Stalked by a Chair

C.K. Gunsalus offers advice to a professor facing a hostile supervisor.
May 8, 2009

Dear Survival Guide:

I am well-established in my field and have published well-received books and articles in prestigious journals. My classes are popular and my students seem to think highly of me. Until recently, I have always enjoyed constructive relationships with my colleagues. I would not have thought that I would be susceptible to bullying, but that is exactly what is happening. A year ago, my department chair became increasingly confrontational toward me. At first, I assumed this was something going on in her life and not directed toward me personally. After conversations with co-workers, I realized that it was personal and directed entirely toward me. Her behavior escalated from confrontational to hostile and extremely aggressive. She has gone so far as to make formal and public allegations against me (dismissed as unfounded after months of investigation). She interrogates students about my behavior in and out of class and attempts to dissuade them from taking my classes. I have reason to believe that she is attempting to obtain copies of my correspondence with students. I have discussed her behavior with the dean, but the administration seems unwilling or unable to address the situation. I will be going to lunch with my dean soon. I do not know what my next step should be.



Dear Stalked,

In our exchange, you said you have very good personal support, which would have been my first question had you not offered that information. The situation you describe is stressful and likely to continue in that vein. Not only will you need your support to maintain your own equilibrium, navigating this mess is likely to require that you tell your story more than once, and the more professional your affect each time, the better. It may not be fair that being emotional is a drawback in most professional settings, but it is a reality, so you need to do whatever you can to get to a place, emotionally, where you can keep it all together. The more composed and calm you can be as you pursue redress, the higher will be your credibility and effectiveness.

Let’s move on to assessing the situation: On your campus, is your faculty unionized? Is there a faculty grievance committee or system? Does that system have advisors with whom you can speak? They should be your first step. The goal here is to level the playing field by adding experience and weight to your side. If you can get both advice and advocacy from an established group, you will be in a better position. If you do not have access to either, seek out a well-respected, senior person on your campus, ideally outside your department, who has not been personally involved in your case and see if that person will talk with you about your situation. You will want to gather whatever documentation exists, so the person or group you consult for help can look at the record of what’s happened so far. Whatever paperwork you have from the investigation that exonerated you will be helpful. Any letters or e-mails from your chair, and any record of the requests to students will be helpful. Your goal is to document specific unprofessional actions, not a general sense of “she’s not nice to me.”

Do not ask students (or anyone else) to create records that do not already exist; just take along whatever you have already in your possession that documents events of the last year. Among other things, the indication that the chair is seeking out students and asking them about your classes and trying to dissuade them from enrolling in them is a serious red flag. If the chair’s conduct has crossed a line with students, it’s essential that you not do the same, even inadvertently, while trying to collect information. This should be someone else’s official job, not something you approach ad hoc.

Finally, avoid characterizing the chair’s conduct. While your chair may be bullying you, describing it that way is not going to help you achieve your goal, which is to get back to a place where you can do your work. Few institutions right now have effective mechanisms for dealing with conduct that crosses the line of civilized behavior and even fewer are comfortable using direct labels. This isn’t fair or perhaps how the world should work. It just is, and attempting to change it while you are in the midst of a problem situation is not useful. If the institutional environment needs repair (and it may well), the time and the place to work on fixing it are on the other side of this problem.

While you are finding out what resources you have in the way of people who might be able to help you, it is also worth researching the institutional framework within which these events are playing out. What do your faculty handbook and the policy manual at your institution say about recourse available to a faculty member? Read up on the policies and procedures represented in the formal documents so you can be prepared to ask your advisor, as soon as you find one, questions not only about alternative options but also how the processes actually work “on the ground.”

After connecting with a person or group to advise you comes one of the hard parts: You must listen to what is said. If, after hearing you out and reading through your documentation, the response is that you’re misapprehending the situation, or your actions are violating standards or policies, or that you’re overreacting, hear that out. Think deeply and carefully about what is said to you. It is easy to lose perspective and balance when in the midst of a struggle. I’m not suggesting that you have done anything wrong or that you’re mistaken about what’s going on: the warning here is that others may be able to see aspects of the situation that are hard for you to appreciate. If you’re going to get through this, you need to have as balanced a picture as possible. This includes how it looks to others. If the advice includes assessments you think are off-base or unfair, it’s time to look carefully at what it is that might be giving an impression you think is faulty.

Among other information to review with your advisor/s is what responses you have gotten when you have gone to the dean. What, exactly, have those interactions been and what responses have you gotten? Your perception that the dean is unable or unwilling to act could mean any one of a number of things, and trying to pin that down is important.

Is the dean unwilling to act because you’ve never brought the case formally? Is there a grievance system and you haven’t pulled the trigger on it? Have you ever spoken directly to your chair about her apparently concerns about your performance? In most systems, the first question you would be asked is what efforts you have taken to address the problem directly with the person. Given the difficult history of this matter, and the public allegations your chair made against you, this might not come up; in any event, you should be prepared to address both whether you addressed matters directly and what the outcome of those efforts were.

At base, from what your letters say, it appears that you have a complaint about how the chair is carrying out her duties. The dean is the chair’s supervisor, and in our system, there should always be a route to file a complaint or grievance about a person’s performance with his or her supervisor. Has the dean understood your conversations to be triggering that process, if one exists in your institution? It is possible that the dean has mistakenly mentally categorized your conversations as “oh, she’s just venting or giving me general information” and not as “this is a formal complaint requiring action by me.” The fact that you say you’re having lunch with the dean next month is a concern in this respect: lunch conversations can easily be categorized as informal and not as a formal request for action.

I don’t know if your institution has good, working procedures in place. A pattern of apparent misconduct by the chair -- especially if any of her actions violate specific policies or faculty rights spelled out in the faculty handbook, or institutional initiatives -- should trigger an objective investigation or review of some sort. A bad sign would be a place where the full extent of reviews is that you complain, the dean talks to the chair, and it’s all closed. That happens in some places, and it’s not healthy for anyone. It is uncomfortable for there to be a fact-finding investigation that involves a sitting administrator, and yet it’s in everyone’s best interest. It’s in your interest, clearly, to get the facts on the table and, if the chair is abusing her power or has developed a problem, that it is addressed within proper employment channels. If your perceptions are misplaced, it’s in the chair’s interest to have the situation examined and documented and for the questions about her conduct to be laid to rest. If, as is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere between those two extremes, with each of you having some legitimate concerns and there being misunderstandings or even violations on one side or the other, the best outcome is an objective assessment that collects the facts, lays them out and proposes a course of action to rectify the wrongs and set a basis for moving forward so as many people as possible can get back to constructive work as soon as possible. Let’s hope that your next letter tells me that such mechanisms exist and work in your university.

If there’s no internal mechanism in place for a faculty member in your university to get advice and help through this process, then it’s time to weigh the pros and cons of engaging a lawyer. This is a mixed bag, as it takes a special lawyer to understand the academic environment and culture in a way that’s makes that person’s services worth the money. On the other hand, if there isn’t an internal way for you to level the playing field so your concerns can be properly examined, that may be required. Let’s hope that it will be possible to avoid that.

I hope this provides the starting place for the next step that you were seeking.

--Survival Guide

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