Friday, November 8, 2013

Getting Punished for Blowing the Whistle

Trying to Force Out a Faculty Member
for Reporting Ethical Violations

I received an email from a student at another university expressing sympathy with my situation. I omit the lengthy beginning of his message where he talked about 1) things he didn’t like about his own university film program and the content of film courses; 2) the apparent unawareness of administrators of what actually took place in his classes as long as the enrollments stayed high; 3) how deeply into debt he had to go to finance his education and how it sometimes didn’t seem worth it; and 4) his gratitude for my books and articles, which he regarded as exceptions to the “academization” (his term) of film study and his professors’ worship of jargon and specialized terminology. At the very end of his email he asked me several questions about my situation. In what follows, I have only retained a few of the final sentences he wrote, and I am, similarly, only reprinting the end of my lengthy reply to him.—R.C.

Dear Professor Carney,

[omitted material] … What, exactly, did you say that got you into trouble? I don’t see how writing a report can make people that mad at you. Or make them shut down your web site. Or hold student meetings to attack you. It’s a free country. There’s a first amendment. You are entitled to say what you think. They should know that. Anyway, don’t they care about your ideas? Isn’t that what you are supposed to be doing? Telling them your ideas? Can you tell me what you said that made them so mad at you? …[omitted material]

[name withheld to preserve his confidentiality]

Ray Carney's reply follows:

