BU Orientation Director Resigns Following Investigation

Shiney James resigned Tuesday following an investigation into allegations from former student employees that she created an abusive and toxic work environment.

May 18, 2022
Students enter the George Sherman Union building at Boston University.
The matriculation ceremony for the class of 2020 at Boston University in 2016. Longtime Boston University orientation director Shiney James resigned this week after a six-month investigation into allegations she created a hostile workplace.
(Sally Kim)

Boston University’s former undergraduate orientation director Shiney James resigned Monday following a six-month external investigation into allegations by former student employees that she verbally and emotionally abused them, the university announced this week. James had held the position for 15 years before being reassigned last fall.

The investigation was prompted by an article in BU’s independent student newspaper, the Daily Free Press, last October, in which current students and alumni shared their experiences working under James in what many of them described as a toxic work environment.

Students cited public tirades that James delivered to the entire orientation staff, as well as private meetings in which she degraded them for minor mistakes like email typos.

In a formal statement issued Monday, Boston University did not say whether the investigation confirmed any of the student allegations—only that James’s resignation was the result. The university also said it could not provide any more public information about the findings, citing confidentiality on internal personnel matters.

“We are grateful to those students and alumni who raised concerns about Ms. James’ conduct and shared their experiences with the outside investigator,” the statement read. “We look forward to new leadership and positive changes in Orientation.”

‘Psychological Warfare’

Sally Kim, who worked as an orientation student adviser under James during the summer of 2016, described James’s behavior toward her and other student workers as “inappropriate, retaliatory and abusive.”

Kim, who graduated in 2018, recalled one instance when she had to reschedule a meeting with James about an incoming student who needed accommodations. She said James spent just 10 minutes talking about the student and another half hour “verbally assaulting” her and denigrating her character for rescheduling.

“She told me I was entitled and said she’d heard from other students that I was selfish and always put myself in the center of attention,” Kim told Inside Higher Ed. “She said I would have no success in the future if I kept acting like this.”

Afterward, when she showed up in tears to a meeting with another orientation administrator, Kim said she was told, “That’s just Shiney.”

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“He said, ‘She just wants what’s best for you—she’s just giving you tough love,’” Kim recalled. “I just remember coming back that day and feeling so bad about myself.”

James did not respond to a request for comment.

Multiple former student employees told Inside Higher Ed that James held semiregular “debriefing meetings” following orientation sessions, at which she delivered long, pointed tirades about the mistakes group leaders had made—after which everyone would form a line to personally apologize to her.

Kim said she was not the only student orientation worker in her cohort who felt James’s behavior was out of line.

“There was a shared sense of dread and stress when it came to Shiney,” she said.

Judging from the robust response to the October Daily Free Press article, dozens of former employees felt that way. The article’s comment section runs many times longer than the story itself and is filled with testimonials—some signed, some anonymous—about the miserable experiences students had working with James.

Mike Parnello, who worked as an orientation student adviser during the summer of 2013, told Inside Higher Ed that he was traumatized by his time working with James, and he was surprised by the sheer number of other former employees who were similarly affected.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Parnello, who graduated from BU in 2015. “But I was honestly shocked at the extent of it and that it had just gone on for so long.”

Parnello described James’s behavior toward student workers as manipulative, verbally abusive and, at times, violent.

He recalled one staff meeting the morning after he and a group of other workers had been asked to gather signs posted around campus for incoming students. After working until 1 a.m. collecting them, Parnello said, they came into the meeting to find the one sign they’d forgotten propped on a table next to an infuriated James.

“She starts screaming about how we’re neglectful, we’re really lazy, we should have been better than this,” he said.

Then James ripped part of the sign off and threw it at them, kicking the rest of it to the ground. And she kept yelling, Parnello said.

“I remember leaving and a lot of people were upset … but they very much wanted her approval,” he said. “So the takeaway was, we have to do better next week.”

Parnello and Kim both said that this kind of behavior from James was common: she would latch onto a mistake students made, however small, and berate them for the personal flaws she thought it revealed.

“Anything deemed remotely unprofessional would immediately turn into an attack on your personal character,” Parnello said. He recalled that once, after a coworker emailed instead of calling James to say he was running late for a meeting, she publicly shamed him for being “a coward.”

For student workers, this back-and-forth between praise and denigration proved psychologically taxing.

“She expected us to be excellent and perfect at all times when all she was doing was breaking students down with her words and, basically, psychological warfare,” Kim said.

Kim said she’s been afraid to speak out because James had made it clear that she wielded influence and power not only at BU but also more broadly in higher education—a field Kim planned to enter after graduating.

Kim recounted a time James gave student workers googly eyes, “to remind us that she had eyes and ears everywhere.”

“I have been petrified that if I say something out of line about my experience, that Shiney would hear about it and blacklist me or something like that,” Kim said.

Parnello and Kim both said their experience working under James had lasting effects on their mental health, especially in the workplace. Tasks like sending emails or meeting one-on-one with supervisors, they said, now give them severe anxiety.

“I was constantly anxious that I would make one mistake and it would lead to me being fired … and that persists to this day at work, even though I love my job now,” said Parnello, who works in social services and public health.

Hope, Relief and Some Skepticism

It’s been six years since Kim worked under James, and she has since gone over the experience with her therapist many times, she said. But she still gets emotional talking about it.

“I think back, and I really was just 19 years old … legally, you’re an adult, but really you’re still a kid,” she said, choking up. “No human being should have to endure that kind of treatment.”

Kim and Parnello both said they have “mixed feelings” about the news of James’s resignation.

“All of the other administrators [leading orientation] are complicit in [James’s conduct], because when she was exhibiting her worst behavior, they were all standing in the room watching it and not saying anything,” Parnello said.

“If this resignation means that Shiney James is no longer perpetuating the kind of abuse that so many of us had to endure, then I’m happy about that,” Kim said. “I want to be hopeful, but realistically, I don’t know how much will change.”

Still, Kim said her overwhelming feeling is relief.

“People are finally listening to us,” she said. “This has been healing for so, so many people.”

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