentiality left? Do administrators have the right to monitor (and control) all faculty communications? And even if they do claim this right, is this the right thing to do--the way professionals should be treated? In short, is Boston University a university or a banana republic? It's not only that there is no respect for the privacy and confidentiality of faculty communications with others by university administrators, but, based on my own personal experience, university administrators feel that they have the right to grill and criticize (and punish) faculty for anything they say when they write others, if the administrator does not agree with what has been said. 

For a more general consideration of this issue, including other forms of monitoring and control--including the monitoring of faculty members' use of their computers, their telephones, and other forms of communication with students and individuals outside the university, see another page on the site: "The Monitoring and Control of Faculty Emails, Phone Calls, and Personal Expression in the Boston University College of Communication."

September 20, 2011

Dean Thomas E. Fiedler
College of Communication
Boston University
640 Commonwealth Ave.
Boston, MA 02215

Dear Tom,

Sorry to have taken a few days to get back to you. I was out of town when your email arrived, and am crazy busy right now preparing for a couple TV interviews, but thought that, because your email raises so many important issues, and is the culmination of so many other things you have said to or written about me over a period of three years, it deserved a comprehensive reply, and I didn’t want to just dash something off. I only now found time to write a response to your imperative. I of course felt the force of your rebuke (heightened by the off-color metaphor you use to describe my behavior in your third paragraph and the emotionally fraught and sarcastic language you employ throughout your memo), but I shall endeavor to respond to your words with respect, and, as far as I am able in the highly charged situation you have created with your relentlessly accusatory language (the second sentence from the end, needless to say, does not alter the effect of everything that precedes it), to make my reply substantive and not emotional in nature.

Since the three paragraphs of your email each raise separate issues, I shall take them up in sequence:

The only possible meaning I can find in your first paragraph is that I should not be sending links to articles in major publications that will certainly be of interest to students because they have too much truth or reality or useful information in them. The implications of this view are deeply disturbing—and, I might add, antithetical to the educational process as I understand it, and to my professional obligations as a teacher. How in the world is my sending links to articles in The New York Times (which I assume you regard as a reputable publication) and IndieWire (which, since it may be less familiar to you, I assure you is one of the most highly respected internet film publications) construed by you as "throwing [something] in [students'] faces?” By what stretch of the imagination is it, as your first paragraph makes painfully clear, a reprehensible and unprofessional thing for me to have done? Are we to shelter students from reality and to cultivate fictions, delusions, and fantasies? Yes, I realize that many faculty members in our College do this in the interests of boosting enrollment and fighting for administration dollars. They turn themselves into salesmen and, like any salesman, knowingly deceive students and parents in the interests of closing the deal. I squirm as I listen to artful shadings and minuets around the truth, not to mention outright deceits, at every student recruitment event my department holds—about how many jobs are available to film or television production graduates and how successful graduates have been. Is this the policy you propose I should adopt on a day to day basis in my classroom, my office conversations, and my telephone and email interactions with my present, past, and future students? I thought I had a higher calling than that, and that I owed my students my best, truest, most compassionate, and most useful input (and, in the case of these particular links, the thoughts and observations of other respected observers).

The larger issue goes beyond deceits at recruitment events or lies in my conversations or emails to students; it comes down to a fundamental difference in your and my visions of the purposes of education—and, most worryingly, in your apparent intolerance (and, as I will detail below, the intolerance of faculty members in my department) of the view of education that I am representing. The reason you (and my colleagues) don’t want me to send out emails like the one you object to is not only that they tell the truth about the occupational situation for film majors, but that you and they understand film education as essentially being a form of vocational training, a view which I am seen to be undermining. What you and they can’t tolerate is that I not only will not buy into, and propagate, the careerist view of film education, but that I am actively subverting it—in my classes, my conversations with students, my publications, and my emails to students. I am not educating students to give them jobs but lives. I am not trying to enrich their wallets but their minds and souls. And I make no secret of doing it.

Of course, the lesson of the New York Times and IndieWire articles—like the lesson of many of my own essays and interviews—is that if film school is viewed as being vocational training for a future high-paying career (as if it were no different from medical school, law school, or business school), it is a fraud. The administrators and professors who embrace the vocational view are not only lying to students, but cheating them financially. The students are paying far too much in tuition for what they are getting. They could learn how to use a camera and edit a movie in six-weeks in a weekend or evening course at a community college; they could learn how to shoot a movie by apprenticing themselves to a low-budget independent filmmaker. They wouldn’t have to pay the exorbitant tuition of a university. This is the kind of thing that you and my colleagues want to prevent me from saying. (I am not speaking hypothetically: My colleagues have formally censored me for posting statements on this topic on my web site and have attempted to have the postings removed from the university server.)

[A note to the reader of this blog: I have more detailed descriptions of the acts of censorship and suppression of my ideas and publications and attempts to control my communications with my students by Boston University administrators, which extended over the course of many years, on three other site pages. For a quick overview, see the introductory headings to the following site pages: "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats--Being Banned in Boston," "Making a Living or Making a Life--The Purpose of an Education," and "Losing Consciousness--Losing Invaluable Ways of Understanding," all available in the side menu.]

