Workplace Mobbing in Academe

K. Westhues Homepage

to this essay

Out of commitment to scholarly dialogue and respect for contrary interpretations of the Berman dismissal, I invited responses to my paper at the time of its initial publication here, offering to consider them for publication alongside my paper. That invitation still holds. Responses should be sent to me by email.

By 1 February 2007, I had received the two responses linked below. The views expressed are not mine but those of the respective authors.

Response of
Mik Bickis

Response of
Edward D. Tymchatyn

of this essay

Quarreling Geeks in Saskatoon

Berman's Offense

The Administrative Response

The Disproportionate Penalty

Contrasting Resolution of a Similar Case



Scapegoating vs. Mobbing

Why the Decision Was Upheld



Stephen Berman: Scapegoat

Kenneth Westhues, Professor of Sociology, University of Waterloo
Published in the collection on academic mobbing in December 2006. Numbers in brackets, some of which are direct links, refer to Endnotes.

In February of 2006, Canadian newspapers reported [1] that an arbitration tribunal had upheld the dismissal of Stephen Berman from his tenured position as Professor of Mathematics at the University of Saskatchewan. He had taught there for thirty years, and was arguably the most accomplished mathematician in the province.

Because dismissal of a tenured professor is rare in Canada and because academic decisions are commonly thought to be based on reason and evidence, readers may understandably have concluded that Berman did something terribly wrong. The news of his firing may have led his friends and colleagues around the world to think ill of him.

My purpose here, above all else, is to urge all who care about higher education in Canada to read for themselves the 176 pages of public documents [2, 3] from the tribunal. Therein can be found many arguments for and against Berman’s dismissal and a wealth of information about turmoil and waste in his university.

The reader can then choose between the opposing views not only of the university administration and the faculty association, but even of the three lawyers on the arbitration tribunal. Two of the latter, Timothy Christian from Edmonton and Christopher Boychuk from Saskatoon, agreed with President Peter MacKinnon that Berman should be dismissed. The third, Cathy Lace from Toronto, disagreed with MacKinnon, rebutting his seven reasons one by one.

From the facts laid out in these documents, most readers, even those with no special expertise, will be less horrified by Berman’s misbehaviour than by how administrators handled it and by the extent of disorder in the math department of a major university.

Since I have studied and experienced the wrongdoing for which Berman was dismissed and since my research specialty is the greater wrongdoing his elimination seems to exemplify, I share below the conclusions of my own reading of the tribunal documents. I have otherwise no connection to the case. I had not heard of it until the press reports and I am unacquainted with the parties involved. The faculty association sent me the two documents at my request.

Quarreling Geeks in Saskatoon

The documents describe in detail the key context of Berman’s firing: extreme factional conflict in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. Feuding began about 1998, with the appointment of a new department chair.

No one claims Berman was the source or centre of the conflict. He was away from campus at the Universities of Virginia and Toronto for most of 1999 and 2000. After returning to Saskatoon, he preoccupied himself with teaching and research. He appears in the documents as the sort of scholar who avoids administrative quarrels and academic politics.

But in rancour and intensity, the strife in his department was off the normal academic scale.

In the spring of 2001, then dean Ken Coates banned department meetings and free debate while two external consultants made an investigation. Coates justified this almost unheard of interdict by saying he had “watched – with growing bewilderment and dismay – the deterioration of professional relationships within the department.” [3: 3]

The consultants found “polarization of faculty, shifting alliances, miscommunication, misunderstanding, a feeling of lack of support and validation, and increased stress and tension both between faculty and within the department.” [3: 5f]

So total was the breakdown of collegial relations that rumors circulated of impending violence. The documents do not say who was the focus of concern in this regard, but it does not appear to have been Berman.

In September of 2001, the administration split the department, transferring seven professors (Berman was not among them) from mathematics/statistics to computer science – not for any academic reason but just to separate the warring parties.

Hostilities did not abate. In 2002, the administration appointed a second pair of external consultants to investigate. These latter reported “an alarming lack of collegiality, with many hurtful things said and written.” [3: 7] The provost said these consultants were “clearly stunned at the breakdown in collegial relations in the department.” [3: 8]

In August of 2002, Ken Coates, now acting provost, announced yet another investigation into materials publicly posted in McLean Hall that impugned certain members of faculty. Berman was not the source of these materials.

