The Amy Wax situation: On academic freedom, diversity & inclusion, workplace mobbing, and cancel culture

Screenshot from Inside Higher Education

Applying just about any conventional measure, law professor Amy Wax has built a spectacularly successful career. She holds a chaired professorship at an Ivy League law school (University of Pennsylvania). She has assembled a ferocious c.v. (link here), loaded with sterling academic and professional achievements, publications, and awards. Her degrees include a J.D. from Columbia and an M.D. from Harvard.

And yet she is under heavy fire for an ongoing, alleged series of polarizing, critical statements and negative characterizations about people of color, women, and gays. For that she faces potential discipline and loss of tenure protections. The Dean of her law school has asked the university’s faculty senate to impose sanctions on her, a possible prelude towards eventual termination proceedings.

Scott Jaschik, writing for Inside Higher Education (link here), provides a lot of details about this situation, which has received national attention. Here’s his lede:

Some students and faculty at the University of Pennsylvania have been clamoring for years for the ouster of Amy Wax, the polarizing law professor who courted scandal with incendiary and racist remarks and writings and seemed to relish the resulting controversies. Despite the repeated calls for her removal from her tenured position, and the criticisms of her actions—including by university leaders—that followed each controversy, Wax remained in the position and seemed firmly protected by free speech and academic freedom rights.

That pattern may be about to change: the dean of the Penn law school has started a process that could lead to Wax’s termination.

To be clear, we’re not talking about an isolated instance or two of questionable speech. From Penn Law dean Theodore Ruger’s memorandum to the Chair of the Faculty Senate (link here), here are some of Prof. Wax’s alleged statements, made to individual students, her classes, and public audiences:

  • “Stating in class that Mexican men are more likely to assault women and remarking such a stereotype was accurate in the same way as ‘Germans are punctual.'”
  • “Commenting in class that gay couples are not fit to raise children and making other references to LGBTQ people that a student reported evinced a ‘pattern of homophobia.'”
  • “Commenting after a series of students with foreign-sounding names introduced themselves that one student was ‘finally, an American’ adding, ‘it’s a good thing, trust me.'”
  • Telling a Black student…”who asked whether Wax agreed with [a panelist’s] statements that Black people are inherently inferior to white people, that ‘you can have two plants that grow under the same conditions, and one will just grow higher than the other.'”
  • Telling a Black student “that Black students don’t perform as well as white students because they are less well prepared, and that they are less well prepared because of affirmative action.”
  • “Stating, based on misleading citation of other sources, that ‘women, on average, are less knowledgeable than men,’ women are ‘less intellectual than men’ and there is ‘some evidence’ for the proposition that ‘men and women differ in cognitive ability.'”
  • “Stating that ‘our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.'”
  • “Stating that Asians have an ‘indifference to liberty,’ lack ‘thoughtful and audacious individualism’ and that ‘the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.’”
  • “Stating that ‘there were some very smart Jews’ among her past students but that Ashkenazi Jews are ‘diluting [their] brand like crazy because [they are] intermarrying.'”
  • “Stating that low-income students may cause ‘reverse contagion,’ infecting more ‘capable and sophisticated’ students with their ‘delinquency and rule-breaking.'”
  • “Stating that ‘if you go into medical schools, you’ll see that Indians, South Asians are now rising stars. . . . [T]hese diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are poisoning the scientific establishment and the medical establishment now.'”

In her recently posted GoFundMe appeal to create the “Amy Wax Legal Defense Fund” (link here), Prof. Wax states that Dean Ruger’s charges of inappropriate conduct are an attack on her conservative principles and are “littered with indignant invective and unsubstantiated and distorted claims.” She adds:

Penn Law Dean Ruger’s latest steps are part of a longstanding campaign at Penn Law School against me based on my stated positions, opinions, and speech, and despite my stellar performance as an award-winning teacher and academic during my decades-long career as a law professor. Penn’s actions represent an unprecedented and deeply destructive threat to the practice and traditions of free expression on campus and the tenure protections afforded to professors who express unpopular views. They are further evidence of the “woke” takeover of our university system, which seeks to stifle and punish dissent and purge our campuses of any deviation from a narrow set of progressive dogmas.

