Hammerly Essay on Mobbing

Hector Hammerly Memorial

Workplace Mobbing in Academe

K. Westhues Homepage


Kenneth Westhues

Published in 2006 as part of the Hector Hammerly Memorial, which is part of the section on Workplace Mobbing in Academe of my personal website.

The two volumes of responses to the research on academic mobbing — Workplace Mobbing in Academe (2004) and Winning, Losing, Moving On (2005) — include numerous autobiographical accounts by professors humiliated at work and eliminated from their jobs. Hammerly's essay is another such account, and I wish it had been available in time to be included in one or the other of those books. It is especially valuable for the list of suggestions at the end for how a mobbing target can escape – with his life (at least for a while), if not with his job. Hammerly is intensely self-reflective, self-aware, and possessed of an admirable sense of humor about his own mistakes. Any current or prospective mobbing target would do well to ponder carefully the lessons this veteran professor offers from his own hard experience.

It was as a subscriber and regular reader of Maclean’s, Canada’s national newsmagazine, that I first encountered Hammerly. I was awestruck by his short, acerbic essay in the issue of April 7, 1997, entitled, “Rid campuses of officious poohbahs.” There he described university administrators as “unaccountable mandarins” presiding over “mini-police states” to which the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not apply, and in which zero-tolerance policies instill fear of saying the wrong thing and being hauled before kangaroo harassment courts:

Ironically, these officious poohbahs who police everyone else are often guilty of inequitable, incompetent or even dishonest decisions on all aspects of university life. And people who protest such unfairness are either ignored or promptly taken care of – whether by being cowed through severe discipline or enticed into early retirement. Utter frustration leads the victims of these injustices to despair, which, when directed inward, results in physical illness, depression and the abandonment of promising careers. Directed outward, this despair may trigger emotionally unstable people to take the law into their own hands, resulting in tragedy.

When I first read these lines, immersed as I was then in serious troubles of my own at Waterloo (troubles that an external adjudicator would alleviate, thank God, ten months later), I marveled at the precision and force with which Hammerly had hit the nail on the head. His essay was a distillation of the argument Stan Weeber makes at greater length in his essay in Remedy and Prevention of Mobbing in Higher Education (2006), and it was published in a periodical read by hundreds of thousands of Canadians. I permitted myself to imagine that Hammerly’s essay in Maclean’s might spark much needed debate about the structure and culture of governance in this country’s universities.

Instead, as I learned later, the administration of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, where Hammerly was a 61-year-old member of its charter faculty, was apparently so stung by the Maclean’s essay that it took immediate action against him, as if to demonstrate the truth of his analysis. Hammerly was already on the outs for having drawn attention months earlier, through articles in the campus newspaper, to problems in the university bookstore. Thereby he had rankled the president, John Stubbs, who had a keen sense of the university’s ethical and administrative impeccability. Stubbs demanded that Hammerly apologize for having called the bookstore manager incompetent. Hammerly did so, but he was undeterred in his efforts to correct what he saw as deficiencies in the university’s governance, voicing his concerns in campus and public media.

On April 11, 1997, four days after the date of the Maclean’s issue, in a meeting with Vice-President David Gagan, Hammerly expressed anger at the SFU administration, saying he could think of ten administrators there who deserved to be punished. Hammerly called them “ten little Indians.” Gagan took this as a reference to the play of that name by Agatha Christie, in which so-called Indians are murdered one by one. He concluded that Hammerly was threatening to kill ten unidentified SFU administrators.

Five days later, on April 16, 1997, Associate Vice-President Judith Osborne swore an affidavit in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, reporting the reference to ten little Indians (what a mobbing researcher would call the “critical incident” in Hammerly’s case) and saying that the professor had become erratic: “The deterioration in the Defendant’s behavior has been of sufficient degree that I and other members of the University’s senior administration have become concerned that the Defendant is mentally unstable.” Her affidavit said Hammerly’s conduct had been reported to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and that she understood the RCMP intended “to charge him with one or more criminal offences.” She said a private investigator hired by the university to trail Hammerly had seen him purchase a weapon in the state of Washington and return with it to Vancouver.

