The Academic Mob and Its Fatal Toll

The Academic Mob and Its Fatal Toll

Brad Cran
Brad Cran
11 min read

“I get the queasiness of no due process. But . . . losing your job isn’t death or prison.”
Dayna Tortorici (Twitter)

“If you compare dissent via social media to lynch mobs,
then you don’t understand dissent, social media, or lynch mobs.”
Jen Sookfong Lee (Twitter)

In 1992, the ethics committee of the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University accused neurology and neurosurgery professor Justine Sergent of failing to properly obtain their approval for her work using radioactive isotopes to study the brain function of pianists. Sergent claimed no wrongdoing other than, at most, a technical mistake of not re-requesting specific approval to study pianists reading sheet music when she had already received approval to use the same technology to study brain function in people reacting to images of human faces. The following year she was officially reprimanded for the alleged breach but filed an appeal in arbitration.

Justine Sergent

Over the next two years, Sergent’s dispute with the ethics committee grew bitter and she claimed it was based on personal grievances and not on the validity of her work. Sergent fought to defend herself and the integrity of her work but the stream of pettiness aimed at her increased. In an attempt to further tarnish her, an anonymous source (presumably from within McGill), mailed a letter to the Montreal Gazette accusing her of fraud in her scientific practice.

The Gazette then published an article entitled “Researcher Disciplined by McGill for Breaking Rules.” Shortly after the Gazette published this article, Sergent wrote a letter in which she stated that her love of research was too great to ever consider tampering with data. She defended the quality of her work and stated:

I was a young, successful, woman scientist, and these may not be welcome attributes in the scientific world or at least in the mind of some people. I had a rich and intense life, but there comes a point when one can no longer fight and one needs a rest. It is this rest that my husband, who has supported me in all aspects of my activities and my life, and myself have decide to take.

On April 11 1994, with the assistance of her husband Yves Sergent, Justine Sergent committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning from a motor vehicle that was parked in her garage with a hose running from the tailpipe and into the window of the car. Yves Sergent then composed his last letter:

It is 3:30 a.m. on April 11, Justine is dead, and it will soon be my turn…I’ve just spent the most horrible hours of my life, seeing to the fulfillment of Justine’s last wish. My hour has come, I will join Justine forever and I hope this attempt does not fail.

Yves Sergent returned to the car and sat in the drivers seat. He attempted to slit his own throat but failed to hit an artery. He later died, like Justine Sergent, from carbon monoxide poisoning.

On April 12 1994, Justine and Yves Sergent were found dead in their garage sitting beside each other in the drivers and passenger seats of their car. This is the devastating power that an academic mobbing can have on its targets.

In a 2016 article for University Affairs entitled “Academic Mobbing, Or How To Become Campus Tormentors,” Eve Seguin wrote, “Mobbing is social murder and, by definition, people cannot survive their own murder.”

We would be hard-pressed to find people in society deserving of punishment so severe that those who receive it take their own lives. This in itself makes academic mobbing an inhumane act. The deaths of Justine and Yves Sergent were not isolated extremes; punishment imposed on an individual by a group is almost always unethical because the group as a whole will never fully understand the punishment they have collectively administered.

Kenneth Westhues professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Waterloo has become an internationally recognized authority on academic mobbing and defines it as:

[A]n impassioned, collective campaign by co-workers to exclude, punish, and humiliate a targeted worker. Initiated most often by a person in a position of power or influence, mobbing is a desperate urge to crush and eliminate the target. The urge travels through the workplace like a virus, infecting one person after another. The target comes to be viewed as absolutely abhorrent, with no redeeming qualities, outside the circle of acceptance and respectability, deserving only of contempt. As the campaign proceeds, a steadily larger range of hostile ploys and communications comes to be seen as legitimate.

To be cast out and shunned as an academic is not only to lose your identity but also to lose your entire way of life, from your social circles, your sense of intellectual accomplishment, and even your ability to provide for yourself and your family. Once you are shunned from an academic institution there is little chance you will ever make it back in. The University system is too competitive for second chances.

In 2004, Dr Janice Harper was halfway to tenure in the University of Houston’s Department of Anthropology when she was lured away by an offer from the University of Tennessee Knoxville to go there and build up their cultural anthropology program. At UTK Dr Harper would begin research on two ambitious projects that would require an unflinching look at the damage done to powerless people by powerful entities. The first was a study of the town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which played a pivotal role in the Manhattan Project, and the second was a study on the use of depleted uranium in munitions which she planned to publish as a book with Left Coast Books, Weapons of Dust: The Cultural and Scientific Battlefields of Depleted Uranium.