The deeper scam, however, is not financial but intellectual. In censuring (and attempting to suppress) the expression of views like the ones I represent, the students are being denied the full value of their educations. My responsibility as a teacher and mentor is to show them—through my classes, through my conversations, through my publications, and, yes, through my emails—that there are other reasons for them to be studying in a university than to learn how to use a piece of equipment. It may take students a while to understand the lesson (all the more given that what I am saying is drowned out by a chorus of careerist propaganda from my colleagues), and some students may, of course, never understand education as being about anything other than learning how to make money; but that is the lesson I am teaching. And it is not only personally insulting but intellectually wrong that, as the Dean of the College, you feel you have the right to tell me that I should not be teaching it. 

And what if a student (or faculty member) doesn’t agree with the points of view embodied in the articles and emails I sent out? What if a careerist student (or vocational training faculty member) complains that my email is “discouraging?” Does that justify mocking and censuring me—or censoring my message? Is everything I do supposed to flatter, please, and conform to what students (or other faculty members) believe? Does everything I send out have to adhere to the Admissions or Alumni Office party-line? Where did that idea come from? Boston University has had too much of that in the past—too much of senior administrators telling faculty members what they should or shouldn’t teach, publish, and say. Does the old BU live on—only with a kinder, gentler face? I thought President Robert Brown’s goal was to usher BU into a new era—where there would be no more retaliations against the Howard Zinns for thinking differently; where faculty members would be free to teach what and how they judged best, and to speak their minds freely and without criticism. I was apparently mistaken. The old BU is alive and well in the attitudes of the new administration.

Let’s not forget that students are perfectly free to disagree with anything I say and, in this particular case, to disagree with these articles. They are free to make up their own minds. I give them that much credit. They are not my hand puppets. If they don’t like these articles, so what? They can write replies to them. (Both of the links make ample provision for reader response.) If they don’t like my emails to them, they can drop me a note telling me they don’t agree with what I wrote. They can trash my emails unread and tell me that they don’t want to receive future ones from me. (I send out dozens of informational emails of this sort every year, and not one student in all of the years I have been sending them has ever asked to be removed from the mailing list.)

Tom, I hope it’s clear that the reason that your response is so discouraging is that we are not discussing—and you are not reprimanding me for engaging in and attempting to suppress in the future—some sort of sideshow triviality. These emails are part of my teaching. (Why else would I be sending them to my students?) An important part. As I say, we have different ideas about the meaning of education. For me it has nothing to do with salesmanship. The exposure to different and potentially conflicting or controversial views and ideas is what education is about. It is what academia is about—the free exchange of ideas and opinions. It is not something that a faculty member should be reprimanded for contributing to. It is the heart and soul of the life of the mind. The kind of “good news” filtering you expect me to indulge in is the total negation of academic values. You want to de facto censor the amount of reality I can expose my students to—or you want to put enough institutional pressure on me so that I will censor myself. Your memo disturbingly takes its place alongside many other attempts by you, the two Deans who preceded you, a previous Provost, my department Chairman, and several of my colleagues to prevent the expression of opinions you, or they, haven’t deemed “appropriate.” You and they clearly feel free to censure and criticize my conduct if I tell my students something you don’t approve of, or haven’t cleared with you or members of my department in advance. Forgive me for saying it but your and their attitude is anathema to the life of the mind—and to all academic values. (And let’s do a quick reality check: What are we talking about? What is it I am being vehemently criticized and angrily berated for sending my students? Links to articles in the New York Times and another prestigious publication. I can hardly believe it.)

Three anecdotal side-notes about the preceding:

First, I might mention that in the case of the particular email you cite, the material was actually called to my attention by a student. This frequently happens. Students send me links almost every day to something that interests them and that they and other students are reading and talking about, suggesting that I might want to share the material with other students. So what you are telling me, in effect, is that material some of my students are already aware of, are already sending to each other in emails, and are already discussing among themselves should be off limits for me to make available to or discuss with other students. How weird is that?

Second, about the actual response of the students to my mailing: For the record, without exception, every student who acknowledged my mailing thanked me for sending it. There was not a single exception. This has been the case with every similar mailing I have ever sent. Students told me that it was good to learn that the difficulty of obtaining a job in the area of their major (and it is very difficult) was not due to their own personal failings; it was good to know that others were having problems. Many of them, in fact, told me it was refreshing to be able to read a “real-world” view of things; and several of them wrote back asking for career advice or commenting on occupational issues they faced.

Third, with respect to my statement that I give my students credit for having minds of their own, and that they are free to disagree with anything I send them—it’s worth mentioning that that statement was not rhetorical. One of the students to whom I sent this particular email did, in fact, several days later post a response to the links I sent, disagreeing with a number of things in both of the articles—though I’d note that he also said he agreed with other things, found the articles of value, and wrote me more than one email thanking me for sending the links along and saying how they had stimulated his thinking on this issue. In one of his emails to me he sent me a link to his reply, which was posted as a blog. And guess what I did? I sent his link on to the same group of students that I had sent the original links to, praising what he wrote and recommending that the students check out his essay to read another side of the story.