Dear […],

… I couldn’t agree with you more about the lamentable effect the academic professionalization of film study has had on film appreciation. Academics need to impress fellow academics (and their Deans!) and one of the ways they try to do that, just as every other profession tries to do it, is with jargon and specialized terminology. A work of art is fundamentally one human being talking to another human being, communicating his or her interests, excitements, insights, and discoveries about life. The language of art—I call it “art-speech” in my classes—is the most complex, subtle, and sensitive language ever developed for doing that and the “mind” of a really good film (as distinguished from the minds of the characters in it) can be incredibly subtle and wise. Once you understand those basic truths, there are a few consequences:
The first is that pop culture, mainstream, and Hollywood movies cease to be of very much interest, and you realize that teachers who focus on them are teaching something other than artistic appreciation. They are teaching sociology, business, corporate and cultural politics, etc.. Those teachers and courses don’t really belong in an arts curriculum; they should be moved to the psychology or sociology department. Or the business school.
The second thing it means is that works of art may have to “get a little weird” to express the things they are trying to express. They may be very hard to understand because they operate in completely different ways and with different modes of expression than mass culture does. The deepest, subtlest, most elusive truths can’t be communicated in the same ways we speak when we are just talking to each other—or the ways that works of pop culture frame their arguments. So, when you are watching these movies, you have to brace yourself for challenge and difficulty at first. The rebarbative quality, the strangeness and weirdness, will go away when you live into the work and slowly change your ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking, but the complexity, the subtlety, the depth of these works and the originality and uniqueness of the understandings of experience they cultivate never go away.
Finally, the preceding means that the critic or analyst talking about a work of art may have to use a lot of words to explain some basic, even simple, aspects of the work of art that the work itself can “say” or “think” more rapidly and forcefully and complexly by employing its own unique forms of “art-speech.” So the very best criticism and analysis and appreciation can be challenging too, and seem weird at first.
But I couldn’t agree with you more about how specialized jargon is an evasion of the responsibility of the critic to explain the effect of the work of art. When a teacher can’t do that, he or she hides behind various forms of verbal mystification. The whole cult of critical obscurity and obfuscation—all the language of paradox and ambiguity; all the race, class, gender, ideological analysis; all the talk about subversiveness and rupture and deconstruction and spectacle and a million other bite-sized concepts—are actually forms of simplification since they reduce a work’s complexity to a set of easy-to-understand, pre-existing categories.
Art is about new ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling—new forms of knowledge. Not just new knowledge, but new forms of it. Ways of thinking and feeling that have never been expressed before. Brand new ways. These concepts and a million similar ones are the negation of art because they are taken from the recycling bin; they are the intellectual garbage of the past; they are hackneyed, clichéd, old ways of knowing and thinking. They are canned formulas for understanding. (You want to know a secret? They actually date back from the 1970s and are left over from your teachers’ grad school notes, and the notes of their grad school professors from thirty years ago.) Intellectually speaking, they are antiques, old news, received notions, bumper sticker substitutes for thought. As a friend of mine, Stan Brakhage, used to say, film may come in cans, but what’s in it can’t be canned; it has to be fresh—fresher than the morning’s newspaper (most of which itself represents stale, old, canned ways of knowing). These tired old concepts are older than last year's newspapers.
Concepts like “deconstruction” and all the rest are the refuge of critics who don’t understand the works of art they are discussing, or the purpose of art in general, and rely on fashionable cant and jargon and prefabricated forms of knowledge to conceal their inadequacy. They are blind men describing artistic elephants. There really should be some kind of artistic IQ test professors have to pass before they are unleashed on students, but it works the opposite way in universities: The only test job candidates are subjected to is a loyalty test. People are hired who support the critical fads and fashions of the people who hire them—and people who raise questions are not. It’s really an intellectual scandal, but no one wants to talk about it.
 FYI: Those last few sentences, along with the two paragraphs preceding them, are the kinds of things that my Dean forbade me to discuss in my classes with Film Studies graduate students. Along with questions about the limitations of feminist theory and ideological analysis and multicultural understandings of the artistic canon and critiques of almost any popular critical theory or intellectual tradition. He told me it only "upset" and "confused" the students to raise "controversial" issues like this in class, to ask these kinds of questions, and that that was bad for "morale." It made students "unhappy" and my goal, in his weird and perverted vision of it, should be to keep my students "happy." My current Dean made a very similar argument about why I shouldn't tell my students the truth about the job situation for film majors. That too -- telling them the truth -- might be bad for morale and make them unhappy. So, according to both Deans, I am supposed to--really ordered to, in fact--lie to them. Or at least avoid the truth--which is just another way of lying to them. See what I'm up against at BU? See how BU Deans think? Oh, and I should add, the Dean did it--telling me, ordering me not to discuss certain things in class--in front of a BU lawyer who had been brought into the meeting where I was being upbraided for raising such issues in class, a lawyer brought in, no doubt, to act as a kind of thuggish intimidator to scare me into compliance with the Dean's instructions, and, get this, the lawyer backed him up on this idea. The lawyer didn't tell him it was a complete violation of academic freedom for him to say this to me, to try to censor my ideas and muzzle what I said and did in class. The lawyer supported his view. That's the kind of lawyers BU has on its staff. Devoted to supporting Deans in their attempts to muzzle their faculty members. So that should give you an idea of how intellectually bankrupt this institution is. But they stick together, the administrators and the lawyers. No one dares to correct them or deviate from their policies: The Boston University Hollow Men -- and Women -- Heads Filled With Straw Leaning Together. And the University Provost and President (Robert Brown) let it all go on. Hear no evil; see no evil; know no evil. That's their motto.
With respect to your final questions: you have to keep in mind that you’re talking about reports I’ve written and meetings I’ve held with administrators—and retaliatory actions taken against me for having reported the things I have—for more than ten years. I just can’t summarize the issues—or the things I’ve said and written—in an email. The list of unprofessional and unethical conduct I’ve observed and reported is just too long. Read the blog pages I posted in the Spring of 2013. A lot of the issues are described in the headings and documents I reprint there. Those documents don’t just summarize the reports I have written to Boston University administrators, many of them are the reports I have written. I sent them to my Chairman, my Dean, the Provost, the university President, and even in the end when I didn’t get a response from anyone else, to the university Ombuds. Of course I’ve written dozens of other reports, which cover other issues too, and held dozens of meetings with administrators (where the only response I got was to be yelled at and called names for having submitted them), but those blog pages are the answer to your question. Those are the reports that have gotten me into trouble—and dozens of others similar to them. And if you don’t understand how merely writing a report, sending someone a memo can get my pay cut, my classes reassigned to unsuitable classrooms, my evaluations lowered, my web site shut down, you don’t understand the culture of Boston University. That’s the way this place is. It’s the way many for-profit corporations also are. They don’t like to have problems pointed out to them—especially when the person the problem is being reported to is involved in it.
Oh, I’m sorry. I just re-read the preceding and want to apologize for being so negative. I am scorching you for the sins of others. So let me try to answer your question, at least a little. Maybe if I give you even a partial listing of the events, you’ll see why this subject is so upsetting to me.
To answer your question, I’ll divide the events of the past ten years into two categories. The first is the reports I filed about fraudulent and corrupt activity I personally observed or have been told about. I wrote dozens of memos expressing serious concerns about individuals in my department and college who:

·      Rigged or falsified their student evaluations to game the course evaluation system and obtain undeserved pay raises.

·      And similarly rigged or gamed the review and promotion process, with a range of fraudulent practices designed to achieve desired outcomes—from cherry-picking comments to deny pay raises to faculty who don’t “go along,” to lobbying supposedly independent referees to pressure them to submit favorable reviews of certain candidates, to violations of confidentiality, to packing the membership of review committees with members predisposed to serve the Chairman’s and Dean’s purposes.

·      Extorted fraudulent production credits from current and former film students—demanding the false and undeserved credit from them in order to pad their resumes and obtain pay raises.

·      Absented themselves from their own classes or spent almost all of their class time showing movies rather than actually teaching. (As one film student put it to me only a few weeks ago: “If Professor [name omitted] was in class an hour all last semester, I’d be surprised. I don’t think he was there that long.”)

The second category of events is the retaliation I experienced in response to my submissions, in an attempt to punish me, to make my teaching and mentoring of students untenable, and to attempt to persuade me to quit (as my Chairman explicitly continued to try to persuade me to do in front of junior faculty in a meeting the Dean organized only a few months ago). In this effort, with the direct knowledge and supervision of my Dean and Chairman, a small number of members of my department and administrators in the College of Communication:

·      Held meetings with my students to personally attack me, telling my students a variety of lies about my personal life and suggesting that they should not enroll in my courses.

