A Letter to a Department Chair

This is the first in a series of posts that describe aspects of my experience as a PhD student in the Department of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Studies (RPTS), in the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (HPER, now known as the School of Public Health), on the Bloomington campus of Indiana University (IU).

This post picks up from the end of a preceding series that describes experiences I would later have as a PhD student in the school of social work on IU’s Indianapolis campus (IUPUI).  I came to IU in 2005 with an interest in pursuing a double major PhD in these two fields, parks & recreation and social work.  I did my parks & rec coursework at Bloomington first, and then went to Indianapolis for the social work courses.  The Introduction to the preceding series says a bit more about these matters.

These posts are generally arranged in reverse chronological order.  That is, the Introduction begins at the end of the story, circa 2011, when all doors at IU had finally been closed to me — when, specifically, I had been prevented from proceeding to the dissertation stage in social work.  The posts in the preceding series focus on the social work portion of my training.  As such, they move backwards through the qualifying paper and the years of coursework to the first year of my attendance on the Indianapolis campus.

That was the 2007-2008 school year.  Now, this second series will tend to move further back in time, to my study of parks and recreation in Bloomington from 2005 to 2007.  I did return to Bloomington later, after leaving Indianapolis, and there were some relevant events in those later years.  In fact, the letter quoted in this post was written in 2011.  So while this series of parks & rec posts will tend to be looking back at 2005-2007, it will begin with some things that occurred later.

In parks & rec, as in social work, the end of the line came at the qualifying phase.  I had completed my coursework and submitted a qualifying paper.  In both programs, the qualifying paper was flunked, in a deeply flawed grading process.  The social work posts discuss the process as it pertained to the social work paper; subsequent posts in the present series will do likewise for the parks & rec paper.

For present purposes, I might mention that, as a former New York attorney in my mid-50s (Columbia, JD, 1982), I tend to be frank and articulate.  Some readers may surmise that such traits could provoke retaliation from professors within a troubled PhD program.  But, as I say, the details will have to wait until later in this series.

My parks & rec qualifying paper was graded in mid-2010.  I spoke with people about the process at that point.  We will get to that.  The final developments came in 2011, when I approached Dr. Bryan P. McCormick.  Bryan had been newly appointed as chair of the parks & rec department.  Those final developments are fairly well encapsulated in a letter that I sent Bryan on August 11, 2011.  He did not reply to that letter.  Here, I provide a few excerpts from it:

Dear Bryan:

. . . .

I raised the matter of corruption within the department again when I met with you on January 18, 2011.  This time, the question was whether the evaluation of my qualifying paper had been conducted in a fair and aboveboard manner.  I expressed the concern that its dubious handling constituted yet another instance of retribution. . . .

I became more concerned about your intentions when months elapsed after our meeting.  During those months, you ignored all but the first of my inquiries as to your progress. . . .

Despite [your] profession of a desire not to delay too long, I didn’t hear from you again until April 22, more than three months after our meeting.  By interesting coincidence, just the day before, I had a conversation with Joe [a mutual acquaintance, here referred to by pseudonym].  Joe did not seem to be familiar with the department’s treatment of me.  In that conversation, after hearing a bit of my story, Joe said that he would speak with you about some of these matters.  And then, as I say, your letter came to me as an email attachment the very next day.  So it does seem reasonable to wonder how much longer I would have had to wait if Joe and I hadn’t spoken.

It looked like Bryan intended to keep me waiting for a long time, if not forever, but then — thanks to my chance meeting with Joe — he was embarrassed into taking action.  This behavior was consistent with my letter’s expressed concern that Bryan seemed to be carrying some baggage:

I was really surprised to encounter your insistence, during our meeting, that PhD students have to be ready to acknowledge that they are wrong and that the professor is right.  I thought doctoral education was supposed to train people to perform competently as fellow professors and in other highly visible, accountable, and competitive positions.  If your department is providing training of that caliber, surely it should expect to produce PhD students who can capably present and defend viewpoints that sometimes differ from yours.

I do agree, of course, that a student should be alert to the ever-present possibility that s/he is in error.  But so too should his/her professor.  We all make lots of mistakes.  If, on the other hand, a student is not demonstrating the expected level of self-criticism, might it be because s/he has spent years in an academic environment in which his/her professors did not model any such intellectual humility? . . .

It was also a bit disconcerting, during our meeting, when you remarked, somewhat out of the blue, that some students had given you scathing reviews on anonymous course evaluations.  I got the sense that you might think I had written some such review.  For this reason, and also because I wasn’t very good at just being wrong when you wanted me to, it seemed you might feel that I needed to be taught a lesson or put in my place.

Such concerns, limited to Bryan McCormick, would not be particularly noteworthy.  He would be, at worst, just a bad professor.  The problem was that, as department chair, he represented something larger than himself.  His repeated promotions, over a number of years in that department, suggested that his views and values were consistent with those of the department generally.  This interpretation was supported by my own experience during my years of experience there.

I was not very successful in my attempts to communicate with Bryan about these matters.  Perhaps once should expect as much, when dealing with people who are promoted for their ability to publish research, as distinct from their ability to teach or to produce qualified graduates.  It did seem reasonable to expect a department chair to be a strong educator.  But since education was not the department’s priority, its PhD graduates tended not to learn how to become good researchers, and virtually none of them obtained top-tier appointments within the parks & rec field.

These excerpts introduce the general situation existing in August 2011, when I sent that letter to Bryan.  The next post in this series steps back a few months, to a letter that Bryan sent me in April 2011.

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