That’s what academia is about. That's what the free exchange of ideas is about. Not suppressing different views; not censuring professors for exposing students to them; but discussing and debating them. Those are the values I have devoted my life to. They are emphatically not the values embodied by your memo to me—or the values embodied by the efforts of my Chairman, two previous Deans, and many of my colleagues to censure me and censor my publications, for what is now nearly a decade. (I’ll have more to say about others’ efforts to censor and limit my expressions below.)

Moving on to your second paragraph, where you criticize me for mentioning the BU film program’s “second or third tier” status. I was, as seems obvious to me, using these terms to explain why both articles refer to the particular schools they do—and don’t even allude to the existence of Boston University's film program—and was further invoking the concept to suggest why some of the issues in the articles don't apply to Boston University's smaller and less ambitious program. My statement about BU being in a different “tier” was less a pejorative than a discrimination (when did “tier” take on a derogatory meaning?)—one that you yourself acknowledge in your memo when you list the names of eight schools that you readily concede have larger and better-known programs, more accomplished alumni, or more distinguished academic reputations than BU’s. I am assuming you limited your list to eight merely for the sake of concision, since the names of fifty, sixty, or more other American film production programs superior to the one at BU could easily be added by anyone familiar with the topic. And you don’t even have to go very far to find them, since the production program down the street at Emerson and the film program a few miles down the road at R.I.S.D. are both regarded as being superior to the one at BU by unbiased observers. (For a few more names—though any such list is partial and there are a couple dozen other schools whose names could easily be added—see the following article: . For the record, this link was sent to me by one of BU’s most talented recent film production graduates, who pointedly noted the absence of the BU production program from the list—and agreed with the omission.)

I have to admit that I can’t quite follow the logic of your concession that the film programs at schools like the ones you name are both somehow superior to and somehow not superior to BU’s, so let me pass over what “peer plus” means if it doesn’t mean that a school’s “educational offerings” are superior, or how a school can be “in a category above our own” and yet not really be better—and cut to the point of your criticism of me—even though, as I have noted, it misconstrues what I wrote my students. You seem to believe (can it be true that you really believe this?) that the BU film and television production program is one of the best programs in the country, and your consequent criticism of me is based on the fact that I do not acknowledge the first-class nature of our program. Tom, it just isn’t true. If someone, or some group, has told you that BU has an important, leading, or educationally distinguished film and television production program, you have been misinformed. (To say the obvious, it is in department faculty members’ interests to misinform you on this subject—since hiring, promotions, institutional funding, and their own raises all depend on inflating the importance of their own activities. Alumni are also not the right people to consult on this subject, since their “be-true-to-your-high-school” nostalgia inevitably biases their views.) But however you heard it, wishes aren’t horses; saying something doesn’t make it so. I understand your natural reluctance to face this fact, and inclination to shoot the messenger who brings you the bad news, but it must be faced.

To be clear, let me repeat: my email to the students does not raise this issue, but since you, angrily and sarcastically, construe my email as having raised it (undoubtedly because I have indeed raised it with you and many others in the College in private memos and conversations), I feel I must recap things I’ve said to you and to others in the past: The BU film and television production program is not first-rate. Neither its faculty nor its students justify that distinction. It is a quite marginal, second- or third-rate program, with a large number of quite marginal second- or third-rate faculty and students. (There are, of course, a few talented students who do choose to come to BU each year, who are exceptions to this generalization, but it is only a few, unfortunately.)

Those facts may be regrettable (and I think they are), but no amount of press release hullabaloorey, PR "branding," or alumni rah-rah boosterism will change the reality one iota. The only way to change the quality of BU’s film production program is by improving hiring and promotion, and by raising admissions standards at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Though I don’t have space here and now to go into the history of this situation and how and why it arose, I’d be glad to sit down with you and give you more information any time you ask, just as I already have in the past with you and others. But let me reprise the facts in extreme summary form: In terms of the quality of student admits, admissions standards, particularly for grad students, have been deliberately and consciously lowered to maintain the size of the entering classes over the past decade in order to keep the flow of tuition dollars coming in. This lowering of standards has been a conscious administrative decision, one which the Dean who preceded you discussed openly. In terms of film production faculty hiring and retention: for a memory jog, I’d suggest you revisit the memo I wrote endorsing [name removed]'s appointment to the faculty last year. (I'll paste it below my letter text, in case you’re not in your office when you are reading this.)

What you can’t seem to appreciate is that not to have communicated these unpleasant realities to you, not to have told you the truth when I was asked for my opinion, would have been the irresponsible thing to do. My obligation is to the generations of students who are being cheated of their money’s worth, who are being misled, who are being ill-served by unqualified teachers (and whose classroom experiences are being degraded by unqualified classmates). Should I speak otherwise just to keep you and my colleagues happy? Should I sell out the students’ interests by pretending everything is hunky-dory? My observations in that particular memo cried out for a conversation on this subject (just as the observations in many previous and subsequent reports I have written have)—but how did you respond? You did more or less the same thing you did with the links I sent to the students: You berated me for having written what I had, told me that I shouldn’t have written it, and ended with a series of veiled threats about the negative consequences of my expression of my views on my annual evaluations, my pay, and my career at BU.

