An Encounter with University Justice

This post is one in a series that describes certain unjust experiences during my PhD studies in the Department of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Studies (RPTS), within 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 series proceeds in reverse chronological order.  That is, it starts with events in 2011 and then 2010, when the department was engineering its final termination of my progress toward the degree.

Having moved back to the 2006-2007 timeframe, the previous post describes specific acts, by a professor, that appeared to be prohibited by the university’s own rules.  It was not clear why those rules were not enforced.  It appeared that the executive associate dean had already decided that I should be eliminated.  But she and I had had no interactions that would have justified such a decision.  It appeared that she may have been responding to the preferences of one or more other parties.  This post provides one possible explanation as to who those other parties might have been.

Targeting the Atypical Student

Why would an administrator or faculty member at IU have been hostile toward me?  Let us consider the general situation.  At places like IU, professors are hired and promoted, not usually for their excellence as trainers of the next generation, but rather for their ability to produce research and/or to bring in grant funding.  With teaching as a low priority, students must expect to encounter quite a few instructors, courses, and assignments of poor quality.

Moreover, students must expect that this poor quality will persist.  Universities generally do not discharge productive researchers just because they happen to be mediocre teachers.  Students who wish to improve this situation are not only unlikely to achieve much, but in some places are at risk of being targeted by those who resent their meddling.

Students commonly learn, in other words, that they must accept a certain (sometimes significant) amount of educational dysfunctionality.  In this sense, a university education infantilizes them.  For example, their grades and even their survival in the university environment can depend upon their ability to learn which sorts of questions to ask in class.  Tough, intelligent questions may be unwelcome, particularly when they embarrass the professor who is poorly trained, poorly prepared, or otherwise not interested in being challenged.

Infantilization also occurs in the ethical sphere.  Bureaucratic ethics, in the university and elsewhere, tend to oppose individualism.  That is, it tends to be unacceptable to stand up for principles that diverge from the view of the majority or of a dominant individual.  Instead, too often, higher education teaches that you must do “whatever it takes” to graduate.  College students are implicitly taught, en masse, that their real life has not started yet — that they, personally, are not expected to take responsibility or play a constructive role with respect to anyone other than themselves.  Indeed, expectations often favor posturing, cowardice, and other less-than-admirable behaviors.

As described more fully elsewhere, I researched and thought about these sorts of experiences while assembling my book about the law student experience.  I had published that book back in the early 1990s, after my own undergraduate and graduate education, followed by employment in corporate law firms in New York City.

Unlike my classmates at IU, I had the benefit of years of experience and reflection on higher education and its outcomes.  I did understand what it was like to be in their shoes; but I also had — because I had created, for myself — the opportunity to focus on doing it right this time.  I already knew what it was like to go charging through school, only to emerge into a career that was strangely unlike what I thought it was supposed to be.  This time around, I was going to pay more attention to the signposts along the way.

In the groupthink environment of many university classrooms, professors can and do convey tacit messages about the relative oddness or undesirability of particular students.  Those whose form of diversity is not officially celebrated are at elevated risk of this kind of professorial targeting.  The preceding post offers an example.  And as that post demonstrates, the student who challenges such ostracism may attract even more intensive harassment in retaliation.

So that is one perspective on how it could happen that a hostile professor would enjoy support from other faculty or administrators.  In the groupthink environment, the model of the inferior student who needs the professor is not necessarily counterbalanced by a competing model in which the educator would seek to identify and enhance the student’s strengths.  Instead, those students who do not need the professor, or who need atypical things from him/her, may simply qualify for rejection by some.

It seems plausible — in my experience, there are some indications — that professors who feel most threatened by competent students are often, themselves, among the least suited for university-level teaching.  Be that as it may, the emergence of an adverse opinion toward a particular student may not be opposed by the pick-your-battles types who know how to survive in the university environment.  At IU, student advocacy does not appear to have been a dominant theme in the faculty lounge.

The Situation:  Harassment

The foregoing remarks provide a general orientation to certain aspects of the environment I encountered at IU.  Such remarks may help some readers to visualize how a star student could be targeted and harassed by a vindictive professor or administrator.  Yet the picture remains vague.  Given that all this could happen, and that there are assorted indications that something related to the foregoing observations did happen, can we be more specific about any particular watershed events?

We can.  I arrived in the RPTS department in fall 2005.  The department informed me that my assistantship would be at a place called the Eppley Institute.  Eppley’s director was Steve Wolter.  Steve informed me that, when new PhD students were admitted, he got the first shot at the best of them.  This happened because his wife, Lynn Jamieson, was the chair of the department.

In other words, there was a conflict of interest.  The department could use graduate assistants (GAs) for a variety of projects.  Some of those projects may have been more promising than the work that those GAs wound up doing at Eppley.  Students may also have had better opportunities for beneficial career development experiences in those other places.  Many of Eppley’s staffers and PhD students wanted to be doing more actual research and less busywork.  Steve was not a researcher, did not have a PhD, did not display a personal commitment to research, and repeatedly prevented me, among others, from doing research.  Nonetheless, Lynn would send those research-oriented students, including me, to work for her husband.

