The Strange Case of the Disappearing Advisor

This post is one in a series that discusses the termination of my PhD studies in the Department of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Studies (RPTS) within what is now known as the School of Public Health at Indiana University (IU).  That termination process reached its climax in the failing grade given to my qualifying paper in summer 2010.  The grade on that paper was supposed to be provided by the members of my qualifying committee.  The chair of that committee was Ruth V. Russell.  Yet as described in the preceding post in this series, it appears unlikely that Ruth actually participated in that grading process.

In addition to the signs discussed in that preceding post, there is another factor that points toward Ruth’s exclusion from the grading of my qualifying paper.  At the time when she was supposed to be collecting the grades from the two other committee members and sending me her conclusions and remarks, she vanished.  I mean, that was almost two years ago, and I have literally never seen or heard from her again.  Despite my repeated attempts at contact, there has been not so much a single email.  Complete silence.

The situation was just as bizarre as it sounds.  This post summarizes some of the main points.  The length of this post is due, in part, to an update that I tacked on at the end, reflecting newer information.

But before proceeding with this discussion of Ruth’s disappearance, let me pause to address a concern that may arise in the minds of some readers.  The preceding posts depict a situation in which I was opposed by multiple professors and administrators in my department.  Is that not a commentary upon my personality and/or my fit in the department?  I will take a brief pause to address that question.

When I started in the RPTS PhD program at IU, one of the first students I met called it, to use his word, a “shithole.”  According to a faculty member, another student, apparently disgusted, told his advisors to go “F” themselves.  A third student seemed to be perpetually unhappy and uncommunicative.  A fourth one ran into cultural barriers, did graduate, but has never found doctoral-level employment in the parks & rec field.  A fifth one switched to another PhD major after becoming thoroughly disappointed in RPTS.  A sixth one did not finish quals.  A seventh one liked to share juicy gossip about the philandering and sexual harassment troubles that one faculty member had gotten into.  An eighth PhD student tarried for years before being ultimately pushed out.  A ninth one said that she came home crying every day from her assistantship in the department.  A tenth one was passed over for an assistantship and did not finish coursework.

I could go on, and could supply more detail, and so could my classmates and, no doubt, those who came before and after.  So let us be clear:  this was not some kind of happy little family, where I was the black sheep.

Professors in this place were making a lot of money — $92,000 for Bryan, for instance (using 2008 figures, before he was promoted to graduate coordinator and then to department chair), and $115,000 for Alan, and $151,000 for Dean Wilkerson, plus total job security, great benefits, and wide latitude in how hard they would work, and on what.  Meanwhile, pathetically, the stipends that they paid to their stressed-out PhD students, who taught some of the largest and most challenging and unpleasant undergraduate classes (and who thus generated large amounts of revenue for the department), maxed out at less than $15,000.  These professors didn’t get to their plush positions by radically changing and improving things and stepping on people’s toes.  They got there by going with the flow and by playing the bureaucratic game.

The reality of the situation — and I will leave it with this — is that there is a world full of people who do not share the values and priorities of those professors in their ivory tower.  Society privileges the ivory tower when it pulls its own weight — by producing employable graduates, for instance, or by contributing valuable ideas.  The U.S. has been fairly patient about this.  But when a corner of that tower is free-riding — abusing its students, perenially underperforming other departments, stuffing its ranks with intellectual lightweights — it can expect people to start looking at it critically.  The people who do this can include deans and university presidents who want to eliminate or radically pare back unperforming departments.  There has been some of that at RPTS.  Such people can also include competitors in other fields who may be doing a better job of studying and using related knowledge.  There has been some of that at RPTS too.

If a department wants to survive such onslaughts, it might be well advised to listen to people like me, when we push for improvements, just as it should have listened to similar students who came before.  We actually want the place to succeed.  We are trying to build a future.  What we don’t want is to be abused by the resident deadwood because we bother to care.

So.  I was saying that, as noted in several preceding posts, key administrators were engaged in some interesting words and deeds related to Ruth’s disappearance.  Consistent with the reverse chronology employed throughout this series, let’s start at the end, with Bryan McCormick.  When I complained to him about the grading of my quals paper in January 2011, he said that he would have to talk to Ruth to find out what went on.  I remind you, I had not heard from her since July 2010.  Bryan didn’t explain why he, but not I, would now be able to talk to her.  This was obviously strange.  After all, she was doctoral advisor to me, not to him.

