PhD Student-Faculty Relations at IUSSW

This post looks particularly at the coursework phase in my years as a doctoral student in IU’s School of Social Work (SSW).  Typically, a student would take courses during the first two or three years of a PhD program, and would then proceed on to the qualifying phase and, finally, the dissertation.

Within the coursework phase, the preceding post contains a few anecdotes of student-faculty interactions related to classrooms and assignments.  The present post focuses on my experiences of student-faculty relationships not necessarily linked to any particular course or assignment.  Most of these experiences occurred in the second year of coursework, in connection with certain remarkable developments among faculty and administrators.

Most students did not experience what I experienced in the area of student-faculty relations.  There are two reasons for this.  The first reason is that, as my own example indicates, undesirable students were eliminated:  they were discouraged from even applying to the program, or were driven out once admitted.  The second reason is that, as explored in the next post in this series, the remaining students were encouraged to emulate deplorable behaviors modeled by IUSSW faculty.

This post focuses on relationships with several faculty members who were key to my own experience at IUSSW.  Starting especially in the second year of coursework, those relationships were characterized by ostracism.  People would shun me without any apparent reason to do so.  Although they were all social workers, and thus were supposedly both committed to and expert in the improvement of relationships among people, they would not explain their behavior toward me; they would just suddenly start treating me like an outcast.  None took visible steps to ameliorate the situation.  It seemed that they were entirely comfortable with unethical behavior calculated to ruin a student’s career, without too much provocation.  And others, more removed from the situation, were apparently comfortable with just letting this happen.

The ostracism I experienced was pervasive and intense.  To convey a sense of that intensity, this post cites emails and other source materials.

Of course, it is unethical to single out a student for any form of unequal treatment.  To quote a few excerpts from Indiana University’s Code of Academic Ethics:

Faculty members exercise power over students, whether in giving them praise or criticism, evaluating them, making recommendations for their further studies or their future employment, or conferring any other benefits on them.

Since letters of evaluation written by a teacher may be uniquely important documents in both the academic and post-university life of a student, each teacher will strive to make such letters both candid and fair.

Trust and respect are diminished when those in positions of authority abuse or appear to abuse their power.

As noted elsewhere in this blog, I am using pseudonyms for students and real names for professors.  Whether it is right to shield some of these students from scrutiny, I am not sure.  But I am sure that it would be inappropriate to shield the professors.

As in my other posts, I do welcome correction and commentary.  Indeed, I would really appreciate some explanations, from those readers who are in a position to provide them.

Dr. Cathy Pike

Dr. Pike provided a particularly sharp example of the change in faculty attitudes.  First, here is the letter of reference that she submitted in support of my application to the MSW program at the University of Michigan.  (At this point, I had one year of the MSW yet to complete.)

January 12, 2008

Dear Admissions Committee:

It is my distinct pleasure to write a letter of recommendation for Mr. Ray Woodcock, who has applied to your MSW Program.  I have known Mr. Woodcock for about nine months.  Mr. Woodcock is currently a Ph.D. student in our Social Work Program.  As Chair of the Ph.D. Committee, I along with others reviewed his application to our Ph.D. Program.  In addition, I teach both our Intermediate and Advanced Statistics courses (SWK-S718 and 728).  Mr. Woodcock successfully completed the first of these courses and currently is enrolled in the Advanced Statistics course.

I can say without hesitation that Mr. Woodcock is one of the best students with whom I have ever worked.  I would rank him among the top 1% of students with whom I have worked.  As you will see from his application, Mr. Woodcock brings with him an extensive educational background. His earlier studies stand him in good stead for any academic endeavor.  His analytical, writing, and problem-solving skills are exceptional. In addition, he fell only slightly short of an ‘A+’ in my Intermediate Statistics course.  One of Mr. Woodcock’s most enduring strengths is his dedication to his education and his work ethic. I believe you will find that Mr. Woodcock is always exceptionally well-prepared for all courses.

Finally, I want to mention my assessment of Mr. Woodcock’s character. I have found Mr. Woodcock to be honest, down-to-earth, and earnest in his learning endeavors, as well as someone who behaves with the highest level of integrity.

In conclusion, it has been my great pleasure to work with Mr. Woodcock, and I am sure you will find him one of your most outstanding students. I am most happy to provide further information as needed. Please feel free to contact me at the following numbers:  [deleted]

Sincerely yours,

Cathy King Pike, Ph.D, MSW
Professor
Indiana University, at IUPUI, Indianapolis

Accompanying this letter, Dr. Pike filled out Michigan’s questionnaire.  She placed me in their highest category (“Exceptional – Upper 5%”) on every item.