The gender divides in the department were palpable and Dr Harper found herself subjected to a common problem women face in the workplace: men could speak openly at faculty meetings but when she presented a contradictory opinion to her male colleagues she was accused of complaining.

“I was on the forefront of change and trying to get women hired,” Dr Harper said. “I was an outspoken woman in a department that did not have a history of outspoken women, or pretty much any woman at all. Since its founding in the midcentury, the department had only tenured two women, one of whom left and the other retired.”

In 2007, after Dr Harper filed an allegation of sexual harassment against a colleague at UTK, she became socially isolated in her department. Her classrooms were moved from week to week; she was removed from all committee assignments and not notified of faculty meetings. Just a few weeks earlier her Department Chair had written that she was “indispensable to the department,” but after she reported her concerns to him about the employee, he told her that because she had made her report, he could no longer support her for tenure.

Dr Harper confided in a colleague that the social isolation and uncertainty were making her feel suicidal and, although she assured her colleague she would not take her life, the colleague reported to the university that Dr Harper was “making death threats.” She was then interrogated by campus police as a possible threat to the safety of students, which resulted in her file being forwarded to the FBI Department of Homeland security along with accusations that she was possibly a nuclear terrorist.

Shortly thereafter, Dr Harper was interrogated by the FBI as a possible threat to the safety of faculty. “At one point, they were interrogating me about my ‘obsession’ with bombs, asking questions like, ‘Do you always make a habit of talking about bombs in your classes?’ to which I replied, ‘Would that be in my class on warfare or my class on the atomic bomb?’”

The allegations against Harper were largely based on testimony that her department head solicited from two students; one claimed that Dr Harper might have been planning to build a hydrogen bomb to blow up the campus stadium. The student cited a lecture Dr Harper had given in which she explained the difference between acts of violence that destroy infrastructure opposed to ones that destroy an important symbol within a culture. She said that if someone bombed the Stadium on the UT campus, it would be an act of symbolic destruction because it would not affect the infrastructure of the campus.

The other student alleged that Dr Harper’s then ten-year-old daughter had threatened the life of her Department Head (who happened to be a diabetic) by joking that she intended to bake him a batch of chocolate cookies.

In what appears to read like a Hollywood comedy, the UT Police Report reads as follows:

Dr Harper did ask her daughter to tell their guests what the daughter was going to do for Dr Kramer. The daughter replied she was going to make him some chocolate cookies. [REDACTED-NAME] said that Dr Kramer is diabetic and “you don’t give a chocolate cookie to a diabetic and think something good gonna happen to them.”
I informed [REDACTED-NAME] that I would be contacting the Joint Terrorism Task Force and DOE Security about this possibly violation.

Harper fought UTK and despite the absurd nature of the allegations levelled against her, her department successfully cast her out by denying her tenure. Harper followed with a lawsuit but couldn’t hold out financially and was forced to settle out of court.

Those thrown out of the academy must transition from living within the security of their dream job to suddenly trying to find their place in society with no income, no health care, and serious health issues such as PTSD, depression anxiety, and often more serious health complications that stem from trauma. The damage runs deep and the health implications are severe.

“First there’s the shock,” Harper later wrote in her book Mobbed!

[Y]ou can’t believe what’s happening. Then there’s denial. It’s not really going to go that far, someone’s going to see what’s going on and intervene and make them knock it off. You’re going to get through it and get on with your job. Then there’s the anger and rage – you’re outraged at how you’re being treated. Then as the treatment turns Kafka-esque and the shunning and betrayals set in, you turn to bargaining. You try to make a deal to get them to let up, to just let you keep your job – and then when that’s clearly not going to happen, to just let you keep your career.

In a recent interview Dr Harper said:

I received an email from a friend saying she knew I had been telling the truth and had heard me over the years telling her about what was going on there, but given what I’d been accused of, she wondered how well she really knew me. That was the day I put my degree in the paper shredder (I now keep it shredded in an antique beaker on my desk). I knew then that if that was how she felt, someone I considered a good friend, it would be how everyone would eventually feel and I wouldn’t ever teach again.

