UPDATE! In 2011, Professor Peltz accepted an appointment as Professor of Law at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. Click here for his bio page in his new academic home. The world is large — larger than it may appear when one faces collective hostility day after day in one's workplace.
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Peltzing in Arkansas
The scientific study of mobbing proceeds most fruitfully by thoughtful dissection of specific cases. The common point of reference for all five of the papers below is the case of Richard J. Peltz, a tenured high-achiever in the Bowen School of Law, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. This well-publicized case has given birth there to a new synonym for mobbing, namely peltzing, which means getting together and pummelling a professor with a barrage of aspersions and accusations toward the end of destroying the prof's good name, curtailing his or her work, and eventually eliminating the prof from the faculty. So adroitly has Peltz fought back, however, that in the longer run, peltzing may come to mean fending off collective attack — not mobbing itself, but effective self-defense from it. However the case turns out, it is instructive on many counts.
Invited by Robert Ashford, Professor of Law at Syracuse University, the papers below are published here in the order of their presentation at the session, "Workplace Mobbing and Academic Freedom: the Socio-Economic Connections," 2010 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Law Schools, New Orleans, 7 January:
(1) Mark A. Schneider, Introduction
(2) Richard J. Peltz, Academic Mobbing in my Own Experience,
(3) Joan E. Friedenberg, Mobbing Indicators and their Economic Consequences,
(4) Kenneth Westhues, Mobbing, Socio-Economics, and the Case of Richard Peltz,
(5) Mark A. Schneider, Concluding Comments.
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Mark A. Schneider
Good morning to you all and welcome to this session on Workplace Mobbing and Academic Freedom: the Socio-economic Connection. My name is Mark Schneider. I’m a sociologist who became acquainted with the phenomenon of mobbing — I’ll use Prof. Westhues’ definition of this as “an impassioned, collective campaign to exclude, punish, and humiliate a targeted worker” — when my wife, Prof. Friedenberg, was mobbed. Later I acted as a faculty association representative for another targeted faculty member. I’ll give a brief introduction to our presentation, then introduce the other speakers, and at the end offer brief concluding remarks.
Colleges and universities, as research institutions, present themselves as wellsprings of rationality. The principle of academic freedom itself enshrines this image. The 1940 AAUP Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure asserts that “Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth….” with “truth” here representing the result of rationality.
Yet higher education is in many ways highly irrational. Curriculum and teaching methods, for instance, are so governed by inertia that the notion of experimenting with them to see if outcomes might be improved is almost never countenanced. Indeed, there is little effort to develop or allocate instructional resources to achieve maximum value added.
Our panel today addresses a different source of institutional irrationality; one that threatens academic freedom. Mobbing may be somewhat new to U.S. audiences, but is the subject of an increasingly robust and vibrant research literature that began in Europe through the work of German psychologist Heinz Leymann. A U.S. publisher, Edwin Mellen Press, has put out a series of books on the topic which chronicle instances of mobbing and analyze the phenomenon as a whole.
While a mobbing may be motivated solely by a target’s eccentricities — quirks of interpersonal style that somehow make colleagues “uncomfortable” around the target — most arise from unease over public stands that the target takes. These are the cases that threaten academic freedom. Mobbers claim that the eccentricities or opinions of the target hamstring their productivity. Students are made too uncomfortable to learn; colleagues feel intimidated by or suffer palpitations in the presence of the target, who causes them disabling distress. In hopes of alleviating their discomfort, they produce an indictment, a petition to administrators asking that action against the target be taken. The indictments are drenched in emotion. The target has behaved aggressively or scandalously, challenging local pieties in such a way that any right-thinking individual would be outraged. He or she is toxic to the academic environment, whose health requires that: the target no longer be allowed to teach subject X; be officially reprimanded; have his or her office relocated to Siberia; or be fired.
Great effort is often put into these indictments and even more will be required to respond to them. On the basis of my experience as a union rep, I would estimate a mobbing will absorb between 300 and 3000 institutional hours, and may wind up costing some of those involved quite a bit of money. Since to an external observer nothing the target has done merits such an expenditure of energy and cash, the whole affair can seem like a potlatch in which students, faculty, administrators, legal counsel and arbitrators may eventually be drawn together to vie over how many resources can be thrown upon the bonfire. Mobbing is thus fertile territory for socio-economics.
From a sociologist’s perspective, mobbers and their quarry are engaged in a “framing contest.” The target has behaved in a certain way, one which he or she believes to have been professionally or interpersonally responsible (or at least within common limits of tolerance). A group of students or colleagues has organized to frame this behavior as irresponsible and threatening either to themselves or to their profession.