Academic freedom and tenure

While academic tenure may not be the lifetime job guarantee that some claim it is, it’s true that tenured professors at stable institutions who perform their work satisfactorily can expect continued employment. (For more about this topic, see my blog article, “What is academic tenure?,” link here.) And as a tenured professor at a prestigious university, Prof. Wax enjoys some of the strongest job protections available to any American employee.

One of the main purposes of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom in teaching, scholarship, and service activities. This includes freedom of expression, written or spoken. I regard academic freedom and tenure as carrying both rights and responsibilities. They include earned protections and accompanying obligations to perform one’s job with integrity. Tenure revocation is possible in cases of serious misconduct.

For controversial speech in such a context, I suggest that we establish a spectrum between being a thought-provoking scholar and being a simple provocateur.

The thought-provoking scholar pushes the boundaries of our assumptions and perceptions, using facts, analysis, interpretation, and sometimes creative expression. At times, this may include voicing or supporting unpopular viewpoints. The simple provocateur is more akin to a keyboard warrior, playing to the crowd in the comments section. This is the stuff of the internet troll and has very little to do with reasoned thought.

Where Amy Wax places on that spectrum may help us understand how her situation should be resolved. If her statements are considered so outlandish, irresponsible, and hurtful as to constitute misconduct, then sanctions may be in offing.

One of the most challenging considerations here is that we don’t have a bevy of comparable situations to give us guidance on how this should be handled. Assuming that Prof. Wax said or wrote most of the statements attributed to her, then this is a far cry from more typical scenarios that involve isolated instances or a small cluster of utterances deemed problematic.

It’s fair to point out that if Wax had been employed in a standard-brand, private-sector job setting (like a law firm or medical center), then it’s likely that she would’ve been terminated for cause already, perhaps following disciplinary warnings or a suspension. But academic freedom and tenure provide both substantive and procedural protections that most jobs do not offer.

Diversity and inclusion

You can easily see how the Wax situation is tailor-made for America’s tortured and fraught political and civic dialogue about diversity and freedom of expression. Her alleged statements have caused such an uproar because many have found them to be outrageous, hurtful, and wrongheaded. They’ve come at a time when “DEI” (diversity, equity, inclusion) is a deep focus of the day, in academe and corporate America alike.

Wax’s defenders range from those who agree with the substance of her alleged statements to those who place a very high value on academic freedom. 

Workplace mobbing

Folks have every right to criticize or defend Wax. She should be subjected to appropriate discipline if she’s crossed a clear line. From my concededly distanced perch, I believe that she is at that line or has even crossed it. While some of her alleged statements may fall under the cloak of academic freedom, many others appear to be grounded in animus towards difference.

Whether one agrees with Wax or not, there’s always a risk that critical voices can become an unruly mob. I find Wax’s worldview deeply objectionable, but I’m not happy about workplace mobbing scenes either. Prof. Kenneth Westhues’ pathbreaking work on mobbing in academe has repeatedly illustrated how quickly and dramatically such behaviors can escalate.

I imagine that Prof. Wax is feeling quite under siege right now. I don’t envy her. If she does face any disciplinary proceedings, then I hope — for everyone’s sake — that they will be conducted with dignity, fairness, and honesty.

Cancel culture

Especially because there is no legal definition of cancel culture, it’s important that we have some understanding of what it means in the employment context. I suggest that we define cancel culture at work as a response claimed to be disproportionately harsh — typically, either severe discipline or termination — to statements or actions deemed objectionable, hurtful and/or controversial.

At this juncture, it’s hard for anyone to legitimately claim that Amy Wax has been “cancelled.” However, the University’s moves toward possible disciplinary action and/or termination will cause the term to be used. And especially if her tenure is revoked and she is dismissed, then notwithstanding any due process she had been accorded, the cries of cancel culture from certain circles will be loud and sustained.

If Wax does leave Penn under whatever circumstances, then she will very likely land on her feet. She will be accorded martyr status and will no doubt be hired by an institution more compatible with her social and ideological views.