Moving on to your third paragraph: Skipping over the [obscene] language and your inapt comparison of my profession with being the employee of a newspaper, I have to demur from your assertion that I am “derid[ing my] profession.” That is the opposite of what I am doing. I believe in the importance of my profession, and it is precisely because I do believe in its importance that I have high standards, and hold it to those standards. It is those who participate in the go-along-get-along system of hiring and promoting their friends and the lowering of admissions standards to bring in tuition dollars who are cynically “deriding their professions.”

With respect to there being a contradiction between being a member of a program and seeing its limitations—a contradiction you suggest at the start of your second and third paragraphs that I am guilty of—I would argue that as the senior and longest-serving member of the department, I am in the best possible position to see problems and limitations, and to be able to trace the downward spiral it has followed in the past decade.

If you are asking why I myself haven’t corrected these problems in the time I have been here, the answer is easy: I did work to correct them when I was Director of Film Studies, and more briefly when I served as department Chairman, but I have been prevented from doing anything since then. In both positions, I significantly raised graduate admissions standards, tightened course requirements, and raised grading standards—in the face of considerable opposition. I also spoke out against the vote-to-promote-your-friends-this-year-so-they-will-vote-to-promote-you-next-year department and College review process, and did not endorse the promotion of several of my more marginal colleagues. (Though, when the dust had settled, I have to admit that my dissent didn’t really count for much. I was unanimously outvoted by my junior colleagues, who upheld the department’s close to 100 percent positive recommendation rate on promotions.) In hindsight I can now see that my reluctance to play the go-along-and-get-along game to promote my colleagues was one of the turning points in my situation within the department. (My campaign to remove the emotionally unstable, bullying, sexist Dean who preceded you was another. My colleagues had benefitted financially during his tenure and, in the interests of maintaining their perks, did not look at all kindly on someone who, in their minds, was killing the golden goose.)

My colleagues, correctly enough, felt deeply threatened by my attempts to raise standards, and my willingness to speak out and, where necessary and appropriate, take action to improve the College, and saw the writing on the wall in terms of my potential reservations about their own future promotions. From that point on, in a word, I found myself being savaged—either to silence me or to minimize the threat I posed to them by administratively marginalizing my position. I cannot summarize the month-by-month events of eight or nine years in a memo, but suffice it to say that after that point, the Dean and interim Dean who preceded you, my former Chairman, and several of my colleagues took a series of actions designed to made sure that I would have virtually no input into future department decisions. It was just too risky to leave me in a position of power; who knew what I might be able to do? I was summarily removed from the Film Studies Directorship when the Dean and Chairman concluded that I would not endorse the promotion of a junior colleague. I was summarily removed from the graduate admissions committee (which, up to that point, I had served as Chair of) when I spoke out against lowering admissions standards. My annual evaluations were lowered; my pay was docked; my research funding and other support was taken away. My classes were assigned to unsuitable classrooms and were scheduled at times that conflicted with required courses, to prevent students from taking them.

Though there was more, that’s a summary of the public, professional side of the retaliation. When it became clear that no matter what was done to punish me financially and bureaucratically, I would continue to argue against lowering standards, a new series of actions were taken in an apparent effort to make my life so uncomfortable and my career so untenable that I would resign. Entire department meetings were organized by my Chairman, in which faculty members verbally abused me, criticized my work, and impugned my character. I was shouted at, called names, and had my morals attacked. During discussions at department and program meetings, I was cut off and told to shut up since “no one is interested in what you have to say,” and, on other occasions, called a liar. A formal resolution was passed by the department demanding the removal of all of my publications and other writing from the university web site and censuring me for what I had written. I was berated in public places in front of students and others by a previous Dean and two different department Chairmen, in attempts to undermine my authority and standing as a mentor and teacher. Mass meetings of students were organized by selected faculty members in their classrooms, and other meetings were held by the department Chairman Charles Merzbacher and the new Director of Film Studies Roy Grundmann in their offices, to pressure students to submit letters criticizing me. (More about this later.) 

[For more information about the stunningly unethical and unprofessional actions of Boston University administrators and several professors in my department, see the following site pages (available in the right-hand menu): "Lynch Mobs--Secret and Surreptitious Meetings to Foment Students Against a Teacher," "Playing with Souls/Death Threats--Cynical Administrative Power-games," and "Letter to the University Ombuds--Events That Almost Defy Belief...." Those pages describe how the College of Communication Dean, the Chairman of the Film and Television Department, the Film Studies Program Director, and a few other BU administrators and faculty members, over a period of years, held a series of secret and surreptitious meetings with students, as part of an orchestrated administrative campaign of savagery and character-assassination directed against me, to attack my teaching and writing, in an apparent attempt to force me to resign. Two other site pages, Parts 1 and 2 of "Ten Years of Administrative Retaliation....," summarize almost a decade of administrative retaliation against me for having taken principled stands in meetings, memos, and publications.]