Administrators might nip these framing contests in the bud, but tend not to. They lack the energy to investigate adequately, and usually lack the interpersonal savvy to defuse a mobbing. They also lack an incentive. The target has often proven to be a pain in the ass to administrators, who also understand that the mobbers represent a much more numerous constituency than the target. In an era of budget shortfalls, the idea of dismissing an unpopular faculty member may also have a crude, bottom-line, appeal. Against this appeal must be weighed the productivity of the target, which often eclipses that of the mobbers. Adding to our image of the potlatch, administrators caught up in mobbing have shown themselves willing to dismiss faculty members whose grant-getting ability far outstrips that of their antagonists.
Punishing the target requires administrators to join in the mobbing. Only they can vindicate the mobbers’ frame. Escaping punishment, which may well require legal action, goes some way toward vindicating the target. No one leaves the contest unscathed, however, and targets particularly are often damaged both in reputation and in health. The institution is damaged as well.
Why does this go on? To essay an answer, we analyze here a recent case in a law school. First, the case will be summarized by its target, Richard Peltz, currently visiting professor of law at the University of Georgia. You are probably better acquainted with Prof. Peltz’s work than I am. I first heard him speak about the impact of recent cases like Garcetti on academic freedom at the AAUP convention in Washington last summer, but he’s written as well about intellectual property, affirmative action, appellate courts, and reputational harm among many other topics (see his CV). Our two remaining presenters will comment on his case in relation to the literature on mobbing.
Our first commentator on Peltz's case will be Prof. Joan Friedenberg. Subsequent to becoming a mobbing target as a professor of linguistics at Southern Illinois University—Carbondale, Prof. Friedenberg has devoted a portion of her academic output to the topic, publishing several essays on it and lecturing in the U.S. and Canada. A settlement of the First Amendment suit she brought against SIU administrators and a psychologist they hired to aid in mobbing her required that she retire from that school, and she’s now a professor in the School of Education at Florida Atlantic University.
Finally we have Prof. Kenneth Westhues of the Sociology Department at the University of Waterloo. Subsequent to being targeted by colleagues and administrators at his university, Prof. Westhues devoted the majority of his scholarly output to the phenomenon and now ranks as the foremost scholar of the topic in North America. His numerous books, articles, and edited volumes have served to put mobbing firmly on the scholarly map, and his website has been a source of illumination and succor to numerous victims of mobbing who are astonished and relieved to find that there is a name for what happened to them, and intriguing literature on the topic besides.
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Richard J. Peltz
Academic Mobbing in my Own Experience
I was asked to describe what happened to me at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law School. Having limited time, I will be very brief. If anyone desires to know more, or to discuss the matter or see any of the records, please feel free to contact me.
In a painfully tiny nutshell, this is what happened. In 2005, I was asked by the student chapter of the Black Law Students Association to take the con position in an affirmative action debate, which I did. Subsequently, and consequently, I was accused of racism for my presentation of the affirmative action material in my constitutional law class.
Other contentious events occurred at the law school from 2005 to 2007, most of which had nothing to do with me. In 2007, a year and a half after my affirmative action debate, officers of BLSA filed a memorandum of complaint with the administration alleging racist conduct by me, by a faculty colleague, by student leaders of the bar association, and by student leaders of the law review. None of us was informed of the memorandum and written charges. I was never given a copy of the memo by the university; I obtained it some five months later when one of the accused students obtained it through a freedom of information act request. Meanwhile the memo was circulated among higher education officials and the Arkansas legal community. A letter back from an organization of African-American Arkansas attorneys demanded disciplinary action against me and my accused colleague, again a record of which we were not informed and learned of later only through a former student's freedom of information act request.
I begged the university to investigate the charges and to exonerate me, as appropriate, but the university repeatedly refused. To the contrary, the law school had provided forums to indulge and perpetuate the allegations. The law school gave in to student demands, arranging for mandatory diversity training for faculty and removing me from teaching required courses. Ultimately the law school told me that if I wanted redress, I would have to handle the matter myself.
I retained lawyers and tried to mediate the dispute with the students and attorneys who had defamed me. They rebuffed our attempts at mediation. We ultimately filed suit against the former students and attorneys on the eve of the running of the statute of limitations. I received significant negative publicity for the lawsuit, which the media generally characterized as "law prof sues students," or man bites dog, without shedding any light on the underlying allegations. After I sued, the university suddenly became interested in investigating. Ultimately, the universtity sponsored a mediation in which it took a role; the defendants again refused to participate. The university also told me that I would be fired if the mediation failed. Accordingly, I dropped the lawsuit in return for a letter from the university stating that an investigation had been undertaken at last, and that I was innocent of charges of racism and misconduct.
Now I continue to be subject to extreme hostility in my workplace. I have been denied a professorship, for which I was clearly qualified, and my co-accused colleague has had his named professorship taken away. The lead accuser, my former defendant, was hired by the law school, just a year after graduation, as assistant dean of student affairs; I think that says a lot about the priorities of that institution. Most alarmingly, my name has become a verb among junior faculty. To be "peltzed" is to be attacked unfairly, and then to have the university gang up with your accusers against you — essentially, to be mobbed.