Berman’s Offense

As humans are wont to do in stressful, conflict-laden situations, many of the quarreling mathematicians and administrators behaved with uncustomary stealth and aggression. Berman vented his sentiments about the local civil war in a novel, geeky way.

Over a six-month period beginning in October of 2002, sitting alone at the computers in his office and at home, he posted 65 anonymous ratings for himself and 14 colleagues on a California-based website called ratemyprofessors. He rated some colleagues high, others low. He described himself and a minority of colleagues as caring toward students, but the majority as unhelpful, unnecessarily hard, and having no time for students.

This intervention into departmental politics was plainly puerile, underhanded, and dishonest. In effect, Berman pretended to be a student who had taken courses from his colleagues. His comments were the kind students make, ranging from “hard for many but good if you really want to learn” to “so this is hell – and I pay for it, too.” [2: 16ff]

On the other hand, by its design and terms of use, the website itself blurred the line between dishonesty and truthfulness. It presented itself as a place for unrestrained venting, a raucous free-for-all in cyberspace. Postings to it were barely monitored. That many ratings were fake was common knowledge in Saskatoon as elsewhere. Most professors and students considered the site something of a joke, an electronic equivalent of graffiti on toilet walls.

The website itself made no secret of its untrustworthiness, stating explicitly in its FAQ (frequently asked questions) section: “We prefer that you only rate teachers you have first-hand knowledge of. However, it is not possible for us to verify which raters had which teachers, so always take the ratings with a grain of salt. Remember, we have no way of knowing who is doing the rating – students, the teacher, other teachers, parents, dogs, cats, etc.” [4] It can therefore be argued that whoever took the website seriously, rather than with a grain of salt, was pretending it was something it explicitly was not.

However mild or serious an offense one judges the posting of phony ratings on ratemyprofessors to be, this remains, according to the arbitration documents, the only offense Berman committed. Otherwise, he conducted himself as the same serious, responsible scholar he had been for decades before order in the math/stats department broke down.

The Administrative Response

A professor who fared poorly in Berman’s postings smelled a rat and complained to Terry Roebuck, the university’s manager of internet security. In response, the administration monitored traffic to ratemyprofessors from the university’s network and in this way traced some of the ratings of math/stats professors to Berman’s office computer.

On March 24, 2003, Berman was summoned to a meeting with Roebuck, Acting Interim Dean Dick Neal, and Human Resources Vice-President Barb Daigle. He was confronted with the evidence against him and directed to surrender the computers he had at home. He was also given a letter from President MacKinnon suspending him from his job and requiring him to vacate his office.

Berman was summoned to a further meeting with the same administrators on April 17, and confronted with additional evidence of fake postings obtained from his home computer.

Carol McGibney, the faculty association officer who accompanied Berman to these meetings, advised him to make no response until the university put its concerns in writing. Berman did as she advised.

On April 24, Neal sent Berman a statement of his concerns. Berman replied by letter of April 30, acknowledging that he had posted the fake ratings.

On June 20, Berman met with President MacKinnon, who advised Berman to apologize to his colleagues and to try to have the fake ratings removed from the website.

Berman did as MacKinnon advised. He wrote to all the members of his department that he was sorry for what he had done: “I have apologized to the University and the President for doing this and now want to apologize to all of you for this. I feel particularly sorry if this has caused any of you any distress or trouble. I am attempting to have the ratings which I am responsible for removed from the web site.” [3: 11f]

Notwithstanding Berman’s apology, his clean record and decades of stellar work, MacKinnon sent him a letter of dismissal on July 16, 2003. This was the decision Christian and Boychuk ratified on January 3, 2006. Lace’s dissent is dated January 25, 2006.

The Disproportionate Penalty

All, including Berman, agree that what he did was wrong. The question is whether the penalty was proportionate to the offense.

Reasonable people agree that a professor generally deserves dismissal for, among other things, refusing to teach, trading grades for sex, fabricating data, defrauding the university, committing violent crime, or becoming incompetent. Does posting fake ratings to ratemyprofessors belong on the same list?