To be clear: I am not claiming to have been the only victim of this sort of bureaucratic vindictiveness and professional misconduct. Over a period of years, College administrators have attempted to intimidate and silence many different faculty members who expressed ideas the administrators disagreed with; and when threats and intimidation have failed to silence them, punishments were meted out (often in attempts to force the faculty member to quit by making his or her career or relationship with students unsustainable). Other faculty members in the College of Communication who expressed genuinely independent and principled views, views different from the press release/Bay State Road version of reality, were similarly confronted with warnings and threats, and were similarly punished. (Several of them still teach in the College, though others—some of them among the best and brightest—were, indeed, successfully forced out.) Faculty members were threatened with being summarily fired (on charges of misconduct fabricated by the Dean or their Chairman). They had scheduled leaves or sabbaticals denied. They were verbally abused (in shouting matches staged, like the ones I have experienced, in public places to deliberately humiliate and undermine them in front of students and colleagues). They were bureaucratically marginalized and removed from positions of authority. They had their annual evaluations lowered and their pay negatively affected. They had their research funding and travel or assistantship budgets withdrawn. And, most diabolically (the Dean who preceded you was nothing if not inventive), they have been subjected to whispering campaigns about sexual and other indiscretions or were made victims of acts of character assassination—where students, colleagues, College administrators, and the Provost were told lies about them or their performance, and about how difficult they were to work with.

The major difference I can see between my colleagues and me is only that while many of the punitive actions that were taken against them seem to have been discontinued in the recent past, most of the retaliatory actions that have been taken against me have continued into the present. I continue to have research and travel funding denied, research assistants withheld, my annual evaluations lowered, my pay docked, my publications censored, a departmental motion of censure still in effect against me, to be verbally abused and harassed in public places in front of students, etc., etc..

Frankly, Tom, I had hoped that your appointment would wipe the slate clean and put an end to this rancor. Nothing in this letter is news to you—or should be. I have documented all of these events and made a number of formal appeals for redress and correction of my annual evaluations and pay during the time you have been in the Dean’s office. But, for reasons known only to yourself, you have chosen to do nothing about any of these issues—beyond criticizing the memos I have written about them, when you haven’t simply ignored them or told me they were not worthy of a response. (I leave aside the serious violation of university policies and procedures represented by something like six or seven consecutive years of the Provost’s Office failing to respond to my formal, written appeals of my annual evaluations and pay.)

The completely dismissive and automatically critical response I would be accorded (and, as the current email demonstrates, continue right up to the present moment to be accorded) should have been clear from the first one-on-one meeting I had with you after you arrived at the College. It was a meeting which I requested expressly in order to discuss a memo I had written you detailing serious ethical violations by a specific department member. You responded, not by discussing the memo, but by telling me that you had “been warned” “to watch out for” me since I was “trouble,” and that you not only would not be speaking to the faculty member about his actions, but that you didn’t take the memo I wrote as being of any real importance. Your breathtaking characterization of me as a “troublemaker” on the basis of absolutely no first-hand knowledge or previous acquaintance (remember that this was the first time we had ever spoken in private) caught me completely by surprise and more or less ended our meeting.

You have now made it clear that everything I have done in the three years you have been Dean—and presumably everything I shall do in the future—has been and will continue to be understood (and dismissed or criticized) on the basis of that insulting and false categorization. There is no other way I can interpret the statement in your present note that, in your opinion, if I continue on the path I am on (i.e., in this case, the path of sending links to New York Times articles to my students!), I “will further alienate [my] colleagues – and disappoint [my] dean.” Your use of “further” tells the story of how I have been categorized by you, and how everything I do and have done continues to be categorized in the same vein. Nor is it the first time you have written words to this effect. The vaguely threatening paragraph at the bottom of the first page of your response to the [name removed] memo makes the exact same point. I am a “troublemaker;” my words need not be taken seriously; the issues I raise need not be dealt with. QED. I would refer you to what you wrote on that occasion.

And by the way, while I am on the subject: Your response to the [name removed] memo demonstrates that this is not really a PR issue or a question of whether students should be protected from reading articles in the New York Times. The [name removed] memo was sent to you privately and marked “confidential,” yet it received the same response that my mailing to the students did: I was reprimanded for having written it.

Needless to say, in all of the preceding, what is at stake is more than a matter of verbal responses: You personally supervise the annual review process and the pay award system; you personally set the tone for faculty relations. Your attitudes about me, your memos to me, and your conversations about me with my Chairman and with other faculty members and College administrators have established what is and is not acceptable in their views and treatment of me, in my Chairman’s evaluations of my performance, and in terms of my pay and perquisites.

It is impossible for me not to see your responses as a continuation of the treatment I received from the previous Dean, the Dean ad interim who succeeded him, and two department Chairmen: The basic administrative response—for what is now approaching ten years—to the honest, thoughtful, principled expression of my views has been to berate and attempt to silence me or, if I won’t be silenced, to punish me—administratively, financially, and personally—for having said or written what I have. Even putting aside my own situation, aren’t you afraid that there is a serious loss to the larger community when this “no news but good news” stance is adopted? Is deploring, ignoring, or using vulgarities to describe the memos and reports I have written (including many other reports and memos beyond the [name removed] one of course) the best way to foster candid and honest input on challenging issues? Aren’t you afraid of the demoralizing effect on the rest of the faculty of having individuals called on the carpet for the honest expression of their opinion? Aren’t you concerned that criticizing the content of faculty emails and communications with students will have a chilling effect? Even beyond the personal suffering to individual faculty members and the losses to the College through resignations, these events seriously threaten free expression and the free exchange of ideas in the College. The entire culture is the loser.