When I didn’t hear back from Bryan after our January 2011 meeting, I followed up.  He explained that his delay was due to Ruth’s health.  His delay continued for more than three months.  By interesting coincidence, he finally got back to me the day after I spoke about these matters with one of his colleagues, who had been unaware of my situation and apparently found it dismaying.  As noted elsewhere, the letter that Bryan sent me at that point was rather disturbing.  His claim that he was waiting to talk to Ruth appeared to be false.  His letter contained no specifics indicating that he had even spoken with her.

It was true that Ruth had retired on July 1, 2010, the day after I submitted my qualifying paper.  She and I had talked about that.  She was interested in remaining as chair of my qualifying committee post-retirement.  So the retirement itself was not a factor in subsequent developments.

It was also true that Ruth emailed me the next day, July 2, to let me know that she had received my paper.  She apologized for taking an extra day to acknowledge it.  The delay, she said, was due to a personal matter.  She did provide brief details on that matter.  This was consistent with Ruth’s usual style:  diligent and communicative.  As her résumé states, she had been a professor for 25 years and had also been a dean of the university.  She had a longstanding reputation of being concerned about her PhD students.  I, personally, had found her to be supportive and interested in my work.  So of course she would write back, as soon as possible, to let me know what was happening.

Ruth’s complete disappearance and noncommunication, for a period of years, was truly extraordinary.  Something exceptional must have happened to compel her to behave as she did.

At the end of July 2010, one month after I had submitted the qualifying paper, I emailed Ruth to follow up on it.  My message mentioned that I was planning to return to Bloomington.  She replied on July 30, 2010.  As she knew, the department had a rule that such papers were to be graded within four weeks.  In other words, she would surely have done her own reading and scoring of my paper by this point.  Her reply indicated that she was waiting for the other graders.  Her message read as follows:

I hope you enjoy your Bloomington adventure.  Unfortunately, I’ll be out of town next week – RVing.  Since I’ve retired, I no longer have an office or desk on campus, so you’ll see no traces of me at all while you wander the halls of HPER, but you will see some interesting construction.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting to receive the grading/feedback on your written qualifying paper from the other two members of your committee.  They are both out of town and automatic e-mail replies indicated it will be awhile longer before they return.

Take care, and travel safely.

Ruth

There are a couple of things to notice about this message.  First, as of July 30, 2010, Ruth was out riding around the countryside in her recreational vehicle (RV).  It seems pretty clear that she would have let me know if she saw anything on the horizon that would affect her ability to continue to perform as chair of my qualifying committee.  Or, in the worst case, I could be confident that she would at least get back to me diligently after the fact, if incapacity caught her by surprise.

Notice, also, the tone of this message.  There is no sign of the disgust found in the grading remarks that Alan Ewert would later attribute to her.  In other words, Alan said Ruth flunked my paper; but this email suggests otherwise.  A professor who cordially says, “Take care, and travel safely,” is not likely to have just indicated, within the past week or two, that she “honestly can’t decide if he is eligible for a re-write” attempt (i.e., that perhaps I should be ejected from the program immediately).

As just shown, Ruth’s July 30 email said that she was still waiting to receive the grades from the other members of my qualifying committee, Marieke Van Puymbroeck and Margaret Adamek.  Strangely, four more weeks would pass before Marieke would finally submit her grades.  This was not what one would expect from a person who, at that very time, was up for tenure.  Someone in her position would ordinarily be striving to make sure everything was in place.  The last thing she needed was for some pesky doctoral student to complain that she was not performing her duties.

Marieke’s approach to grading certainly did not take much time.  The paper was only 20 pages long, double-spaced; she wrote only 111 words about it; and those words focused entirely on its style, as distinct from its substance.  Indeed, what she wrote was an echo of what the other grader had written; there is no distinct evidence that Marieke even read the paper.  In short, there was some reason for concern that Marieke may have chosen, or may have been nudged toward, a grading approach that was both belated and indefensibly negative, perhaps by someone who would soon be voting on her tenure.

On September 14, 2010, Dean Wilkerson told me that Ruth had undergone a series of major surgeries, starting on July 1, and that she had been completely incapacitated ever since.  Dean Wilkerson was quite graphic in her description of the July 1 surgery.  Unfortunately, Ruth’s July 30 email (above) demonstrates that Dean Wilkerson was inventing things.  I pointed this out to Bryan in a letter on August 11, 2011.  He did not reply to that letter.

