What Is Going On At Dickinson College? (updated)


Crispin Sartwell, who up until recently was associate professor of philosophy at Dickinson Collegesays: “i have been officially terminated by dickinson college, as of march 31, without appeals process or compensation.” Dickinson College Provost Neil Weissman says that Sartwell’s “characterization of events, including his claim that the college terminated his employment, is false.” What’s going on?

Sartwell, readers may recall, had, in several blog posts, publicly accused some other philosophers of plagiarizing or neglecting his work, and then had been placed on temporary leave by Dickinson. He had maintained that the leave was required of him by the college administration owing to his including in one of those posts a music video for Miranda Lambert’s “Time to Get a Gun,” which, he claims, was interpreted as a threat by one of the accused philosophers. Sartwell also claims that he was told by Provost Weissman and the college’s general counsel, Dana Scaduto, that he would be required to undergo a psychiatric examination as a condition of his reinstatement.

Sartwell refused to undergo the compulsory psychiatric examination. He wrote to the provost:

there are many people and things i’ll miss about working at dickinson. i actually don’t blame myself, but i feel awful about the way this went down: dropping my classes in the middle of the semester. i am finished insulting you, and i want to reconnect with people. but i am not coming back. i really tried, in my own way, to make a contribution while i was there. i’d like to remember the place affectionately, and i think i will. so, cut me the best severance package you reasonably can under the circumstances, and there will be no lawsuits, aaup proceedings, or whatever it may be. i will sign to that effect. goal: finally pay off those damn student loans!

Sartwell then went through negotiations with the administration regarding his separation from the college. In a letter dated March 10, 2016, the provost wrote:

This letter is being sent to confirm our e-mail exchange earlier today which took place in response to your notes over the last two days indicating your interest in entertaining an offer from the college that would allow you to retire early. Your overture was consistent with similar comments and interest you expressed at the outset of our meeting on March 3. While we are willing to discuss this approach with you, I must reiterate that Dickinson College is not asking you to leave your position as associate professor and member of its faculty. 

The provost then presented a severance package. Sartwell replied with an email, which included the following:

i don’t regard this as satisfactory, neil. i think you need to pry off some sort of lump sum. and i am going to demand straightforwardly that you remove this absurd psychiatric condition…  i will sign nothing that has anything like that whatsoever. read the academic handbook on academic freedom. you and dana were in lurid, obvious violation of the most basic idea of academic freedom. you were pressuring me to withdraw something i said – obviously constitutionally protected speech – on behalf of police agencies in oklahoma….

The provost then, later that day, updated the letter to include a lump sum payment of $30,000.

The letter states that the severance offer was good until March 31. Sartwell says that on March 30, he wrote to the provost and the general counsel the following email:

I do not accept the separation agreement dated March 10. Nor do I resign my position; you will have to go through the Handbook procedure for removing me.

Sartwell then received a letter from the Dickinson’s human resources director stating that “Your employment with Dickinson College ended effective March 31, 2016.”

The position of the administration, as represented in an April 4 email from general counsel Scaduto (posted on Sartwell’s blog), appears to be that there are two distinct relevant events: (a) Sartwell’s resignation, and (b) Dickinson offering a severance package “to assist [him] in transitioning from the college.”

The college takes as evidence of (a) an email dated March 8 in which Sartwell tells the provost, “Neil i am definitely gone! i have retired,” plus the public reiteration of this position, “including most recently in a written statement [Sartwell] sent to the Dickinsonian on March 29 in which [Sartwell] stated… ‘I will not return. . . . Not, in short, if it was the last college on earth.’”

According to the college, Sartwell had until March 31 to accept the severance package. He did not have the further option to undo his resignation, or, as Scaduto put it, “unquit.”

Sartwell maintains that the college did not actually take him to have resigned, and continued to publicly refer to him as “a faculty member in good standing at Dickinson… currently on leave” after what they are asserting is his resignation date, for example, in a quote from a college spokesperson in a March 16 blog post at Reason. In a post today, Sartwell writes, “In brief, I did not resign and I do not resign.” He has begun a GoFundMe page to raise money for legal expenses related to his dispute with Dickinson.

The foregoing is my attempt to piece together in a comprehensible form the events and positions related to Sartwell’s current relationship with Dickinson College. Let me stress that I doubt I have all of the relevant information, but it was the best I could do given the limited resources available.