This is all starkly different from what happened when I contacted Cathy to set up a meeting in May 2009.  At that point, according to materials that IU supplied to the U.S. Department of Education (DoE), and that I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the following exchange of email ensued.  (Dr. Margaret Adamek was the director of IU’s social work PhD program.)

*  *  *

To:  Cathy Pike
From:  Ray Woodcock
Date:  Monday, May 11, 2009 11:18 AM
Subject: Checking In …

Hope your summer is going well.  Wanted to see about sitting down for a chat sometime.

*  *  *

To:  Margaret Adamek
From:  Cathy Pike
Date: Thursday, May 14, 2009 12:03 PM
Subject: Ray wants to ‘check in’ …

[Entire content – about eight lines of text – deleted by DoE FOIA office.]

*  *  *

To: Cathy Pike
From: Margaret Adamek
Date: Thursday, May 14, 2009 12:16 PM
Subject: [deleted by FOIA office]

The Dean’s Conference Room is reserved.

*  *  *

To:  Margaret Adamek
From: Cathy Pike
Date: Thursday, May 14, 2009 12:17 PM
Subject: [deleted by FOIA office]

Thanks!

*  *  *

To: Cathy Pike
From: Margaret Adamek
Date: Thursday, May 14, 2009 12:28 PM
Subject: [deleted by FOIA office]

[Entire content of message – part of one line of text – deleted by FOIA office]

*  *  *

To: Margaret Adamek
From: Cathy Pike
Date: Thursday, May 14, 2009 12:39 PM
Subject: [deleted by FOIA office]

That will help.

*  *  *

As this exchange indicates, Dr. Pike was now inclined, or perhaps under orders, to contact Dr. Adamek before setting up a meeting with me.  It is not clear exactly what they said; the DoE’s Freedom of Information Act Office considered the bulk of their remarks too sensitive to reveal.  But from what I was able to obtain, it appeared that Dr. Pike wanted to avoid meeting with me in her office, where we had always met in the past.  Moreover, when we did meet in the dean’s conference room (located immediately adjacent to the SSW’s administrative assistant desks), she requested that the door be kept open — again, a departure from our previous approach when discussing things that I, or she, did not wish to broadcast.  Finally, when I asked Dr. Pike for a letter of reference in this meeting, she refused.

I do not know what things were said, by whom, to bring about this remarkable change.  There were no interactions between us that would have warranted it.

Dr. Carol Hostetter

Carol Hostetter was the other social work professor whom I asked to send a letter of reference on my behalf to the University of Michigan in 2008.  Carol and I had had many conversations and other interactions over the period of three years since we first met in 2005.  It seemed to be a very solid and cordial relationship.  We had talked about all kinds of issues, professional and personal.  Among other things, I had submitted a letter of support on her behalf, from the student’s perspective, when she was was applying for a certain opportunity within the SSW.  I really liked her, and I hoped to work with her further.  The letter she sent to Michigan (actually, a single long paragraph, inserted into their form) was as follows:

I am writing to highly recommend Raymond Woodcock for the master’s program of the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan.  I met Ray about three years ago when he sought me out due to his reading my work.  Since then I have been an advisor and have taught him in one independent study.  He is in the social work doctoral program at Indiana University, after completing the course work for a doctoral program in recreation therapy.  He would like to combine his interest in therapeutic outdoor recreation with social work theory, values and skills.  It is a unique combination, and in speaking with him I can see how it would be a useful area of study and practice.  His background in law and his foundation year of MSW education have served to prepare him for the stage he is now in.  Ray is a brilliant thinker and writer.  Of the doctoral students I have known, I would say he is one of the top two students, in terms of intellectual talent.  He thinks critically and synergistically, and is able to take both the immediate view and the long view.  His paper for the independent study was a fascinating review of the philosophy of science.  Ray researched and wrote the paper with very little instruction from me.  This speaks well to his ability to work independently and to use his internal motivation.  He would bring insight, energy, and intellectual stimulation to a master’s program.  I do not yet know how Ray will combine his academic passions, but I do know he will bring a great deal of talent and ability to whatever he chooses.