Two weeks later, Dean Wilkerson’s story changed.  In an email on September 28, 2010, she shifted to the claim that — as she put it, tripping over her own words — Ruth “has declined to be involved with any further involvement students due to her health issues.”  So now it wasn’t that Ruth was physically unable to work with anyone at all; it was that she had decided not to work with students.  Since I was, to my knowledge, the only student that Ruth was still working with, the more accurate phrasing would have been that, according to Dean Wilkerson, Ruth had decided not to work with me.

Dean Wilkerson’s original and revised claims ran up against several realities.  For one thing, there was no actual letter or email to me (or, as far as I know, to anyone else), conveying any such desire in Ruth’s own words.  I was supposed to rely on a secondhand report that this diligent, academically experienced, student-supporting professor had completely dropped out of a committee — indeed, that she had irresponsibly abdicated the role of chair, for a student with whom she had been working for years — without even the most basic documentation of her decision.  The documentation was not merely delayed; it never materialized.

Dean Wilkerson’s claims suffered, too, from a lack of any other supporting evidence.  I sought but did not receive information as to the hospital where I might visit Ruth, if her disappearance was due to some medical condition.  There was no announcement that she was experiencing any sort of emergency.

Dean Wilkerson did not explain how Ruth’s health issues would have enabled her to interact with faculty members but not me.  That is, regardless of whether there was a health issue, there seemed to have been a separate decision that Ruth would cease all contact with me.  There was no explanation at all of why she would make such a decision.  Even if Ruth had decided to flunk my paper, that would have no logical connection with a decision to disappear from sight.  It would, however, have a logical connection with a departmental decision to get Ruth out of the way so that I could be flunked.

After July 30, 2010, I next tried to contact Ruth on August 16.  This time, she did not reply.  I tried again subsequently but, again, there was no reply.  July 30 was the last time I ever heard from her.

So it seems that, whatever happened with Ruth, it happened between July 30, 2010, when she did reply to me, and August 16, 2010, when she did not.  That seems to be the time period in which she made a radical transition from her diligent, communicative self to a completely different pattern, no longer responding to calls and emails.

In the real world, when a successful professional or academic person is incapacitated for health reasons, they tend to want to notify the people who are depending on them.  At the very latest, I would have heard from Ruth by September 28, when Dean Wilkerson claimed to be acting as her spokesperson.  Ruth’s complete silence after July 30, 2010 demonstrates, pretty clearly, that this was not a straightforward case of someone who wanted to continue to carry her responsibilities but was simply unable to do so.

In addition to Ruth’s own likely actions, the department too would have taken responsive measures.  Ruth’s disappearance in the first half of August would have prompted immediate notices regarding both the grading of my qualifying paper and the chairing of my qualifying committee.  The department contained experienced administrators who claimed to have the relevant information and who were capable of addressing the situation in a timely fashion.  For some reason, the department was essentially unresponsive to the alleged emergency.

Dean Wilkerson was not in that department, but for some reason she became personally involved in my case at an early point.  Despite claiming to have inside information, however, she allowed six to eight weeks to elapse, after Ruth’s disappearance, before issuing the September 28 statements discussed above — and she issued those statements, even at that late date, only after I continued to push for information.  The official story was one of a straightforward medical emergency; yet what I was actually seeing was convolutions and contradictions in the things that these people were telling me.

Along with timely formal notices from Ruth and the department, I would also expect to hear informal commentary.  When a major professor experiences a medical emergency as catastrophic as the one described by Dean Wilkerson, one can ordinarily expect the topic to come up very quickly in casual conversation, in person and/or by email.  I had known virtually everyone in the department for at least three years.  I had been friends with one of them, Shu Cole, for six years.  Yet somehow nobody seemed to be discussing any emergent situation involving Ruth — not in July, when Dean Wilkerson claimed Ruth had been incapacitated, nor in early August, when Ruth disappeared.  Here, again, there seemed to be, not an actual medical emergency, but merely a tale spun by a few co-conspirators.

Over time, some things did become clearer.  As of this writing, in early April 2012, it is plain that medical emergency (if there ever was one) did not prevent Ruth from continuing to be academically active.  She is presented on IU’s list of Experts & Speakers as “Professor Emeritus,” a title she did not have before her retirement on July 1, 2010.  A new edition of one of her books, Leadership in Recreation, was published in March 2012.  Its preface (dated December 2011) states that this latest edition has been “completely updated and expanded” and that it “goes beyond previous editions” in a number of ways.  It seems she must have done quite a bit of work on that in 2011.  This particular activity was remarkable because Ruth had previously expressed particular dislike for the task of creating new editions of her books.