Summing up

While admitting that I’ve waded into this conversation with some trepidation, I feel obliged to share my own sense of this situation. I consider many of Amy Wax’s alleged statements to be hurtful and divisive. They sound like those of a provocateur fueling an ugly, exclusionary worldview, rather than those of a thought-provoking professor who occupies a position of enormous privilege and responsibility.

Yup, issues surrounding diversity and difference are challenging and can yield honest differences of opinion. There is a place in that discussion for strong language. But I don’t think that the heart of Wax’s rhetoric is contributing to our understanding of these issues. Sadly, one thing I’m certain of is that the eventual outcome of this situation — whatever it happens to be — will drive a deeper wedge into our political and social divide. 

Presentation: “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace”

Earlier this year, I gave a virtual presentation about “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace” for the Northeastern University College of Science in Boston, as part of a series on “Disrupting Academic Bullying.” The recording has been posted to YouTube (link here). I use the first 18-19 minutes to cover bullying, mobbing, and incivility generally, and then I discuss these behaviors in academic work settings. My prepared remarks run for about 44 minutes in all, followed by Q&A and comments for another 25 minutes.

Relevant Earlier Posts

  • Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching (2017) (link here);
  • UMass-Amherst launches campus-wide workplace anti-bullying initiative (2013) (link here);
  • Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (2009; rev. 2014) (link here).

Want to teach at UCLA? You can! (For free, that is…)

At first, I thought it had to be a spoof, or perhaps the latest example of misinformation intentionally unleashed on social media. But it’s real. I’m talking about a job listing from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) for a part-time teaching position in its Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. I’ve added emphasis in this quoted portion of the listing:

The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCLA seeks applications for an Assistant Adjunct Professor on a without salary basis. Applicants must understand there will be no compensation for this position.

Responsibilities will include: teaching according to the instructional needs of the department. Qualified candidates will have a Ph.D. in chemistry, biochemistry, or equivalent discipline and have significant experience and strong record in teaching chemistry or biochemistry at the college level.

The University of California, Los Angeles and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry are interested in candidates who are committed to the highest standards of scholarship and professional activities, and to the development of a campus climate that supports equality and diversity. . . .

That’s right, the lucky applicant chosen for this position will be “on a without salary basis.” Or, if that’s not clear enough, “Applicants must understand there will be no compensation for this position.”

To see the full ad, go to the Inside Higher Ed listing or directly to the UCLA listing.

Beyond unpaid internships

Long-time readers of this blog may recall that I have done a considerable amount of scholarship and legal advocacy work challenging the exploitative practice of unpaid internships. (Go here for a summary.) I’ve also taken a jabs at a related practice, that of “non-stipendiary fellowships” being offered by artistic and creative organizations.

In 2016, I participated in a symposium on equality in employment, sponsored by the University of Idaho Law Review. I spoke about unpaid internships and contributed an essay titled “‘Mass Exploitation in Plain Sight’: Unpaid Internships and the Culture of Uncompensated Work,” which may be freely accessed here. In the piece, I criticized an emerging set of practices that “undermines the basic exchange of compensation and decent treatment in return for work rendered.”

In addition, across the U.S., colleges and universities are reducing the number of paid full-time teaching positions and replacing them with part-time, low-paid appointments that come with little — if any — job security. UCLA has taken this exploitation to a new level, by offering a part-time teaching position and making it abundantly clear that no pay will be available in return for the professor’s hard work.

Perhaps UCLA considers this a form of pro bono, public service. Now, I’m fine with volunteer service and try to do my share of it. But this teaching announcement is materially different than a solicitation for volunteers. Among the applicants will be newly-minted Ph.D.s trying to gain credentials to attract full-time academic employment. Some may be barely making ends meet. And yet UCLA claims to value “a campus climate that supports equality and diversity”?

I hope that UCLA reconsiders this job announcement and replaces it with one that ensures compensation. Surely a university with an international reputation can scrounge together sufficient funds to pay its faculty, yes?