That was in early 2008.  A few months later, I inquired again about something she and I had discussed previously:  whether she would be willing to chair my qualifying committee, probably continuing on to my dissertation committee.  She had just become tenured within the past six months.  Here is what she emailed me on March 20, 2008:

In fact, yes, the rules changed not long ago and now without any hoopla or application on my part, I can chair a committee.  I recently was “director” for a School of Ed (Inquiry) student – the chair had to be an education prof, but he just signed off and I acted as chair for all intents and purposes.  So, I think I’m ready. . . .

Thanks for asking, I look forward to working with you.

Carol was in Bloomington, whereas by this point I had moved to Indianapolis.  So I did not see her often.  But we continued to enjoy positive email and phone interactions through the rest of 2008.  When I started to look ahead to the qualifying phase, however, something had changed.  In an email exchange in January 2009, she told me about certain personal circumstances that, she said, would prevent her from serving on my committee.  The story was vague.  She didn’t volunteer much information, and I won’t post, here, what she did disclose.  The point is, she was now suddenly unable to serve on a committee that, not long before, she had been eager to chair.

I found her excuse unpersuasive for three reasons.  First was the timing.  She said this personal situation had been an issue for several years.  But she had never mentioned it to me until now and, as noted above, she had recently been a committee member for another student where the same considerations should have been an issue.  Moreover, she had achieved tenure and had expressed eagerness to be on my committee within the past year.  Her change of heart, coming within the few months immediately after the remarkable events of autumn 2008, seemed very suspicious.

Second, it was not clear how being on my doctoral committee would be directly affected by the circumstances she cited.  Those circumstances did not seem related to the task of chairing my committee.  For instance, as just noted, she had found me to be largely self-steering.  And she was meanwhile commencing other endeavors that, if her excuse had been true, she would likewise have declined to undertake.

Third, from this point forward, Carol proceeded to substantially sever her ties with me.  After these years of friendly mutual interaction, her contacts swiftly became curt, unhelpful, and cold.  That is the opposite of what one would expect if she really did feel guilty because (as she phrased it in January 2009) “I hate to tell you no even more because we’ve been ‘in this together’ for several years. . . . I cannot be there for you.”  We had indeed been in it together; she was one of the people who encouraged me to pursue the SW PhD, and had written a letter of reference for me at that point as well.

More than four years after our last friendly interaction, I sent Carol an email, drawing her attention to this post and to other materials, and asking whether her ostracism of me had perhaps been based on a misunderstanding of the realities.  Once again, she did not reply.  It seemed ironic that Carol would have been the one who would reportedly tell her students about the importance of negotiating solutions.  For her, I guess, negotiation was not something that you sometimes have to do with people who irritate you, or whom you have wronged.  We seemed to have one more demonstration of how poorly a social work education, unfolding in its sheltered environment of likeminded individuals, can prepare those who will find it necessary to work with people who hold differing viewpoints.

Dr. Margaret Adamek

Another post describes strange and hostile actions toward me by Dr. Adamek.  A different post notes that, starting in autumn 2008 (as in the example of Cathy Pike, above), my professors began sending Margaret copies of their email correspondence with me regarding class assignments and other everyday matters.  In addition to being director of the PhD program, Margaret was a member of the PhD Committee that declined to respond to my petitions regarding irregularities in the qualifying process.  In short, she was at the heart of the whole matter.

This was another significant loss.  I had been discussing this PhD program with Margaret since 2004.  We had many face-to-face meetings and email interactions over the years.  She did seem to be strongly supportive at the start.

I do not know what changed.  There was a strange conversation, in December 2007, at the end of my first semester in the SSW, in which she seemed to be threatening to cut off my University Fellowship if I proceeded with my tentative plan to finish my MSW at the University of Michigan.  (At that point, Indiana was still treating me as an out-of-state student, even though I had grown up there and had been back in-state for several years.)

In deference to Margaret’s concerns, I deferred my entry into Michigan until the 2009-2010 school year.  I had two or three further conversations with her, after that December 2007 conversation, to assuage her stated fear that I might be planning to start over from scratch in a Michigan PhD program.  The last of those conversations was on September 30, 2008.  At that point, she said that we had cleared up our misunderstanding.  That was obviously false.  Her hostile actions mentioned in those other posts — reporting me for having a nightmare, and so forth — began within two weeks thereafter.