I have written so much more than I intended to, and alluded to so many issues in the College that I hope you don’t mind it if I broaden the discussion in one final direction. I believe that you are making a serious mistake in letting complaints from one or two disgruntled students (I am assuming that that was your source for the text of the email I wrote) dictate your treatment of faculty members. The inclination of College of Communication administrators to appease complainers and, more or less automatically, to take the complainer’s side against a faculty member (who, as in the present case, is treated as being guilty until he or she proves himself innocent) has had many destructive effects on the teaching and evaluation process: ranging from rampant grade-inflation—since faculty members are afraid of student complaints about the grades they award, and afraid of receiving low student evaluations and jeopardizing their pay or promotions if they maintain rigorous grading standards (the over-reliance by College administrators on course evaluations made by self-interested 20-year-olds has led to many errors in the pay and promotion process); to a general erosion of curricular standards—since students can almost always get a sympathetic hearing for their claims that a given faculty member is making unreasonable demands on them in a course; to ineffectual administrative responses to proven instances of student cheating and plagiarism—since College administrators seem all too ready to conclude that student misconduct can be attributed, at least in part, to a professor’s failure to explain something.

The use of “unidentified” complaints has also led to frequent abuses. (I would note that you pointedly do not identify the source of the complaint lodged against me in the present instance.) It becomes almost impossible for a faculty member to defend himself when he is not allowed to know the name of the complainer (or allowed to read the text of the actual complaint). The faculty member cannot possibly reply to what may not only be false, but vague, unspecified, and anonymous accusations.

In the preceding, as I say, I am assuming that you received the copy of the New York Times email from a complaining student. In a normal academic setting that would be the normal expectation and the only normal course of events that would lead to an administrative rebuke and demand for an explanation like the one you have made of me. However, the College of Communication is not a normal academic institution, and events do not always follow a normal course. As you are well aware, as part of their efforts to punish and marginalize me, a number of members of my department, including the Chairman and, with the Chairman’s direct knowledge and support, several faculty members, have made it their mission to “dig up dirt” about me from students to use against me in any way they can. This has gone on for years and continues unabated in the present. The Chairman and these faculty members have actually gone to students who have studied with me (generally a student who received a grade he or she was not delighted with; I am a very hard grader), told them derogatory (and false) things about me or my teaching, and instructed the student or students (who had no intention to do this prior to the meeting) to file a “formal complaint” against me to administrators. This process has taken many forms—from a faculty member telling a student never again to take courses with me and to write in to object to something I am alleged to have said in a long-past course meeting (the complaint has often been cooked up six or seven months after the course was over); to a faculty member making it clear to a student who was dependent on him for a letter of recommendation or a job placement that the faculty member’s assistance to the student was contingent on the submission of a letter of complaint about me to an administrator; to a faculty member actually writing, dictating, or editing the letter, and having the student sign and submit it as if it were the student’s own independent submission. (In the most absurd—it would be comical if it weren’t so immoral—version of the process, more than one faculty member in my department has mistakenly, but successfully, solicited complaints from students who have never taken a course with me, never had a conversation with me, or even known who I was prior to the faculty member’s meeting with the student. These faculty members seemingly know no shame, and stop at nothing, when they are determined to attack me: In other instances, individuals who are no longer students, who have graduated and left the area, have been platooned in to complain about me from a distance in both space and time. Since they are generally the worst students I have had, as far as I have been able to identify them, what they are really disgruntled about is the low grade I gave them in a course a year or more prior to the point the faculty member rounded them up.) The manufactured, made-to-order document of complaint has then been sent to various members of the administration (the Provost, the Dean, the Dean ad interim, the Associate Dean, or someone else), while deliberately concealing the faculty member’s central role in its creation, so that when the administrator receives the complaint (or hears an account of it from the Chairman or the faculty member) it is treated as if the student had independently initiated and authored it.

At other times, the student is simply left out of the loop altogether. Why go to all the bother of ghost-writing, editing, coaching, and pressuring students to write letters, if you can get the same result—a sympathetic response and a reprimand for Carney—from an administrator without them? The department Chairman or faculty member has gone directly to the administrator and complained about me themselves (generally representing, of course, that they are speaking for a group of student complainers—though, in fact, there are no such individuals), and asking that an administrative rebuke be administered to me. So, as outrageous as it would sound to an outsider, it is certainly possible you received the copy of my email as an act of back-stabbing against me orchestrated by one of my colleagues representing that he was speaking on behalf of a group of (fictitious) students.

And let me add, as a reminder of what we are talking about (and what I am protesting in the case of your ongoing attitudes toward and comments about me): In every case, what the students were told to complain about (and what my colleagues and you criticized me for, and what I have had my annual evaluations and my pay negatively affected for) was and is not inappropriate behavior (my behavior inside and outside the classroom was and continues to be impeccable), but unacceptable opinions and expressions—unacceptable to whom?—to certain Boston University administrators like my Chairman, a previous Dean, and now you. What happened to academic freedom of expression? What kind of university is Boston University? We know what kind of university it was in the Howard Zinn days. We know what kind of university it was under certain previous administrators. But how in the world can Provost Morrison or President Brown countenance the continuation of this treatment of faculty opinions here and now—or pretend to turn a blind eye to it? (They are not really blind, of course, since both the Provost and the President are aware of what has been done to me—since I have informed them or their deputies—and have done nothing to remedy it, or even asked to speak to me about it.)

