Deleterious Male-Male Faculty-Student Interactions in SSWs

In early 2011, I received a failing grade on the qualifying paper that I submitted at IU’s School of Social Work (SSW).  I petitioned the IUSSW PhD Committee to review certain egregious flaws in their process.  They refused.  Hence, several years of harassment and discrimination culminated in the end of my SW PhD studies.

I wrote three manuscripts to discuss certain aspects of the situation that I had experienced at IUSSW.  The following was one of those three manuscripts.  I wrote this one particularly for submission to a women’s journal.

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Me & The Guys:
The Men Approved by the Women

When I was four or five, circa 1961, I would sometimes walk down the road to the one-room schoolhouse.  My sister and brother were there.  Sis had already taught me to read.  I would sit on the laps of the big girls, and they would make a fuss over what a cute little boy I was.  To this, I credit my lifelong love of education.  That, and Mom as my shelter against the storms of Dad, made for a good start, when I entered first grade the following year.  School was safe.  I was welcome there.

Social work education hasn’t been exactly like that.  I came back to school in my late 40s to start a new career – to get an MSW and a PhD in this field.  My female classmates have not generally said much about me being a cute boy.  It’s actually been kind of exceptional when one of them has even been friendly to me.  I think I must remind them of their dads, or something.  The female professors have tended to be cordial at best, with emphasis on the qualifier.  And social work education is nothing if not female, so in those remarks I am describing the general classroom ambiance as I have experienced it.

Frankly, I don’t belong here.  I didn’t know that when I started into this field.  I don’t quite under­stand it.  We haven’t had those conversations or, really, much of any conversations at all.  What I am getting, though, is that it would be better if I just went away.  It’s not a matter of speculation, or of feeling sorry for myself.  It’s pretty much established, at this point, based upon many interactions, some quite remarkable.

So it seems that I have made a career mistake.  It could still turn out well, like when somebody gets lost and discovers a great little place off the beaten track.  I don’t know if that’s what will happen in this case.  But now that I’m here – wherever it is that I am – I have decided to jot down some notes from the experience.

One thing I have learned from my social work education is that, if I want to criticize women, I should approach the task by criticizing men.  That may not be the only tongue-in-cheek remark in these paragraphs.  But behind it, there is a truth.  The women of social work have perhaps as much latitude as women anywhere in our society to choose and/or to encourage the sorts of men who will be their colleagues and students.  While I have met good men in social work, it seems the profession may benefit from broadening or altering its parameters for what counts as acceptable and even desirable male behavior.

In the following pages, I present anecdotes to convey an impression of social work education that does not seem to be very generally reported in the literature.  All names in these pages are pseudonyms.  These anecdotes convey some of my experiences with men in the three different schools in which I have pursued my graduate study in social work.

The third of the three might have been a different school, by the way, but I had the misfortune to run into an admissions officer, at that school – an expert in anger management, in fact – who sent me a ranting email accusing me of, I forget, but it was something along the lines of manipulation and dishonesty.  I was trying to get an idea of whether I was going to be rejected anyway, before paying at least $75 in FedEx and related fees, on a student’s budget, to rush him what did prove to be unnecessary duplicates of my transcripts from several schools.  He rejected me right after he received them.

Having been attacked for using the wrong words or conveying the wrong attitudes toward or about women at various times over the past 30 years, since my earliest encounters with second-wave feminism, I can tell you that the publication of these words is cause for anxiety in its own right.  There may not be too many women, anymore, who will get mad at me for holding a door open or for offering to carry a large box.  But it seems inevitable that I will portray myself as a typical male, or worse, in any real-life account of personal experience.  I have decided to go ahead with this nonetheless because I have met many fine women, including some social work faculty and students, and I think there are probably quite a few who will appreciate this effort.

Tesla & Fritz

“I don’t know how you can stand to come to class, the way he yells at you,” Mike said.  Mike was a classmate in my theory class.  He was referring to Dr. Tesla, our professor.  Tesla was a big guy, and he could really bellow if he put his mind to it.  I guess his behavior toward me was kind of shocking to some of my classmates.  I remember, one time, he got mad at me for asking a question about documenting clinical practice.  The question had something to do with the quandary between documenting things so well that a raiding attorney can use what you’ve recorded to completely ruin your client’s life, or documenting things so poorly that you’re not protected in the event of a malpractice suit.  Tesla felt this was an extremely selfish question, and he communicated that opinion to me quite audibly.