In summary, Ruth Russell definitely did disappear, but the explanation of her disappearance did not hold water.  It seemed that she may not have wanted to disappear.  There was a question of whether she may have been coerced into dropping me and just walking away.  I did not know whether any person(s) in the department or elsewhere at IU would have power over her retirement or health benefits, or would know embarrassing secrets or have some other way to compel her to suddenly change direction and vanish.  Whatever the explanation, things did not add up.

Update

In late April 2012, after writing the foregoing remarks, I decided to try emailing Ruth again.  To my surprise, this time I got a reply.  The email address used was the same one that I had been using to contact her since 2004.  So I think I really was in direct contact with Ruth Russell.  Our exchange went as follows:

*   *   *

From:  Ray Woodcock
Sent:  Saturday, April 28, 2012 12:15 PM
To:  Ruth V. Russell
Subject:  Catching Up

Hi, Ruth …

I never did understand what happened in the summer of 2010.  I wonder if you would be willing to explain it to me now.  I would like to put it into some perspective.

Hope you’re doing well.

Ray

*   *   *

From:  Ruth V. Russell
Sent:  Tuesday, May 8, 2012 11:25 AM
To:  Ray Woodcock
Subject:  Catching Up

Hello Ray,

I hope you are doing well too. As to summer of 2010, my memory is that you took your written qualifying exam and all members of your advisory committee failed the results.  I retired shortly before then, so I do not know what happened with the exam after that.  Perhaps the graduate coordinator for the department or the graduate dean of HPER (I do not know who these people are now) can update you on that.

Take care,

Ruth

*   *   *

I found Ruth’s response surprising on several points.  First, she was apparently so completely disconnected from the department — where she had started her own doctoral degree in the late 1970s, and had taught since 1984 — that she did not receive even the most basic news about who was the coordinator or dean.

Ruth had always seemed to be an affable individual.  It was remarkable that she would remain professionally active — available to give speeches and to update her books — while apparently severing contacts with the people who had been her colleagues for decades.  Had she just hated being there?  Was she pressured to drop me and just walk away?  One can speculate.  The facts were apparently going to remain unknown, but something odd seemed to be happening there.

I did not address that matter in my reply to Ruth.  I focused instead on other surprises in her message:

*   *   *

From:  Ray Woodcock
Sent:  Wednesday, May 9, 2012 12:08 PM
To:  Ruth V. Russell
Subject:  Catching Up

Dear Ruth:

Thank you for your reply.  I appreciate that there are others whom I could contact, but they would be secondary to your own role.  Although you had retired, you had also indicated that you would continue to serve as chair of my qualifying committee.  We have that in writing.  So my questions are properly directed to you.

Let me introduce those questions by noting that I contacted you on April 28 [above] with a genteel inquiry as to “what happened.”  It took ten days for you to reply.  It is often difficult to read intentions or emotions through email, so I cannot be certain of the spirit in which you have belatedly replied.  Given the facts of the situation, though, your reply does appear to be, roughly speaking, evasive.

I had hoped for something better.  This is the first I have heard from you in nearly two years.  At that point, as of summer 2010, you and I had been interacting for years.  There was a clear and repeatedly stated mutual interest in continued interaction.  We had even talked about the possibility of co-authorship at some point.  When you disappeared — and now, when you have resurfaced, with a hesitant and seemingly evasive response — I have had to wonder whether I was perhaps deceived as to your view of me and my work.  Were you just fooling me, all those years?  Did you have some kind of malicious scheme in mind when you agreed to chair my committee?  I think this cannot be.  But what else could explain the events of summer 2010?

Those events were simply bizarre.  First, you vanished.  One day, I was receiving emails in your usual cheery tone; the next thing I knew, you were gone.  We went from a friendly professor-student relationship to what the department depicted as a complete and final termination of all interaction between us.  In all my years of undergraduate, law, and graduate school — even within the craziness of RPTS — I have never heard of such a thing.  Something unusual transpired — something dramatic, it seems — but what?

I think I know you, Ruth.  I have not seen a side of you that would be completely indifferent to students in general, much less to a doctoral student with whom you had an established professional history.  You are a conscientious instructor.  So unless you were fooling us all, for years, as to the nature of your personality and your attitudes, it is difficult to believe that you simply chose to disappear.

