Saturday, July 18, 2015

Boston Globe: Boston College chemistry department asked to pay $125,000 in back pay for professor

Via Twitter, an interesting administrative ruling against the Boston College chemistry department by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, covered in the Boston Globe:  
Boston College unlawfully retaliated against a bipolar chemistry professor when they blocked his attempt to reintegrate into the university after a mental-health-related medical leave, according to the findings of a state agency. 
The university has been ordered to pay the professor, William Armstrong, back wages and $125,000, as well as interest, because of harm inflicted, according to a decision issued this month by a hearing officer at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Boston College has appealed. 
The decision also reveals that Armstrong himself retaliated against a professor in the department, including writing an attack e-mail about his colleague under a fake name.
But the commission, which is charged with enforcing anti-discrimination laws, ruled that Boston College erred when it pledged to accept Armstrong back into the school following his medical leave but instead retaliated, going so far as to move his lab and office out of the chemistry building. 
Armstrong alleged that members of the chemistry department refused to allow him to attend department meetings and events, took him off the department e-mail list and did not let him participate in decisions after he returned to campus from his 2002-2003 leave, during which he sought psychiatric treatment...
Here is the rather awful e-mail that Professor Armstrong wrote to a potential job candidate of Boston College (current Michigan professor John Wolfe):
The complaint shows that Armstrong used a fake name to e-mail a postdoctoral fellow who was considering an offer to work at BC. He told the man that Hoveyda was “ruthless, vicious, manipulative, intimidating, vindictive, deceptive, subversive, mean-spirited, insincere, two-faced, hot-headed, excessively self-promoting, predatory, an extreme aggressor, scientifically narrow-minded, derogatory, polarizing, intrusive, obnoxious, overbearing, over-controlling, power-hungry, resource-plundering, underhanded, dictatorial, vitriolic, conniving, profane, Machiavellian, and disruptive.”
Wow, that's quite an accusation. The whole document is here; it's certainly an interesting read.

To me, this instance shows the difficulty that faculties face when considering tenure: you're choosing to work with this person for the rest of your (or their) professional life. I'm not surprised that the department (Hoveyda?) chose to retaliate against Professor Armstrong (or refuse to do the utmost to re-integrate him, anyway); however, I am surprised that they did so in a less-than-legal (apparently) manner. One also presumes that the story is not done here.

32 comments:

  1. The ruling (items 85 and 86, pp. 30-31) also lists salary data for the complainant and a colleague.

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  2. I couldn't help but read the description of Hoveyda without thinking of the Clark Griswald rant in Christmas Vacation.

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    1. Great. Comparison. Pass the Tylenol.

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  3. It sounds like the Boston College chemistry department took a a rather petty and unprofessional approach when handling this situation. Hoveyda certainly sounds like the kind of guy you'd want to work for with such an elegant description – YIKES!

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  4. The Iron ChemistJuly 18, 2015 at 3:38 PM

    Armstrong had been relatively prolific through the nineties then seemed to stop publishing in about 2003 or so. I'm saddened to hear that this seems to be the explanation.

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  5. Heck, if he wasn't tenured and needed "medical leave" the lab he worked for would have fired him. Lucky wacko bastar*. Tenure really needs to end.

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    1. And $85,000/yr to bounce between walls in the office. How Nice.

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    2. Amen. Give someone else the chance, who has ideas and gusto. After all, this is supposed to be "the land of opportunity", not "the land of pedigree-ocracy".

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    3. The Iron ChemistJuly 19, 2015 at 9:28 AM

      Firing someone who is seeking and going along treatment for a mental illness is wrong. I would say that non-tenured scientists should be treated like tenured professors in this regard, not vice versa.

      With respect to your second comment, if Armstrong were content to just receive his paycheck, this lawsuit wouldn't have existed.

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    4. That's a great way to get a wrongful termination lawsuit. The ADA applies to everyone, not just tenured professors. But please, continue to stigmatize mental illness with sarcasm quotes.

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  6. His letter to the post-doc seems to be a prime example of mania (you won't understand it if you hadn't known a bipolar person closely). If he was really having treatment, and was productive as a scientist, the faculty should do a lot to keep him and support him, and should not take his manic rants too seriously (even if they are really painful to the individuals they are directed at). If. But if (if!) he doesn't make an effort to keep his madness under pharmacological control, I really can't blame them.

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  7. The fact of the matter is people at large in general are kind to others who go through depression and other psychic disorders. The department acted in a way that was less professional and high handed could have accommodated Prof. Armstrong in an alternative manner with incentives. From the transcript’s we learn the fact that Prof. Hoveyda is not a Good Samaritan either with his attitude. I think my take is that Prof. Armstrong will win all the way in court of law and against BU!

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  8. From anaonymous @ 7.03 AM-I meant BC and not BU.

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  9. Look, there are so many people who are intelligent, creative and hardworking and might also have (treatable) psychiatric issues. For example, what happens if you are urgently in the job market and at the same time are having to deal with a hostile divorce? Does any one give them a break, if they didn't do their do their doctorate at Stanford and their post-doc at Columbia/MIT? I have ZERO sympathy for people like Armstrong or Hoveyda. Let them suffocate in their excrement; let's be more concerned about the plight of the rest of our colleagues.

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    1. If professors get tenure, then we need to make sure everybody in society gets it, so if your average joe, or chemistry research associate, lose there marbles and start bouncing around in a padded cell they get backpay and employment no matter what.

      If you think that sounds ridiculous, then we need to stop- coddling professors with tenure.

      Quite frankly, bounding around in a padded cell and scribbling on the wall sounds like kind of fun. And great pay to boot.

