End of an Academic Career

This is one in a series of posts that describe the termination of my PhD studies in the Department of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Studies (RPTS) at Indiana University (IU).  These posts go in reverse chronological order, beginning with an introductory post discussing a letter that I sent to department chair Bryan P. McCormick in August 2011.  That post describes how Bryan promised to investigate the grading of my qualifying paper.  The second post in this series, immediately preceding this one, reports on Bryan’s failure to investigate — indeed, his apparent efforts to cover up unethical practices in that grading.

The present post steps back further in time, to the start of the fall 2010 semester.  I had just returned to Bloomington after a year in Ann Arbor.  Before returning, in June 2010, I had submitted my doctoral qualifying paper.  Now school was starting.  It was time for me to get registered and start working on my dissertation proposal.

But there was a snag.  To my great surprise, I couldn’t proceed with that proposal because my qualifying paper had received a failing grade.  The grading was very dubious, as described in the next post in this series.  My complaint about that grading would lead, later, to Bryan’s suspicious behavior, as noted above.  But at this point, in early fall 2010, I was in limbo.  There was a question of what to do next.

Departmental rules required qualifying papers to be graded within four weeks.  By that rule, I should have received the grade before the end of July 2010.  Ruth V. Russell, chair of my qualifying committee, emailed me in late July to let me know that she was still waiting to get the grades from the two other members of the committee.  It did seem that she was trying to stay on schedule.

And yet, somehow, I did not receive the grade until September 4, 2010.  That — nearly ten weeks after I had submitted the paper — was an unusual delay.  Given Bryan’s three-month delay in responding to my complaint in early 2011, I wondered whether the RPTS administration was deliberately dragging things out.

When Bryan finally did get around to my January complaint in late April 2011, he came up with various excuses for that ten-week delay in summer 2010.  For example, he said I had caused the delay by not sending the paper to all three graders.  That was obviously false, as demonstrated in a number of documents.  (As noted in that earlier post, Bryan did not respond to the letter in which I went through these items for him, point by point.)  He tried to say that a ten-week delay was consistent with his department’s four-week rule.  He said other nonsensical things.  I was amazed that he would attempt such patent falsehoods on a lawyer.  It was as if he wanted to document his part in a conspiracy.

When I got the grade in early September, I made immediate inquiries with several people in the RPTS department.  On September 2, I sent an email to Assistant Dean Jerry Wilkerson, asking about this situation.  There were additional delays.  At a time when there was an urgent need to get things straightened out so that I could register for classes, it took almost two weeks to get a meeting with Dean Wilkerson.  We did finally meet on September 14, 2010.

In that meeting, Dean Wilkerson told me I had a simple choice.  I could file a grievance to contest the grade.  Or else I could have a do-over.

These were dismaying choices.  First, about that grievance option.  By this point, the department had been harassing me for several years, in retaliation for earlier events.  I had complained about that retaliation in a prior grievance process, like the one that Dean Wilkerson was suggesting now.  As more than one person predicted, that grievance process turned out to be useless.  She, herself, had not exactly dedicated herself to providing a fair outcome in that previous go-round.  And now she was suggesting that I might want to endure that charade again.

Dean Wilkerson reminded me that a new grievance process would begin within the RPTS department.  Bryan’s three-month delay gave me a hint as to how that would have turned out.

Before contacting Bryan, I had already attempted to contact his predecessor.  That predecessor was interim department chair David Compton, who apparently held the position through the end of 2010.  I’d had a great phone conversation with Dave back in spring 2010.  But now that I was on campus, for some reason he refused even to meet with me one-on-one.  In other words, the chair of RPTS refused to meet with a PhD student in his own department.  He would send me emails; he just wouldn’t sit and talk to me.

When I say that Dean Wilkerson gave me the option of a do-over, I don’t mean that she was going to let me rewrite the paper.  She refused to do that.  I think she realized that the first paper was probably pretty good, and that a rewrite would be better.  I had already published a book and several articles in peer-reviewed journals.  It was rare that I would get less than an A- on a paper submitted for a course.  I think she knew that a failing grade on the retry would probably have been even more glaringly strange than an unexplained failing grade on the first try.

Of course, doing a rewrite of the paper would have required the department to supply a clear explanation of why the first submission had been flunked.  The department refused to do this too.  But, again, that’s a matter for a later post.

Instead of explaining why my paper failed, and giving me the required opportunity to retry, Dean Wilkerson demanded that I give up on the idea of submitting a qualifying paper, and sit instead for a qualifying exam.  This demand had a number of problems.  First, this would have required me to do two different qualifying requirements — first, a paper that had not been appropriately critiqued, and now an exam.  I have never heard of such a thing.

As discussed in another post, doctoral students struggle for weeks and even months to write a qualifying paper or prepare for a qualifying exam.  Why was Dean Wilkerson trying to make me do both?  After all, she was the one who had provided written permission for me to submit a paper.  And that was the second problem with her concept:  I had a written, signed contract with IU permitting me to write a paper for my qualifying requirement.  The paper would pass or, after two tries, it would fail.  Talk of an exam was simply extraneous.  Even without the written agreement, department rules gave me the right of a retry.  If there was going to be a re-do, logically it would be a re- of what went before.  An exam is not a retry of a paper.

Dean Wilkerson sent me a follow-up email, letting me know that I had 14 days to make a decision.  I wrote back to ask for the rule specifying that timeframe.  I pointed out that the rules said I had a year within which to file a grievance.  She did not reply.

People familiar with the qualifying process may wonder why Dean Wilkerson was involved at all.  Where was Ruth Russell, my doctoral advisor?  The short answer, expanded in a subsequent post, is that Ruth had completely disappeared.  Strange doings, indeed.

For the moment, I will just say that Ruth and I had been talking about my qualifying paper, and about my writing generally, for several years.  I think she would have been very pleased with my paper, if she had been involved in grading it.  The next post in this series is thus the first of several posts treating aspects of that grading process.

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