Rot at the Top

This is the last in a series of posts describing the termination of 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).  As described in the preceding posts in this series, that termination was engineered through a collection of remarkable actions by RPTS faculty and related administrators.

A Wild West Ambiance

The post immediately preceding this one identifies something resembling a Wild West environment at the departmental level, in which faculty and administrators enjoyed considerable freedom to mistreat students.  A question emerging from that situation was whether such conditions would implicate university administrators above the level of the department or the school.  This post discusses that question.

It certainly seems that there was not supposed to be a Wild West environment.  IU, itself, offered a variety of documents setting forth numerous general principles and specific rules governing the treatment of students.  These included the Academic Handbook; the Code of Academic Ethics, and the Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities, and Conduct.  There were also external authorities (e.g., the U.S. Department of Education; the Indiana Commission for Higher Education; the Higher Learning Commission), whose rules and regulations placed important controls on the potential abuse of students.

To offer a specific example, IU’s Handbook for Student Academic Appointees promised a timely response to complaints at the departmental level, statement of a clear appeal structure, and written clarification of procedures at the beginning of an assistantship.  It all sounded good.  Yet those sorts of rules tended to be disregarded.  The department did not have, and apparently did not wish to have, controls that would have protected students, including me, from the forms of faculty misbehavior described in the preceding posts.

Wild West liberties were not available to students.  For them, the rules were enforced precisely and with potentially extreme sanctions.  A student caught cheating could be thrown out of the university; but (to cite one example from the previous post) a faculty member falsifying a student’s performance evaluation would apparently not even attract criticism.  The rules thus served as excuses to justify attacks upon those who were not involved in their composition.  The sources cited in the preceding paragraph might have had teeth if they had been constructed with input from plaintiff’s attorneys or other external student advocates (although, truth be told, it appeared that most judges and attorneys in Bloomington were IU graduates themselves and/or had other links or affiliations with the university).

This Wild West environment was not accidental.  IU is an extensively hierarchical organization, with a president and his accompanying vice presidents, chancellors, and provosts overseeing the various campuses; vice chancellors and vice provosts and a plethora of other adminstrative offices beneath them; deans (and associate and assistant deans) within the various schools on each campus; department chairs, coordinators, and program directors within departments; and numerous other kinds of titles and positions, each accompanied by their own internal sub-bureaucracies of auditors, recorders, executive assistants, administrative assistants, and other positions as needed and desired.  Collectively, IU (including IU Health) is Indiana’s largest employer, with more than 100,000 employees.

This place did not just inadvertently slip into a pattern of treating students like cattle, to be herded and knocked around.  IU’s functioning and finances, and its graduates’ outcomes, would be very different if, for instance, it had to respect students as valid, individual human beings — as clients, that is, in the manner of a law or medical firm.  In my experience, as this blog shows, IU was very far from any such concept.

An Attempt to Reach President McRobbie

Since 2007, IU’s president has been Michael A. McRobbie.  As ordered by IU’s Board of Trustees, the president “shall, and cause others to, manage and administer the University in accordance with the policies and resolutions adopted by the Board,” including the policies and resolutions cited in this and preceding posts in this blog.  Dr. McRobbie is paid more than $500,000 per year to perform these tasks.

Dr. McRobbie may never have heard of me.  He certainly has heard of HPER, the school in which these developments took place; it enrolls more than 2,000 students.  With or without me, Dr. McRobbie should long since have been verifying that appropriate treatment was being accorded to the thousands of students who have entered and exited that place over these years.

This blog describes a five-year ordeal spanning two separate campuses in Dr. McRobbie’s university.  Elsewhere, I have described how that ordeal resulted in a federal complaint that is now on appeal with the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, DC.  Chancellor Charles R. Bantz, heading IU’s Indianapolis campus, was certainly aware of my case — I communicated with him directly about it; university lawyers were involved — and Chancellor Bantz answers directly to Dr. McRobbie.  In short, it appears plausible that one or more people at the highest levels of IU”s administration made conscious decisions that had the effect of permitting blatant violations of the university’s written guidelines in my case.