***

Story update, Sunday March 19: Since the original story broke in the Twitterverse, two explanatory threads are developing. The first is that UCLA has taken down the ad and added an apology plus explanation suggesting a more legitimate purpose for it:

One academic posted that the position is to help a Ukrainian scholar who would be paid through a non-profit agency.

The second thread is coming from the UCLA adjunct faculty union and its supporters, saying that UCLA has used unpaid positions before — using the same ad language — and has been called out for it. The union calls it a union-busting job listing and suggests that even if there’s a defensible intention, the listing itself misclassifies a position that should be paid (and thus, presumably, violates the collective bargaining agreement):

Best scenario is that if this is part of a legitimate (and laudable) attempt to help a scholar fleeing the war, then UCLA’s use of ad language that has triggered legitimate objections before and its vague explanation for the ad didn’t help matters. It also would’ve been appropriate to consult with the union on this, which apparently wasn’t the case.

 

Story update, Tuesday, March 22: After facing an outcry via social media, UCLA issued a statement clarifying that all adjunct faculty will be compensated. Scott Jaschik reports for Inside Higher Ed (link here):

It turns out the University of California, Los Angeles, will actually pay all its adjuncts who teach.

The university on Monday afternoon issued a clarification of a job advertisement seeking an adjunct, without pay. And the university apologized.

“A recent job posting by UCLA Chemistry and Biochemistry contained errors and we are sorry. We always offer compensation for formal classroom teaching. We will do better in the future and have taken down the posting, which we will make sure is correctly written and reposted. Our positions are open to all applicants,” read a statement by Bill Kisliuk, director of media relations at UCLA.

MTW revisions (September 2021)

Dear readers, during recent months, I’ve revised and updated several popular blog entries. and I’m happy to share the links with you today:

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Recommended book list (orig. 2018, rev. 2021) (link here)

On peer support groups for those who have experienced workplace bullying and mobbing (orig. 2019, rev. 2021) (link here)

What is academic tenure? (orig. 2011, rev. 2016 and 2021) (link here

The costs of suffering in silence about bad work situations (orig. 2011, rev. 2021) (link here)

A brief history of the emergence of the U.S. workplace bullying movement (orig. 2010, rev. 2021) (link here)

Of coronavirus and climate change: Zooming in on the future of academic and professional conferences

We’re about to go live with the Dec. 2020 Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies workshop (https://www.humiliationstudies.org)

Last May (link here), I speculated about the future of academic and professional conferences in view of the unfolding pandemic. I opened by affirming how meaningful these gatherings can be:

I am hardly alone in attesting that I can trace career and life changing collaborations, associations, and friendships to various conferences, seminars, and workshops. These events have introduced me to people, ideas, and research that have profoundly shaped the course of what I do and fostered communities that transcend distance.

I have written frequently about the importance and meaning of such events. . . . With these events and so many others, I could tell story after story about gaining meaningful, lasting connections and insights.

I went on to acknowledge that the pandemic was forcing the cancellation of many events and the moving of others to online formats. Although I understood that platforms such as Zoom were making online conferences doable, I lamented the inherent limitations:

But these platforms cannot deliver true alternatives to the fortuitous sidebar conversations, meals, and coffee meet-ups that are often the stuff of future projects and new associations. Great things can hatch from these more informal interactions. Online “chat rooms” simply do not provide the same space.

Fifteen months later

Since posting that entry, I have participated in many online conferences, workshops, and seminars, with the events originating as close as Boston and as far away as India and Israel. I have been grateful for the opportunity to connect with colleagues and friends from around the world. Some of these interactions would not have occurred had the program been held in face-to-face settings. The travel times and costs would’ve been prohibitive.

However, I also was reminded over and again of the aforementioned limitations of such events. The informal chats and get togethers that are connective highlights of many academic and professional gatherings were sadly missing. Who knows what great ideas and future collaborations never materialized because we couldn’t chat over coffee or a meal?

Looking ahead

Well folks, like it or not, for at least three reasons, I think we’re going to be online for many of these events during the years to come.