Not that I was Tesla’s only target.  His patronizing treatment of some of the women in the class suggested that he considered them stupid.  But I’m not entirely sure what he did feel toward female students.  At the end of the semester, I asked if he would take a look at my revised term paper for his course, as I was hoping to submit it for publication.  He said he was too busy.  And that’s true, he was:  he was busy helping some female classmates revise their papers.  I sent mine instead to one of the authorities whom I had cited in my paper – a professor named Ed Canda, at the University of Kansas – and got good feedback that way.

I thought I was done with Tesla after his class ended.  But then another male professor, Dr. Fritz, filed a formal complaint against me, and the dean appointed Tesla, knowing of his animosity toward me, to chair the committee that would decide that complaint.  Fritz’s complaint was based on my act of sharing some of his course materials with new students who were hoping to test out of his class.  He wanted me to be punished for sharing those materials.  Apparently he used those same materials every time he taught the class, and didn’t want to have to bother writing new quizzes and such.  Most professors would realize that using the same materials would tend to facilitate cheating from one year to the next, but apparently this didn’t bother Fritz.

So Fritz filed his complaint.  The thing is, he had given me permission in writing, via email, to do exactly what I did.  I skipped Tesla’s hearing, since I had no prayer there, and they sent the matter to the university’s provost.  They were going to try to get me thrown out.  Unfortunately for them, I walked in, showed the provost the written permission from Fritz, and walked out ten minutes later, with the matter dismissed and the provost indicating that he planned to send a letter about this to the school.

I’m not sure what got into Fritz.  It was weird, because we’d had what I thought was a good relationship right up to that moment when he suddenly turned on me.  And, like I say, he didn’t have a leg to stand on, and yet he ignored me when I pointed that out.  It was like he was trying to make a false accusation stick.  I have wondered if it was similar to a gang situation, where the kid from the disfavored socioethnic group has to prove his/her bona fides by beating up one of his/her own kind.  Fritz and I were both middle-aged heterosexual white males.  Maybe he wanted to show the ladies that he was really one of them.  Or maybe being a man in a school of social work gave him license to abuse other males.  I can’t say.  Neither he nor anyone else was willing to talk about it, then or later.  I did eventually get a meeting with the dean, after it was too late to make an actual difference in the proceedings, but she basically just listened to what I said; she wasn’t inclined to engage in much give-and-take.  I wrote to her once, several years later, to ask if she could suggest a journal to which I might submit an article in an area in which she had some expertise.  By that point, she had become the editor of the Journal of Social Work Education, so I believed she was concerned about students.  But she didn’t reply.

It seems these sorts of events get hushed up.  I certainly haven’t come across a database of wrongfully accused, harassed, or shunned social work students, male or not.  Inquiries did lead, however, to a student who had been charged with plagiarism and subjected to academic discipline.  He told me that all he had done was to block-quote a source in a paper he wrote.  You know, he copied some text verbatim.  That’s perfectly normal, as long as you cite the source.  He said he had done that, but they punished him anyway.  He got put on academic probation.

Ultimately, I think my act of sharing materials helped only one student test out of Fritz’s class.  I liked this student.  She was smart and fun.  One time, she invited me over to her house for lunch.  She was married, and for some reason her husband kept calling during that lunch, to see if she was OK.  She was saying, “Yes, honey, I’m fine,” and trying to reassure him.  Later, as I thought about that, I wondered what she had told him, or what he thought was going to happen, to make him call like that.  I had thought she and I had a fine conversation although, admittedly, I could be a complete idiot.  Not long thereafter, she began to ostracize me.  But I digress.

