Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Negotiating with Boston University, Part 2

The effectiveness of reason as a response to irrationality, anger, and fear

This is part two of a four-part account of my attempts to reason with Boston University administrators in the period immediately preceding my decision to go public with these blog postings. Part 1 appears on the previous blog page, and the heading to that page gives the background to the text that follows. —Ray Carney

I’ll give three concrete examples of how Boston University administrators deal with faculty who file ethics reports or report various kinds of professional misconduct:

Example #1:

My Dean asked for a meeting with me to discuss some of the issues that had come between us. It took place in December 2012. When I arrived, I discovered that I was not going to be meeting with him alone. The Associate Dean (James Shanahan), my department Chairman (Paul Schneider), and a university lawyer (Erika Geetter) were seated on either side of him at a long table. I was on the other side of the table—outmaneuvered, outnumbered, and potentially outgunned—but I thought, all the better to be talking to so many people at once. I could discuss my concerns with all of them at the same time. Was I in for a surprise. Though the meeting had been presented to me as a “discussion,” and “information-session,” discussion was the last thing my Dean and his associates were interested in having. What took place was a Star Chamber proceeding in which I was grilled and cross-examined as mercilessly as if I were a defendant in a courtroom. And not one with a presumption of innocence. It was obvious from the get-go that in their minds I was absolutely and unquestionably guilty, and they were only there to prove it and get me to admit it. Perry Mason would have been proud. I had prepared a few remarks to lay out a number of issues, but was hardly able to get out two successive sentences without being interrupted and argued with by one person after another on the other side of the table: Accusations, insinuations, and denials were hurled back at me pretty much every time I said anything. I was told I was a liar and was lying; I was making things up; my account of events was wrong; things I described hadn’t really happened. The university lawyer (Erika Geetter) took the lowest road of all telling me more than once that something I said was “ridiculous” or that I was mentally ill to have said it. That was the whole meeting. That was what they called a “discussion.” That was their idea of listening. That was their conception of having a conversation with me—to attack me; to object to everything (and I do mean everything) I said; to deny any of it had ever happened; to tell me I was making it all up; to mock and ridicule it; to call me names and tell me I was mentally ill.

One particular moment toward the end of the almost three-hour session can sum up the tenor of the whole “discussion.” I had turned to my Chairman (Schneider) and told him that one of my major problems was the sheer disrespect, name-calling, and attacks on my morals and character that I had been subjected to on numerous occasions in his own department as well as in program meetings with the Director of Film Studies (Roy Grundmann). I recalled for his benefit a few specific moments when I had been yelled at and told in front of groups of other faculty members that I was a liar or was mentally ill (a frequent epithet), and how I had been called names, deliberately and repeatedly insulted, and had my character and morals attacked on numerous occasions (including being screamed at in public or classroom settings in front of students, staff members, parent-visitors, and outsiders). His first response was to say none of it had ever happened (remember that he was sitting there in front of his boss and a university lawyer—what else was he to say?), but then I guess his conscience kicked in (or he remembered that there had been dozens of other unimpeachable witnesses present at all of these events who could easily verify that I was telling the truth) and he actually acknowledged that he did remember me being verbally abused, called names, and screamed at at one "stormy" meeting (his euphemistic adjective, as if the causes of personal abuse were as anonymous as the weather), but only one meeting, mind you—and gave me his solemn assurance that he would personally guarantee that such unprofessional behavior would never be tolerated in the future, that I would absolutely never be insulted or treated disrespectfully again while he was Chairman. (He had to say it; he was sitting in front of his boss and the university lawyer.) He assured me I could depend on him to make sure I would be treated with impeccable courtesy and respect.

Of course the hours of captious interruptions, the insinuations (or outright accusations) that I was a liar, the charges that I was making things up, and the mockery and name-calling that was taking place in the very meeting I was in (and make no mistake about it: my Chairman had been right in the thick of the accusations with the others) were in and of themselves proof that absolutely nothing had changed and that his promise was being violated even as he was making it. I wasn’t being treated with even a pretense of courtesy and respect then and there. But to my surprise it suddenly got even worse. My Chairman suddenly launched himself into a new and completely gratuitous cascade of insult and abuse that had nothing to do with anything I had said or had come up earlier in the meeting. My reminders about the events he had participated in in department meetings must have gotten his dander up. He looked me in the eye and, to my astonishment, flung himself into a three- or four-minute rant to the tune of (and I quote only the beginning as far as I remember it): “Why in the world are you here? Why do you work at BU? Why don’t you quit? Your colleagues don’t like you. What’s keeping you here? Is it just the money? Is that it?....” Then he pulled out a sheet of paper from his notes and began reading a lengthy excerpt from something I had written about film study in American universities, something I had posted five or ten years before on my (long-ago officially banned and censored) BU faculty web site. It was apparently intended by him to clinch his argument and prove his case that I was an offensive, obnoxious, and  dangerous human being who had the gall to continue working at Boston University! Quod erat demonstrandam. Why wouldn't I quit and solve the problems his and the Dean's narrow-mindedness, nastiness, and intolerance of different ideas had created?