As traumatic and damaging as the experience was, Dr Harper applied her anthropological expertise to understanding the social processes that led so many people to rapidly turn against her once the decision was made to cast her out. As the mobbing intensified, she continued teaching courses on warfare and genocide, and began to note parallels between how people are persuaded to turn against their neighbors and fellow citizens in genocidal contexts, and how people in any group setting can be persuaded to join in dehumanizing and abusing someone marked by leadership for exclusion and destruction.

The result of her work was a series of articles in The Huffington Post and Psychology Today, as well as a book, Mobbed! What to Do When They Really Are Out to Get You, in which she challenged the anti-bullying movement’s focus on “the difficult employee” or “evil bully,” and called instead for a focus on the group psychology that leads otherwise good people to inhumanely attack another person without terms or limits.

By examining primate and other animal behavior, along with witchcraft accusations, the McCarthy era, and the mid-eighties hysteria that led daycare workers to be accused and convicted of impossible feats of child sexual abuse, Harper suggested that mobbing is a primal behavior that humans engage in whenever they have been encouraged by someone in a position of influence or power to view another member of a community as a threat to that community. Once that happens, patterned and predictable stages of abuse will follow, and these will not let up until the target has been eliminated from the group or so disempowered that their continued presence in the group has no significance.

“Ultimately, mobbing didn’t break me. It made me,” Harper said. “It taught me a great deal about myself and others and made me a far more patient and compassionate person. But it’s a cruelty and violence that is both unnecessary and far more damaging than I think even the attackers can imagine.”

In her essay “The Anatomy of an Academic Mobbing,” Joan Friedenberg states that “most mobbers see their actions as perfectly justified by the perceived depravity of their target, at least until they are asked to account for it with some degree of thoughtfulness, such as in a court deposition, by a journalist or in a judicial hearing.”

The flip side to the depravity of the target is the righteousness of the mob. What makes members of the mob so passionately inhumane is that their position as righteous becomes instantly wrapped up in the successful destruction of the target. As Friedenberg writes “An unsuccessful account leaves the mobber entirely morally culpable.”

Moral culpability creates fear and stokes irrational behavior, not within the target but within the mob itself. If a mob fails to cast out the target then eventually the mob will have to come to terms with the rights of the person they tried to destroy and the fact that all people, regardless of manufactured depravity, are deserving of humanity and basic fair treatment.

Every effort will be made to increase the allegation count, magnify the severity of each accusation, reinterpret any past actions of the target as malicious, and wipe away any sign that the target ever had a single redeemable quality that could point to the fact that they are undeserving of total destruction and shunning. For this reason “bullying” is a common accusation levelled against mobbing targets. As Dr Harper warns targets in Mobbed!

The reason you will likely be accused of bullying is because it is a category that is currently widely condemned. The no tolerance for bullies mindset that has permeated the workplace, however well intended it may be, has created a universally abhorred category to place unwanted workers. Once placed in that category of “bully,” no one will care what happens to you.

No matter how educated or enlightened a person may think they are, when faced with the primal nature of a mobbing most people will betray their own principles and move to the safety of power. The people most closely associated with the target may then become the target’s fiercest attackers since there is no better way to create distance from the primal danger of a mob than to attack with vigor. Once they begin attacking their own identity as righteous then becomes intertwined with the depravity of the target.

“Through the psychological process of cognitive dissonance,” Dr Harper wrote in Mobbed! “it will be essential that they convince not just others, but themselves, that what they did was two things—one, necessary, and two, the only thing they could have done…I am going to tell you that the closer people are to you—as a friend—the more likely they will turn against you. They will prove to be extremely aggressive.”

Of course, mobbings also have devastating effects on the families of those who are mobbed. If members of a mob believe that they are righteously punishing a single person then they have no understanding of the collective force with which they are attacking not just an individual but also those closest to that individual, such as spouses like Yves Sargent or children like Dr Harper’s daughter.

“My daughter went through major trauma at the fear of not knowing where we were moving,” Dr Harper said, “Trauma at having seen people she considered her godparents, not to mention her babysitter (one of the students to make the allegation that Dr Harper was building an H-Bomb), turn me over to the police and FBI, watch me interrogated by the FBI. And now she has virtually no memory of me as a professor.”

“Things have worked out well for her,” Dr Harper said, “but she still bears the scars. So many people end up divorced, or their spouses endure the depression and anger they can no longer understand. So when you write about what happens to us, remember what happens to our families.”

EducationArt and Culture

Brad Cran

Brad Cran served as the Poet Laureate for the City of Vancouver from 2009 to 2011.