By Paul Bali
I’ve been fired by the Ryerson University Philosophy Department. My Chair sends his regrets that “it has come to this.” He acknowledges I’ve “been here for a long time and taught well over the years.”
Technically, I’m simply not being “re-hired” for Fall 2019. An advantage of the sessional regime, for the administration, is that a de facto long-term employee can be fired without it being called anything so dramatic. I just didn’t win next term’s “competition,” all of a sudden.
What happened? I wrote a letter of reference for a student applying to PhD programs. Someone at one of those programs didn’t like my letter and complained to someone else who got word to my Chair. My Chair insisted I account for myself. He eventually insisted I surrender the letter for his and HR’s inspection. In refusing to hand over the letter I’ve been “insubordinate.” In my e-mailed exchanges with my Chair I became “uncivil.”
On Jan 16 2019 I got an email from a Philosophy Chair at a U.S. program my student had applied to. She said she’d just read my letter of reference and was compelled to tell me it “is entirely unhelpful and inappropriate; it is not useful or correctly informative for Admissions Committees and their decisions.”
She knew my student was “promising,” she said, from the two other support letters she’d received — both from a prestigious U.K. school where my student had just completed an M.A.. She wondered if I was ignorant of what a customary reference letter looks like, since mine “was more likely to harm than to help.” She advised me to retract it from wherever my student had applied if I “cared about the student’s prospects.”
In fact the same letter had been used successfully, or without apparent issue, at that U.K. school and ten other M.A. programs back in 2016. It was now under consideration at 11 PhD programs.
Let’s call the U.S. Chair “Professor M” and my student “Karen.” I forwarded Professor M’s e-mail to Karen, and let Karen decide if I should respond. I could be nice, I told Karen, but it was her application under consideration.
Karen asked if I wouldn’t mind ignoring it, so I did.
My own Chair, Bob Murray, emailed me eleven days later wanting to discuss “concerns with a letter of reference” from “a professor at another institution.” I presumed, too quickly, that it was Professor M going over my head. After some confusion in the back-and-forth with my Chair, it emerged that it wasn’t M, but a second “female professor,” Professor X.
He wouldn’t tell me the name of his source, how the complaint got to him, the wording of the complaint, or her home institution. Does one have a right to know one’s “complainer,” when the complaint is pulling one into a quasi-judicial accounting? In any case, I mainly wanted to determine whether the second complainer was properly distinct from Professor M. The world my student is applying to is small and Professor M is well-connected in it, I’m told, with protégés and former colleagues at the places Karen had applied to.
Equanimity is a Privilege of the Empowered
I was collegial in my early exchanges with Bob, trying to assuage his concerns. I told him that Karen had used the letter successfully in a prior round of applications; that the letter did have an unusual literary sensibility I judged appropriate for the Continental Lit-Philosophy hybrids Karen was interested in; and that I’d informed Karen, prior to sending out, that the letter was unusual — memorable — but very positive. She’d agreed that a memorable letter could help her application stand out from the hundreds of applications. I told Bob that my letter included a 200-word excerpt from Karen’s writing — a reflective piece about finding her voice — so by pulling my letter they were pulling her words too.
Bob didn’t acknowledge any of these points, and refused to clarify the complaint. All he would/could say is my letter is “apparently not always helpful and does not read well from the point of view of gender somehow.” He said we needed to meet. I responded:
if this is indeed an accusation against me that i need to “clear up” with my boss, who has much power over my own continued livelihood, i ask to know my accuser’s name, school, and the precise content of their accusation. i refuse to continue talking about this casually — a serious charge of gender impropriety & negligence vis my student; a serious charge you seem to somewhat side with already [“The problem is your letter”, et cet]. if it’s not a judgement that i need to defend myself against — if it’s just an FYI from you to me to [Karen], then . . . .thanks.
He asked if there was anything in the letter that could have been misconstrued. I replied:
not by a reasonable reader. not even, in my view, by the average reader. i’m sure if the letter was made public, the Two who anathematized it would come out looking very bad.
and there’s no way the letter makes [Karen] look bad. by pulling the letter they’re showing terrible judgement. the only damage being done to her app is the air of gender-scandal their accusations hang on it — which impugns [Karen] by implication.