It was all I could to do to keep from laughing out loud. Here he was telling me I had never been treated disrespectfully or insultingly in a meeting, and assuring me that even if it had happened once or twice in the past, he would personally make sure it never happened again—and the way he chose to make his point was by deliberately attacking and insulting me in front of a group of other administrators, vilifying my publications and ideas, and berating me for not having seen the light of day and having resigned my position—since I was apparently one of those low-lifes who was only doing his job “for the money.” (Like the Humphrey Bogart who came to Casablanca for the waters, I must have been misinformed. I was sure not getting rich, thanks to the hits on my pay he and my Dean personally oversaw.) What added to the black humor (though I controlled myself and bit my tongue throughout the whole barrage, saying nothing either during it or afterwards) was that neither Chairman Schneider nor anyone else on Dean Fiedler’s side of the table even saw the irony and contradiction. That was what it was to be trapped in their own states of irrationality, anger, and fear. (I had reported their professional misconduct in previous years to their superiors, after all. Just as I reported what happened at this meeting to the university Provost a day or two later. They were, and continue to be, very unhappy about that.) They couldn’t see or hear me; I knew that going in. But this moment made me realize that they couldn’t see or hear themselves either. Their emotions made them blind to themselves. Not only my Chairman, but all of them. None of the others intervened to object to this new line of personal attack, this new and completely gratuitous series of insults, this whole new vein of narrow-minded nastiness. I watched my Dean out of the corner of my eye throughout the whole embarrassing episode and he sat there and smiled throughout the whole tirade. As chairman of the meeting, he not only did nothing to stop or moderate the whole disgusting onslaught, but he was delighted by it. He was glad my department Chairman was talking to me this way. In his mind, I had it coming to me; it was about time someone told me the truth and laid it on the line for me in this way. I was gobsmacked, flabbergasted, speechless. 

That’s the Boston University administration’s idea of how to conduct a “discussion” with a faculty member. That’s my Dean’s, the Associate Dean's, my Chairman’s, and a senior university lawyer’s idea of a conversation, of a meeting of minds. I was, of course, taken aback by the vehemence of the name-calling and shocked by the assault on my character and morals throughout the meeting, but I can’t say I was really surprised. Truth to tell, believe it or not, nasty, abusive, and intolerant as this particular meeting was, it was actually a bit milder than a few of the other shouting-matches, personal attacks, and cascades of ad hominem accusations I’d experienced in years of previous department and program meetings. [For confirmation of these events, see the blog entry "How (Not) to Conduct a Meeting—Shouts, Name-Calling, Personal Attacks, Threats, Punishments," available in the side menu under March 2013 to read messages of condolence other faculty members wrote me after witnessing and sitting through some of these ceremonies of public humiliation, during which I was called names, had my morals publicly attacked, or was otherwise verbally abused by the Director of Film Studies (Roy Grundmann), the department Chairman, or others.] 

The larger point is to show how worthless having tenure is at Boston University. The whole point and raison d'etre for the tenure system, the reason tenure exits, is to protect senior faculty from acts of retaliation against them, to free them up to speak openly about problems, to allow them to take unpopular stands and act independently. But Boston University has found a way around the protections of the tenure system. John Silber (the former President of Boston University) got around the system with his mistreatment of tenured faculty members (look up Howard Zinn on the internet), and Robert Brown (the current President of Boston University) has let the abuse of the tenure system continue. If you have tenure and BU administrators decide they don't like you (say, because you report some shady ethical practices and unprofessional conduct in low-level administrators above you), and they can't outright fire you because you have tenure, they simply force you to quit by making your life pedagogically hellish (my classes have been rescheduled for unsuitable classrooms, 8AM start times, and strung-out twelve-hour work days) or by conducting ceremonies of public shaming and berating like the one I have described—"Why don't you quit? What's keeping you here?" "Why do you work here?" "Is it just for the money?"—or like many other even more severe sessions of public abuse that I have sat through at department and program meetings, or stood through by being screamed at and having my performance and morals and character criticized in front of students or their parents in public places. Consult the blog for more than you want to know on those subjects. ["Public Shaming as an Administrative Technique," available in the side menu under March 2013, would be an appropriate starting place.] That's what tenure is worth at BU. That's what seniority is worth. That's what collegial respect and courtesy for long-serving and highly productive members of the faculty amounts to. Precisely nothing. Lip service when you interview and nothing more.

My account would be incomplete if I didn't mention an additional set of events that followed the shaming, berating, nasty meeting above: Predictably enough, a day or two later I was informed by memo that the personal attacks had only been a prelude to a series of more tangible punishments. My evaluations were lowered again. My pay was negatively affected again. My teaching schedule was changed without my agreement again. I was assigned additional course overloads again. Personal attacks and shaming tactics are important weapons in the Boston University administrative arsenal, but BU administrators would regard it as simply foolish to limit themselves to insult when they can add injury.

For other accounts of how the Dean of the College of Communication, Chairman of the Department of Film and Television, and Director of Film Studies regularly conduct meetings, see three other site pages: “How (Not) to Conduct a Meeting—Shouts, Name-Calling, Personal Attacks, Threats, Punishments,” “Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats—Being Banned in Boston,” and “Public Shaming as an Administrative Technique,” all available in the side menu under the listings for March 2013.

[Continued on the next blog page]