If there is one thing that unites defenders of academic freedom on the left and right, it’s hatred for the use of “collegiality” as a criterion for promotion and tenure in academia. It’s hard to think of a more vague criterion for judging a person’s workplace accomplishment — especially in the hyper-politicized world of many academic departments, where people sometimes seem personally insulted by conservative ideas.
So it was with great interest that I started reading today’s Inside Higher Ed feature about a tenure case at Ohio University. It begins:
Depending on whom you believe, a bizarre tenure case that has unfolded over the past year at Ohio University either represents a last-ditch effort to oust a troubled and potentially dangerous professor or a concentrated conspiracy to derail his career before it truly begins. Either way, Bill Reader’s tenure case is headed for some sort of conclusion this month.
Oh yes, “bizarre” doesn’t begin to describe this story. Here you have a sordid tale of a man who stands on the brink of losing his tenure bid because of an alleged “pattern” of non-collegial behavior that even rose to the level of “bullying.” The “bullying” got so severe that three professors filed harassment charges against him.
Now, to be clear, I wasn’t born yesterday. I know the modern university tends to define harassment so broadly that it can mean “anything that offends me.” So I immediately looked for the evidence. And there was nothing. None. Not one scrap of paper in his record indicating any bullying or any other kind misbehavior. Instead, one of his evaluations called him the “ultimate team player.”
But wait! There was this:
The most concrete challenge to Reader’s fitness for tenure came after the tenure vote, when three female faculty members said they began hearing talk that Reader had a “list” of faculty whom he planned to “inconvenience or make trouble for,” according to the human resources investigation. To exact his revenge, faculty were told, Reader imagined one day being able to schedule them for teaching on Friday afternoons, the report states. Reader has denied saying he was “out to get” anyone, and he’s disputed the claim that he hoped to someday create undesirable schedules for those who voted against him.
Perhaps I’m missing something. It’s been a while since I taught law school, and the intervening ten years may have brought unique horror to the idea of teaching on Friday afternoon. Or maybe it was the delivery. When he (allegedly) threatened to make his colleagues work on Friday, did he deliver the threat in a Vincent Price voice and cap it off with a “Muahahahahahaha”?
But just when the story couldn’t get any stranger, it did:
Moreover, he corroborates a troubling story that Hodson has relayed to investigators. When Reader learned that Hodson planned to recommend against awarding tenure, he made the bizarre decision to expose scars on his arms where he had used a branding tool to burn the words “comfort” and “truth” into his flesh. Reader branded himself during a difficult divorce two years earlier, and he told investigators that he wanted to demonstrate to Hodson and Robert Stewart, the school’s associate director, that his commitment to work had contributed to the dissolution of his marriage.
There’s nothing like a good branding to spice up a tenure dispute. But I digress. If a faculty member actually harasses his colleagues (as that term is properly defined) or issues true threats, then an institution doesn’t have to have a “collegiality” criteria to not just deny tenure but to even ban a person from campus.
But what is “collegiality”? It’s a vague, impossible-to-define standard of evaluation that leads to exactly the kind of public-relations disaster on display at Ohio University, where dirty laundry is publicly aired, (literally) branded professors face shame and exclusion, and an entire department trembles in fear of the Friday afternoon class.