That same day, the court granted the university’s request for an injunction, requiring Hammerly “to maintain a distance of no less than 250 metres from any employee of Simon Fraser University other than his spouse,” and prohibiting him “from communicating verbally, electronically or in writing with any employee of Simon Fraser University other than his spouse and other than telephone contact with Dr. David Gagan on necessary administrative matters,” also “from possessing a firearm or other dangerous weapon.”

Hammerly was arrested for threatening behavior and jailed overnight. He was suspended from his position at the university. Most devastating of all, the Vancouver Sun published on April 19, a front-page story about his arrest and incarceration. Having been so totally and publicly humiliated by the university, the court, and the media, Hammerly agreed to early retirement. He thus became an example of the fate awaiting those who protest unfairness in universities, as he had described it in Maclean’s.

From thorough study of the documentation, I conclude that the term "administrative mobbing" applies to Hammerly’s ouster from Simon Fraser equally as to Herbert Richardson’s from Toronto three years earlier. By the checklist laid out in The Envy of Excellence and the similar one available online, the label fits. In each case, administrators acted urgently, in concert, in an obvious state of heightened emotion, to get rid of a professor they considered a threat. In each case, they imputed nefarious motives to the target, giving actions and views the target considered reasonable and responsible a contrary interpretation as unreasonable and irresponsible. In each case, the administrators applied the full weight of institutional authority toward turning the target into a complete pariah, eliminating him utterly from respectable circles.

The notable difference between the Richardson and Hammerly cases is in which category of pariah the target was placed. Richardson was mainly condemned as wicked: “dishonest and untrustworthy.” Hammerly, by contrast, was mainly condemned as crazy: “mentally unstable,” “erratic and unpredictable,” having made “threats of violence against ten unidentified members of the university’s administration.”

In the book to which Hammerly’s essay responds, I show that Richardson was not in fact wicked, at least no more so than the other millions of Christians who decline to submit to the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. What I should add here is that Hammerly was not in fact crazy.

I am willing to believe that in the spring of 1997, in his dealings with SFU administrators, Hammerly presented himself in an agitated state. Social critics commonly display agitation when voicing their criticisms, especially in the physical presence of the authorities they are criticizing. I am willing to grant in addition that the SFU administrators honestly believed Hammerly was crazy. Like authoritarian power-holders generally, they were convinced of their own moral rectitude. Even more than most, the SFU administrators seemed to have seen themselves as paragons of virtue. It is plausible that from their point of view, anybody who would call them “unaccountable mandarins” and describe their domain as a “mini-police state” would seem to have genuinely lost his mind. From that perception it was but a short step to interpret Hammerly’s threat to punish ten little Indians as an expression of intent to murder them. People with power easily form a demonic mental conception of anybody who opposes them, and once a person is demonized, it is easy to believe almost anything bad about him or her.

A more detached observer finds it hard to see the empirical foundation for the administrators’ worries. Hammerly had no history of violence. He was then, as his essay shows he continued to be for the rest of his life, a deeply religious man. He was a member of a pacifist denomination, the Seventh Day Adventists. There is no reason to doubt his claim that he never intended to harm anybody physically – however eager he was to have sanctions applied, including loss of position, to incompetent or otherwise unfit administrators.

The clincher in Hammerly’s case was the weapon he was found to be in possession of. But Judith Osborne’s affidavit was imprecise in this respect. The weapon was not a firearm but a kind of “stun gun” that uses pressurized gas as the propellant, and Hammerly did not in fact purchase it on April 16, 1997. He picked it up from his US mailbox on that date, having purchased it weeks earlier from a mail-order firm, well before his angry meeting with Gagan. There is no reason to doubt Hammerly’s claim that he purchased the weapon, as well as motion sensors and other security devices, only for his wife’s and his own protection at their home, which had recently been vandalized. Hammerly had been unaware that defense devices of the kind he purchased are illegal in British Columbia, and upon being informed of this fact, he readily relinquished his “stun gun” to police.

As in Richardson’s and many other cases, Hammerly’s mobbing did not end with formal departure from the university. Outraged and horrified by what had been done to him by the university he had helped found three decades earlier, he complained about it in contributions to an internet discussion group for SFU faculty and administrators. He pointed out what he called “falsehoods” in Osborne’s affidavit. And in a letter of October 5, 1997, to SFU’s acting president, he asked that the university acknowledge publicly that he was not a violent person, saying he would otherwise have Osborne prosecuted for perjury.