A month later, with Bob still asking to meet, “not finding me very forthcoming and indeed defensive,” and “compelled to get to the bottom of” this letter, here’s how I sounded:
you’ve more than enough info now to defend me from this bullshit charge. instead, you go with the flow of the bullshit.
were i Paula not Paul, or one of the Davids[i], you wouldn’t have persisted this far. were i, and had you, i’d have told you five emails ago mind your own business.
let me know when you have something actionable.
Sure I was mad. I’d written an honest, beautiful letter for an extraordinary student. [More on its content, below.] And because a professor had waved her hands and said “gender” I was being compelled to account for myself ceaselessly. Bob didn’t seem interested in anything I had to say about the letter — so what did he want, precisely? Where was this all leading? Would he insist I come into his office? Why were my written remarks to him insufficient? Was it necessary I account for myself in person, across from his desk, with someone from HR taking notes? Would they demand I surrender the letter?
I was pissed, but also curious about where this would go if I refused to submit to what struck me as an undue process.
Perhaps I should have pulled a Dave to Bob’s HAL: gritted my teeth, and kept my words within operational Protocol. His language was professional-collegial, eventually professional-formal — but functionally, to me, a kind of bureaucratic harassment: more uncollegial than the word “bullshit,” by my ethics.
By March 5 Bob had got HR’s blessing to demand the letter from me, and demanded we all meet. [Here’s where my Union came in. More on that, below.] At first I insisted I wouldn’t meet till there was a proper articulation of the complaint.
Before you demand the surrender of private communications from a colleague, and persist in calling him to account for himself, you might ask for something specific from Professor X. I’m sure that if the letter was so egregiously offensive as to merit an international, inter-departmental, complaint, she’ll remember something specific.[ii]
I like you Bob, but I’m disappointed that you’ve acceded to the demands of this vague complaint, and seemingly ignored all the context & content I provided you. [ . . . .] You’ve stayed calm, and that is perhaps one of your admirable virtues. But given the power imbalance in our relationship, and given that the complaint poses a threat to my livelihood, not yours, I’d say that equanimity is the privilege of the empowered, in this case. And those under threat are more likely to seem/become strident, “unco-operative”, et cet. You found it suspicious I was getting so “defensive” — what else should I be?
I finally agreed, partly on advice from a senior colleague I respect, to appear before my Chair/HR — but under protest. My union reps were present, mainly observing. I don’t think much new was said by either party. I did learn that Bob had thus far refused to directly contact Professor X due to concerns for her privacy and for the secrecy of the Application Process at her home institution.
A week later Bob handed me a Letter of Discipline (April 15). His letter summed our prior week’s discussion. It noted my continued Insubordination for not surrendering my Letter, and claimed my emailed language had become hostile and disrespectful–in violation of the University’s Civility policy. The letter set a deadline: if he didn’t receive my Letter by end-of-day, April 17, I’d be suspended without pay for a day. Further punishments would likely be imposed if my insubordination/incivility continued, up to and including termination of my employment.
Not My First Breach of Civility
Perhaps Ryerson is using this reference letter issue to get rid of me for priors, or for their accumulation. In recent years I’ve written a lot against university use of animals in research. In July 2015, I wrote a single word, ABATTOIR, in red spraypaint on the stone gateway of my undergrad Alma Mater — a major center of biomedical research with close ties to the Agri-biz. I was convicted of “criminal mischief.” I was surprised and grateful when Ryerson didn’t get involved, stating that there’s nothing in the Collective Bargaining Agreement regarding misdemeanors or crimes.
In Jan 2017 I sent a 10-question survey on in vivo research to some Ryerson Biology faculty, canvassing their views on its ethics, their own experiences (if any) with it, and its prospects for growth at Ryerson. I was soon contacted by the Ryerson Research Ethics Board, who demanded I destroy my results since I hadn’t pre-approved my survey — which they considered “research involving human subjects.” I refused, and they warned me my case would be passed onto Ryerson lawyers. I never heard back on that.