UPDATE (4/12/16): The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has written a letter to Dickinson College President Nancy Roseman (who herself just announced her own upcoming resignation) about the Sartwell case (via Leiter Reports). Among other things, the letter states:

We appreciate that the administration has construed Professor Sartwell’s e-mail messages and public comments on his case as evidence of his intention to resign his tenured position. We also understand that the administration has taken the position that it therefore has no obligation to initiate dismissal proceedings in the case of Professor Sartwell. We disagree. We do not think the academic community at-large would understand those statements to constitute a formal resignation. Given the academic freedom issues raised by this case, we are concerned that no proceeding has taken place in which the administration would assume the burden of demonstrating adequate cause for dismissing Professor Sartwell from his tenured appointment. 

Dickinson College

Dickinson College

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Andrew
Andrew
5 years ago

This post is very helpful. Also, this situation is very strange.Report

mhl
mhl
5 years ago

This guy seems to be his own worst enemy, at least from a PR point of view. The more he talks, the more I sympathize with everyone who had to deal with him.Report

some person or other
some person or other
5 years ago

Being your own worst enemy/being hard to deal with/being a difficult colleague should not be a reason that tenure should be completely ignored, though. Neither is mental illness. (I’m not trying to suggest that’s at stake here, but this looks so much like cases I know of where people have been demonized for, basically, suffering from serious depression.) It’s hard to see how this person did anything remotely resembling a fire-able offense. Remotely. And I think all academics should be worried about that.Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Reply to  some person or other
5 years ago

If I’m reading the narrative correctly, the characterization that tenure was ignored or that he was fired is in dispute. The college says he voluntarily resigned. I don’t feel like I know much about what is going on. In particular, I don’t know whether anyone treated him as having committed a fireable offence.Report

mhl
mhl
Reply to  some person or other
5 years ago

I agree that being a difficult personality is not reason to terminate a tenured professor. Nor is mental illness, which deserves compassion and understanding and not shunning..

But consider the perspective of the administration…
– Sartwell accused others of plagiarizing his work. The substance of the accusations have not – to this point – resonated with the philosophy community as being true.
– Sartwell then makes a reference to a “get your gun” song. It could be an innocuous reference. Or it could be his way of intimidating another with a threat that he can explain away as a non-threat later on. It was perceived as a threat by a target of his accusations.
– Sartwell has admitted battling addiction in the past, which can have a connection to mental illness.
– Sartwell exhibits odd behavior in his blog posts that could suggest mental illness.
– Negotiations between Sartwell and the administration over his exit reveal a man who does not maintain a consistent stream of thought as to what he does or does not believe.

If you were in the administration at Dickinson, and you did nothing, and Sartwell ended up doing something heinous, you would be called negligent. They did the right thing in removing him from his teaching duties while they evaluated him. The fact that Sartwell did not give them a chance to evaluate his mental health is Sartwell’s issue – not Dickinson’s. Report

HFG
HFG
Reply to  mhl
5 years ago

Wait, are you telling me that when you work through a difficult and complicated problem, all of your thoughts about it remain obviously consistent thoughout the process of deliberation? Considering matters from multiple sides is a decent approach to truth-seeking. That’s the whole point of this dialectic business.

Hegel and Socrates thought it was cool. Report

Matt
Reply to  mhl
5 years ago

“If you were in the administration at Dickinson, and you did nothing…”

Here’s the thing, though: they didn’t have to do nothing, but if they wanted to do something, they should have done it according to the set procedures. If nothing else is clear, it seems pretty clear that this wasn’t done. Procedures are often tedious and I understand why people want to get around them, but we should not be eager for this. If the administration thinks Sartwell is a problem, let them follow the procedures set out in their faculty handbook for dealing with him. Cutting corners, making arbitrary (in the legal sense) decisions, and trying to rush this is impermissible and should be opposed. (It also rarely works out for administrators, so it’s a bit of a surprise they go for it as often as they do, though I see that the basic though is popular with many people.) Report

D.C.
D.C.
Reply to  mhl
5 years ago

“The substance of the accusations have not – to this point – resonated with the philosophy community as being true.”