Leonard & Brian

 When a profession is eighty or ninety percent female, you have to wonder what kind(s) of man would go into it and succeed in it.  So I will tell you about two PhD students I’ll call Leonard and Brian.  I wince as I say that we three share histories of being bullied, because I still recall the look of disgust on the face of a department chair, not in social work, when I said something to him about being bullied.  He may have thought that I was alluding to his habit of forcing me to sit in his office and listen to him talk, as an unspoken condition of my assistantship in his department.  Maybe he thought bullying is for kids.  Anyway, announcing yourself as a mark seems like a good way to set yourself up for more bullying.  But that was the reality for us.

I won’t say that Leonard and Brian represent male social work students in all regards, but there does seem to be a pervasive current of fear.  Men – in social work and elsewhere – seem to be taught that they are supposed to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, even when they are looking squarely at the bad guy.  This is especially true when speaking up, or taking action, means jeopardizing their career.  Society strongly favors the guy who maintains a steady income, few questions asked, and that seems to be the predominant value in social work as well.

I’ve had some interesting exchanges on the subject of male courage.  For instance, one social work professor – my advisor, in fact – thought it was ridiculous that I would speak of backbone as something that not only Rosa Parks, but also a man in contemporary social work, might desirably display.  Rosa Parks is a saint, and me, well, in his book I’m nobody.  But he did display some backbone of his own, as it turned out:  he stood up to me when I asked him to sign an essential course-change form, or I guess metaphorically he sat on it, for weeks, until finally I complained to the dean of that school.

Anyway, about Leonard and Brian.  Leonard was the kind of fellow who would say that he was having problems with a professor and then, when I said I kind of liked her, he completely changed his tone and said, “You know, I do too,” and that was the end of his complaints.  He would just go with the flow.  Very agreeable guy, but ready to drop his advocacy of a viewpoint when the wind changed direction.  Easily dominated, in other words, and yet not comfortable with it:  bullying was one of his favorite topics.  So, for instance, one time we actually took a step to achieve his whispered hope that some of the male students would start to get together and build camaraderie and support among ourselves.  Specifically, five of us – four males and one gregarious lesbian – went out for beers, and spent hours swapping tales about the school of social work.  It was great.  Next day, Leonard is eager to do it again, sometime soon.  But 24 hours later, he sends us an email, saying he has talked to his wife about it, and he needs to disconnect.  And that was the end of it.  I could hardly even get him to talk to me on the phone after that.

Brian, a short guy, was a different sort, more rooted.  He would bend and ultimately, as it turned out, he would break.  He did OK with some of the male professors, less so with others – such as Dr. Walken, who liked to help his doctoral students understand that they were not nearly as smart as the PhD students at his alma mater.  Brian did not do well at all with the female faculty.  He seemed to be almost a magnet for their hostility.  It reminded me of a time when I went on a hayride with a gay friend, and these straight guys just kept pelting him with hay.  These female professors seemed to be imposing controls on Brian that other PhD students were not encountering – restricting his attempt to survey male students, requiring him to clock in and clock out during his assistantship, and so forth.  He told me about an experience with one professor who, he said, described herself as a woman of power.  The way he told it, he was talking to her after class, and suddenly she came charging at him, and he had to jump out of the way to avoid getting hit.  Brian had a more conservative outlook, and maybe that came out in his papers or something.  I really don’t know.  I do know that he eventually concluded he was not welcome in social work, and dropped out.

I have gotten to know a half-dozen male Christian fundamentalist students in social work.  None have been comfortable with what they, and I, have perceived as insensitivity toward their beliefs.  I don’t know that those beliefs are necessarily very compatible with social work principles.  Whatever the answer is on that, it seems like something that needs to be worked out with care and kindness.  And this is a lecture to me, too, because sometimes I get impatient with that stuff.  But otherwise, it risks becoming another dimension in which one is negated.