On October 9, 1997, Osborne responded by suing Hammerly for defamation, saying that as a result of his emails and letter,

her reputation has been seriously damaged and she has suffered and continues to suffer considerable distress and embarrassment, humiliation, injury of feelings and self-respect, diminution of reputation in the opinion of her avocational peers, and loss of enjoyment.

Osborne’s lawsuit was a more militant or aggressive action toward a professor who had already been forced out than I have found in most other mobbing cases in my research. It is not uncommon for ousted professors to protest their ouster angrily. Most administrators, even authoritarian ones, take such protest in stride, generally ignoring it. In one provost’s words, “It comes with the territory.” Osborne, herself a lawyer, chose to make an issue of Hammerly’s angry dissent from her defamation of him.

For the next four years, she and Hammerly battled one another in legal arenas, Osborne seeking to prevent Hammerly from making what she considered to be false statements that damaged her reputation, and Hammerly claiming the right to speak what he considered to be the truth, as a citizen of a democratic society. The parties reached a settlement in 2000, but it broke down over conflicting interpretations of how tight were the restrictions on his free speech that Hammerly had agreed to. That is, in a newspaper article and in emails in the fall of 2000, Hammerly made statements that he felt himself free to make but that Osborne felt he had promised not to make in the agreement that settled her case against him. Osborne therefore hauled Hammerly back to court in April of 2001, on grounds that he had violated the settlement agreement.

At that point, at the request of Hammerly’s lawyer, I submitted an affidavit and then gave oral testimony as a researcher of workplace mobbing. “Both Plaintiff and Defendant,” I argued,

should be commended for having achieved the Settlement Agreement. The problem is that the final sentence (“the matters referred to in Action No. C975464.”) is so general and vague as to allow Plaintiff to continue trying to curtail Defendant’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression.
The solution recommended by the research literature at this juncture is to partialize, to break down the general and vague statement into more specific ones. An appropriate starting point might be for Plaintiff to make two lists: a list of the comments in the newspaper article and emails that she believes do not breach the Settlement Agreement, and a list of the comments that she alleges do breach the Settlement Agreement. These lists might facilitate discussion toward a further mediated settlement, this time more detailed and specific. If further mediation is impossible or if it fails, these specific lists might enable the Court to hand down a judgment of sufficient clarity and precision to, at once, enforce the Settlement Agreement, protect freedom of expression, and bring to an end the litigation of this case.

The litigation ended, but not in the way I proposed. The judge ruled simply in Osborne’s favor, that Hammerly had violated the Settlement Agreement, thus opening the way for her to take further legal action against him if she chose. From that point on, as his essay reflects, he carefully steered clear of any statements that might conceivably violate the settlement agreement and land him in further legal difficulties with the SFU administration.

For anyone contemplating an attempt at resolution of an academic mobbing through the courts, a peripheral aspect of Hammerly’s case is worth remembering. The date of the proceeding where I gave oral testimony was set months in advance for April 6, 2001. Hammerly met me at my hotel that morning, and we walked together the few blocks to the courthouse. He showed physical symptoms of such extreme anxiety that I feared he was going to collapse before we reached the courtroom. On convening the court, the judge announced that on account of an overloaded judicial system, two cases had been scheduled at the same time in the same courtroom, to be heard by the same judge. He then invited the lawyers involved in the two competing cases to present arguments for why theirs should be the case he would hear that day. After hearing the arguments, and learning that a witness had flown in from Toronto for Osborne v. Hammerly, the judge decided that this was the case he would hear. The lawyers for both sides of the other case had no choice but to pack up their briefcases and leave. They would presumably have their day in court some months ahead. This little anecdote is just one indication of the extremely stressful bureaucratic delays that parties to lawsuits in our time should expect. The lesson I draw: if at all possible, find a better way than court proceedings to resolve disputes.