Yesterday, Robert Ashford made the point that academic workplace mobbing is something that socio-economists need to be aware of, because as people who advance a school of thought that may be at odds with a prevailing orthodoxy, socio-economists are at risk of mobbing. He is surely correct. But today, I would like to make four observations about my case from a socio-economic perspective, specifically observations with regard to academic freedom and how the system of academic freedom is broken and needs to be fixed.
The first two points deal with "boomerang effect," a term Joan Friedenberg and Ken Westhues will use to describe what happens when mobbing backfires on mobbers. First, in my case, when I became a defamation plaintiff, in order to defend myself, I was abandoned by organizations that should have been there to support me, such as the AAUP and FIRE, and other non-profit organizations. These organizations bear an animosity to litigation that trumps their perception of what is right. From my perspective, litigation is a good thing. It's how we solve problems in civilized society, rather than picking up weapons. As long as advocates are afraid of litigation, mobbees will be deprived of an important mechanism to defend themselves.
Second, my lawsuit demonstrates in a very practical sense what happens when a mobbee seeks justice through litigation, that is, that one must be wealthy to prevail in litigation against a university. I spent out my savings just bringing a defamation action, before discovery, not to mention trial, and that with my attorneys generously writing down their time. I could not afford to lose my job and then also to have to open another front, litigating against the university for my academic freedom and employment at the same time. Moreover, it is almost impossible in Arkansas to find an attorney who is willing to be adverse to the university. I searched and searched and found only and exactly one — and he died in 2008. If mobbers are going to be able to defend themselves, then social and economic conditions must be such that they can secure representation. Ideally, there should be dispute resolution mechanisms within the university (such as there are in the Canadian labor system, for better and worse) — there were none in my case — to offer meaningful opportunities for mob victims to be heard and to have their cases fairly adjudicated.
Third, I want to address collective written denunciations as a mechanism of mobbing, which Professor Westhues also will talk about and is addressing in his research. In my case, mobbing was facilitated by an asymmetry in information. The written denunciation was widely circulated among receptive audiences, but the university administration did not share it with the targets. Only through the freedom of information act was the written denunciation revealed and the targets ultimately able to face their accusers. I work on transparency issues in other areas of my research, and transparency is an indispensable mechanism to combat corruption. In my case, the right thing to do would have been to inform me, my colleagues, and the accused students about the written charges immediately, and to give us an opportunity to respond. Had that been done, the whole matter might never have escalated to the point of litigation, might even have been resolved amicably. Thus social and economic incentives should be adjusted to incentivize transparency in the search for truth, rather than the present system, in which, as Professor Ashford said this morning, administrators' only social and economic incentives in mobbing cases are to join the mob.
Fourth, I address specifically that broken system that incentivizes administrators to jump in on the side of the mob. In my case, the university long refused to investigate, and the reason for that is there is no value placed on my academic freedom. The "for cause," AAUP-originated, procedural due-process-oriented framework to protect academic freedom is no longer functional. I have an article forthcoming on this subject, presently available on SSRN, in which I address a piece of this problem, or at least try to start the discussion on fixing and strengthening academic freedom. I think that Professor Ashford is correct in that courts must play a role in protecting academic freedom, and for that to happen, there has to be a live legal construct of academic freedom. We must work to strengthen academic freedom so that it will be a value that administrators will recognize. If administrators perceive a mob victim's academic freedom as a legitimate value, then there will be social and economic disincentives to infringing that freedom. Administrators might not automatically jump in on the side of the mob, and mobbing victims will be better able to defend themselves, if they are mobbed at all.
To wrap up. You may call me a pessimist, but I believe that the academic system is sorely broken, such that social and economic incentives are stacked up against the person who would clear his or her name of false charges. This is a bad situation for all of us and for our students. My challenge to you is to consider where you stand in all of this. Did you come to my aid? Would you support a colleague being mobbed? Or would you light your torch and join the mob? I challenge you to be better than that.
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Joan E. Friedenberg
Mobbing Indicators and their Economic Consequences
I have found that one of the most helpful aspects of Westhues’ work on mobbing is his list of mobbing indicators. Westhues studied so many cases of mobbing over time, he has been able to identify patterns. These indicators help researchers, as well as those involved with potential mobbings, especially victims, apply a test to the circumstances of a workplace conflict to ascertain if it is a likely a mobbing. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy often begins his routines with “You know you’re a redneck if...." Well, I think of Westhues’ indicators that way: “You know you’ve been mobbed if...."
Westhues’ indicators include:
1. high-achieving target
2. Lack of due process
3. Odd timing
4. Resistance to external review
7. Fuzzy charges
8. Prior Marginalization
9. Impassioned Rhetoric, and
I’m going to address briefly five of these indicators in relation to the Peltz case and other cases.
First, the target of the mobbing is usually a high achiever. High productivity is, of course, relative. One mobbing target I knew in math education at Southern Illinois University received his degree from Stanford and was the most prolific researcher and grant-getter in his department while the majority of his detractors were former grad students hired by their own department who had published little.