In August 2018 I released some of my research on The Hospital for Sick Children, whose vivisection center is a couple blocks from Ryerson, and whose two hundred-ish researchers are cross-appointed to my doctoral Alma mater. I released a brief sum of my findings to local Press and cc’d those researchers, condemning the experiments in my strongest moral language. I soon after released a second missive to a few dozen Canadian Bioethicists. A third release tells how Sick Kids banned me from their premises, and my Dean asked me to stop signing off as a Ryersonian in my “outside activities.” She warned me about Ryerson’s Civility policy.
I contacted Kelly Train, my Union rep, once Bob received HR’s consent to demand the Letter from me. I can’t say she’s been helpful. By ‘helpful’ I mean helping me resist Bob’s demands, and/or offering to do anything, now that I’m fired, to help me get my job back. She was present at my two meetings with Bob/HR and cc’d on most of my communications with Bob/HR. She was present at the end-of-May “Hiring Meeting” when Bob & the hiring committee assessed candidates for next year’s work. She offered no substantive or procedural objections from beginning to end. Her position from the first has been that the Letter indeed is Ryerson’s property, so Bob is wholly within his rights to demand it. Now, she accepts as “very fair and consistent” the Dept’s decision to hire someone in my place, and sees no basis for any kind of Grievance. She advises me to hope that the winning candidate turns down their offer, and to hope for future work with Continuing Education.
Her assistant Linda did get a couple days’ extension for me on the letter-surrender deadline so we’d have time to consult the Union lawyer. Yet we wouldn’t have needed that extension if I’d been put in touch with the lawyer when I’d first asked — two weeks prior, when it was obvious that Bob was demanding the Letter. Kelly had told me, then, I was “jumping to conclusions”, and we should wait.
I never got to talk to the lawyer. Kelly did mention that the phone-charges can roll up pretty fast. She asked me to compose a summary of my case which they passed onto him, with my Letter. A couple days later they passed back his summing Opinion: (1) The Letter is likely not my intellectual property. (2) The principles of academic freedom “do not generally fully protect an individual from allegations that their conduct is illegal or vexatious or improper.” (3) My refusal to submit the letter is insubordinate, and an arbitrator would find it so. (4) My correspondence to Bob “did, over time, become disrespectful and unacceptable.” The manner of communication is not protected in the same way as content is, “and disrespectful correspondence including epithets such as ‘bullshit’ and the tone of correspondence” can “attract discipline”.  The University could enforce their demand for the letter through the Ontario Courts, and I could be found [admittedly in “a Doomsday Scenario”] in contempt of court.
His advised strategy, which Kelly warned me the Union would be legally bound to: “comply now, grieve later.”
But if privacy is what we’re trying to protect from over-reaching administration, then to submit the letter is to lose. Also, from Kafka I take the lesson that the process is the punishment. A college naturally requires due process to function. But when we submit to undue process, we’re submitting to prejudicial punishment, to an indignity already. Absent a coherently formulated charge against me, the whole process, after I’d responded to Bob’s initial exploratory queries on Jan 27, was in my view undue. There’s nothing in the Collective Agreement covering reference letter writing, nothing (as far as I can tell) in any law or Ryerson policy that requires one to write letters that “read well” to all receivers. What is the particular, nameable infraction in my letter or in my interactions with my student? With a former student, in fact–she’d been out of Ryerson for over two years when this all blew up. With no citable infraction for Bob to base his demands on, my eventual insubordination and incivility were rather due resistance, perhaps.
Kelly insisted that Bob has simply been following the obvious and necessary steps a Chair must take, given the Complaint. In fact he had options, e.g.:
Option: Ignore the complaint he’d caught second-hand wind of. This is the view of Mark Mercer: Chair of Philosophy at St. Mary’s University, and President of The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. [More on the SAFS’s assistance, below.]
Option: Ask me about the Letter, then put it to rest once I give him context & my own considered judgement on it. It could have all been done with on January 27th, in the back-and-forth of a few Sunday emails, and all would be well today.
Option: Go back to Professor X, after receiving my contextual info and best judgement. Request clarification on what she found inappropriate.
Frankly, from years of sideline observation, I had doubt about the Union’s will to resist the administration. As a sessional-colleague put it to me diplomatically, CUPE’s role at Ryerson seems to be “keeping the peace.” It’s a reason I didn’t contact them earlier in the back-and-forth with Bob.
Last year after a Members’ meeting, Kelly bragged to me and a colleague that she had an excellent relationship with our Chair. At the time I thought it good news. Now it has an ominous ring.
