Update: Seems that U.S. News reporter Jeff Greer has published a blog post (at the U.S. News site) about the Scripps/Reader dust-up. I suppose this raises the PR stakes a bit, since the story now has a broader potential audience. Unfortunately, the reporter relies entirely on the Ohio University Post (the student newspaper) for his information. In that sense, it’s pretty shoddy journalism. But then again, my own post here also relies on secondary sources. So I’d best not throw stones.
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If you don’t live and work in academe, the scandal brewing at Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School is inside baseball. And because it centers on universities granting lifetime job security (aka, tenure), it’s sure to piss people off even more. No one likes tenure except for those of us who have it.
Background. Last semester, the powers that be at Scripps recommended denying tenure to Bill Reader, a faculty member since 2002. The s#&* has now hit the fan, and the pro- and anti-Reader forces have gone to war.
As always, there are two sided to every story. If you want details, check the account in Inside Higher Ed. For the lazy among us, here’s my summary:
The Scripps administration says Assistant Professor Reader was denied tenure for reasons of collegiality. Seems he doesn’t play well with others on the faculty, and — following a 7-5 faculty vote IN FAVOR if granting him tenure — Reader allegedly directed stern warnings (in person and via email) to those who opposed him. Three of the colleagues who received those messages have filed formal harassment complaints. (Update: Be sure to read Bill Reader’s comment that explains the outcome of these complaints.)
Reader didn’t help himself when, during the “I have bad news” meeting with School Director Tom Hodson, he tearfully rolled up his sleeve to reveal evidence of self-mutilation, the results, he said, of a painful divorce brought on by his stressful job environment.
Reader isn’t denying his harsh words to colleagues and claims he has apologized for them. He makes a good case for his tenure, pointing to 6 years of positive reappointment reviews, none of which carried any hint of problems in teaching, research OR collegiality. (Update: I should qualify. This is what the press accounts lead us to believe. I don’t have immediate access to his letters of reappointment, but they are open for review thanks to public records laws.)
From what we know, on-the-record accounts kept by the school show Reader was doing great work. Judging from the public outcry from students, he’s also a popular teacher.
What’s now clear to the world is that Scripps has serious internal problems. And because Reader presented his appeal in a public meeting (his right under Ohio law), those problems are out there for all to see.
Most telling were the remarks of Associate Dean and Reader supporter Eddith Dashiell, who said the Scripps School has a long history of bullying and has been a hostile work environment since 1997. Dashiell makes these statements at some risk to her career, since Scripps Director Hodson and Dean Greg Sheppard (her boss) have both recommended denying Reader’s tenure bid.
What the hell happened? We can’t know all the details, but it appears to be a case of really, really bad management. If Reader was, in fact, the loose cannon some colleagues portray, he should have been sent packing years ago, not at the end of the tenure process.
At the same time, Reader’s more recent behaviors are bizarre, and do raise questions as to his fitness for the job.
What’s next? Were I a betting man, I’d say Reader will NOT return to Scripps next fall, as it would create an ugly situation. But I’m betting he gets a sizable payoff from the school’s endowment to “go quietly.” It beats a costly lawsuit and the extended reputation damage that comes with it.
But no matter the outcome, the reputation of a top-flight journalism school has been sullied. And there’s no spin machine to change that. Bad decisions bring bad PR.
Will the effect be lasting? I doubt it. Tenure-track jobs in J-Schools are as rare as hens’ teeth. So even if Scripps’ hostile environment persists, it isn’t likely to dissuade candidates from applying for jobs.
Will the scandal prompt alumni to discontinue contributions? Maybe. Will it affect the decision of prospective students or their parents? That’s the one I’d worry about. Ohio U’s “party school” brand already gives parents pause. A “hostile environment” in your school of choice adds one more obstacle.
I’ve always been a little envious of Scripps. After all, I work for “the other” J-School in Ohio — the one that most everyone views as the “runner-up.” But like the rest of the Scripps alumni, I’m taking no pleasure in the debacle in Athens. It hurts all of us — even those who graduated 35 years ago.
Oh, yeah. Maybe I forgot to mention I’m a Scripps grad. Whether I remain proud of my affiliation depends upon how Ohio University President Rod McDavis handles the case. I don’t envy him.