This scenario—where the department Chairman or faculty member ran to a gullible administrator to report (fictitious) student complaints about a faculty member they wanted to “build a case” to get rid of—took place so often (and was so successful) in past years that a colleague who was forced out after receiving similar treatment, but who managed to keep his sense of humor about it, invented a term to describe the process. He called it: “turning your friends in for the bounty.” If anything like this took place in this instance (for the millionth time in the College), so much the worse for the morals of the Film Department faculty, and I must, in all candor, add: so much the worse for your own morals if you went along with it (or failed to detect how you were being played and used to fulfill faculty members’ own nefarious agendas).

I would like to see a little of the righteous anger, and maybe a little of the cursing you direct at me, directed against colleagues who have violated every customary standard of professional behavior to undermine my reputation and standing. It is they who are genuinely acting in an uncollegial way, and whose annual evaluations and pay should be lowered. It is they who are (to use your term) deliberately “alienating” a colleague. It is they who are eroding the intellectual grounding of the College with their intolerance of others’ views and opinions, and unraveling the moral fabric with their back-stabbing statements and lies. It is they who are undermining student and faculty morale and poisoning the atmosphere with their fictitious invention—or secret fomenting—of otherwise non-existent student resentments and complaints in order to manipulate university administrators. They are the ones who are having a destructive effect on the entire community—not me when I send out an email link to an article in the New York Times.

However the “complaint” reached you, I can imagine several possible responses you might have given. One would have been for you to say that you re-affirmed the right of faculty members to speak their minds freely and openly, and that one of the great strengths of the College of Communication is the diversity of opinions and the free exchange of ideas both between faculty members and between faculty members and students. That would of course not be true—as your email to me, your previous statements criticizing my expression of my ideas, my negative annual evaluations (citing me as being “uncollegial” for having expressed them), the hits to my pay, and the actions of College administrators and colleagues to retaliate against and censure me for articles I have written and interviews I have given demonstrate—but at least it could have, to use the term you are fond of employing, "aspirational" value.

Another response you might have given is that you had more important things to do than to listen to tattling and snitchery and snide remarks about a faculty member, and that (in line with your statement at the faculty meeting last March in response to a direct question from me about respecting the privacy of faculty telephone calls, emails, printouts, and other personal communications) you “did not have time to read the emails faculty members send to others.” You gave the faculty reason to believe that you respected the privacy of personal communications that were not directed to you. Though the present instance shows that that was a mistaken impression, and that you do read faculty emails to others, the principle behind your statement might have been worth re-affirming.

Or you might have proposed that the student (or faculty member) complainer write a rebuttal and refutation of anything they disagreed with in the New York Times link or in my covering note, and that they send their thoughts to me to initiate a dialogue about it, or that they post their criticisms of these articles on the comments sections of the linked pages.

There are many other responses you might have made. But, if you don't mind me saying so, I think you chose the worst possible one, because in doing so you made yourself captive (unfortunately, not for the first time) to the most narrow-minded, intolerant, and destructive elements in the College. You chose to side with a tiny disgruntled minority—perhaps only one individual who has a secret agenda—someone who went to you without expressing his or her concerns to me (since I received nothing but thanks from my students for sending them this material), and someone whom I am sure would be glad to be disgruntled with many other things I and other faculty members do, and to have action taken against others he wants to get back at for some reason. You have allowed yourself to be used by him; you have collaborated with him.

It is a terrible precedent to be setting, a morale-destroyer for your faculty, and (assuming a student was even involved in the complaint process) absolutely the wrong lesson to be giving students about how to deal with ideas they disagree with. They are being taught that they should try to shoot the messenger (or slander him or otherwise personally undermine his position) by running to his boss to file a complaint to have him silenced—rather than that academia is about grappling with ideas we find threatening and engaging in discussion and debate with those we disagree with.

If the complaint came from a faculty member, you are teaching them a similar wrong lesson: that if a colleague takes unpopular stands, votes against them or their friends for promotion, or expresses concerns about problems in the department (and the memo I am writing here and now itself obviously itemizes a series of significant departmental problems), they can retaliate against the individual, have him punished or reprimanded by someone else, and neutralize his input into future decisions.

There is of course much more to say about all of these issues, particularly when it comes to the professional misconduct of specific members of the Film and Television Department. But this is already much too long. If you or someone else in the administration wants to know more, I’d recommend consulting the narrative account and attachments I provided to Francine Montemurro.

Sincere best wishes for a successful academic year.


Ray Carney
Prof. of Film and American Studies
Boston University

Author of: The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies (Cambridge University Press); The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World (Cambridge University Press); Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer (Cambridge University Press); American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Cambridge University Press); American Dreaming (University of California Press at Berkeley); Shadows (British Film Institute/Macmillan); Cassavetes on Cassavetes (Faber and Faber/Farrar, Straus); The Adventure of Insecurity; Necessary Experiences; Why Art Matters; and other books, essays, and editions. 

