My IU Experience as a Case Study in Workplace Bullying

I was a PhD student at Indiana University. As such, I had an assistantship and was an employee. It is with interest, then, that I review David Yamada’s post on bullying in the workplace. For those who lack the time to read this blog’s long posts describing my IU experience, I offer Yamada’s key points as a road map to what I encountered at IU.

Erasure and Institutional Memory

In Yamada’s words, “Bad organizations choose to ‘forget’ less flattering events of their institutional history.” I would phrase that in terms of rewriting history. Forgetting is one part; reinventing is another. In the saying attributed to Winston Churchill, history is written by the victors. Those who retain power in an organization are often free to tell the story as they wish.

That is especially true in a university, where the students who witness unethical behavior by faculty are afraid to speak up, for fear of being ejected or losing the good will of their academic references. They are strongly encouraged to avoid taking personal ethical responsibility, and to focus instead on promoting their own private advancement.

I remember talking with an IU professor, one time, about a student who had objected to the treatment of graduate students. The professor claimed that there was “more to the story,” but that rules of confidentiality prevented her from telling the full truth about that student. It was an easy claim to make; the student was no longer there to defend himself or to challenge the professor.

In my case, however, that claim won’t fly. I have contacted IU administrators and faculty members at every level. I have asked for explanations; I have pointed them toward blog posts naming them specifically. I haven’t been hiding from these people. They are grownups. If they are qualified to teach PhD-level university courses, they can surely be expected to discuss the outstanding issues intelligently.

That is especially true for those who are professors in the field of social work, which supposedly teaches people about healthy relationships and effective change. Nothing has prevented them from addressing and resolving the concerns I have raised. In my case, the university’s habit of rewriting history has run into some limits.

Superficial Civility

Yamada describes his concept of superficial civility as “mistreatment masked by a steady, calm demeanor.” What he has in mind includes “‘lighter’ forms of harassment, or indirect discrimination.” Yamada’s concept appears to overlap somewhat with that of passive-aggressive behavior, an informal but widely used term that a Mayo Clinic webpage defines as

a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. There’s a disconnect between what a passive-aggressive person says and what he or she does.

Other terms for related phenomena include fake niceness and frenemy. The latter is defined as “one who pretends to be a friend but is actually an enemy” or “a person or group that is friendly toward another because the relationship brings benefits, but harbors feelings of resentment or rivalry.”

Such phenomena pervaded the situation at IU. In terms of Yamada’s “indirect discrimination,” another blog discusses the subtle but pervasive discrimination against males in the overwhelmingly female social work profession, as I experienced it in IU’s School of Social Work. (As noted in that other blog, the second-wave feminism prevalent in the School of Social Work had its place in the 1970s, but has long since been outdated and out of touch. Third-wave or post-feminism often appears much more appropriately calibrated to contemporary social realities.)

A post in this blog illustrates the passive-aggressive theme with the hostility of Jim Daley, an IU social work professor who evidently lacked the courage or ability to express his concerns directly, or even to seek dialogue toward alleviating those concerns. Daley chose instead to try to “expell” me (his word) by trumping up a charge made by an apparently disturbed student. Even within the university’s patently corrupt internal judicial system, Daley was pathetically unable to make that trumped-up charge stick.

A combination of apparent resentment and discrimination emerged in the actions of Dean Michael Patchner, who made petty and unsubstantiated accusations against me, some of which violated federal law. Another post raises the question of whether Patchner, in particular, was motivated by a desire to get rid of me, so as to claim credit for important ideas that I brought to the SSW.

Button Pushing and Bullies as Victims

Yamada observes that “Workplace bullies sometimes claim to be the victims of workplace bullying.” This can occur when the target of bullying responds to the bully. Basically, it’s a setup: in an environment supportive of abusers, the bully can get away with a claim that s/he is victimized by the target’s response. Such a claim is especially effective when the bully knows “how to get a rise out of someone,” so as to trigger a strong response from the target.

My account of experiences at IU’s School of Social Work includes several interactions with the disturbed student mentioned above. She had a pattern of dramatizing events in her life and making herself out to be a victim; yet she was repeatedly the instigator of incidents. With her undergraduate degree in women’s studies, she seemed especially inclined to play up her role as an arbiter of political correctness in matters of gender. As I would later discover, upon receiving copies of email exchanges between her and Dean Patchner, to a remarkable degree he placed the School of Social Work at her beck and call — even when those email exchanges raised the question of whether there was something wrong with her.