If it does, Berman’s adversaries should have been able to cite precedents for dismissing him on this ground. There is no such citation in the documents. The likely reason is that no precedent exists. I have found no prior case at any university of a tenured professor being disciplined, let alone fired, for doing what Berman did.

Further, if posting fake ratings were so serious an offense as to warrant dismissal, the university administration should have scrupulously investigated evidence that additional Saskatchewan professors besides Berman had committed the same offense. There is plenty of such evidence in the arbitration documents, but little if any investigation appears to have ensued. Dean Neal simply circulated a memo to the math faculty cautioning them not to post ratings of their colleagues on ratemyprofessors.

Reading between the lines of the arbitration documents, one gets the impression that playing with the website by posting fake ratings (especially by giving a colleague the chili pepper that means he or she is “hot”) was as common in this corner of the University of Saskatchewan as in other corners of other universities. Gabriela Montell, a staff reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, observed in 2006, “Of the more than 50 people interviewed for this story, nearly every one had either manipulated the site or knew someone who had.” [5]

In her dissent from the majority decision of the tribunal, Lace says she would have punished Berman for his offense by a (presumably unpaid) suspension of a few months instead of by dismissal. In my view, her proposed penalty was reasonable and her legal reasoning in support of it persuasive. I believe most readers at some distance from the conflict would agree.

Even suspension may have been more punishment than required by the facts of the case. If its priority had been on nourishing a culture of respect and decency, the administration might well have been content in 2003, with Berman’s acknowledgement and correction of his wrongdoing and his apology to those who possibly were harmed.

A quick, merciful resolution of the matter would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead of Berman sitting at home on paid leave for 30 months waiting for the arbitration tribunal to decide his case (probably preoccupied with the threatened loss of his job), he would have been at work: teaching students and advancing algebra. No invoices for legal and arbitration fees would have arrived in anybody’s mail. A high-achieving senior mathematician’s career and dignity would have been salvaged instead of jettisoned. Most important, the university would have sent a message of forgiveness, reconciliation, and scholarly purpose instead of administrative one-upmanship and heavy-handed governance.

Contrasting Resolution of a Similar Case

A year after Berman’s misconduct at Saskatchewan, a similar case arose at the University of Waterloo, where it was handled in a different way and resolved without much cost or harm to anyone. I know this case because I was involved in it.

I first learned of ratemyprofessors in April of 2003. I looked up the page about myself and found that 28 ratings had gradually accumulated over the preceding 16 months. My score on overall quality was 4.5 on the 5-point scale. The comments were similar to those recorded term by term on standard course evaluations. On first impression, the site looked credible.

As a sociologist and student of higher education, I began to study the website and monitor postings for other professors at Waterloo and elsewhere, especially those whose teaching ability I already knew something about. Some of the ratings looked credible, others not. I studied procedures for posting to the website, paid $10 for a two-year membership, and contacted John Swapceinski, the founder and webmaster. My object was to learn as much as possible about the website from publicly available data. I tried to think of ways of distinguishing honest postings (those from students who had taken the indicated course and posted just one rating for it) from fake postings (those from people who had not taken the course or who posted multiple ratings pro or con for the same course).

Then suddenly, in October of 2003, my study of ratemyprofessors acquired personal urgency. In stark contrast to earlier postings and to results of course evaluations, the lowest possible ratings and derogatory comments began to appear on the page about me. They looked fake, as if one or a few raters were maliciously trying to harm my reputation.

Professors with thicker skins than mine or those less invested in teaching might have taken these aspersions with a grain of salt. I, on the other hand, was aghast at the thought of students, relatives and friends reading comments like: “useless crap”; “Please make him stop teaching … please … Please … PLEASE! I’ll pray every night from now on PLEASE”; “retard. How did he ever manage to obtain a PH.D.”; “Big Baby”; “totally stupid guy.”

I can thus sympathize wholeheartedly with the professors dishonestly disparaged at Saskatchewan.

At Waterloo, however, it did not occur to me to ask the administration to investigate or intervene. In my view, administrative monitoring of professors’ computers is an abhorrent invasion of privacy, similar to opening their mail, and warranted only for serious crime.