I should note here two further academic mobbings related to Hammerly's. The first is connected through his 1997 Maclean’s essay. The magazine published several approving letters in response from Canadian academics, including a bitterly sarcastic one from Hugo Meynell, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary:

Prof. Hector Hammerly’s remarks on the state of our universities are depressing indeed. But surely he has made a mistake? I am delighted to reassure the public that at my university, whatever rumors may recently have been circulated by disaffected persons, academic freedom is scrupulously protected. … It is not too much to say that all of us teachers and researchers regard our administrative superiors as big brothers and sisters. In exemplary institutions like ours, protection by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is superfluous. (April 28, 1997)

The axe did not fall on Meynell as quickly as it did on Hammerly, but it fell. Ten months later, on Friday morning, February 20, 1998, as Meynell was preparing a lecture on St. Anselm for his 11:00 AM class, there was a knock at his office door. “I am sorry, Sir,” said the head of security, “but I have to escort you off campus.” Meynell’s poignant account of his ouster from Calgary is Chapter Four of Workplace Mobbing in Academe (2004).

The second mobbing that bears mention here has a less serendipitous relation to Hammerly’s. In the same period that SFU administrators were mobbing the linguistics professor, they were also going after a swim coach named Liam Donnelly. On the flimsy evidence of a young woman who apparently had a fanatic crush on Donnelly, an SFU tribunal had found him guilty of sexual harassment. President Stubbs ignored the defendant’s contrary evidence, accepted the panel’s judgment, and fired Donnelly. Indeed, on May 26, 1997, the SFU administration publicly denounced him, declaring him guilty of “severe harassment.” Four days later, Donnelly held his own press conference, explaining that he had never even dated his accuser, and sharing with reporters emails she had sent him offering sexual favors. The media (including Maclean’s, which had ignored the Hammerly case a month earlier) pounced on the story. The credibility of the SFU administration crumbled. Stubbs went on medical leave for clinical depression in July, then stepped down for good in December. The coach got his job back.

If the Donnelly case had hit the news before Hammerly’s essay in Maclean’s came out, I doubt that the SFU administration would have felt confident enough to attack the linguistics professor so aggressively. The Donnelly case showed just how much insight lay in Hammerly’s assessment of academic governance. (For a careful study of the swim coach’s case, see David Finley, Liam Donnelly's Conviction by Prejudice, Fraser Institute Monograph No. 25.)

Hammerly kept in touch with me by email and phone every few months, sometimes every few weeks, in his last years. His buoyancy, religious faith, self-deprecating humor, and insightfulness remained to the very end. Steadily, however, his strength failed. Sometimes when he phoned, his speech was so slurred and rapid I could not understand his words. He was not a docile patient in hospitals, and he chafed under the regimen of homes for assisted living. "Must leave here ASAP" — so read the subject line in his last email to me, dated February 27, 2006. He did leave three days later, alone in a taxi, but he made it no farther than a local Ramada Inn, where he was found dead in his room of a massive heart attack or stroke on March 5.

Let me close with two paragraphs from an email Hammerly sent Vice-President David Gagan on February 2, 1997, about ten weeks before the “critical incident” (the meeting with Gagan that led to Hammerly being arrested, jailed, discredited, and eliminated). These paragraphs capture the flavor of Hammerly’s writings about Simon Fraser University, as well as his guiding principles:

You may recall that in November 1995 I made a public commitment to spent part of my last few years at SFU trying to get our University, at all levels, to be a better institution. I knew then, based on 30 years’ experience – and the last 15 months have confirmed it – that that would mean almost six years of at times painful struggle. In the end, however, I hope upon retirement to be able to look back with satisfaction on the institutionalization of more democratic structures and procedures – for the changes needed are mostly administrative in nature. I might even be gratified to see other organizations, educational or otherwise, take an interest in what we will have accomplished at SFU in terms of a new kind of democratic management suitable to the open and instant communicative technological tools of the 21st century.

I have always believed very strongly that all the people a decision may affect should have the opportunity to participate – without fear and as openly as the situation allows – in the making of that decision. That way, they will feel respected as thinking, feeling human beings who in effect “own” the decision. A further advantage of proceeding that way is that when people agree voluntarily to a decision, they feel ethically obligated to implement the decision without grumbling or resentment. On the other hand, when people have to follow a one-sided decision from the top involuntarily, they usually manage to engage, consciously or unconsciously, in undermining its implementation in many ways. Of course, in an open, trusting atmosphere, if a decision turns out to have been wrong, leaders and others are not afraid to say, “Well, we goofed (a very common event among human beings). Our sincere apologies to anyone who suffered from this mistake.”