Viral matters

First, this virus appears to be spinning off variants and mutations that will make travel planning an ongoing and earnest game of whack-a-mole (public health edition) for the foreseeable future. These realities are especially acute for conferences that attract an international constituencies.

For example, I’m currently helping to organize a global conference in France, scheduled for summer 2022. Let’s just say that a lot of folks are in a wait-and-see mode, even in terms of submitting panel and presentation proposals. Very recently, the European Union took the U.S. off of its safe travel list due to our current outbreak. Who knows what things will look like next year?

Air travel and climate change

Second, there’s the impact of air travel on climate change. Global aviation (including both passenger and freight) accounts for roughly 2 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. While this pales in comparison to the environmental impact of other modes of transportation (especially auto travel), commercial air travel — in particular — is disproportionately the province of people and businesses who can afford airline tickets.

I’m not suggesting that we should stop flying or shipping goods by air. But if people are going to fly, then let’s get the maximum bang for the buck. To me, that means prioritizing flights to maintain ties between families and friends, above all. I also think we need to value tourism, study abroad, and other travel purposes that enrich our lives.

In addition, I think we need to pick and choose between professional conference opportunities that require air travel carefully and wisely. On the one hand, piggybacking active participation in a favorite conference with seeing friends and family seems like a good use of a plane trip. By contrast, if one’s conference participation amounts to flying across the country to talk for 20 minutes on a panel and little else, then maybe it’s not a responsible expenditure of jet fuel.

Costs

Finally, there’s the matter of accessibility and affordability. Factoring in air fare, hotel room, registration fee, and daily expenses, a major conference can cost as much as a getaway vacation. For academics, especially, funding support for conference travel is unevenly distributed, to say the least.

Online conferences even the participation field a bit, notwithstanding their built-in limitations. Registration fees are often lower, and there are no plane tickets or hotel rooms to be booked. You can eat at home.

Of course, there’s a third conference or workshop possibility, and that’s a hybrid format that allows for both in-person and online participation. Unfortunately, the logistical nightmares from a planning standpoint make this an unrealistic option for most conferences, unless they’ve got oodles of money and first-rate, tech-equipped facilities and staff to go with them.

The professional benefits of high-quality, in-person conferences, workshops, and seminars with plenty of opportunities for informal interaction are significant, and thus I would hate to see these events disappear. For the time being, however, I think that we’re going to do a lot of our interacting online.

***

Some previous blog posts about conferences and workshops

A workshop as annual ritual (2019) (link here) — Photo essay on the 2019 annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, held at Columbia University in New York City.

A short speech in Rome (2019) (link here) — Text of my speech praising our shared experiences of participating in the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, delivered at the 2019 Congress in Rome.

Workplace Bullying University, “All Star” edition (2019) (link here) — Recounting experiences at an enhanced edition of the Workplace Bullying Institute’s intensive training seminar, hosted by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie in San Francisco, CA.

Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Choice”: On trauma and healing (2017) (link here) — I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Edith Eger, noted trauma therapist, author, and Holocaust survivor, at a conference sponsored by the Western Institute for Social Research in Berkeley, California.

North of the border: On transforming our laws and legal systems (2016) (link here) — Report on a therapeutic jurisprudence workshop at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada.

Conferences as community builders (2015) (link here) — Touting the many benefits of the 2015 Work, Stress, and Health conference in Atlanta, Georgia, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

Netflix’s “The Chair”: A telling farce about the academic workplace

A lot of the buzz surrounding “The Chair,” Netflix’s new short “dramedy” series about academic life, centers on whether it’s a realistic depiction of working in higher education. My answer? Not really, but sort of. Overall, it’s a telling and entertaining farce that yields truths about modern academe, especially the world of elite colleges.

The gifted Sandra Oh plays the first woman of color to serve as chair of the English department at a fictitious, Ivy League-type university. Soon after assuming her new post, she is embroiled in politically-charged allegations of misconduct by a professorial colleague and close friend. Of course, the situation is precipitated by a student social media posting that goes viral. The unfolding mess (i.e., when “cluster” is only half a word) becomes the dominant storyline of the series.