I asked a prominent full professor of law at a law school ranked equal to UALR to rank the vitae of Peltz and those of 4 of Peltz’s colleagues who hold named professorships (I’ll mention that Peltz has been denied a named professorship by a decision of colleagues who indicated he was not even minimally qualified for such a professorship.) I did not tell my reviewer why I made this request of him. Peltz’s vita was ranked 2nd of the five. The reviewer commented, “Peltz has a lot of good solid publications including a number of books. He also graduated from Duke with honors.”
One wonders if jealousy helps fuel the strong reactions of mobbers and if the long and gradual process of marginalization stimulates victims to achieve.
Second, there is a lack of due process. In most mobbing cases, there is a formalized process available for making complaints against a colleague or employee, but it is almost never used or used appropriately and mobbers, instead, resort to their own devices to punish a colleague. If colleagues make up the mob, they often resort to petitions or collective letters to a chair, dean, provost or outsiders. In the case of a libertarian history professor at Southern Illinois University who opposed affirmative action, supposed liberal colleagues took out an ad in the campus newspaper implying the professor was a racist and complained to the dean who, without investigating, immediately re-assigned the professor’s African-American TA’s. All of this in the name of protecting students. In such situations, faculty embrace any opportunity to support a student or student's complaint against a colleague they’d like to eliminate. When administrators initiate a mobbing, they make use of program reviews, office moves, faculty evaluations, course assignments, and travel and sabbatical requests to target undesirable faculty and, of course, university counsel when they get more serious. Often, colleagues begin the process and administrators aid by doing nothing or by helping from the sidelines. In my case and in other cases I know of, administrators hired private investigators in an attempt to find something ethically compromising, and psychologists in hopes of finding a target to be mentally unfit. Sometimes faculty or administrators think of creative ways to work in a sexual harassment component, if they can. And, needless to say, both faculty and administrators make good use of the P&T process when mobbing a colleague.
Due process was a challenge in the Peltz case because UALR had no procedure established for making a complaint of discrimination or racism. If there had been such a procedure and it was followed, it likely would have proved helpful to Peltz. However, in the Southern Illinois University case I mentioned, there was an established procedure for making a complaint of discrimination or racial harassment and detractors decided to ignore it and, instead, take matters into their own hands. Formal investigations can be a mobbing target’s best friend and that is likely why such formalities are often ignored. Indeed, Peltz implored his dean to be investigated so he could clear his name and nothing was done until he filed suit. I’ll also mention that, according to court documents, after the State of Arkansas affiliate of the National Bar Association received a letter of complaint about Peltz from two officers of the university’s Black Law Student Association, Eric Spencer Buchanan, Esq., president of the W. Harold Flowers Law Society, wrote to the dean of the university’s law school asking that the dean appear to discuss the complaint, as the society was “appalled by Prof. Peltz’s racist remarks.” Attorney Buchanan presumably based this characterization on a letter from two students and did not, apparently, see fit to refer to the remarks as “alleged,” nor to propose any investigation of whether any racist remarks were actually made. Needless to say, it is ironic that even attorneys abandon any pretense of due process in mobbing cases.
Westhues argues that the more impassioned the rhetoric, our third indicator, the less likely there is legitimacy to the complaints about a target. Some of the rhetoric used in my own mobbing include:
Members of the department are terrified of Joan who is a powerful full professor;
Assistance to change the destructive behaviors should be offered;
How are we to cope with the turmoil she has introduced and continues to stir up;
She hurts, stalks and devastates others;
She is professionally irresponsible and incompetent and attacks students.
And about Prof. Peltz:
What happened in class that night was .... hateful and inciting speech, used to attack and demean Black students;
Many students were offended at Peltz’s insensitivity;
the rest of the Black students stayed just to see how far he’d push this offensive conversation;
We voiced our outrage to Deans.....
I’ll mention that when I attempted to defend myself by suing my detractors, my efforts were characterized as “beyond belief.” When Prof. Peltz attempted to defend himself by suing his detractors, his efforts were characterized as “shocking.”
4. Despite such impassioned characterizations of the person, when pressed during formal mediations or depositions, the actual deeds become quite vague. — Westhues indicates that charges cited in mobbing cases are often fuzzy (our fourth indicator), numerous and sometimes imagined. I am familiar with a mobbing case in which administrators and graduate students used a sexual harassment complaint to target a quirky 85-year-old emeritus professor. Among their complaints of “sexual harassment” were that he spat when he spoke, smoked a pipe at school, invited an older female grad student out to dinner, and admired a male student’s hair. Without investigation, he has been banned from campus since. When deposed, my detractors could only come up with, “She’s negative.”