Assuming no reason for personal animosity, such decisions evidently arose from the nature of the situation.  Dr. McRobbie et al. did not get to their top positions by making enemies.  They do not appear particularly inclined, that is, to give some random student (e.g., me) any real leverage over abusive professors and administrators.  Doing so could anger large numbers of professors who abuse students, or who might be accused of doing so.

I did briefly engage Dr. McRobbie in an email exchange in March 2007.  He had issued a broadcast message to all students upon his nomination for the presidency of the university.  I took the opportunity to send him this reply:

*  *  *  *  *

Dear President-Elect McRobbie:

Thank you for your e-mail message.  I hope and believe you will bring a much-needed change in tone to the university’s relationship with its students.

For purposes of commenting upon that relationship, I occupy a somewhat unusual and privileged position.  I come to the Ph.D. program at Indiana University, in the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, after a previous career (Columbia Law ’82).  At the age of 51, having spent some years in New York City and elsewhere, I have perhaps an above-average propensity to speak out, where a younger, more easily intimidated (although equally dismayed) student might simply take his/her lumps.

When I speak of a great need for a change in tone, I am thinking principally of a hoped-for recognition that the university-student relationship ought to be a positive, cooperative, encouraging one.  Students should leave here believing that IU is one of the world’s great universities.

But that will require IU to become a class act.  At present, in important ways, it is not.  To bring about the preferred results, I suggest a revisitation of the manner in which students are treated.  A few examples may help to clarify this.

First, it would be inappropriate — indeed, pathetic — if students should acquire the impression that IU is a clip joint.  Yet this is the impression that many students do acquire.  Imagine being fined $70, or more, for registering late.  That is not an incentive; that is simply revenue-raising.  Imagine being fined if, upon leaving the Health Center with bad news, you forget to stop at the cashier.  Imagine a parking ticket as expensive as a week’s supply of food.  The examples multiply, and the message is constant:  IU is looking to take as much of your money as it can, in any way it can.  Some students, penalized so harshly, might reasonably decline to contribute to the university as alumni; some might come to consider this place a mere money-grubbing regime, unworthy of support from the state’s taxpayers.  International students, as I am aware, do actively carry a negative impression along these lines back to their homelands, where USD$70 is often not a trifling sum.

Similarly hostile attitudes might emerge from the unfair treatment that students, minding their own business, sometimes receive from the campus police.  Certainly it cannot build good will if a parking employee cuts the chain off the bike of a new student, unfamiliar with the rules, at the beginning of the student’s first semester — in a manner contrary to the university’s own parking regulations, by the way — when that employee’s supervisor admits that the employee had the option of simply red-tagging the bike as a warning.  (We have enough parking lots to choke 10th Street, but the parking people have not yet installed sufficient bike racks to meet the demand that resulted in that particular situation.)  Or, again, imagine an officer of the university police issuing a demonstrably false (not to mention partially incoherent) report, finding fault with a student, and being backed up by a supervisor who says the officer’s word is final, with no further recourse.  It would be unfortunate if students should be left with the impression that the administrators of this campus applaud an anti-student mindset among law enforcement officers.

A lack of pride emerges, too, in IU’s handling of its landscape.  This is a beautiful campus.  It baffles me that the administration would allow its dormitories to resemble slums.  Obvious indicia of decrepitude in the buildings; maintenance requests ignored; garbage strewn across the grounds; unrepaired areas festering interminably; tire-tracks of maintenance trucks cutting through to the mud and running across the grass at random:  these signs, and others, unfortunately stimulate awareness, in some visitors, that some people in southern Indiana still prefer to store their abandoned vehicles on their front lawns.  This sort of thing is not the trend at the other universities with which I am familiar.