Although Oh is the glue that holds “The Chair” together, she is joined by an excellent ensemble cast. Two scene stealers are Holland Taylor as an eccentric, sharp-tongued senior professor whom the university is trying to push out, and Everly Carganilla as Oh’s precocious and attitudinal young daughter. Although the show mimics the white male hierarchies of many universities, the women are by far its strongest and most interesting characters.

The exaggerated behaviors of faculty and administration highlight the show’s farcical qualities. “The Chair” illustrates with exclamation marks topics such as academic freedom and tenure, diversity and identity (especially race, gender, and age), career arcs and ambitions, substance use, student-faculty relations, institutional governance, and academic administration. Neither professors nor senior administrators play heroic roles. They operate in, and contribute to, a self-absorbed bubble. They also curse a lot, tossing f-bombs with regularity.

As for the undergraduates, on the surface, they’re multi-talented, ambitious, politically correct, and very earnest. At times, one might be tempted to tag them as the adults in the room, at least compared to their over-the-top faculty mentors. However, only by stepping back and asking, “but what are they soooo earnest about?,” does one understand how a blend of superstar ability, privileged sense of self-importance, and lack of life experience can produce absurdly blown-up responses to matters calling for common sense and genuine dialogue.

“The Chair” throws lots of barbs at academic culture and academic people during its six 30-minute episodes. Those who are not familiar with the pathologies of university life may miss some of the finer points. Nevertheless, the series also works as a take on venerable workplaces grounded in pomp and dysfunction. 

As an academic, I alternately enjoyed and winced at “The Chair.” There’s talk of a season two. If it comes to pass, I’m now curious enough about this neurotic bunch of on-screen colleagues to watch what happens next.

Teaching as everyday leadership (pandemic edition)

The new “back to school” prep

This strange, anxious, and difficult period, marked by a pandemic that has changed our lives dramatically, has caused me to engage in no small amount of reflection on my role as an educator. I keep coming back to the notion of teaching as a form of everyday leadership.

By March, the coronavirus situation was well on its way toward becoming a global pandemic. In response, my university — like so many others — announced that we would be teaching the rest of the semester online. For a lot of faculty (including yours truly), that meant using the Zoom videoconferencing platform that now has become a staple in many millions of lives. This fall, it’s pretty much more of the same, except that we’re starting off the term online, rather than switching modalities in mid-semester.

I’m grateful that we have technologies that allow us to have live classes. Under normal circumstances, most of us would prefer to be in face-to-face classrooms. But these are not normal times, at least in a city that was one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots during the spring and early summer. We’re doing better now, but we cannot take this threat lightly.

This isn’t what our students signed up for in terms of an educational experience. I’m a law professor, and in normal times, both our full-time day and part-time evening students have the benefit of studying law right in the heart of Boston. They have the use of a beautiful building and a spacious law library, with a variety of on-site services ready to help them. They are within walking distance of legal employers, courthouses, and government offices.

For now, however, instead of having all that, most are logging in from their homes or workplaces to attend law classes online. The disruptions to their usual lives and to their degree programs have often been substantial.

Of course, I understand that the lives of educators, administrators, and staff in higher education have been upended as well. We will never forget the unsettling transition of suddenly going into lockdown mode, while wondering if the most momentary contacts with the outside world will cause us and people we care about to get very sick. Adapting our work lives around these new realities hasn’t been easy.

Nevertheless, practicing everyday leadership means rising above our own challenges to educate, support, and inspire our students. How we present ourselves and engage our students in this online mode will greatly impact how they perceive the experience of studying remotely. Some will also look to us for cues on how to get things done, while emotionally navigating the dramatic changes in our lives.

I’m fortunate to teach at a university where our students are generally not entitled or spoiled. Quite understandably, they’re not happy with this situation, but they are doing their best to adapt to it. If they see their instructors putting in the effort to make these courses useful and interesting, then they are likely to respond in kind.

Of course, teaching is like that generally. The ability, effort, and emotional intelligence of individual professors always make a difference. But under current circumstances, these qualities matter even more.