I look back on my two-plus months’ contact with Kelly and am amazed to conclude: She didn’t say a single thing in my defense to Bob–at least, she wrote nothing I was cc’d on, and said nothing in my presence.
She did hang back after the first Bob/HR meeting, to cheerily chat with Bob about some other Union member’s concerns.
Canadian Association of University Teachers
Finding my Union unwilling early on, I sought outside help. The CAUT were helpful in principle, but work, they explained, not with individual cases, but with “member organizations” such as the Ryerson Faculty Association–Bob’s own union. They were willing to provide my own union (CUPE 3904) with their own written resources on “custody and control and academic freedom,” e.g., from their pamphlet:
The customary practice in universities, antedating collective bargaining, is that most records created by academic staff are not in the university’s custody or control. The origin of this customary practice is to protect academic freedom.One simple indication of customary practice is if, coming into your office on a weekday morning, you found the dean going through your file cabinet or reading your email. The typical response would rightly be outrage because your files and records are your files and records, not the university’s.[iv]
Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship
I also contacted Mark Mercer, of the SAFS. They’ve advocated in dozens of Canadian cases over the last twenty years. Mark agreed I should resist handing over the letter absent “proper procedure.” He canvassed five anonymous [to me] Members for their opinion on Bob’s demand:
A: I would have thought both that the professor retains some proprietary rights over the letter (those who receive the letter have some rights with regard to it, as well) and also has a duty of confidentiality toward the job seeker [sic] on whose behalf he wrote it.
B: I think the professor should resist turning over the letter. Confidentiality of letters of reference is an important principle; if it is not maintained, such letters will quickly lose their value. How can you speak candidly about a student if you never know who might be demanding to read it?
C: In a sane world, the department head would talk to the letter-writer, say he’s had a complaint, and suggest the letter-writer think about his choice of words. “Maybe it’s OK, Joe, I’m not passing judgment, but it’s a sensitive world out there, and if your letters are generating complaints from recipients, it’s in your own interest to consider your choice of words. Use a little common sense next time.” I dealt with a lot of complaints this way when I was a department head, and I’ve had university administrators talk to me that way when I had acted thoughtlessly. But of course that’s years ago, in a time that looks like Camelot now.
D: As far as I know, legislation in some jurisdiction ensures that the person the letter is about has the right to see it; but otherwise, I would think, it’s confidential between the sender and the addressee(s). I’ve never heard of some jackass complaining to the writer’s boss about the contents, and I really doubt that the boss has the right to demand that the writer show it. I think trying to force him or her to do so is a violation of academic freedom.
E: Waiving confidentiality should only be complied with when the law requires it. C’s analysis and advice are good and let’s hope the prof’s chair acts that way. D’s characterization of the person complaining to the professor’s boss as a “jackass” suffers only because it is too mild.
I sent this Jury Report to Kelly. She said it was “very interesting” and we’d put it in our back pocket “in case we need to produce it.”
When Bob demanded, in his “Letter of Discipline,” that I surrender my letter or face suspension, I made a public statement, a sum of my case, that Mark posted to the SAFS website. He then sent an open letter to Bob.
If the facts are as Dr Bali states, what is the principle according to which officers of a university can require that professors turn over private and confidential correspondence, other than through a Freedom of Information request? And on what basis is Dr. Bali is being disciplined for refusing this demand? In what way has he potentially violated the terms of his contract or breached professional ethics?
Can a chair alone suspend another faculty member? What policy is in place at Ryerson for handling disciplinary concerns about insubordination, and how does this policy apply in the present case?
Bob wrote back:
Please be advised that Dr. Bali is exclusively represented in all matters related to his employment by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3904 and appreciate that we will only address any employment matters with his representative.
As a general statement, the University has obligations under the laws of Ontario to address issues of discrimination and harassment and also has express policies and Collective Agreement terms governing both acceptable behaviours and academic freedom.
The Letter Itself[v]
The first half of the Letter is rather pro forma. I write that Karen was one of my outstanding students in eighteen years of teaching. I say she’s applying to their doctoral program
for the the very best reasons, I believe: to continue her intense and very personal engagement with great texts; to read better, to write better; to remain in dialogue with our wisest voices, and find precise form for her own.
