It’s not every day that a professor fires her university. So an online Me Too essay doubling as a termination letter to Michigan State University captured the attention of many academics.
Joy Lisi Rankin, a historian of computing, was until recently an assistant professor at Michigan State’s interdisciplinary Lyman Briggs College. In an essay she posted this week on Medium, Rankin says she had no choice but to “fire” the university and leave it after what she called a Kafkaesque series of events: seeing her serious allegations of harassment against an administrator go nowhere, while her college pursued a research misconduct case against her based on an online critique of her work.
Rankin says she filed two harassment complaints against an administrator who leered at her, touched her without her consent and generally would not leave her alone leading up to May 2017, and that both were unsubstantiated by the university’s institutional equity office. Also in May, Brian Dear, an independent scholar, posted a harsh criticism of Rankin’s scholarship on Medium, based on a talk she’d delivered weeks earlier at a niche conference at the Computer History Museum in California.
At the conference, video of which is available here, Rankin said she’d come across hundreds of decades-old notes from workers at the early PLATO computer network, housed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Some of the notes demonstrated hostility toward female consultants, foreshadowing the online sexual harassment that happens today, she said. Dear, who recently wrote a book about PLATO, alleged that Rankin was wrong about the network and that her scholarship was flawed.
"Rankin’s presentation makes assertions about the PLATO system, its developers, its users, and its online and offline culture at [Illinois] in the 1960s and 1970s, that paint a decidedly negative picture, one where Rankin declares PLATO suffered from 'endemic misogyny' and that she likens to a 'fortress of patriarchal heterosexual power in American computing,'" Dear wrote. "Such a description stands in stark contrast to the picture described to me by roughly 1,000 PLATO people over the course of more than thirty years of research." He included interviews with some of the women Rankin discussed, and the women appeared to disagree with Rankin's interpretation of their comments or actions.
The next month, in June 2017, Rankin says that her former dean at Briggs filed a research misconduct allegation against her based on Dear's essay. By contrast, Rankin says, the dean of a college with which she was affiliated declined to pursue a similar investigation based on flimsiness of the claims (that could not be immediately confirmed).
“Let us pause for a moment. In the exquisitely competitive academic job market,” she said, “Michigan State recruited me for a much-desired tenure track position because of my expertise as a historian of gender, science and technology. My degrees, the prestigious fellowships I had won, articles and essays I had published, my book contract with Harvard University Press -- all of those were indicators that I was a vibrant and valued thinker in my field.”
But then, she says, “I became a vibrant and valued thinker who filed two complaints of sexual harassment.”
Rankin was cleared of the charges after a lengthy investigation. An inquiry panel determined that there was no evidence of misconduct, and that while Rankin "drew conclusions from her research with which Dear takes strong issue," that "does not make them the product of misconduct." She maintains that the charges against her were in retaliation for her complaints against the administrator, and says that the university refused to investigate her subsequent complaint about retaliation.
In an interview, Rankin said that hers was not a resignation letter, since that sounds like she’s giving up. To the contrary, she said, “I am standing up for myself and others.” She said she’d been “devastated but not surprised” by the number of people who have expressed solidarity with her, sharing their own experiences with misconduct.
“Part of the reason I wrote this essay is that sexual misconduct is a part of academia. But it’s particularly egregious at Michigan State,” she said. “Misogyny and, frankly, the abuse of women is entrenched in the [campus] culture. And as hard to come by and precious as tenure-track jobs are, I did not want to be associated with a place that had been perpetrating this kind of harm.”
The obvious angle in Rankin’s story is Michigan State, which repeatedly dropped the ball regarding sexual assault in the Larry Nassar case that eventually took down former university president Lou Anna Simon and shook U.S.A. Gymnastics.
But some academics working within the history of computing said Thursday that Rankin’s case is another example of the field’s -- and academe’s -- hostility toward women.
Mar Hicks, an associate professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology who is currently a fellow at the National Humanities Center, and author of Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing, said that the history of computing as an academic field is “still disproportionately white and male, although that has been changing, particularly with all the books being written by people outside of academia.” Hicks noted that the “most important” book on the topic to surface of late, Hidden Figures, was written by Margot Lee Shetterly -- a black woman who has not had a traditional academic career.