I asked Lynn for a transfer in spring 2006, after my first year at Eppley.  I did so because that year was largely a waste.  I spent it doing essentially clerical work, frequently reinventing the same materials over and over again, for a supervisor who found it very difficult to complete a task and move on.  Tasks were dwelled upon and re-re-done; there were unflattering statements and implications.  The PhD student who held my position during the preceding year was the one, mentioned elsewhere, who said that, nearly every day she worked for this supervisor, she went home crying.

In her orientation session at the start of each academic year, Lynn advised new graduate assistants that, if their assistantship duties were trivial or time-wasting, they should come to her and let her know.  I was disappointed that, when I did so, she responded by denying my request for a transfer.  But perhaps she was instrumental in Steve’s decision, in fall 2006 (i.e., at the start of my second year at Eppley), to put me under a different supervisor.  This supervisor, John, was also not a PhD.  He was, however, supportive and productive.  We were able to get some work done.

At the same time, unfortunately, Steve began to demand that I attend numerous long meetings.  I estimated that, during the course of an academic year, he was requiring me to spend about five weeks’ worth of assistantship hours (out of the total of about 30 weeks per academic year) sitting in meetings and retreats.  John agreed that, in his words, Steve’s meetings were “a waste of time,” indulged at the expense of other pressing deadlines.

Steve was aware that I tended to dislike meetings.  I asked him why he was now making this demand.  He would not say.  Several administrators, faculty members, and students had characterized him as being prone to engage in harassing and abusive behavior.  It appeared that he was trying to punish what he may have seen as my disloyalty in asking his wife for a transfer.

At one point, I documented what it was like to attend one of Steve’s meetings.  This particular instance came from a mandatory all-staff meeting.  The meeting lasted two hours.  As in most such meetings, most of us had no idea of what was being talked about.  We did not understand the terminology and we were not involved in the activities under discussion.  Partway through that particular meeting, it occurred to me to keep a count of instances of participation.  I counted for an hour.  That hour’s events seemed to be typical of such meetings.  Here are the findings and related remarks presented in my writeup:

During that hour, of the 23 people in the room, only Steve and Deb participated actively.  Steve had appointed one of the computer guys to chair the meeting, and in that capacity (but only in that capacity), that person spoke up several times.  Two other computer guys offered brief remarks pertaining to issues within their field.  But of the remaining 18 people in the room, five others offered exactly one voluntary comment each during that hour.  Nobody else spoke at all during that hour, except in a few instances when Steve drew everyone’s attention to some particular individual and essentially compelled him/her to utter a word or two (which is about as much as any of them did utter). . . .

In this year and a half at Eppley, I do not recall any instance in which any employee has expressed a genuine interest in attending any of Steve’s meetings, or a desire to see such meetings made longer or more frequent.  Much to the contrary, the views that I have heard are negative.  Some people find the meetings pointless, but are resigned to the fact that Steve insists upon them; some complain, afterwards, about wasting those hours, or express a wish that they did not have to attend, or are pleased when they can find excuses for absence. . . .

What is actually happening, in this situation, is not that I have somehow departed from the Eppley community’s preferred standards.  What is happening is, rather, that I have simply told Steve something that nearly everyone agrees with, but is afraid to say.

It appeared, in short, that Steve bullied his staff and PhD students into attending pointless meetings.  Remarkably, the department tolerated and supported it, despite the obvious indicia and widespread awareness of abuse.

For me, the harassment continued.  At the end of the fall semester, Steve submitted a performance evaluation.  He had not evaluated me during previous semesters, but now he felt the need to do so.  His performance evaluation gave me a score of 3 out of 10.  His accompanying remarks demonstrated, as I already knew, that he was actually not too sure what work I had been doing.  Meanwhile, John, my immediate supervisor, had been providing consistent praise for my hard work on his behalf during that semester.  During one ten-day period, for instance, when John faced an imminent deadline, I logged 85 hours.  Not bad for what was supposed to be a 15-hour-per-week assistantship!

But at least Steve had now documented his belief that I was not suited to work at Eppley.  Now, I thought, Lynn would surely transfer me to a different assistantship.  So I asked again.  This time, the request was supported by the graduate coordinator.  It seems that Lynn had put one of my classmates, a Korean guy with mediocre English language skills, into (of all things) a teaching assistantship.  This guy, and his undergraduate students, were very unhappy with this arrangement.  He badly wanted to transfer to Eppley, where he would not have to teach; and by this point I was eager to get some teaching experience.  Our positions should have been reversed in September, not December, but better late than never.

Amazingly, the transfer request was denied again.  The Korean guy went back to teaching in spring 2007, and I returned to Eppley.  Or — not exactly.  Steve now forbade me to work in the office.  He said I would have to work at home.  So he didn’t want me at Eppley, and yet wouldn’t let me leave.  (At one point he had praised me as “king of the spreadsheet,” so I don’t think he ever did think I was incompetent.)