Sorry, white supremacists, but I’ll keep wearing my Hawaiian shirts

The summer after earning tenure at Suffolk University Law School, I flew to Maui for a reunion of cousins. In addition to coming home with lifelong memories of a wonderful gathering, I returned with a suitcase full of new Hawaiian shirts.

I now call that cache my original “tenure wear” collection, because I began wearing those shirts to teach class. After seeing lawyers on Maui conducting their everyday business in bright Hawaiian hues, I decided that it was time to add some color to our classrooms.

Twenty years later, the Hawaiian shirt remains my standard classroom attire.

So imagine my dismay, then, over how certain white supremacists are appropriating the Hawaiian shirt as a symbol of their cause. (For more details, see Samantha Sutton’s In Style piece, here). In news coverage of their various protests, a lot of these guys are now appearing in the latest aloha fashions, along with their guns and ammo. 

The twist is that Hawaiian shirts stand for something much more inclusive and open. They originate from an island state known for its diversity and beauty. When you think “Hawaiian shirts,” you imagine beaches and palm trees, delicious food and drink, trade winds and sunshine, and warm, friendly people.

Okay, I agree if you’re saying that, given the challenges of fighting a global pandemic and systemic abuse, we shouldn’t get too caught up in the fashion choices of someone who is waving around an AR-15 because he can’t dine-in at Wendy’s. However, social context matters, and the Hawaiian shirt is only the latest symbol or tradition to be snatched by extremists, along with stuff like the flag and the concept of patriotism.

I take exception to these cultural hijackings in part because of my own story. During the Second World War, my paternal grandfather was removed from his home in Hawaii and kept for years in American internment camps, solely because of his Japanese ancestry. Members of my family served in the U.S. Army during the war, while at the same time their loved ones remained imprisoned in those camps.

Two generations later, I became only the second person of color to earn tenure at a law school that has sent countless graduates into important positions of public service. I’d say that’s progress, if haltingly so, and I am grateful for it.

As we witness daily, America still faces hard challenges with diversity and inclusion. During these trying times, the appearance of white supremacists sporting attire that actually mocks their worldview saddens me. So I’ll keep wearing my Hawaiian shirts, thank you, minus (of course) the cartridge belts and tactical vests.

A sorrowful and profoundly disturbing week in America

(screenshot from CNN.com)

Here in the U.S., the past week has been one of the most sorrowful in our modern history. As we continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are reeling from the killing of George Floyd, an African American man suspected of the minor offense of passing a counterfeit bill, by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This latest instance of deadly brutality directed at Black people by white police officers has become international news, so I need not go into detail about it. (Go here if you need a summary).

The police killing of Mr. Floyd quickly went viral because it was recorded on cellphone cameras. The images of (now fired) police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee (and full body weight) on Floyd’s neck for some 9 minutes as he gasped for air have become etched in our consciousness. Around the nation and now the world, protests are ensuing. Most are peaceful, but some have become violent, accompanied by looting.

Sadly, we are bereft of the national leadership we need to help us cope with this tragedy and address the underlying systemic problems. Mainly via angry, ranting tweets and a stunning public appearance yesterday that smacked of authoritarianism and carried echoes of imposing martial law, the responses by president Donald Trump have largely fanned the flames of division and done little, if anything, to heal the anguish and unrest.

***

Of course, these abusive behaviors and wrongheaded responses are variations on a basic theme that many know all too well.

Police brutality is an abuse of state-sanctioned power, pure and simple. In the U.S., it is directed disproportionately toward Black people. As explained neatly by the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Notwithstanding the variety among groups that have been subjected to police brutality in the United States, the great majority of victims have been African American. In the estimation of most experts, a key factor explaining the predominance of African Americans among victims of police brutality is antiblack racism among members of mostly white police departments. Similar prejudices are thought to have played a role in police brutality committed against other historically oppressed or marginalized groups.