Instead, I decided in October of 2003 to make the suspicious postings on the page about me an occasion for testing and developing my detective skills. Using public data mainly from the site itself, I would see if I could identify the source of the apparently fake ratings. Over the next five months, I watched and studied as the suspicious ratings accumulated, wincing each time I read a new one.

By March of 2004, I had gathered evidence by which to trace the suspicious ratings to a likely source. I laid out the evidence in polite emails to webmaster Swapceinski, asking him to confirm my hypotheses by checking raters’ IP addresses (information he had but I didn’t). In response, Swapceinski deleted most of the ratings I had flagged, put a control on the page about me so that only registered users could post ratings there, and added a filter on the website as a whole to help correct the misuse I had identified.

That same month, I sent the evidence I had gathered to the professor concerned, with copies to the relevant department chair, dean, and academic vice-president. None of them replied to me, nor did anyone apologize to me. So far as I know, the administrators did not investigate further or try to impose any kind of discipline on anyone.

That was the end of it. The problem was solved. The offense was corrected. I continued my study of the website and published a report in September of 2004. [6] I also began posting on my personal website the official end-of-term student evaluations of my courses, providing prospective enrollees with broader-based and more reliable information than is available on ratemyprofessors. [7] I count this a positive outcome of the fake-ratings episode; other professors, individually or as a faculty, might want to consider doing something similar.

Now two years later, with dozens of further postings on ratemyprofessors about me, nearly all apparently honest, I have felt no need to take further corrective action. I remain on guard, keep an eye on the page about me, and am ready to defend myself against dishonesty should the need arise.

Against the background of this successfully resolved and corrected case at Waterloo, the interesting questions about the Berman case become clear. Why did Berman’s correction of and apology for the wrongdoing not satisfy the administrators in Saskatoon? If they believed punishment was required, why was a suspension of the kind Lace called for not enough for them? Why did they insist on all the pounds of Berman’s flesh, his total elimination from the university? And why did two of the three members of the arbitration committee uphold this draconian penalty?


Two related bodies of scholarship help answer these questions. First is the acclaimed research of Stanford professor René Girard on scapegoating [8, 9]. This word refers to a group’s singling out and demonizing of one of its members. The target of collective aggression becomes the symbolic embodiment of the group’s troubles and is formally eliminated as a way of restoring harmony.

Scapegoating is endemic in human societies. It was an accepted fact of life in ancient times except in Judaeo-Christianity, which reversed the traditional priority of collective over individual. Girard recounts, by way of example, how the famous pagan miracle-worker, Apollonius of Tyana, rid the city of Ephesus of a plague in the second century AD. Apollonius singled out an apparently harmless beggar, identified him as the demon responsible for the plague, and urged the troubled Ephesians to stone him. They demurred, feeling pity for the miserable man. Apollonius egged them on. A few Ephesians then began the attack. Once hit by a few stones, the beggar’s hidden demonic nature was revealed, whereupon the crowd stoned him to death, thereby healing the city. Girard comments: “The miracle consists of triggering a mimetic contagion so powerful that it finally polarizes the entire population of the city against the unfortunate beggar.” [9: 50]

Against the story of Apollonius and the beggar Girard juxtaposes the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. The law provided that on account of her offense, she could legitimately be scapegoated: put to death. But the miracle-worker in this case forbade what the law allowed: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” This story epitomizes the anti-scapegoating stance of Christianity, in keeping with its ethic of forgiveness and its celebration of the sacredness of the human person. [9: see 49-58]

Christian civilization, says Girard, thus includes an “obligatory compassion” that is honoured mainly in the breach, given how deep-seated in human nature is the impulse to scapegoat, what Girard calls the “persecutory unconscious.” [9: 126f] We raise conflicts to “a new level of cunning” with “procedures less comically evident,” pursue a “hunt for hunters of scapegoats,” and in this way authorize “new forms of cruelty.” Scapegoating survives “by becoming more subtle, by resorting to more and more complex casuistry in order to elude the self-criticism that follows scapegoaters like their shadow.” [9: 159]