I don’t think Margaret was malicious toward most students.  She may have been malicious toward most heterosexual white male students.  Malice of any form would be incompatible with social work ethics and with the role of an educator.  Ethics aside, it would have made practical sense to create a positive environment and to help students progress toward graduation.  There have been complaints, from students, about her seeming indifference and lack of support.  When she tells me that her job is on the line because her program is graduating so few PhDs, and then she can’t be bothered to reply to her students’ emails (never mind actively sabotaging progress in my case), I must admit:  I do not understand such behavior.

Dr. Bob Vernon

Unlike Drs. Hostetter and Adamek, I did not have years of prior interactions with Dr. Vernon.  He was nonetheless an important player, especially in the second of my two years of coursework.  During that year, he was my supervisor in my research assistantship, and in other ways was positioned to make a material difference in how matters unfolded.  Moreover, as a tenured professor drawing a salary of $78,000 per year, he had about as much freedom to speak the truth and stand up for the underdog, at work, as anyone could hope to have.

It was entirely appropriate for me to expect positive experiences and useful credentials from my research assistantship.  Assistantships are important for a PhD student and future professor:  they provide early career opportunities to learn and demonstrate capabilities that future employers want to see.  I was dismayed that, instead, starting in October 2008, Dr. Vernon avoided interaction with me and, among other things, withheld the opportunity to co-author an easily published article about the Second Life virtual reality realm in which I was assisting him.

In late September 2008, I notified Bob that I had received indications of personal hostility from Gladys — a student who, at that very time, was already commencing a series of highly disruptive actions against me.  There is no indication, in any of the materials I have received from DoE’s Freedom of Information Act Office, that Bob paid any attention to my warning.  To the contrary, when Gladys circulated bizarre rumors that I might be suicidal, or a terrorist, those DoE materials show that he was, or at least pretended to be, deeply worried about me.

In October 2008, Gladys further claimed — after we had passed more than a year in the program together — that she was suddenly so afraid of me that she could not attend Bob’s class without police protection.  This alleged fear lasted for less than two weeks.  It went away as soon as Dean Queener ordered me to stop talking to all other doctoral students, thus curtailing any further discussion of male students’ perspectives on gender-based harassment in the SSW.

Bob Vernon was uniquely positioned to admit that he had been observing our classroom interactions for approximately a half-semester at that point; that he had also read through student posts on the PhD student listserv; and that — as I confirmed with direct questioning — he had observed nothing that would have supported Gladys’s claim of fear.  Instead, pathetically, Bob did not say a word on my behalf.  He did not even ask Gladys to explain the basis for her claim of fear.  Indeed, as I would later discover, he was actively supporting her effort — at the very time when he was telling me that he made a point of not getting involved in student affairs.

My impression was that Bob tended to take the path of least resistance.  For example, he readily acknowledged that the male students tended to remain silent when he taught about feminism.  In our class, he taught that subject from a rote script, just reciting statements straight out of a book written by one feminist.  His reasoning was simple.  Feminism, he told me, was a “third rail” issue — meaning “do not touch.”

I could understand that approach, from a perspective of doing whatever it takes to protect oneself and keep pulling down those nice faculty paychecks.  I could not understand that approach, however, from the perspective of a committed educator.  Social work takes deep interest in fairness between the sexes.  Besides being poor teaching, Dr. Vernon’s approach was obviously not going to get anyone excited about the subject, nor would it teach students — not only males — that feminism is something that they can and should understand, discuss, and have their own views about.  In other words, Dr. Vernon’s style was compatible with dogma, with telling people what to think.  It was not compatible with learning — with, generally, the belief that students need to learn to do their own thinking.

Taking the path of least resistance is problematic in social work for another reason.  It commonly means — and in this case, it did mean — going along with whoever is stronger, even if the strong person is an administrator who is unethically targeting a student for retaliation.  Bob was not about to stand up for the underdog, not if it would make his own career less comfortable.  In short, his self-serving approach — doing whatever it took to get along with the people in power — made him part of the problem.  He was not alone in that.  But, as I say, he was especially well positioned to make better choices.

In the ensuing weeks, my attempts to start face-to-face conversations with Dr. Vernon went nowhere.  I assumed he simply did not wish to get involved.  I did think it was appropriate nonetheless at least to keep him apprised of developments.  For example, I sent him this message on October 27, 2008:

Hey, Bob.  Hope you’ve had a good weekend.  Just thought I should update you on things.  As may not surprise you, I am kind of discouraged and am wondering what I am doing here.  Not planning any abrupt changes; just a bit fazed.