When Professor Peltz met with the complaining students about their complaints of racism, these were the resulting charges:
Prof. Peltz is a racist because:
he expressed bias against AA through his facial expressions and through not defending it strongly enough when he addressed its positive points;
he allowed a white student to make a minor immaterial misstatement about a case when he’s usually a stickler for perfection;
he passed out a sheet on writing guidelines at the behest of the AR Board of Law Reviewers which complained about the poor quality of student writing on the bar exam — but he passed this out around the same time he was discussing AA;
and when the officers of the Black Law Student Association chose to sit together in Prof. Peltz’s class, when he was discussing AA, he looked at them to see if any of them had their hand up to defend AA.
The fifth indicator is prior marginalization. Westhues distinguishes between conventional social control and mobbing in that with the former a crime is committed first which is followed by apprehension. With mobbing, first the criminal is identified and only later do the deeds come to light. Before a critical incident occurs (that is the publicized letter of complaint in the Peltz case and a widely circulated psychologist’s report in my case), both of us had been marginalized. In my case, my office was moved out of the department, chatting colleagues would disperse upon seeing me approach, doors were slammed when I walked by, and I was not invited to departmental social events; I was not called on at meetings and anything I said during meetings resulted in eye-rolling and audible sighs. Of course many avoided eye contact with me in the hallways and my achievements, no mater how lofty, were ignored — if not resented. Similarly, Professor Peltz’s prior marginalization included no longer being invited to social events, colleagues not attending events where he would be, being ignored in the hallway, and repeatedly ignored achievements. Additionally, anything proposed by Peltz at meetings was immediately rejected.
Mobbing researchers, including Westhues, have also noticed that mobbing victims tend to be different from others in any of several possible ways. Many mobbing victims I have known have had foreign accents, come from working class roots, been older, been politically different from the majority (in academia this usually means openly conservative or libertarian among supposed liberals). One I know has a tic; another raps on walls while he walks down hallways; and another spits when he speaks. Most are principled and speak their minds.
To conclude my portion, I’d like to address briefly some of the economic consequences of mobbing. In a time when there are insufficient funds for faculty hiring and summer classes, imagine the costs to taxpayers, donors, and tuition payers for:
• having movers move a faculty member’s office just to harass him or her;
• hiring private investigators, psychologists, and other outside consultants with no legitimate cause, just to harass a faculty member;
• arbitration and mediation;
• defending university personnel from lengthy litigation by mobbing victims;
• paying court-ordered awards to the rare mobbing victim who sues and wins (just two I know of totaled nearly a million dollars).
Taxpayers, donors, and tuition monies are footing the bill:
• to support and even promote administrators who not only allow this to go on but have, for example, actually forced undesirable faculty to forfeit profitable grants, just to prevent these faculty from achieving;
• for the productive time robbed from both victims and perpetrators;
• for the potential loss of enrollments in cases where mobbers enlist or support participation by students;
• victims’ physical and mental health treatments, paid for by employer health insurance programs.
Think about this use of taxpayer dollars and tuition monies: Southern Illinois University hired movers to move the math ed professor’s office to another building. Then because of the resulting union grievance, the university had to split the cost of arbitration. Then when the arbitrator ruled in the professor’s favor, the university had to hire movers to move the professor back to his original office. In addition, the university had to reimburse the professor for the vacuum cleaner he had to purchase because his new office wasn’t cleaned.
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Mobbing, Socio-Economics, and the Case of Richard Peltz
What luck that Robert Ashford and Richard Peltz happened upon the session about academic mobbing at the AAUP meetings in Washington last June! I’m delighted at their interest in the body of knowledge that Schneider, Friedenberg and I represent, in particular because of notable affinities between this body of knowledge and the field of socio-economics. I will highlight two.
If I am correct in seeing Kelso, Adler, Chesterton, Belloc, Kohr, and Schumacher as more or less representative, socio-economists do not fit on either side of the great divide in Western politics. You are more suspicious of Big Government than leftists are. You distrust social engineering, even though you share leftist values on equality and dignity. On the other hand, you have more doubts about Big Business than rightists have. You abhor the concentration of capital in megacorporations, even though you share rightist values on liberty and enterprise.
The research this session is about also straddles the great divide. Mobbing is fanatic ganging up for humiliating, punishing, and in the long run eliminating a target. In politics, it can arise from either right or left – a fact documented by Steve Paikin in his 2003 book, The Dark Side. The impeachment of Democratic US President Bill Clinton was in fact a mobbing. In Clinton’s dalliance with a White House intern, wholly irrelevant to public policy, Republicans smelt blood. They coalesced and pounced. The continuing campaign against former Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is also a mobbing – as Philip Mathias argued persuasively in a 2008 op-ed. In Mulroney’s dealings after he left office with a sleazy German businessman, Liberals smelt blood. They are still hounding him with investigations and public inquiries sixteen years after he stepped down.
Similarly, academic mobs target professors on both sides of the culture wars. A quick example from the left: the tsunami of condemnation that ousted James D. Watson as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in fall 2007, just two weeks after he commented on the comparative average IQ of African versus European societies. A drawn-out example from the right: the unremitting tide of hostility that swept Ward Churchill from his professorship in Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, ratified this year by the courts.