It is hard to read the documents on Stephen Berman’s dismissal and not see him as the university’s scapegoat for the troubles in its math/stats department. From a Girardian viewpoint, the university lawyers’ arguments for dismissing Berman are a “naïve persecution text”: an unashamed account of scapegoating by scapegoaters who, to quote the famous biblical line, “do not know what they are doing” and must therefore be forgiven. [8: 8]

The strikingly different circumstances of the fake-ratings cases at Waterloo and Saskatchewan lend support to the scapegoating hypothesis. At Waterloo, the case did not arise in the context of a commonly experienced plague crying out for remedy. It was a matter between individuals. Collective passions were not aroused. The fake ratings were posted and removed before administrators even knew of them. If there was gossip about the matter, I never heard it. The campus climate was calm. There was no social problem, no need for a scapegoat, and thus no hunt for one.

At Saskatchewan, by contrast, Berman committed his offense in a department plagued by open dissention and seething with collective passion. The relevant administrators must have felt keen frustration and embarrassment. His offense, moreover, could hardly be seen as a matter between individuals. By posting fake ratings for 15 different professors, praising five and faulting ten, Berman fueled a distinctly social, departmental fire. Thereby he made himself a prime candidate for scapegoat in a troubled group.

The faculty association argued in the dismissal hearing that from the university’s submissions, “one might get the sense that there is one black sheep and a lot of white sheep. But here there is not one black sheep but a whole series of white and grey sheep. Everybody is dirty. … Acting uncollegially has been the hallmark of this department for the last three years.” [2: 93] This perceptive metaphor can be taken a step further. The dirtier the group, the more likely it is to try to cleanse itself by singling out one member, then soiling completely and eliminating that one.

In many scapegoating cases, real or imagined wrongdoing is dredged up from the target’s past, to bolster a thoroughly negative characterization of him or her. The authorities in Saskatoon did not do this in Berman’s case, probably because he had been well-behaved and politically marginal until the fake-ratings episode. Their procedure was instead to enlarge the stigma of his offense by faulting him for what he did and failed to do after he was caught.

The university lawyers claimed, for instance, that “Professor Berman has not shown genuine remorse for his conduct.” They said his apology to members of his department “lacks substance and genuineness.” [2: 48f] One suspects that had Berman donned sackcloth and ashes and gone on his knees to each one of his colleagues, these actions, too, would have been deemed insincere.

The university also faulted Berman for failing to tattle promptly on two colleagues who had committed the same offense as he, saying he was thereby guilty of assisting in or covering up dishonesty. [2: 45] In Berman’s view, neither he nor they had done anything seriously wrong; hence he did not name them until pressed under cross-examination at the dismissal hearing. But nothing in the documents suggests that these two professors were punished even after Berman named them. It would appear that except in Berman’s case, the administrators covered up what they defined as dishonesty, and allowed at least two perpetrators to go unpunished. That is how scapegoating works: dirt is heaped on one member of the group, and this somehow cleanses others of the same dirt.


A distinct but complementary research literature that also sheds light on Berman’s dismissal centers on the concept of mobbing, as analyzed in animal societies by ethologist Konrad Lorenz in the 1950s and 1960s [10], and in human workplaces by psychologist Heinz Leymann in the 1980s and 1990s [11]. Over the past decade, collaborating with several dozen colleagues in a variety of disciplines, I have applied and extended Lorenz’s and Leymann’s insights to the academic workplace. The outcome is a reasonably coherent body of knowledge on how, why, and to what kind of professor mobbing happens in universities [12].

Like scapegoating, mobbing refers to the ganging up of the members of a group against a target, who is then humiliated and eventually eliminated. Unlike scapegoating, which is rooted in Judaeo-Christian thought and thus bears a religious colouring, mobbing is rooted in the scientific study of certain elemental impulses, common to many species, that are awakened under conditions of ambiguity and stress. One is the impulse to gang up: to join with others in a common cause. Another is the impulse to focus aggression on a single enemy, or sometimes two or three, who are then demonized, attacked, and destroyed.

As among many birds and primates, mobbing among humans often takes a violent form. Lynching and teenage swarming are examples. In settings (like universities) where violence is strictly proscribed, mobbing is more often carried out without physical aggression. Gossip, ridicule, ostracization, and petty harassment are common techniques of making the target’s working life unbearable. Still more effective are formal degradation rituals (like the administrators’ meetings to which Berman was summoned in 2003, and the subsequent dismissal hearing), where the weight of collective opprobrium is brought to bear on the target, and he or she is officially drummed out.