If there was a good explanation for Lynn’s decision, once again, to deny the transfer, it was not shared with me.  To me, it appeared that Lynn and Steve were deliberately preventing me from starting in a new opportunity where, as before, I would work hard and would impress my supervisor, would get good ratings from my students, or in some other way would develop a counterpoint to Steve’s negative evaluation.  It seemed that Steve and/or Lynn were trying to insure that my file would look bad, so that the department would have an excuse to terminate my funding — which is exactly what happened that spring.  May 2007 marked the end of my enrollment at IU — Bloomington.  (My return to submit a qualifying paper three years later was at my own expense.)

IU Justice Processes at Work

The circumstances just described demonstrate severe failures in the department’s ability to police itself, and in the university’s ability to provide proper oversight.  The husband-wife nepotism, the corrupt misdirection of resources for the sake of buttressing the husband’s operation, the waste of graduate student assets on unproductive meetings and clerical work, the falsification of performance records, the sabotage of student career opportunities — these sorts of behaviors, however extreme and unwarranted, were apparently acceptable to faculty and administrators in the RPTS department.  People at all levels would acknowledge that various inappropriate behaviors were occurring, but nobody took concrete steps in response.

That was ironic.  Doctoral students are commonly bombarded with declarations about the intellectual ferment of the university environment.  Yet the reality can be — in my experience at IU, it was — that this supposed intellectualism is greatly circumscribed and controlled by politics.  In such places, the contest among competing versions of truth is very often determined by what one can safely say to one’s students, colleagues, and supervisors.  Nobody at IU was going to audit the situation that I was experiencing.  The administrators responsible for this state of affairs had pretty wide latitude to do whatever they wanted.

The university did allow students to take, upon themselves, the responsibility for policing the departments in which they were enrolled.  That is, I could file a complaint.  I did exactly that.  Several classmates, and more than one professor, advised that this would probably prove to be a waste of time.  They turned out to be right.  Nonetheless, I felt that I should at least try.

In the first stages of the formal complaint process, the department and the HPER dean’s office delayed things for months.  Finally, in early April 2007, a university committee considered my complaint.  The committee dragged this process out for nearly two more months.  During those months, the committee’s chair, Dr. Robert Terrill, reneged on a promise to give me a follow-up meeting with the committee, after they had finished their first round of interviews, so as to take a more careful look at points in dispute.

The committee did not provide its final report until the very end of May.  By that point, the school year was over and people were scattered for the summer.  There were grounds for concern that the committee had deliberately delayed the report until a point when its errors could not be reviewed and corrected.  When I did receive the final report, I tried to get Dr. Terrill to take a closer look at its obvious problems, but he refused.  A few examples may illustrate the nature of that report:

  • The committee avoided my core complaint that Steve was requiring me to attend excessive long and unrelated meetings.  There was no finding on that issue in the committee’s report.
  • The committee did not interview John, my actual supervisor, or other Eppley staffers or student assistants.
  • In response to the question of whether Steve and Lynn were colluding on an outcome adverse to me, the committee decided (in something of a non sequitur) to take Steve’s word for it, when he assured them that he and Lynn did not discuss work-related issues at home.
  • The committee decided — as I say, without information from my actual supervisor — that I had a “work attitude” problem with respect to Steve’s meetings.  This conclusion appeared to be based solely upon the committee’s interview of Steve.
  • The committee blamed me for failing to arrange a certain meeting with Steve.  But the committee had not even investigated that matter.  There was no explanation of why such a meeting would have been relevant, nor why it would be the duty of the student rather than the director to call such a meeting.  If the committee had asked John or me about this meeting, they would have discovered that Steve himself did not actually want to meet with us at that time.

It was already very unusual for a student to dare to file a complaint against university faculty.  IU’s Whistleblower Policy supposedly “protects Individuals from reprisal by adverse academic or employment action taken within Indiana University as a result of having disclosed wrongful conduct.”  But the poor handling of this instance supported the general conclusion that IU – Bloomington was simply not motivated to insure that students would be treated in a just and appropriate manner.

I have no doubt that the university was interested in appearing to be just, particularly when numerous or powerful interests were at stake — as when, for example, a student would have a clear shot in a lawsuit that his/her attorney would find attractive.  I have discussed situations of that nature in a separate post.  But consistent with the deplorable ethical climate mentioned above, this university did not have a commitment to fair treatment of students per se.

This situation, beginning at the end of my first year of doctoral study at IU, may have been the root from which subsequent developments sprang.  Within the secretive and sometimes poisonous environment of administrative dealings at IU, there was very little openness, clarity, or scrutiny of potential abuses.  A person in my position would generally not be informed of, nor given a meaningful opportunity to respond to, the behind-the-scenes interactions that could end his/her educational plans.

Such a state of affairs is not accidental.  University faculty and administrators have substantial power to shape their environment.  The things they emphasize, and those that they choose not to emphasize, are greatly influenced by their own preferences.  Hence, there arises a question of why the people at the highest levels in Indiana University would prefer the sort of situation that I have described here.  The next post addresses some matters pertaining to those higher-ups.

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