I explain that she proved in her early course-work she could exegete-&-critique with the best, so I encouraged her to be free in her later work–to explore her own voice and develop her interests to the point of eccentricity. I write that her first end-term project inspired an Assignment I then made mandatory for a debut course for my advanced students (Literature & Revelation/ CPHL923/ Winter 2015).
I asked all participants to produce by term’s end their very own “revelation narrative”. They were free to use entries in the Syllabus as models [e.g. Jesus of Nazareth in The Last Temptation; Nelson Denoon in Norman Rush’s Mating; Sartre’s “Saint Genet”]. They were free to fictionalize. Yet my crazy, half-spoken hope was that after four months of deep-reading classic revelation narratives, at least some students would sympathetically undergo something similar, an existential awakening however muted, fractured, & problematic. Such is my optimism, and own experience, with great texts, with powerful literature.
I say she needed an extension on her work, but seems to have had herself some kind of breakthrough by Spring of 2016. I then offer three Musings, parenthesized to acknowledge their deviation from Standard Form:
[She’s been weirdly linked to the progress of my own courses, her crises and dawnings synchronous with the start and end of term.]
[I think of her as an incarnated fragment of Sophia, returned from the realm of Archetypes to observe the Academy, to kindly judge us, and decide just what we temple-keeps have been up to these several centuries.]
[I’ve recently read I Am Charlotte Simmons and it’s curious how well this incarnation-thesis makes sense of that over-maligned work, though Charlotte is more an Athena than a Sophia, to be fine.]
I end the letter with an indented 200-wd excerpt from one of Karen’s course submissions. I tell her adjudicators “It’s a simple, lucid voice that takes in so much thought, so much Literature.”
My best guess to Bob was that Professor X didn’t like the Sophia comparison. Of course, there are countless things an unreasonable reader could dislike. She may dislike that Karen had “crises & dawnings” linked to my courses.
She may dislike Tom Wolfe, come to think of it.
Perhaps I come off foolish in the letter. Yet there’s no way it makes Karen look bad. I’m not sure whether my own words helped Karen get into 9 of 11 schools back in 2016. But I wouldn’t be surprised if her own 200 words, her extraordinary writing sample, impressed schools right for her.
Professor M’s suggestion that I try to retract my letter from 10 PhD programs, in mid-January–that seemed a fine way to sabotage Karen’s application. The letter alone was perhaps lovely, laughable perhaps– but to most eyes innocent, I venture. My effort to retract it would likely imbue Karen’s application with a weird aura of impropriety, where none had been. The Streisand Effect, etc.
The April 15 “Letter of Discipline” went into my Employee File. On its basis, the Hiring Committee, led by Bob, deducted 11 points — from a possible total of 15 — from my “Interactability” score. That gave the edge to another candidate whom I know little else about. Without the deduction, we were tied, apparently. My seniority points [my so-called “CUPE points”] let me trump any candidate whom I’m within 10 points of, but as Kelly says, “the scoring has been very fair and consistent.”
I hope I’m done having to work through my Union. I’m loathe to press them into grieving my position when they clearly think all’s well.
I hope I’ll continue to secure part-time work with Ryerson’s School of Continuing Education. My Chair has some oversight on that hiring, so we’ll see.
For now, I’m glad to have this space to tell my side of the story. It feels good to get it all down.
I hear Karen has accepted at a PhD program.
Addendum: Just prior to posting this piece, I’ve been contacted by a non-profit Canadian law firm. They do pro bono advocacy in Constitutional cases. I’m looking into it. In any case, I’ll likely have some interesting updates in the coming weeks/months.
[i] Some of my tenured colleagues.
[ii] Bob claimed that Professor X had not simply removed my letter from Karen’s application, but she’d actually destroyed it.
[iii] I have two Union “Units”: CUPE 1 and CUPE 2. The latter are for Continuing Education “evening classes,” and the former for “day classes.” It’s a bit more complicated than that, but the happy fact, I think, for oppositional admininstrative and neoliberal disruption plans, is that Ryerson teachers are divided into 4 “Unions”/Associations.
[v] I have Karen’s permission to share what I do here.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 285
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Thursday 13 June 2019
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