Academic mobbings may arise among workmates (as when professors in a department join to oust a colleague), among students or outsiders (as in the massing of forces to get rid of a professor with unpopular political views), or among administrators (as appears to have been the case with Berman). Regardless of the sector in which it originates, the eliminative urge travels from one person to the next. The mobbers become “of one mind” and mobilize collective resources to discredit the target utterly and put an end to his or her career.

Mobbing is distinguished from routine dismissal for a clear and serious offense like claiming degrees one does not have, falsifying research results, or plagiarizing extensively. Often, in such cases, the guilty professor is treated with compassion and allowed to resign quietly. In a mobbing, by contrast, little compassion is in evidence and the grounds for expulsion are dubious.

Apart from the questionable seriousness of Berman’s offense, perhaps the clearest sign that his was in fact a case of administrative mobbing is the unmeasured, overstated tone in which the university’s lawyers presented the case against him. Specifically, they claimed “that there is absolutely no evidence that Professor Berman could reintegrate himself into the Department….” And again, “Professor Berman has provided absolutely no evidence that [the trust relationship] could be repaired….” [2: 52f] To a researcher of mobbing, the phrase “absolutely no evidence” is a telltale sign that passion has displaced reason. The arbitration documents present ample evidence – including Berman’s apology, his record as scholar and teacher, and colleagues’ testimony – that his reintegration was achievable and a trust relationship recoverable. The university’s case against Berman would have been more persuasive had it recognized the evidence pro and con and drawn a nuanced conclusion. “Absolutely no evidence” is, in this context, a phrase so extreme as to suggest a dark, fanatic force at work.

By checklists of standard indicators of workplace mobbing, Berman’s case appears from the arbitration documents to fit the bill in some respects, but not in others. As an outspoken, foreign-born high achiever with a discernible foreign accent and an independent mind, he had the profile of the kind of professor most commonly mobbed. The thinness of the case against him, the hyperbole of the charges, and the repeated attacks on his motives all suggest that this was indeed a mobbing case. Berman is unlike most mobbing targets in not having been the object of ostracization and harassment prior to the critical incident that occasioned formal discipline – at least so far as I can tell from the arbitration documents. On the other hand, he was clearly marginal to the main circles of administrative and faculty power, especially in view of his long absence from campus in the early years of the departmental feud.

Without pretending to offer a conclusive diagnosis, I conclude that the literature on mobbing, like the literature on scapegoating, sheds light on what happened to this professor and why it happened. At the very least, these literatures raise doubts about whether he is even half so shameful a character as the fact of his dismissal might suggest.

Scapegoating vs. Mobbing

Each of the two conceptualizations, scapegoating and mobbing, offers its own slant of insight into Berman’s ouster. Scapegoating implies a mainly irrational process: that the target is not really to blame for the group’s troubles, that getting rid of him or her thus cannot be a real solution, but that believing makes it so. The benefit the group reaps from scapegoating is thus understood to be a kind of placebo effect. In Berman’s case, even though he clearly had not caused the breakdown of relations in the math/stats department, purging the department of this one professor might, in an irrational way, make things better for everybody else.

The mobbing conceptualization, on the other hand, has room for both irrational and rational elements in the eliminative campaign. The demonization and crushing of Berman may have been due in part to a contagion of eliminative lust among administrators frustrated by endless feuding in the math/stats department. His dismissal may have been in part a wild, reckless lashing out, a nonviolent analogue to the stoning of the beggar in Ephesus.

Berman’s mobbing, however, probably also had a practical, rational purpose. It was in part, like many witch hunts in early modern Europe, a way of asserting the power of rulers over ruled – or more precisely in Saskatoon, of the university administration over the professoriate. In the arbitration, the opposing sides were not the university and Berman but the university administration (prosecuting Berman) and the faculty association (defending him). The Berman case was thus a battleground in the ongoing struggle for power between administrators and professors.