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    2. Troll all you want, but we have that, and it's called the Americans with Disabilities Act. You can't be fired just for having a mental illness. Not from a tenured professorship, not from a meat-packing plant, not from any private employer with more that 15 employees. Nor can your employer retaliate against you for revealing the fact that you have a mental illness, nor inquire about whether you have one unless job performance has given them reason to believe that you may be suffering from one. They are required to make "reasonable accommodations" for you to perform your essential job function when your condition has been revealed. Moving your lab and office out of the building and excluding you from department meetings cannot possibly be construed as a "reasonable accommodation". You may not like it, but them's the rules. This isn't the 19th century. We treat the mentally ill as humans.

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  10. Some ignorant statements being directed at the mentally ill here. This is an illness, and certainly not "fun". I am not a fan of much about the current academic structure but trolling them at the expense of people in this difficult situation is not ok.

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  11. But his description of Hoveyda true. At least no defamation suit will follow.

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  12. I am surprised at the insensitive comments against armstrong in this comment thread without even caring to see the whole story on how it played out over past decade. Its not the fact that he has tenure, but the fact that its illegal for BC and chemistry dept to retaliate against him after he came back from the leave. That it took this long for armstrong to get back pay is pretty crazy as it is.

    and BTW, those who know Amir will tell you that he somewhat fits the description in Armstrong's email.

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  13. I will more explicitly express my shock and disappointment in many of the earlier comments. They are unfair and mean-spirited.

    In an aside, I wonder how the NSF feels about BC essentially sabotaging one of its funded projects. The realist in me also wonders if they'll even notice.

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    1. I'm pretty disappointed in the comments, as well. Some people just can't get over the fact that they didn't get a faculty job. As someone who interviewed at BC in the 90's, this just makes me relieved I didn't get an offer from them.

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  14. We should applaud Professor Clarke's effort. It looks like he was the only one trying to help Armstrong.

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  15. All I can say is I've been fired for a lot less and gotten much shabbier treatment than this guy, for what looks like far less cause. Did anyone else read the parts about what happened when he tried to teach even one class? If you can pull half of that and get away with it with just a doctor's note, then the ADA may be overreaching in some cases.

    Doctor's notes have much less currency than they used to, if you ask me. Just ask anyone with a prescription for medical marijuana or all the pets that are suddenly declared "service animals".

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  16. Poison Ivy LeagueJuly 20, 2015 at 12:26 PM

    ADA and all it entails aside, the real damning aspect of this affair is that a resolution was agreed upon by both parties which was then not acted upon and/or sabotaged by one side; what this legal document shows is a persistent effort by Armstrong to reintegrate (as outlined in the agreement following his leave) that was consistently stymied by the department. Whether Armstrong should have returned or not in an absolute sense is immaterial: the department did not execute its side of the agreed-upon terms and I think the result (as detailed in the document) is justified.

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    1. This is what a lot of burned bridges looks like. Tenure and judgements or not, there's also a limit on how welcoming people are going to be under such circumstances.

      The other side of the tenure coin is, if he is such a great professor who was so ready to get back to work, why didn't he look for another school? He is as trapped with them as they are with him.

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  17. Seemed to me that the judgment was not particularly punitive vis. the department, which tells me that the judge recognized a certain amount of unprofessional misbehavior on Armstrong's part. After the judgment, I'm not sure he gets away with breaking even with his prior court costs (alluded to in the decision).

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  18. I have a reliable source who tells me that Amir is a very vindictive type of person, and Armstrong saga plays right into that narrative. One interesting thing is that a couple former Lippard's group members (where Armstrong did his postdoc) mentioned while Armstrong was always a bit "off" about certain things ever since his brother had committed suicide however he was doing a lot better post treatment and medical leave.

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  19. Amir can be a very strong-willed person, and many of the things he said don't surprise me. What does surprise me is that the entire rest of the department (except Clarke) agreed with his assessment.

    Armstrong apparently burnt a LOT of bridges in 2002 with his active sabotage of professor recruitment and his log detailing his criticism of the other professors. It appears the Deans made a deal with him, without fully consulting the chemistry faculty. And it appears Armstrong was less than fully repentant afterwards.

    You can tell, if you read through the entire case, Provost Garza initially supports Armstrong...then opposes him later. After 13 years...there's too much bad blood. A split is needed.

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  20. Let's switch the topic from a few egotists whose senses of entitlement conflict with each other to such an extend that they have fallen out of the ivory tower and into the public arena. For example, a discussion of the intellectual merits of either Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian would be more relevant to our own professional situations.

    -Not Just Any Troll :-p

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  21. Egregious dysfunction was repeatedly on display from both "victim" and "persecutor(s)." This is the kind of story that gives academia a bad rap (and sadly, is probably more commonplace than not).
    Also, I feel the ADA was misused in this case.
    There are many more able people with the requisite qualifications who deserve a chance - these idiots have had theirs and have amply and repeatedly demonstrated they do not deserve to keep their jobs.

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  22. A pure example of a power struggle and effective use of escalation of a conflict to achieve one interests (eg becoming a HoD). By "correctly" positioning himself on the opposite side of the conflict and serving as a leader for "the rest", AH hit a home run.. A scenario which was highly likely for male-dominated (if not "male-only") chem depts.

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    1. And perfectly orchestrated over time, as only a malignant sociopath like Hoveyda could sniff out the vulnerable and patiently keep twisting the knife for his own gain. Bipolar is an unfortunate chemical illness that is treatable; sociopathy is a personality disorder where actions are a matter of choice - not treatable, just plain evil.

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