Enstrom-vs-UCLA SPH, rules, politics, and my own experience

I have been asked by quite a few people to offer further comments about the Enstrom situation from the perspective of the professor who was in the most similar situation recently.   I decided this analysis calls for a new post rather than an update to my previous news-oriented post.

There has been a bit of debate about what the rules say and allow.  Mike Siegel argued that firing Enstrom as they did violated the rules, citing AAUP guidelines (which are non-binding recommendations/demands by the professors’ advocacy organization, which may or may not influence university rules) and guessing that university rules were violated, particularly regarding the very limited warning time and Enstrom not having the opportunity to present his case.  On the other hand, via private communication with a friend at UCLA public health (someone whose name has not appeared in the posts about the matter, btw), I have learned that it appears that Enstrom’s appointment was such that the proceedings actually did follow the letter of the rules.  I would argue from experience and observation that it does not really matter which of those is true.

What really matters more in a case like this is the optics — how it looks to interested influential constituencies.  Because the optics are so completely on Enstrom’s side on this case, I think it is a good bet (I will offer 5-to-1 odds) that, assuming he does not choose to retire or take a position at a think-tank that allows free inquiry, he will do no worse than keeping something equivalent to his current position, though the university will likely move him to another unit to save face for those who instigated this.  There is some possibility that the university will make him an offer that is better than sticking around just to be done with it.

As background, it is useful to realize that most professors and department-level academic administrators are terrible at politics.  The former are too busy being scientists/philosophers/etc. (there is something to the stereotype about the nerd/party-kids divide, after all), while the latter tend to be barely competent middle-manager-types (the conventional wisdom is that anyone who actually wants to be department chair should absolutely never be allowed to have the position, and an implication of that is to never join a department where the chair job does not rotate often).  This is why in academic departments unscrupulous people who are good at politics can get away with most anything so long as they do not cross top administrators.  University administrators, by contrast, are generally excellent politicians, rising in the hierarchy with the same skills that would have worked in a big company, the bureaucracy, the military, or electoral politics.

As a result, most professors and low-level academic administrators are clueless about political maneuvers, like how to fire of someone.  That characterizes Enstrom’s situation and my own (I will tell the full story of before too long; before going on, I feel the urge to note that I was not so stupid as to walk into the situation: there was a disastrous administrative shake-up and the chair who hired me and almost all of the quality people left the department, leaving me isolated among political hacks).  The problem is that the players are generally a combination of a petty tyrant administrator who thinks he can get his way just by issuing orders and professors who think that if you follow certain formalized rules then certain things must eventually happen.  And typically they start by doing something really dumb that puts them in such a hole that they cannot dig themselves out.

In my case, the people who tried several times to fire me from the University of Alberta School of Public Health because they did not like my research did quite a few dumb things.  To name just a few of many, they tried to give me the lowest score in the department in my annual performance review even though I was one of the best performers by any measure (this was overturned on appeal); the Dean subjected me to an arbitrary financial audit and finding nothing else tried to accuse me of impropriety because of books I had bought, insisting on having the authority to tell me I could not read certain material as part of my research (saying this in front of my union rep, no less — note that such utter tone deafness is exceptional — itwas because the Dean parachuted in from outside academia); and the department chair (not the one who hired me, obviously, but her successor) explicitly said, in front of witnesses, that the reason they were trying to get rid of me was because of the content of my research.  With all that on the table, I was pretty much bullet-proof.  Even if they had a case against me for something, after all that they would have a very difficult time getting their accusations taken seriously by any outside observer, like the university administration.