That was the context in which, among other things, campus police were called to provide protection for her. The material available to me appears to indicate that the campus police came out, took a look at the situation, and concluded that she was simply crying wolf. There does not appear to have been any reason for all that drama. Despite all this, however, Dean Patchner continued to promote the idea that somehow this woman was being victimized. He seems to have done so for his own purposes, with callous disregard of what might be in her own best interests — not to mention the best interests of the other social work students.

Ostracism

Yamada considers ostracism, the act of treating a person with “silence and avoidance,” to be “among the most stress-inducing of workplace bullying tactics,” amounting to “a silent form of mobbing.” Few students in American universities have experienced that to the extent I did. Consider, for instance, the order, by IU’s Dean Sherry Queener, that prohibited me from even talking to my classmates outside of the classroom. Who has even heard of such a thing in a PhD program? It was outlandish; it was beyond belief.

Yet it was not the only such act. To the contrary, as noted above, my former professors — people who previously wrote glowing letters of recommendation about me — suddenly declined even to reply to my attempts at contact. This was not an explained behavior. There was no conviction or other event that would have provided even a make-believe justification. It was as cold and childish as the shunning of a disapproved seventh-grade girl by cruel classmates. It was, again, deplorable that this would be the mode of behavior chosen by professors in social work, who often claim to know how others should live their lives.

Gaslighting

Yamada cites Wikipedia for the definition of gaslighting as a manipulative behavior that seeks to make the victim doubt his/her own memory, perception, or sanity. The behavior by faculty at Indiana University did not have that effect on me. But I think that perplexed them. I think they might have hesitated to take this route if they had understood, in advance, just how embarrassing this would all be for them.

Ordinarily, as I say, students are too intimidated, too fearful for their career prospects, to dare to speak up when their professors abuse them. That was the nature of the university environments in which these professors obtained their own degrees; apparently it did not occur to them that a former New York lawyer would retain a sense of perspective or a determination to persevere when confronted by such nonsensical behavior.

Did I ask myself whether I might be mistaken about various aspects of the situations I encountered at IU? Of course. Did I make mistakes? No doubt. But in the end, I had years of experience. I had a sense of what was reasonable and what was not. Obviously, I could see that they had put me into an unusual and undesirable position. Yet that reinforced the need for clear explanation and/or reconsideration on their part. Their behavior was extreme; they did not explain it; and that raised questions as to what was really going on.

Perpetrators

 The foregoing remarks have compared certain professors and administrators at Indiana University to seventh-graders and to resentful passive-aggressive types. There is, however, another dimension that does appear to apply to some of these individuals. In Yamada’s words,

It takes a pretty twisted individual to engage in a campaign of crazy making bullying against another. I believe the most likely candidate for this type of aggressor is the so-called “almost psychopath” . . . .

Those who have had personal interactions with the professors and administrators responsible for the situation at Indiana University are likely to conclude that some are just sheep. They want to hold onto their jobs; they are afraid of being shunned or otherwise punished themselves; therefore they go along with whatever is expected of them, even if it means unethical and deliberately hurtful behavior toward a student or colleague. Betrayal is common in such places; universities commonly promote people who value their own careers above principle or self-respect.

But the sort of orchestrated hostility that I experienced at IU does seem to require what Yamada calls a “puppet master.” Someone is ultimately responsible for perpetuating such an extreme and ongoing hostility toward a student, employee, or colleague. This is the “twisted individual” to whom Yamada refers.

As I say, the people at IU have been hiding from me. They have been unwilling, that is, to explain themselves and to seek a reasonable resolution to this ongoing problem. It would be difficult to understand that if Dean Patchner were personally committed to resolution. My experiences with him, and the information that I have received thus far, do suggest that he is the puppet master, the quasi-psychopath, in this case.

It would seem that any social work dean worth his quarter-million-dollar salary would place some value on his School’s reputation; but for Michael Patchner, that reputation was apparently not as important as his personal gratification in singling out a student for grossly unjustified attack and exclusion. A sensible person might wonder why he would set himself, and his School, on such a path. That, it seems, is something that only he can explain.

Conclusion

People who have spent a few years in graduate schools are likely to realize that many students experience sexual, psychological, and other forms of abuse at the hands of professors and administrators, and that there is often very little that the student can do about it. This post focuses on examples from my own experience at IU. Other students would be able to contribute many additional examples.

In such conditions, one question emerging from this discussion is: why has the U.S. Department of Education failed, for five years, to act  upon my formal complaint on these matters?

Further reading: an article in The Guardian: “Culture of cruelty: why bullying thrives in higher education”

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