·      Cooked-up fictitious and made-to-order “letters of complaint” about me and pressured students to sign and submit the ghost-written texts, even as they concealed the faculty member’s or administrator’s involvement in dictating or writing the text.

·      Screamed at and name-called me both in meetings with junior colleagues and in public places in front of students to humiliate and embarrass me—again, in an effort to get me to resign.

·      Prevented speakers from being invited to speak on campus if the speaker was discovered to be a friend of mine or to admire my work—or (worse yet) if the speaker was recommended by me.

·      Monitored (or told me administrators were monitoring, which has the same chilling effect) the emails I sent to students, in an attempt to control what I said to students by intimidating me.

·      Surreptitiously distributed copies of my private emails to other faculty members and administrators in an effort to destroy my reputation and undermine my relationship with my students and my colleagues.

·      Attempted to control and censor what I was allowed to say about BU in media interviews.

·      Forced the suspension of my faculty web site and passed a motion to censure me for my ideas.

·      And so much more that I just don’t have energy to list …. including, as the blog pages amply document, inflicting a wide range of punitive and profoundly offensive, disrespectful, unprofessional, and unethical treatment on me in public and private.
Aggh. What a bad taste it leaves in my mouth, even to summarize this stuff. Even in  part. Yuk. There is a whole other set of memos where I’ve expressed concern about students being educationally defrauded and cheated by courses and policies that put economics ahead of education—as when graduate students in the Film Studies program are forced to obtain their entire graduate education by sitting in on (fraudulently re-named and re-numbered) undergraduate courses, listening to lectures and discussions directed at undergraduates and non-film majors, and being taught in many cases by individuals who lack the requisite training and educational background to teach grad-level courses—viz., recent graduates of the program who have no more education in the subject area they are teaching than having attended the same program the students they are teaching are in a few years earlier, or grad students being taught by teachers who lack an advanced degree in the area altogether.
Well, that’s all I can bear to bring back to memory, even in summary form. It’s just too painful to re-live imaginatively. The ultimate issue, as far as I am concerned, is not about me, but about students being academically cheated and defrauded of the education they are paying so much to receive—and being denied the faculty they deserve (since independent-minded faculty members are discouraged from teaching at BU—or forced out once they are here).
Best wishes in your studies and your program. Academic film study is still in its intellectual and pedagogical nonage. There are a lot of problems, both intellectual and pedagogical, and a lot of disincentives to improvement precisely because film courses are so popular (what’s not to like about getting a college degree for watching movies in class?). In our market economy, popularity is always a disincentive to excellence—and a disincentive to dealing with (or even admitting) the existence of problems. A university is supposed to be the one place that rises above market forces, and that’s true at places like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton, but it’s not true at most academic institutions, including my school and yours I gather, where the enrollment tail wags the intellectual dog and administrators are more than willing to look the other way as long as students (and in the case of my own department, grad students) keep taking the courses and paying the (exorbitant) tuition.

—Prof. Carney

P.S. I just remembered two quotes about art that you should stick up on the wall: Clement Greenberg’s maxim that “All profoundly original art looks ugly at first.” And Marshall McLuhan’s "New systems of understanding don’t look like breakthroughs or revolutions; they look like chaos.” Corollary: Real art, new, original art, will never fit into prefabricated race, class, gender, ideological categories of understanding. It will never be understood in terms of the conventional wisdom and received notions that your teachers want to shoehorn it into. If poetry is what is lost in the translation—art, real art, is what these critics have no terms, no categories, no ready-made methods to understand. They should save the deconstructive critical cliches for Hollywood movies. They work on them, because they are themselves packages of received notions. But art outruns your professors' intellectual recycling operations. Thank God for that--and thank God for artists. They free our hearts--and our minds. They take us to new intellectual places. If we let them!  

Ray Carney 
Prof. of Film and American Studies
Boston University

"Inside Boston University—A Faculty Member's Efforts to Defend
Academic Freedom of Expression"

Ray Carney's observations about academic freedom of expression, the
censorship of faculty publications, and bureaucratic retaliation
against independent-minded faculty members at Boston University. Prof.
Carney reflects on the deleterious effect of corporate modes of
organization, business measures of value, and market pressures on the
life of the mind, academic research, and course offerings—and on the
distortions corporate values introduce into the faculty promotion,
pay, and support system.

Ray Carney is the author or editor of: Henry Adams, Mount Saint Michel
and Chartres
(Viking Penguin), Henry James, What Maisie Knew and The
Spoils of Poynton
(New American Library/Signet), Rudyard Kipling, Kim
(New American Library); 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); Autoportraits (Cahiers
du cinema), The Adventure of Insecurity; Necessary Experiences; Why
Art Matters
; and other books, essays, and editions, published in more
than ten languages.