In Jim’s case, the attacks regarding his ETS paper years ago left him in pretty good shape.  It is clear that there are people out to get him because his legitimate science revealed a result that they do not like.  But the justification for the decision to terminate him, that his research focus did not align with the department, finished off any hope they had of not being buried politically.  As Siegel explains nicely, his research fits the department perfectly, unless of course you define fit in terms of always manipulating your analyses to get the results that the political actors in the department prefer.  At this point, then, it does not really matter whether the vote to oust him was legal or not.  It is now clear that people are out to censor his research — without apparently having any legitimate basis for criticizing the research — and so that no rationalization they come up with now, even if it is actually legitimate, will play well.  For example, my aforementioned source say some people believe that Enstrom was identifying himself using an incorrect title, though it is not clear that this is not just another trumped-up inaccurate claim.  While things like this are not the sort of thing you can fire someone over (unless he had ignored explicit instructions to stop doing it, perhaps), but accurate trumped-up complaints could have been piled on to construct adequate rationalization, had they not blown it by making a claim that was incredibly embarrassing to the accusers.

Oh, and it helps that he has published controversial but scientifically unchallenged claims of substantial worldly import (as was the case with me) and is a successful whistle-blower.  It is probably fairly easy to fire someone in critical literary studies whose research is not liked without generating much fuss in the newspaper.  But now it is like a company trying to fire its one black employee who recently came out of the closet:  It does not matter if he is legitimately performing at a level that justifies termination — no one in their right mind would try it.

So it really does not matter if the department faculty are legally authorized to vote him off the island just the way they did.  It no longer matters if they can come up with a legitimate justification for firing him.  They screwed up and made this a major political issue, and the people who do understand politics realize that the cost is far too high to have Enstrom out in the world telling talk radio hosts how the University of California fired him for daring question the liberal orthodoxy.  The game is already over, even though the naive among Enstrom’s attackers may not understand it.

There are ways to drive away a professor.  With a bit of patience, you can force someone into bad office space, horrible committee assignments, advising the poorest master’s students, etc. until they just want to leave.  I cannot imagine the Jim wants to stick around in the environment they have created.  (In my case, I had the best offices in the department, in trying to isolate me they ended all my committee assignments, and since the department was falling apart there were many new students to assign.  As I said, they were not very good at this.  Being stuck in what had become such a low quality department — during the last round of student admissions I participated in, I argued that it would be completely unethical to admit students until the curriculum improved —  eventually was sufficient to drive me away, but I don’t think they did that on purpose.)  Smart operators can make sure that any overt administrative acts follow due process and are sufficiently arcane that they are not patently absurd, as was the case with Ward Churchill.  University of Colorado officials said some improper things about him early on, but avoided acting until there was an investigation that accused him of the rather arcane academic crime of passing some of his work off as other people’s (yes you read that right).  Even then, a jury found that he was wrongfully terminated, though he did not have the political juice to do anything with that.

The message here is not pure optimism.  I think that politicized semi-academic programs, like most public health schools are quite good at censoring science that they disagree with in many different little ways.  But when they are so clueless as to do something that can be easily described in a newspaper lead sentence to someone who has some prominence, then they are out of their element, and the rules they think they are playing by no longer apply.

One response to “Enstrom-vs-UCLA SPH, rules, politics, and my own experience

  1. So someone is floating the idea that Dr. Enstrom misappropriated a title? Hmmm… I hope it wasn't cardiologist… whoops, I mean Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, Stanton Glantz.

    Try putting the following into Google just as it is here:

    “Stanton Glantz” +cardiologist

    and see how many times the good “Dr.” has been passed off to the public eye as a medical doctor while talking about the effects of secondhand smoke on people's healths. (You need the + sign in there or you'll get too many hits simply identifying him, correctly, as a Professor of Medicine in the School of Cardiology … a position that I've often wondered about in relation to his work in bringing tens of millions of grant dollars into the school. Of course maybe Academia doesn't work that way.)

    Oddly enough, although I spent a while looking, I never noticed a retraction being printed anywhere or an explanation from Stanton Glantz as to what his “Dr.” degree actually represents as he walks around in a white coat.

    I highlight the case of this mechanical engineer in relation to the innuendo about Dr. Enstrom because Stanton Glantz has I believe been one of Enstrom's most outspoken critics. Did he have any connections with anyone on the committee that made the Enstrom decision?

    If I am wrong, and one can become a “cardiologist” regardless of one's lack of medical degree please correct me. Maybe I have a new career in store!

    Michael J. McFadden
    Author of “Dissecting Antismokers' Brains”

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