Trust me, you do not want “how this issue resonates with the philosophy community” to be the standard for administrative action.
Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
5 years ago

I would agree that Sartwell were being unfairly treated, if only he capitalized the “I”s in his sentences. As he does not, I am afraid there is nothing I can do for him.Report

Jason Burke Murphy
Jason Burke Murphy
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
5 years ago

This is actually important and we don’t need flippant comments. Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Jason Burke Murphy
5 years ago

I agree that it is important. I often use humor while talking about important things. I spent a year of my childhood in a hospital room, and humor certainly became a lifeline there.Report

HFGhost
HFGhost
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
5 years ago

I don’t think your joke was mean. But I’d like to take a moment to point out how remarkably not shitty everyone is being, maybe thanks to Justin and others’ screening.

But peep that everyone on this thread has been supportive of Sartwell to at least some degree. Thanks to the early comments for setting the tone. I don’t know what to say other than anecdotally, this life can really suck sometimes. That’s all. The end.

PS: Speaking of TV, and Michael Scott in particular, I thought that David Wallace so-named himself after Michael Scott’s boss. Then I realized that ‘David Wallace’ is his real name IRL.Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
5 years ago

IANAL but I’m pretty sure his statements are to formal resignation what Michael Scott’s “declaration of bankruptcy” was to an actual formal declaration of bankruptcy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ElbguULEO0Report

TD
TD
5 years ago

Many academics are self-important blowhards. Many have annoying tics. Sartwell is far from unusual.

By contrast, to look on the professional and financial ruin of a colleague and sneer at his typography or his taste in music, take potshots at his mental health while he pleads for a fair hearing, or make public jokes about how much you personally dislike him based on his blog–that takes a level of callousness and cowardice one would hope is unusual even in the profession of philosophy.

Some details of this case are not yet clear. The moral obligation to stand behind your colleague is transparently clear.Report

HFG
HFG
Reply to  TD
5 years ago

TD & ExistsPx s.t. x = y v x =/= y, amen and thank you.

No matter what’s going on, this is probably one of the more difficult times in Sartwell’s life. The least we can do is refrain from making it even worse.Report

Eric Winsberg
Eric Winsberg
5 years ago

I can’t believe intelligent people, and people with an interest in protecting the institution of tenure to boot, can possibly be arguing about this case. It is outrageous. No one resigns their position by writing an intemperate email, and if there was ANY doubt about this, it should be removed by the response AFTER that email in which the provost wrote about his “indicating your interest in entertaining an offer from the college that would allow you to retire early.” Its PERFECTLY clear that at the time the provost wrote that email, the provost did not consider him to have resigned. If Dickinson has evidence that Sartwell resigned AFTER that email, they should release it immediately. Until such a time as that evidence is produced, every single academic should be demanding that Dickinson follow their set procedures. Otherwise, the next time any university wants to fire YOU for any reason at all without following any procedures, they can just claim that they have secret evidence of your resignation.Report

Anonthemargins
Anonthemargins
Reply to  Eric Winsberg
5 years ago

Sorry, Eric: in the context of a conversation between employer and employee about continued employment if the employee says “i am not coming back” and “I am definitely gone. i have retired” then the employee has either thereby quit or is indicating he has quit already. There is no other reasonable reading of those lines in that context. Complain all you like about the pressure to quit and other ugliness of the administration’s behaviour in the situation as a whole; it doesn’t change the fact that Crispin quit his job.

What I don’t understand is why the administration would say his quit date is March 31, given that it seems he quit much earlier in March than that. Maybe the admin will explain this by saying that they didn’t accept his resignation until then. But if they didn’t accept it until then, Crispin should have been able to “unquit”, as he appears to have wanted to do. This seems to me to be an important aspect of Crispin’s defense in this case. Report

D.C.
D.C.
Reply to  Anonthemargins
5 years ago

Based on the emails quoted above it seems pretty clear that Sartwell interpreted prior communications to mean that his refusal to submit to a psychiatric exam would prevent him from returning to campus. It’s a perfectly reasonable interpretation that he thought he was being forced out but was not affirmatively resigning; you typically do not quit and then negotiate a settlement agreement.
Report

WP
WP
Reply to  Anonthemargins
5 years ago

Within the context of negotiating a separation agreement, where Sartwell’s tenure is his best bargaining chip, I think “I am not coming back, cut me a deal” clearly does not mean “I quit right now, so no longer have any leverage, please give me a good deal though.” Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
Reply to  Eric Winsberg
5 years ago

Seconding Eric Winsberg here. I don’t know the details at Dickinson, but I would be shocked if there were not forms to fill out regarding resignation / retirement and that emails don’t suffice. I hope that Professor Sartwell has contacted the AAUP and the APA, and as a member of both organizations, I hope that they will carefully inquire into this case where it seems on the face of it that procedure was not followed. Report

Jason Burke Murphy
Jason Burke Murphy
5 years ago

His posts use terms like “bitch” and make references to getting a gun. No faculty member should do that even when they think they have been severely wronged.