Still, Hicks said, “Who gets to tell the history of computing -- all histories, actually -- is still a highly contested issue. This is all part of who gets to claim expertise and be recognized as an expert both in academia and the wider world.” While academe sees itself as more progressive than the rest of society, she added, “most academic institutions are conservative institutions even if they may employ some radicals.”
Hicks said retaliation against people, usually women, who speak up about harassment is “so commonplace that most people don't report at all.” She said she’d seen and experienced many incidents similar to what Rankin described over the course of her career, and that academe “is still overdue for a serious reckoning when it comes to sexism, harassment and assault -- and all the other categories tied up with privilege in academy, including race, class and sexuality.”
Sarah T. Roberts, an assistant professor of information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, who chaired the panel for Rankin’s talk in 2017, said it was entirely appropriate for the conference and within her realm of expertise. She further remembered it as “not particularly provocative.” It’s therefore chilling that someone -- especially someone outside academia -- could launch allegations that could derail a scholar’s career, she said. Junior faculty members, in particular, need institutional support when they are criticized for exactly the kind of work they were hired to do, not institutional scrutiny.
Dear says he was eventually banned from a disciplinary Listserv on computing history and blocked on Twitter by some of those involved in the field. He says he only sought to engage scholars in discussions about the important questions he raised about PLATO and that he was effectively silenced. But Roberts said his comments seemed personal, and that “what is essentially trolling seems to have the ability to bleed over into serious administrative processes. And institutions need to take more care there, and more safeguards should be in place.”
Rankin declined to name her harasser at Michigan State. Elizabeth Simmons, the former dean at Briggs whom Rankin alleges investigated her in retaliation for her report of harassment, is now executive vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of California, San Diego (and a contributor to Inside Higher Ed). She said in an emailed statement that the allegations of research misconduct were brought to her attention by "faculty in the college." Due to the ongoing harassment investigation with Rankin as a complainant and herself as a respondent, she said, "I consulted with the Office of General Counsel. They advised that I was obligated, as an officer of the university, to forward the allegations to Michigan State's research integrity officer for an impartial investigation, which I did."
Simmons added, "It is the role of the investigatory department to make a determination as to whether a violation of policy has occurred. It was determined that there were no violations of university policy" by any of those named in any of the complaints, she said.
Emily Guerrant, Michigan State's spokesperson, wrote in an email Thursday that improving the campus culture surrounding sexual harassment involves “making sure every single student, faculty member and staff person feels confident in bringing forward their concerns.”
In this particular case, she said, Rankin “appropriately reported the incidents to the office of institutional equity, which is charged with the responsibility of conducting investigations.” That office conducted an investigation, applying the processes in place at the time, and found no policy violation.
“We continue to take into account the experiences of those who have participated in the investigative process to make improvements,” Guerrant said. “The university is committed to thoroughly investigating all complaints to create a safer, healthier and more respectful campus community.”
At an event in Washington earlier in the day, Michigan State's interim president, John Engler, said that he was unaware of the case but that if Rankin “made it public, probably there will be more conversation.”
In an interview, Dear called the allegations that he'd tried to torpedo Rankin's career "horse shit." As someone who was at the time finishing a book on PLATO, he said, he was shocked to hear Rankin's comments about a history of misogyny and wondered if he'd missed something in the research. He said he appealed to Rankin for help several times before publishing his blog post, but heard nothing. He felt it was therefore his duty to correct the record, he said, denying that he ever asked the university to investigate her for misconduct.
"I utterly, categorically deny these misleading, very carefully, strategically orchestrated accusations against me, that have really been going on for a long time," he said. Expressing sympathy for what Rankin says she endured in terms of sexual harassment, but saying that she appeared to be "conflating" two separate issues, Dear added, "This is entirely about the PLATO system."
C. K. Gunsalus, director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at Illinois and a former PLATO worker, is singled out by Rankin as having actively perpetuated Dear’s criticisms. Via email, Gunsalus (who has written columns for Inside Higher Ed) said Rankin’s post “mischaracterizes my role in a situation where, along with many others, I disagreed with her conclusions, based on our experiences and the historical record.” At no point did Gunsalus file any research misconduct charges against Rankin, she said.
Rankin’s termination of Michigan State is effective immediately. As of now, according the bio on her website, she’s “institutionally homeless.”
Greg Toppo contributed to this article.