Descartes, The Dean, and Waldo

 I was sitting in a class taught by Dr. Descartes.  It was a small class.  There were two or three white women, three international students – two brown-skinned males and one black female – along with one gay white male and two straight white males, counting me.  The subject of the day was feminism.  Dr. D was reciting a summary of different kinds of feminism, as written by a female scholar.  He added almost no commentary of his own.  He later described feminism as a “third rail” issue, in a reference to the electric line that powers subways.  Basically, do not touch.  In the class discussion, one of the male international students interjected a few comments.  The female students seemed mostly to be deferring to Gladys, who had majored in women’s studies as an undergrad, and who usually played a dominant role when the subject of gender came up.  The gay white male made two or three comments.  Each time, he was turned more toward Gladys than toward Dr. D, as if seeking her affirmation.  In his final comment, he faltered and did not finish.  He seemed to be unsure that he was using the right words.  That was why the two straight white male students were completely silent throughout that class session.  As Dr. D confirmed afterwards, in his 30 years of teaching, male social work students have generally tended to remain silent when he teaches the unit on feminism.

I wasn’t too happy about having to be silent, and just accept what Dr. D was reciting to us, when I was supposed to be learning.  But as I had learned in another class with Gladys, and as some other male students had told me, we were fair game if we failed to express ourselves in the terms preferred by Gladys and Hazel, another female student.  It seemed we were being trained to survive feminism somehow, just as Dr. D had learned to do – not really to teach it, much less to become engaged with or interested in it or, God forbid, to express our own views about it.

The week after the unit on feminism, Gladys and Sylvia, another white female student, skipped Dr. D’s class.  After class, Dr. D abruptly informed me that he was escorting me to a meeting with the dean.  In our meeting, the dean explained that the two women had skipped class because they were afraid of me.  The following week, the women were back in class – they brought cookies – because the administration arranged for police to be present outside Dr. D’s classroom.  I was placed on disciplinary probation for 13 months and was ordered not even to talk to any of the other PhD students (including my friends) except in the classroom.

But let me not forget to tell you what I did to deserve this.  The answer is, I am not sure.  I appealed the ruling.  In the appeal, I said that nobody had explained why the police had been called.  There had been no fights, threats, or anything of the sort.  If there had been, the professor himself would have requested intervention.  This was just a situation where a couple of women decided to claim they were afraid, out of the blue, and for some reason the administration got behind it without asking for a coherent explanation.

So I pointed out, in the appeal, that I hadn’t actually been accused of violating any specific provisions of the student code.  Somehow, this did not impress the appellate panel, composed of three male professors (not social workers).  Instead of realizing that they were participating in pure harassment, they instructed me to try to imagine what they might decide to accuse me of, later on, after they had a chance to read through the student code and look for ways in which I could be said to have violated it.  Then, they said, once I had imagined what they might later decide to accuse me of, I should proceed to defend myself against it.  This approach, silly in itself, would obviously be helpful to a biased accuser who was looking for something – anything – to hang someone for, and that’s one reason why the U.S. Constitution frowns on self-incrimination.

The basic idea was that I was being punished for expressing views about gender, in a listserv available only to PhD students attending that school.  We would discuss all sorts of ideas and issues there, but apparently gender was not open to discussion.  Several students, male and female, had spoken up in support of the approach I was advocating – a moderate approach, I think most people would conclude – and apparently Gladys, Hazel, and another female student didn’t like it.  But instead of joining the discussion, they filed behavioral complaints against me, and suddenly I was a terrorist.  I mean, seriously, they filed forms that the university had created to protect the campus against the Virginia Tech type of mass murderer.

I asked Dr. D and the dean point-blank, in that meeting, what exactly I had written on the listserv that would have caused any reasonable person to be afraid of me.  They both stated that they could not see anything in those materials that would warrant fear.  And yet those two men proceeded to facilitate my exclusion from the school, to the point that other students were afraid they would get into trouble for having anything to do with me.  Very affable men, both of them, much like Leonard.  These, it seems, are the kinds of men that women want in social work.

Well, once I was marked, there was no longer much risk to those who cared to pile on.  The predators began circling.  Given the focus on men, here, I won’t be telling you about the female administrator who cited a nightmare I had in 1983 as grounds for discipline.  Really, I should write a comedy.  But no.  The last incident I’ll mention involves Dr. Waldo, who seized upon a pretext – supplied, again, by Gladys – to commence still more disciplinary proceedings against me.  In email messages I have since obtained, I saw that Waldo was almost begging the administration to “expell” me.