A key part of the university’s case against Berman was that he was “singularly uncooperative” with its investigation of his misbehaviour [2: 40ff, also 55ff]. The basis for this charge was that, on the explicit advice of the faculty association (fairly standard in current Canadian labour relations), Berman had delayed his response to the university’s concerns until they were put in writing. Essentially, then, the professor was deemed guilty of an offense for obeying the faculty association instead of Dean Neal, who expected an immediate verbal response and became angry at Berman’s silence in the meetings of March 24 and April 17, 2003. This is the clearest evidence for seeing Berman as a trophy in the game of power played by administration and faculty association.

In another way, even more direct, Berman’s ouster served to bolster the administration’s authority over the professors who remained. His misconduct had served as the occasion for the university to gather information from the computers of an unknown number of professors, and to establish the precedent that it could legitimately monitor professors’ computers if, in its judgment, circumstances warranted. Thus any professor at Saskatoon had reason to fear administrative sanction if anything on his or her computer, or on electronic records of its use, might be judged improper: not just fake ratings on ratemyprofessors but pirated music, unlicensed software, personal business transactions, visits to porn sites, imprudent emails, anything an administrator might construe as an offense. In winning its case against Berman, the university did more than get rid of one professor. It gained a weapon for encouraging all users of university computers to behave themselves. Berman’s dismissal was a stern reminder to everybody under the administration’s authority: hunker down, do as you are told, don’t make waves.

Why the Decision was Upheld

In a previous case at the University of Saskatchewan, the arbitration tribunal aborted the mobbing or scapegoating process in its final phase, by refusing to ratify the university’s decision to dismiss the target. This was the case of law professor Lucinda Vandervort in 1994, summarized in John Fekete’s book, Moral Panic [13: 225-228]. In this case as in Berman’s, Peter MacKinnon was a protagonist; he was the dean who wanted Vandervort dismissed. She continues on Saskatchewan’s law faculty even now.

Why didn’t the arbitration tribunal rescue Berman? The vote was two-to-one in his case as in Vandervort’s. The difference was that the tribunal chair in Berman’s case sided with the university’s nominee to the tribunal instead of with the faculty association’s nominee.

One salient difference between the two cases is that the charges against Vandervort were fuzzy. She had made a student unhappy by comments in class, but the meaning of the comments was unclear, and the alleged victim was herself opposed to Vandervort’s dismissal. The charges against Berman, by contrast, were clear. There was no doubt that he had posted fake ratings on ratemyprofessors, and there is no indication in the arbitration documents that the alleged victims of his offense were opposed to his being fired for it. Generally, academic mobbings are more likely to succeed when the target is undeniably guilty of a specific offense, even one of doubtful seriousness, than when charges are laden with ambiguity.

It may be worth noting that Vandervort was a younger female feminist lawyer while Berman, as an older white male, was in a less auspicious demographic category.

Probably the main factors explaining the differences in outcome have to do with contrasting attitudes, values, legal philosophies and social ties between the two tribunal chairs.

The important general point is that in administrative law, as opposed to criminal law, the defendant does not have the benefit of a presumption of innocence. Berman, this is to say, had already been judged deserving of dismissal by the administrative hierarchy of the university, Dean Neal and President MacKinnon in particular. He had worn that stigma and been out of his job for a year before the tribunal’s hearings even began. Inevitably, in such a circumstance, the university administration enjoys a certain benefit of doubt.

The university’s lawyers acknowledged this benefit, telling the tribunal that MacKinnon “is the chief academician at the University,” that “the President’s conclusion should not be interfered with lightly,” and that “there is no evidence that the President’s assessment should be changed.” [2: 52] For their part, Christian and Boychuk insisted that “we are not deferring to the decision of the President. Rather, we have independently weighed the evidence and concluded that he was substantively correct in his decision.” [2: 142]


Because I myself have been the butt of fake ratings on ratemyprofessors, my repugnance at Stephen Berman’s posting of similar fake ratings at Saskatchewan is visceral. In an institution devoted to truth, his conduct cannot be condoned, notwithstanding its origin in an extreme breakdown of departmental relations and its expression in a medium only semi-serious. He could fairly have been punished for what he did.