Research on mobbing cuts both ways, casting aspersions on the lynching not only of my friends but of my enemies. In this it is similar to the field of socio-economics, which raises doubts about both the dominant political agendas of our time.
Mark Schneider has already alluded to a second similarity between socio-economics and the mobbing research: allowance for both rational and irrational factors in explanations of human action.
You must have been buoyed, as I was, by the selection of Elinor Ostrom as co-recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics, since her main claim to fame is showing that rational choice does not explain everything people do, that our behavior has multiple and conflicting origins, that we often tend and enrich the commons even independent of self-interest or state authority. One tenet of socio-economics, if I understand correctly, is that life brims with complexities and externalities, that people are bigger than they are made out to be in the tidy mathematical models of mainstream economists.
People are also smaller – this is the complementary insight gained from the study of mobbing. If humans occasionally set aside the reasoned, methodical, self-interested routine of everyday decision-making to serve a greater good, they sometimes let themselves go for the sake of devilment. Instead of enlarging the commons, they reduce the number of those allowed to partake. Falling in love is a good example of uncalculated action compelled by a target’s attractiveness. Mobbing is a good example of the same thing, except compelled by a target’s loathsomeness. Mobbing, moreover, happens collectively, with lots of mutual reinforcement among people of like mind. Schadenfreude is not altogether rational, but no less delicious for that. In institutions founded on rationality, universities above all, the irrationally sweet aspects of mobbing are ordinarily concealed beneath a gloss of routine application of general principles.
Reflections on the Case of Richard Peltz
For the research on aggression among birds that won him a Nobel Prize in 1973, Konrad Lorenz did few experiments and not much counting. His main method was to surround himself with birds, watch them, listen to them, then turn his observations over and over in his mind. It was from Lorenz’s research on birds that Heinz Leymann drew the word mobbing for the study of collective aggression among humans in the workplace. Following Lorenz and Leymann, I rely without apology on the foundational method. I pore over all the evidence I can find of every mobbing case I hear about, I watch what the protagonists do, listen to what they say, then think about what I observe. By now I have studied hundreds of mobbing cases from within and outside academe.
Rick Peltz deserves thanks for offering his own case for observation and comment here today. It is a new variation on a timeworn theme, serving to illustrate important points about mobbing and to stimulate fresh thought in the context of a law society. Joan Friedenberg has already profiled Peltz’s case by standard mobbing indicators. I want to comment on six further aspects of the case that are especially worth pondering, toward further development of the scientific study of mobbing in academe.
1. Collective Written Denunciation
The key documents in Peltz’s case were two: first, the Black Law Students Association’s collective petition to the dean seeking redress for Peltz’s alleged “hateful and inciting speech” in his class on constitutional law, which allegedly demeaned the black students in attendance; and second, the supporting letter from the W. Harold Flowers Law Society asking the dean to appear at its next meeting for discussion of what it called “the racist remarks made by Professor Peltz and Professor Sullivan” and “appropriate discipline” of these men.
Collective written denunciation of this kind occurs in the majority of mobbing cases I have studied, almost to the point of defining them. The denouncers may be students and outsiders, as in Peltz’s case. Sometimes they are administrators, more often colleagues. The nominal addressee ranges from a single administrator to the public at large. I have one case where law professors formed themselves into a mob and cleverly sent their collective denunciation to no one but the target, threatening further action if he did not fall in line, meanwhile greeting him in the corridors as usual and saying nothing to him about the metaphorical pillory they had placed him in. In a departure from the general pattern of leaving the expected resolution vague (often, the demand is simply for an investigation), the students in Peltz’s case requested five severe specific punishments: apology, reprimand, notation in his file of inability to deal fairly with black students, restriction to teaching elective courses, and requirement to attend diversity training.
The charges and deprecations vary, but what collective written denunciation comes down to is the formal positioning of the target outside the circle of tolerance and respectability, the placing of him or her under the cloud of social exclusion. It usually carries a lot of weight. There is strength in numbers. By and large, in ignorance of research on mobbing, observers assume the target must have done something wrong. If they do not join the mob themselves, they at least lie low and keep their heads down, since defense of a pariah risks becoming one.
The nub of debate about research on mobbing is this: what should a professor think when twelve angry colleagues (or ten students or fifty alumni) agree in writing that some colleague is so far beyond the pale as to deserve a scarlet letter? Commenting on my analysis of a recent academic mobbing case in Canada, a critic has lately written on a UK website: “I find it interesting that the fact that one third of his colleagues signed a petition stating their opposition to [his] views is taken as proof that he was mobbed, not proof that he was behaving improperly.” The key question is this: what is collective written denunciation proof of? That the denouncers are right, or that they are wrong? Who should have the benefit of the doubt, the denouncers or the denounced? I want to answer this question plainly.