Fortunately, the university did have one reasonable dean.  When I squawked louder, they shifted the whole thing over to his office, and he dismissed the charges, with a letter to me, admitting that the case against me had been unjustified, and a letter to the dean of the SSW, advising him that he had better treat me fairly.  By then, unfortunately, the damage was done.  This stuff had consumed most of the academic year; the SSW’s administrators had poisoned my relationships with my professors; and the dean of the SSW did not take that advice to heart.

Reflections

Experience among social workers leads me to anticipate the reactions that some readers will have to the stories that I have related here.  I suspect the reactions will have been, at first, unfavorable toward Tesla and Fritz, and favorable toward me.  As the stories go on, however, and as they become more intense, I believe some reactions will have turned against me.

Why would such a change of impression occur, as the stories accumulate?  Lots of reasons.  Herd instinct, for one:  if everyone else has been against me, surely you should be too.  Self-preservation.  A conservative tendency to assume that the authorities are right.  A clinically oriented propensity to find pathology.  A disinclination toward the inductive or critical approach that would scrutinize each instance discretely and work up to a broader conclusion.  An aversion, perhaps, to any implicit link between oneself and an abusive arrange­ment or institution.  The general assumption that, when a person goes beyond one or two instances of rotten luck or unfairness, it’s not because s/he – or, more to the point, I guess, he – is being hounded.  Paradoxically, the worse things get for the target of attention, the less likely s/he may be to attract support or even curiosity from onlookers.  It starts to be assumed that there must be something wrong with you; it’s just a matter of deciding what.  The gossip starts to flow, within and (in my case) between schools, and it does not tend to be regulated or critically evaluated.

There are people with severe mental illness, people with other mental impairments, people who for various reasons do not fit within a given environment.  Leaving aside the topic of making organizations accessible to all, there’s a question of constraints upon such harsh judgments.  What’s to keep somebody like Waldo from sharing his diagnosis of my mental condition, based upon zero hours of clinical observa­tion?  The school, you might say, and yet the school was on board with him.  The dean?  Ditto.

The proper response to such situations, I suggest, is fairly straightforward.  When you see the train start to go off the tracks, do not start by speculating about the mental health of the engineer.  Do not assume that the train is evil.  Just stop the train.  Get it back onto the tracks, if you can; let it try to move forward again; and pay close attention to what is actually happening.  If you have written procedures, make sure they are followed; be careful about making exceptions because you really think this guy deserves special harassment.  Don’t let it be a secret, vindictive process.  Try to make it impartial and open; try to consult all stakeholders; give them safety to offer their observations.  That’s all it takes.  That’s all it would have taken to change everything at these schools.  Do that, and you might reform social work education.

One reason why there are not, and should not be, more men in social work is that a male student can be treated as a potential mass murderer if he writes words, in an open discussion, that oppose gender-based bullying.  The police can be called; faculty and students can quickly shun him; word of mouth can follow him wherever he goes.  His career can be ruined.  In my experience, social work is not safe for men.  There are limited exceptions, especially for older males who are tenured or have otherwise carved out niches of relative safety.  The rest of us are essentially on probation, much like a woman entering a predominantly male organiza­tion – with the difference that, among men, a gender-based attack seems to be treated as an invitation for others of our kind to take a stand against us, not for us.  From the literature that I have seen so far, it is not clear that the women of social work have been notified of this or, if notified, that they predominantly abhor it.

I started out, in the one-room schoolhouse, with a strong positive attitude toward females.  I seem to have had a tendency to perceive the glass as half-full, where women are concerned.  So, as you see, I am still at it, still believing that many readers of this journal will find these incidents incompatible with their principles.  And yet, as you also see, I am not entirely confident.  I am concerned that many may be inclined, not only to entertain unsupportive attitudes toward me because of my gender, but also to favor men who will do likewise – who, indeed, will press such hostility aggressively, given the opportunity.  A part of me is still thinking that, surely, social workers value transparency and fairness, and perhaps even kindness; but a part of me realizes that this has often not been the case in my experience, and it may just not be true of the profession overall.  It is, perhaps, not what the women of social work tend to prefer.

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