As for the killing of George Floyd, the only participant in custody at this writing — Derek Chauvin (currently charged with 3rd degree murder and manslaughter) — had 18 prior complaints filed against him, with only two of them resulting in mild reprimands. This record suggests a dynamic that we see in workplace bullying and sexual harassment situations all too often, namely, one of continually sweeping reports under the rug. Thus, it is fair to question the roles of the police department, police union, prosecuting attorneys, and fellow officers in allowing this man to stay on the force until he finally crossed a line and committed an alleged homicide.

As for Donald Trump, in addition to building a long record of antipathy toward African Americans specifically and people of color generally, he consistently demonstrates a malignant, casual cruelty suggestive of a significant personality disorder. As badly as we need a national leader to help us respond to all this, it’s probably folly to hope for what he is fully incapable of providing. Indeed, I have shared my observations about him before (e.g., here, here, and here), and they continue to deepen with frightening clarity.

***

I confess that all of this weighs heavily on me in part because of the work I do. As long-time readers know, bullying and abuse of power have been focal points of my scholarly, public education, and advocacy work for over two decades. And although my emphasis has been on workplace behaviors, this work has yielded greater understanding of like forms of mistreatment and abuse in other settings. As such, events of the past week are pushing buttons.

I further admit that the logical and emotional sides of my brain are in full-on competition with each other right now, in ways that make it harder to stay on task and become a more effective part of needed solutions. I do know that we must step back, assess, and ask how we recover from this. Surely we’ve got our work cut out for us. If we cannot emerge from 2020 with the promise of a very different America, then I fear that we may never recover.

Academic and professional conferences in the age of coronavirus

I am hardly alone in attesting that I can trace career and life changing collaborations, associations, and friendships to various conferences, seminars, and workshops. These events have introduced me to people, ideas, and research that have profoundly shaped the course of what I do and fostered communities that transcend distance.

I have written frequently about the importance and meaning of such events. For example:

A workshop as annual ritual (2019) (link here) — Photo essay on the 2019 annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, held at Columbia University in New York City.

A short speech in Rome (2019) (link here) — Text of my speech praising our shared experiences of participating in the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, delivered at the 2019 Congress in Rome.

Workplace Bullying University, “All Star” edition (2019) (link here) — Recounting experiences at an enhanced edition of the Workplace Bullying Institute’s intensive training seminar, hosted by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie in San Francisco, CA.

Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Choice”: On trauma and healing (2017) (link here) — I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Edith Eger, noted trauma therapist, author, and Holocaust survivor, at a conference sponsored by the Western Institute for Social Research in Berkeley, California.

North of the border: On transforming our laws and legal systems (2016) (link here) — Report on a therapeutic jurisprudence workshop at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada.

Conferences as community builders (2015) (link here) — Touting the many benefits of the 2015 Work, Stress, and Health conference in Atlanta, Georgia, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

With these events and so many others, I could tell story after story about gaining meaningful, lasting connections and insights.

Thus, it is with a heavy heart that I see so many conferences being cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. I don’t disagree with these decisions; quite the contrary. Because this virus is very contagious and has life-threatening health impacts, I reluctantly believe they are the right moves.

Zoom to the rescue?

Can Zoom and other online conferencing platforms fill the void?

Some event organizers are moving their programs online, and I hope they turn out well. Video conferencing technology is way ahead of where it was just a few years ago. It is possible to hold genuinely interactive exchanges via these options.

But these platforms cannot deliver true alternatives to the fortuitous sidebar conversations, meals, and coffee meet-ups that are often the stuff of future projects and new associations. Great things can hatch from these more informal interactions. Online “chat rooms” simply do not provide the same space.

Return to “normal”?

For now, the prospect of hopping onto airplanes, staying in hotels, and sitting in crowded classrooms and meeting rooms understandably won’t appeal to many people, nor should it. I am saddest for newer scholars and practitioners in so many fields who have not yet enjoyed the enriching experiences that I have had over the years and who may be denied them for at least the better part of the coming year. 

As for the future, so much depends on advancements in public health and medicine. Hopefully, travel and large face-to-face meetings will become safe again sooner than later. Then maybe we’ll see a return to the kinds of gatherings that can change lives and create communities.

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