Moreover, even if I was utterly misled as to your true feelings about students generally and me particularly, there remains the formal, organizational fact that the chair of my qualifying committee went completely incommunicado.  You sent me no notice of your intention to abdicate all responsibility.  Nor did the department forward to me any such communication from you to them.  The impression I am left with is that you — a famously diligent full professor with decades of experience in academia — completed no paperwork to terminate your involvement as chair of my committee.  Again, it is difficult to imagine that you would have chosen to do things this way.  The written contract governing my qualifying paper came into existence through your efforts; you would surely have displayed similar efforts in an attempt to undo it.

Your message [above] conveys a belief that your retirement was relevant to the processing of my qualifying paper.  The idea seems to be that you came out of retirement long enough to flunk my paper, but not long enough to be responsible for collecting the grades.  Yet you do seem to have known what grades the other graders gave.  If you were retired from this qualifying committee, why were you continuing to interact with the other graders?  When you did receive those other graders’ grades, why didn’t you send them to me?  It’s as if a student would have to go to his/her department chair in order to find out how s/he did on a final exam.  If you were un-retired long enough to collect the grades, why weren’t you un-retired long enough to discuss them with me?

Perhaps the grades themselves answer that question.  They are a farce.  A score of “1” on every item, including the “new thinking” item on which the paper drew praise from the journal editors, and the “grounded in literature” item that even Margaret Adamek gave a passing grade.  No item-by-item comments — on the form that you, yourself, devised, which required graders to provide line-by-line explanations of their grades.  No evidence, in the Additional Comments section, that you even read the paper:  the comments were entirely related to style.  A snide tone, in those comments, that I don’t believe I ever saw in any of your grading.  Ruth, what could explain this sort of thing?  My hypothesis is that you didn’t grade the paper at all.  But maybe you can explain how you could have produced grading of this caliber.

Not to mention Marieke’s grades.  Since you knew of the other grades, I guess you know that she parroted the remarks and scores attributed to you.  That raises the interesting prospect that you knew, and did not even attempt to rectify, her failure to provide independent grading.  What you seem to be saying, in your reply, is that you knew of, and approved, the fact that she was grading my paper in an unethical fashion.

At this point, it appears that the scheme surrounding my paper’s grading — be it malicious or coerced — was a continuing project entailing ongoing collusion by you.  This seems compatible with your perpetual silence toward me, ever since.  It would also explain the delay in your reply to my message of April 28:  perhaps you needed time to check with your co-conspirator(s), so as to decide whether to reply to me at all, and how a reply should be worded.

So, Ruth, as I say, I do have some questions arising from your behavior with respect to the qualifying paper I submitted in summer 2010.  There are a number of things that seem to point toward malicious or coerced behavior on your part.  I don’t have the explanation yet.  I believe I will get it eventually.

To that end (as in so many things) there is the easy way, and then there is the hard way.  You are an intelligent person.  I believe you are probably still quite capable of considering your potential exposure in this matter and working, with me, toward an appropriate resolution.  Your previous message is not a step in that direction.  A person doesn’t have to be a lawyer to have observed situations in which continued attempts to deceive someone only produce a more tangled web.  I do hope you will think carefully about the role you want to play, with respect to my qualifying paper.

Sincerely,

Ray

*   *   *

Ruth did not reply.  It appeared that she had belatedly decided to provide a brief, evasive response, just in case that would be enough to let the matter slip into the past, but that she was not interested in any discussion of her bizarre behavior.

By this point, there was a pretty clear impression that multiple senior faculty members and administrators — in the RPTS department and in IU’s larger school of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation — were engaged in a deliberate, extensive scheme of falsehoods and distortions, aimed toward the goal of preventing me from graduating.  I found it difficult to understand how an educator could entertain such malice toward a student over such a long period of time.  In Ruth’s case, especially, it floored me to contemplate the possibility that her cordiality and support could have been a mask, perhaps for years on end.  This was obviously a conclusion that I had been resisting, but I was finding it difficult to come up with plausible alternative explanations.

We have not reached the truth of the matter, but apparently the truth would be interesting, else there would not have been these sometimes absurd attempts to conceal it.  But why would these things be happening — why, ultimately, would there be any such scheme, disappearance, or other strangeness?  The next post moves closer to an answer to that question.

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