If you stop ten people at random on the street and ask each one separately how warm it is, and they all say it’s hot, you should get yourself an ice-cold drink. When a large number of independent observers agree on a simple empirical fact in which none has a vested interest, they are probably bang on. You can take the average of their estimates of the exact temperature to get even closer to the truth, as Sir Francis Galton did in his famous research a century ago on guessing the weight of an ox at an English country fair.
But if the ten people telling you it’s hot are all employees of a store selling ice-cold drinks, you know better than to take them at their collective word. Their judgments are not independent of one another, and their livelihood urges them to exaggerate the heat. They are in cahoots. That they shout with one voice, “Today is a scorcher,” in fact puts a smile of doubt on your face about how hot it really is.
A similar smile of doubt is appropriate when any ad hoc group of academics solemnly, righteously agree, even in writing, on the guilt and need for punishment of a professor. Petitions like those against Peltz are more likely evidence of fanaticism, social contagion and threatened collective interest than of truth. To anyone with awareness of how mobbing works, they raise more questions about the denouncers than about the target. The French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas liked to quote a wise talmudic principle, “If everyone is in agreement to condemn someone accused, release him for he must be innocent.”
2. The Inadvisability of Apology
As the common phrase, “I’m sorry,” demonstrates, apology is essential to civilized life. The word combines confession of guilt, remorse, and asking forgiveness.
In the face of collective hostility, mobbing targets often bend over backward to apologize, thinking this will facilitate reconciliation. Bad mistake! Mobbing falls outside civilized life. The mob seeks humiliation and elimination, not reconciliation. It therefore ignores apology, discounts it as insincere or as too little too late, or construes it as conclusive proof of the rightness of the eliminative crusade. James D. Watson found this out the hard way. So did Lawrence Summers, Harvard’s former president.
Rick Peltz had the good sense not to apologize. He did not search his memory for a bad choice of words or bad timing that he could say he was sorry for. He recognized the collective attack on him for what it was, and fought back aggressively, eventually suing his attackers for defamation.
It is important to recognize that the attempt to mob Peltz failed. Without diminishing the hurt, stress, reputational damage, and the chilling effect on free speech that Peltz has reported, and while granting his prudent fear that the campaign against him may resume, the facts at this point are that he has not lost his job, nor been publicly humiliated, found guilty, or formally disciplined by his university. He is probably the only professor in this room who has received an official letter signed by both his dean and the university chancellor asserting that “there is no evidence that you are or have been a racist or acted in a racist fashion during your employment….”
Peltz has appropriately applied to his case the concept of backfire or boomerang as Brian Martin uses it in his studies of conflict. One reason is that from the start, he never gave even an inch of an apology.
3. Formalities and Informalities in the Mobbing Process
The heavy business of debasing, degrading, defrocking, in fine eliminating an until now respectable member of a group ordinarily proceeds through stages, from informal backbiting and malicious gossip on to a critical incident, a demand for formal sanctions on account of alleged specific misconduct.
In Peltz’s case, the alleged misconduct was racism in his constitutional law class in the fall of 2005. Unusually as mobbing cases go, this did not immediately precipitate the formal stage of the mobbing. Students complained verbally to the dean and at the dean’s suggestion met with Peltz, but did not submit to the dean their formal, written complaint until March 2007, well over a year after the alleged misconduct. Even this did not precipitate the formal stage. Peltz gained access to the document only in fall 2007 through an FOI request. Thus, for more than two years after his alleged misconduct, Peltz had to, in Socrates’s words, “fight with shadows in my own defence.”
Peltz’s case reached a formal stage only at his own instigation: with his own nationally publicized defamation claim in March of 2008, and with the university’s acceptance of his own request for an investigation. By November of that year, he had been officially cleared, had dropped his lawsuit, and had circulated his detailed public account of the conflict.
Peltz’s case illustrates how much more is involved in mobbing a professor than simply charging him or her with an offense and securing a conviction. In many cases, the formalities confirm and finalize the social elimination of the target. In Peltz’s case, the target used formalities to force a showdown with those seeking his humiliation, and their case fell apart.
4. Mobbing and the Politics of Remedy
At least once a week, I get an email from a professor somewhere saying essentially, “Your mobbing research illuminates the fix I’m in. I’m being run out of my job. What I can do to stop the mob?”
I answer guardedly, aware that I’m hearing just one side of the story. In general, I recommend to mobbing targets that they do something that works. Targets often languish for years in naïve, fruitless efforts at redress, at huge cost to their careers, bank accounts, family life, and health. Generally, as Brian Martin argues, official channels of dispute resolution are loaded in favour of the mob. To wait quietly and let the system work is usually a recipe for how to lose.
Publicity is the common prerequisite to successful resolution. University administrators do not like to see their institutions’ dirty laundry on public display. In Peltz’s case, the national attention his defamation lawsuit garnered was more important than the lawsuit itself.