Web site: (suspended at the demand of my Dean and Chairman—a sad commentary on the state of academic freedom of expression in the College of Communication)

Dean Tom Fiedler
College of Communication
640 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston University
Boston, MA 02215

Confidential letter of recommendation for [name removed]’s appointment to a Professorship of the Practice in the Department of Film and Television

Dear Tom:

[Material omitted]

I am glad to support [name removed]’s appointment to a Professorship of the Practice in film production. I hardly know [name removed] personally (we’ve had no more than ten minutes of casual chit-chat in the hall or mailroom during his entire previous time at Boston University), but I am familiar with his work.

[Material omitted]

I have also, by chance, had a large number of conversations with students who have taken classes with him during his five or six years of adjunct or part-time work at Boston University and am glad to report that, without exception, the students who have talked about him to me (generally in the course of complaining about the poor-quality of the other production courses and teachers in the department) have singled him out as being, hands down, the most stimulating and interesting film production teacher they have had the good fortune to have had. More than one of these students has employed the formulation—or something similar to: “If it weren’t for Mr. [name removed]’s class, I would have transferred out of the program….,” and proceeded to give me examples of how much more interesting his courses and teaching were than that of one of the department’s regular faculty members.

If I had to sum up the reasons for my support of [name removed]’s candidacy in one phrase, it would boil down to the bare fact that he is an active and accomplished practitioner of his art. This may sound like I am damning him with faint praise (and it truly is the barest minimum that one would expect of a teacher in any film production program that aspires to be above the level of that of a community college or extension school); but there is, in fact, a crying need in our department for writers, directors, and producers who actually make movies—high-quality movies—as [name removed] does: Not unwatchable, unscreened, disorganized, or unfinished documentaries; not shorts that are the equivalent of bad student films or trite public service announcements; and not sentimental, third-rate, cable-television, “movie-of-the-week” kitsch.

Though the truth is hidden from administrators as much as possible by a paperwork blizzard of made-to-order or strictly local-interest press-releases and lists of alleged “awards” from tiny, unimportant film festivals, it’s a simple fact that the Department of Film and Television simply has no filmmakers of even the smallest degree of importance, stature, or achievement on its regular, full-time faculty. Not one.

It is not only a public relations embarrassment that this should be true of the entire faculty of a Department of Film and Television at a supposedly major American university; it is intellectually illegitimate and pedagogically fraudulent. The department is not giving its students the education they think they are so handsomely paying for; it is tricking and defrauding them with a second-rate educational experience. (Imagine a music program where the students were taught by third-rate performers who had never done anything important—or a creative writing program where students were taught by writers who have only written schlock and junk.)

It should not be surprising that this state of affairs poses an almost insurmountable obstacle to the recruitment and retention of graduate students—or at least to the recruitment and retention of intelligent, knowledgeable grad students. Potential applicants to the film and television production programs browse our online listings or attend one of our orientation events and see the name of—or meet—no one who has done any even slightly important, creative, or interesting work in their field.

It would carry me far beyond the bounds of this letter to explain how this deplorable situation has arisen and been perpetuated, and how, in fact, the few genuinely talented and accomplished working filmmakers (several among the most important living practitioners of the art) who have expressed interest in teaching in the department over the years have been rejected out of hand by department members clearly threatened by their accomplishments; or how, on the rare occasions when a talented filmmaker has actually joined the faculty, on a part-time or full-time basis, they have either been fired, driven away, or left of their own volition when they realized who their colleagues were, and who—and what sort of work (and complete absence of creative work)—was being rewarded with pay-raises and promotions. (Tom, I have spoken out about this state of affairs on numerous occasions, most often during department review periods—and have been penalized financially and administratively for doing so—but if you would like a “crash course” on the subject of friends-promoting-friends in attempts to ensure their own future promotions, I would recommend that you look again at a memo I sent you on XXXXX about the YYYYYY review, where I touched on a few of the ways that administrative time-serving, press-release self-promotion, celebrity and special-interest “endorsements,” and the currying of favor with administrators have replaced actual productivity and intellectual accomplishment as the basis for department promotions and pay-raises.)

Given this state of affairs, I have every hope that [name removed]’s appointment to a regular, full-time faculty position will be a first step (though only a first step) toward beginning to put the department on an intellectually, pedagogically, and artistically defensible footing.

All best wishes for a productive and restorative summer.


Ray Carney
Professor, Film and American studies

Author of: The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies (Cambridge University Press); The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World (Cambridge University Press); Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer (Cambridge University Press); American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Cambridge University Press); American Dreaming (University of California Press at Berkeley); Shadows (British Film Institute); Cassavetes on Cassavetes (Faber and Faber/Farrar, Straus); The Adventure of Insecurity; Necessary Experiences; Why Art Matters; and other books.

web site: (indefinitely suspended at the demand of my Dean and Chairman—so much for Boston University’s commitment to “long distance learning”—not to mention, academic freedom!)

cc: Chairman Paul Schneider
Department of Film and Television

As I noted in the text of the first letter on this page, my Dean's sole response to the preceding memo was to criticize me for having written it, saying that he regretted that I had sent it to him, and telling me that my pay would be frozen for the upcoming year because of the trouble I repeatedly made and the problems my reports, words, and actions caused, including this particular report on the state of the department. He did  not take up my offer to meet with him or to provide more information, just as he has not taken up similar offers I have made many other times. Better to shoot the messenger than listen to the message, or try to find out more about it. --R.C.