One final, important area of concern has to do with the treatment of graduate students.  These are the people who will go forth and advertise IU, positively or negatively, according to the quality of their training and their views of what they experienced here.  Below certain minimal levels, it ceases to be acceptable to leave those matters entirely to the student’s department.  For instance, a doctoral student who is not suitably mentored is less likely to publish; but mentoring goes by the boards when the reigning mindset, among a department’s faculty, is every-man-for-himself.  Moreover, graduate students need protection against abuse.  As many graduate students will attest, their departments are not necessarily able or willing to provide that protection.  This is particularly true when, as usually happens, the student hesitates to jeopardize his/her own career for the sake of standing up against an appalling situation.  If IU wishes to become a research institution of the first rank, common sense suggests maximizing all of its assets, including particularly its graduate students — and doing that, it seems, will require reform at the university level.

Indiana University has tremendous potential.  It will grow by encouraging students to be proud of their alma mater, not afraid of or disappointed in it.  Hence my hope for a change in tone.

Thank you for your invitation to express concerns like these.  Good luck in your new position.

With best regards,

Ray Woodcock

*  *  *  *  *

Dr. McRobbie thanked me for my message, and let me know that he was sending a copy to James Winbush, Dean of the Graduate School.  In the ensuing five years, unfortunately, neither of these two men rectified the bulk of the issues I cited, including those elaborated in this post.

Mere Caprice, or Actual Malice?

What I found, at IU, was that top administrators were not going to intervene directly to insure that matters would be investigated and things would be set right in the individual case.  Top administrators were also not inclined to verify that university procedures would yield justice through students’ own complaints and appeals on a collective level.  Such administrators may have concluded that student-driven change could entail adjustments that could be inconvenient from the bureaucrat’s perspective.

In other words, IU seemed to be guided by people, and by unspoken principles, that could easily disserve the interests of students and the public.  People do not generally believe that universities should be free to abuse students or to ruin their careers.  Such injustices are possible only because the citizens of states like Indiana have given institutions like IU essentially free rein to manage their affairs as they see fit.  Such institutions thus seem to be unwittingly devoted, in effect, to the proposition that society needs to pay closer attention to university governance.

A question that arose in my case was whether there was more than that going on.  Beyond general rot and complacency, I wanted to know whether any top administrators took an active, personal role in efforts to suppress or attack me specifically.

Unfortunately, such a question would be impossible to answer, with the resources available to the student.  Top IU administrators obviously were not sending me documentation of their activities.  But there were recurrent developments that seemed to indicate that one or more persons of considerable rank could have been engaged in a personal vendetta.

I was especially struck by the recurrent phenomenon of the senior administrator behaving in blatantly unauthorized and seemingly inexplicable ways.  Previous posts have sketched this out with examples involving Dean Wilkerson of the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, and Dean Patchner and Dr. Adamek of the School of Social Work, along with Drs. Terrill and Yost, heading university-level grievance hearing committees.  Previous posts have also discussed the bizarre behavior of Sherry Queener, Dean of Graduate and Professional Students on the IUPUI campus, and the refusal of Tralicia Lewis, Director of IUPUI’s Office of Student Rights, Responsibilities and Conduct (SRRC), to investigate my complaints, when that campus’s Code of SRRC required her to do so.  There were others as well.  Why did Karen Whitney, IUPUI’s Dean of Students, take a hands-off approach to my case?  Why did the Equal Opportunity Office lead IUPUI’s attack on me, after I had filed a complaint based on assurances from Margo Foreman of that office?

Generally, it seems, people are willing to explain why they are right and you are wrong.  The absence of such explanations — in effect, a concerted effort to avoid responsibility — raised the question of whether these people did not actually have much to say in their own defense.  I wondered, in other words, whether the real reason for this pattern of behavior might be something behind the scenes, something that these people were not willing to acknowledge.

Conclusion

This series of posts has addressed certain deeply problematic aspects of higher education in America today.  In addition, many of these events involved a school that trains people for the social work profession — a profession whose ethical code extensively prohibits many of the behaviors indulged by professors and administrators discussed in this series of posts.  People who have read this entire series may understand why these experiences would have impelled me to publish two articles on social work ethics.

This concludes this series of posts.  The entire series begins with an introduction to the social work situation; the second half of the series begins with relatively recent events in the parks & rec program.  Readers who have already perused the entire series may wish to proceed on to an overview page, from which they can go on to a separate series discussing the way in which the U.S. Department of Education handled this situation, when I presented it to them for their review.

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