He did not reply.  I had not anticipated that, as shown in the documents I have received, he was actually very much involved and, worse, was forwarding such communications to others, with disparaging remarks about me.  The documents indicate, further, that he persisted in this pattern when it was clear that his behavior was contributing to my ostracism.

Consider the following example.  In this message, I sent Dr. Vernon copies of emails that I had sent to Dean Queener.  Those emails conveyed my confusion and upset at how things were developing:

From:  Ray Woodcock
To:  Robert Vernon
Date:  November 12, 2008

Bob — no expectations that you have time/interest to read any of this, but since you were in at the start, I thought you might appreciate an update.

I did not expect what happened next.  Bob did not reply to me.  Instead, somehow, through the magic of the IUPUI email system, I received this message from Dr. Adamek:

From:  Margaret Adamek
To:  Robert Vernon
Date:  November 12, 2008

Yes, I received these items. I think he is seeking allies.

This was remarkable for several reasons.  First, I did not receive a copy of this message through the DoE FOIA request.  Evidently IUPUI did not send the feds this message.  It seems, in other words, that Margaret may have violated federal law by withholding relevant, requested information from the federal investigators.  Second, the message illustrates how Bob responded to my trust by immediately violating it.  Third, it shows that Margaret knew that her actions, and his, were having the effect of excluding me from ordinary interaction with professors.  Neither she nor Bob responded to this situation by trying to bring me back into a normal standing in the SSW.

This should not be taken as a complete listing of ways in which Dr. Vernon participated in the destruction of my intended career in social work academia.  I can only guess what else might have gone on.  For instance, I blamed Bill Barton, who had become the editor of Advances in Social Work, IUSSW’s in-house journal, for failing to reply to a manuscript that I had submitted to that journal.  It was easy to blame Bill:  he had started giving me dirty looks at about this same time.  But at some point it occurred to me that quite possibly Bob, who had solicited our submissions to ASW, never even forwarded mine to Bill.

Dr. Jim Daley

There was one exception to the pattern presented here, where things seemed to start off well and then go south, especially around October 2008.  For some reason unbeknownst to me, Dr. James Daley appeared to have a hostile attitude toward me before I even arrived at the SSW, long before we actually met.  I do not know to what extent, if any, he may have been influential in promoting such an attitude among his peers.  It does seem reasonable to have some concern along those lines, given his apparent prominence within the SSW.

There were some early indications of this attitude.  Before I even arrived at the SSW in fall 2007, Dr. Daley ignored me when I emailed him to introduce myself and to ask if I could participate in the production of Advances in Social Work, of which he was then editor.  That seemed odd. Ordinarily, offers of free labor from PhD students tend to be acknowledged and pursued.

It would be easier to think that my early message fell through a crack if Dr. Daley’s nonresponse were inconsistent with his other behavior toward me.  Unfortunately, from the beginning, he was simply unfriendly to me.  To my knowledge, he did not have a general reputation for irascibility.  I seemed to be a special case for him.

As noted elsewhere, Dr. Daley eagerly grasped what he perceived as an opportunity to have me expelled, on the basis of yet another complaint, by Gladys, that was ultimately found to have no merit.  Yet the reasons for his behavior remain unclear.

Silence from Others

The preceding paragraphs demonstrate that key faculty in IUSSW were actively working to disparage me and damage my reputation and my career.  These efforts would have been less successful if other faculty had stepped into the breach.  The closest I got to that was an indication, by Dr. Patrick Sullivan, that he would be glad to serve on my qualifying committee.  (Each PhD student was expected to find several professors whose principal obligation was to grade that long paper.)  But when the time came, Pat backed out.  He claimed he was too busy, but of course we are all busy.  The question is, why did a slot on my qualifying committee become less appealing?  All I knew was that something had changed.

At least I got to first base with Dr. Sullivan.  That was more than I managed with most others.  At some point I may supplement this post with a more complete discussion of behavior toward me by IUSSW faculty.  For the time being, however, that seems unnecessary.  When the key people in your academic career — people who were swearing to your excellence just a few months earlier — suddenly decide that they don’t even want to speak to you anymore, it seems that there must have been some serious interference with your relationship.

Unfortunately, this cancer did not stay with the administrators who seem to have originated it, nor with the faculty members to whom it spread.  As described in the next post, it metastasized to my fellow students.

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