Formal dismissal, however, the capital punishment of labour relations, was out of all proportion to Berman’s offense. From the data of the tribunal documents, it is plain that the process leading to this outcome had less to do with reason than with scapegoating and mobbing. The starkly different outcome at Waterloo is compelling evidence for this view.

If a university is to fulfill its public purposes, it has to keep its eye on the ball: on scholarship, on teaching, learning, and the production of new knowledge. Scholarly achievement must be the top priority, with nothing allowed to distract from it.

When a professor (or any other member of the university) misbehaves, especially if he or she is otherwise performing capably, care must be taken not to make a mountain of a molehill or a canyon of a gopher hole. Generally, the university is better served by rectifying the matter and moving on than by going after the culprit and making an example of him or her. Scapegoating or mobbing easily does more harm to an academic community than was done by the target’s misdeeds, because ritual elimination instills fear and inhibits the free pursuit of truth that is a university’s lifeblood.

“Distrust all those in whom the impulse to punish is powerful” – so Nietzsche wrote. In a university even more than in other human groups, punitive instincts need to be kept in check. The University of Saskatchewan would have done itself proud by accepting Berman’s apology for and correction of his offense, and letting all concerned get back to work. Not incidentally, it would thereby have saved a lot of money.

These are the conclusions of my reading of the tribunal documents. I encourage others to read the documents for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

As a final way of driving home the point that too much was made of Berman’s offense, let me confess that on June 29, 2006, I posted for the first time a rating on ratemyprofessors. It was by definition fake, since I am not a student. In connection with a reporter’s inquiry about the website, I invented an English professor named Jim Jones at Algonquin College in Pembroke, Ontario. I rated Jones “3” across the board and called him “super.” I proposed to the reporter that to get a feel for how the website works, she should also rate Jim Jones. She rated him “4” and “5.” Her comment read, “Cool prof (and not bad looking either)!” On top of that, she gave him a chili pepper. At this writing, six weeks after our postings, the page for Jim Jones is still accessible worldwide. You can look it up. You can even add your own rating of this nonexistent man.

According to the tribunal documents, Stephen Berman is a mathematician of exceptional achievement, enough to have won his university’s highest merit rating the year before he was dismissed. [3: 1] He deserves respect in direct proportion to the excellence of his long service to the academy. He indeed behaved badly in a specific circumstance, but the circumstance itself was bad, and he later made amends. That the University of Saskatchewan formally dismissed Berman brings more shame on it than him.


[1] “Firing upheld for U of Sask prof who criticized colleagues on Internet,” Canadian
Press Newswire, February 22, 2006; longer story the same day in the Saskatoon

[2] Timothy Christian and Christopher Boychuk, Decision of the Arbitration Committee in the matter of a grievance arbitration between the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association concerning the grievance of Professor Stephen Berman. Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan, January 3, 2006, 145 pp.

[3] Cathy Lace, Dissent of the Association Nominee [from the Christian/Boychuk decision in the Berman case]. Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan, January 25, 2006, 31 pp.

[4]  The quoted sentences appear to have been removed from the website in 2005. The earlier version can be retrieved through

[5] Gabriela Montell, “The Art of the Bogus Rating,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 27, 2006.

[6] Kenneth Westhues, “ratemyprofessors,” The Record [Kitchener, Ontario], September 7, 2004.

[7] Kenneth Westhues, Student course evaluations.

[8] René Girard, The Scapegoat (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1986).

[9] René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Ottawa: Novalis, 2001).

[10] Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression (Wien: Borotha-Schoeler Verlag, 1963; English edition, 1966.)

[11] For a summary of Heinz Leymann’s research, see his “The Content and Development of Mobbing at Work,” European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology 5 (1996), pp. 165-184.

[12] K. Westhues, Eliminating Professors (1998), The Envy of Excellence (2003, 2005), Workplace Mobbing in Academe (ed., 2004), Winning, Losing, Moving On (2005), The Remedy and Prevention of Mobbing in Higher Education (et al., 2006), all from the Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY. Or see the website on academic mobbing. For a popular summary of research on academic mobbing, see John Gravois, “Mob Rule,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 14, 2006.

[13] John Fekete, Moral Panic: Biopolitics Rising (Montreal: Robert Davies, 1994).