On this side of the Atlantic, awareness of workplace mobbing is not yet widespread. It is rarely mentioned in law and policy. Hence there is probably little to be gained by crying out, “I’m being mobbed.” The mobbing target must instead appeal to whatever is some powerful organization’s pet peeve: maybe infringements on free speech, maybe sexual harassment, maybe discrimination against lesbians or racial minorities or people with disabilities. A professor under the cloud of collective hostility should not be faulted for using whatever available avenue will lead him or her back into the sunshine of inclusion and respectability.
I should note that Peltz’s recourse to the courts would not likely have been possible in that majority of Canadian universities with faculty unions or similar associations recognized in labour law. This is because the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that virtually any workplace-related gripe a professor in such a university has must be resolved through grievance arbitration rather than the public courts. In most Canadian universities, a mobbed professor is at the mercy of the faculty union, which decides whether to carry the professor’s grievance forward in the context of some or many union members being members of the mob.
5. Mobbing and Race
Race is an elemental aspect of personal identity, like sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, language, and age. Tensions and discriminations on these bases are part of life in all societies. Not surprisingly, these factors crop up in various ways in most academic mobbing cases.
In a trio of bizarre cases amidst moral panic in a Canadian university, white administrators dismissed in quick succession two nonwhite professors on false or flimsy charges of sexual harassment. I suspect race was one of the reasons each of these men was singled out. I’m almost positive race was a reason in the third case, wherein a white professor was dismissed on still less credible grounds. What happened, I believe, is that the administrators got worried about looking like racist bigots and felt they needed to string up a white guy to prove they weren’t. If the third chap had been African-Canadian, I doubt that he would have been dismissed.
Race matters. It is a dilemma not only in multiracial America, as Gunnar Myrdal said, but in lily-white Sweden and black Zimbabwe.
Race was obviously at the root of Peltz’s case. He looks to me to be of mainly European origin. I would guess his accusers, as members of explicitly black organizations, are of mainly African origin, and their accusation was of racist behavior in a class discussion of racial-preference laws.
Peltz’s case matters because if we are to enlarge our understanding of race and our public policies concerning it, free and reasoned research on and discussion of the topic must be prized, not stifled. Peltz is right to worry that his ordeal will scare other professors into silence, shirking the responsibilities of their jobs out of fear – as he says – of being peltzed.
Observers may take a different lesson. The verb “to peltz” may even come to mean “to fight back strongly,” so that when a professor complains to a friend that students or colleagues are plotting behind his back to damage his name, humiliate and get rid of him, the friend will reply, “Don’t just stand there. Peltz them.”
6. Mobbing and Word Play
Let me close with a serious comment on a lighter subject. I smiled on reading that one of the things Peltz’s mobbers complained about was his bringing to class an article from The Onion about Rosa Parks and the end of the civil rights movement. Mobbers have low tolerance for satire, irony, any kind word play. When people get into a mobbing frame of mind, they become a little dull-witted. They fear or fail to grasp indeterminate language, especially if it is engaging and funny. Literary devices that set people free by jostling their minds, making them laugh, and bestirring fresh thought are inimical to the mobbers’ agenda, which is to tighten control. They tend to prefer wooden or legalistic prose, the tyrannical newspeak that Orwell satirized.
One desirable reform of law school curricula might be to include more works of literature like Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain, or Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. Maybe some poems like Kipling’s “If,” Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” or Service’s “The Dreamer.” Maybe some Greek tragedies or newer dramas like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible or Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. I conclude with a respectful suggestion that for reducing the incidence of mobbing, literature may serve better than law.
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Mark A. Schneider
I’d like to thank Prof. Robert Ashford for helping to bring this group together and offering us this forum to talk about mobbing. I hope you’ve found it enlightening. As I became acquainted with Richard Peltz’s case, I recalled the very similar mobbing about fifteen years ago of a friend of mine at the University of Michigan, David Goldberg. If you google David’s name, you can find out quite a bit about his case, even though it occurred before the Internet was up and running (you may also click here or here or here). Briefly, when students attacked him for “race baiting” on the basis of warped interpretations of his lectures, administrators bent over backwards to humor the students, guaranteeing them that they would never again be required to take Goldberg’s required course.
After witnessing much administrative waffling and shirking in this case, I published a letter in the Michigan Record arguing that there were only two ways to avoid mobbings arising from this species of warped interpretation. The first was to cow faculty into ridding their presentations of any elements that might, through misinterpretation, give offense to students or colleagues. The other was “to root out the interpretive framework that causes people to…[take offense in the first place]. The latter means not understanding [students’] “perspectives and reactions,” as [our Dean] urges; it means changing them. It means calling some perspectives bad ones, and braving the storm. It means placing people’s growth as citizens above their comfort. It means setting standards to which all members of our diverse community must submit. And it means leading that community — rather than ducking — whenever academic freedom is under threat.“ Richard Peltz’s case illustrates how far a faculty member must sometimes go to even temporarily halt the ducking. The fact that his administration asked one of his mobbers to join them, as their new Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, shortly after graduation indicates just how difficult it will be to rid the academy of the phenomenon. We can only hope our presentations today will allow you to identify it for what it is.
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