The school has been put in a difficult position. But they should stick to procedure and not double-talk about him resigning– especially if he has refused to sign something. Report

grad student
grad student
Reply to  Jason Burke Murphy
5 years ago

These things are just not clear enough to ground anything. The only “bitch” reference I could find was the heading “Who’s gettin removed now, bitch?”. This is inappropriate language, but it is really really really not sufficient for firing someone. Perhaps sufficient for telling him to delete the post. And the fact that he posted that “get a gun” video in the same post as a text directed at people: while it is also inappropriate, there is way too much ambiguity and implicature going on there for anyone to fire him based on that. He might have intended it in a metaphorical sense or not been aware of the implicature. Surely it should be addressed somehow, the ensure nobody feels threatened, but firing him for it? Report

grad student
grad student
5 years ago

Reading some comments on this here and elsewhere, some seem to propose (implicitly or explicitly) that if someone has a “mental illness”, then that could be a reason to fire them. I would have thought the fight for inclusion in philosophy included the fight for people with problems or difficulties referred to as “mental”. Perhaps under the fight against ableism, perhaps under the freedom to simply be different. Or the right to get support, rather than threats, for personal difficulties, if it really is a difficulty for the person.

Abstracting away from this particular case which involve other things, the idea that employers have a right to investigate someone’s _psychology_, on the premise that if it is not “normal” enough they can be fired – that is an awful idea.
As the idea of firing someone for having an illness is clearly a non-starter, it must be about the “mental” part. And if we know anything from history it is that firing people based on “mental” traits that are decided to be sick, immoral, wrong or just different, is something that should never happen again. What is the implication? That they should undergo treatment or else be fired? Remember Turing.
Really, this is bigger than just this case. There should be no “argument from mental illness” towards the conclusion that it is right to fire academics. Report

mhl
mhl
Reply to  grad student
5 years ago

This is getting into perhaps the most thorny part of employment law. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was complicated to begin with, and it has been amended several times to add layers of nuance. Bottom line is while people are protected from adverse employment actions based on a mental illness, there are exemptions for employers if the mentally ill individual poses a direct threat to the safety of him or herself or others in the workplace. This must be based on objective evidence from a health care provider or another reliable source.

This is not to say they ought to fire him – I would hope a solution could be found that allowed him to stay. But if a proper diagnosis is necessary for an individual to function, and the individual simply refuses to entertain the possibility that a diagnosis and treatment could help them, then the employer begins to run out of options.
Report

WP
WP
Reply to  mhl
5 years ago

A university employer does not run out of options in a month, though, and refusing to entertain the possibility of diagnosis and treatment for a whole, what, 20 days is hardly conclusive. It’s completely normal for people to not immediately seek treatment, and acute issues regularly resolve on their own.

Dickinson could have easily continued his leave for the term and then revisited the issue if they still had concerns. If their concern is his mental health, they should not be trying to terminate him right now. Report

grad student
grad student
5 years ago

Reading his blog again, he states they told him that: ‘as a matter of fact you will see a professional, as a condition of your employment.’, to which he responded: “you’ll have to manacle and drag me over there”.. which really, anyone would have responded against such blatant bullying. How on Earth could “go see a professional” be a condition of someones employment as an academic? If they really said that, then seems that they really did fire him for refusing to undergo some kind of forced investigation – not to offering him to go see someone, but telling him to do so or else get fired. Hideous is what this is.Report

WP
WP
Reply to  grad student
5 years ago

In general, employers can require a psychiatric fitness exam if there are valid concerns about someone’s ability to perform their duties. See Coursey v. University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Report

Jim
Jim
5 years ago

For additional context — “Fight With Your Friends About Politics”, Crispin Sartwell, http://theatln.tc/1vDdJ1Y; “Anti-Social Epistemology”, Crispin Sartwell http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-29wReport