Monday, January 02, 2012

Fundy Post Word of the Year: mediable

Gentle readers, not long ago the estimable Mr Steve Braunias reminded me that last Christmas I gave you my heart and, moreover, promised to tell you thrilling stories of my time in the Art History Department. You will have noticed that I did not fulfill that promise. Sorry.

You see, I had escaped Art History and the Faculty of Arts, finding refuge in the School of Architecture. There, I have thrived. I found myself among staff who are friendly, helpful and interested in my research. I have been given positions of responsibility, helping students by assessing their work - crits. My contribution to the intellectual life of the School is valued. Unlike the academic staff of the Art History Department, those of the School are emotionally well-adjusted professionals. For the first time in three years I had a supervisor who was interested in doing some supervising: I calculate that in the first semester I received more supervisory meetings - one a week - than I had endured in three miserable years in Art History. This is all the more remarkable given that my Supervisor, Sarah Treadwell, is Head of School and has quite enough to keep herself busy. What's more, every meeting has been a gem: Sarah is on top of her subject, interested in her students' welfare and encouraging of their work.

As you can imagine, I have been busy, writing a thesis, learning stuff. So my story about life in Art History was neglected. Besides, I was hoping to resolve matters with the University amicably. At the suggestion of the Dean of Graduate Studies, Caroline Daley, I approached the Unversity Mediator; she advised me to make a statement of claim, a description of my grievances. This she would present to the University. So, I wrote my claim, a lengthy one. I was expecting the University to engage in some discussion of the torments I suffered. I had hoped that the University might be interested in the well-being of its PhD candidates. How wrong I was. My statement of claim was returned to me, marked "not mediable."

You can imagine my surprise. What does this word, mediable, mean? It is not in any English dictionary of which I am aware. But then, Auckland University does pride itself on being a centre of innovation. Perhaps the meaning of mediable is yet to be determined. Perhaps it is an imported word: It looks French, so the likes of Jacques Rançiere might use it in sentences such as "La plume de ma tante est mediable." However, in the context framed by the University, the phrase "not mediable" seems to mean "sod off."

Moreover, "not mediable" was all that was said. The University did not attempt to counter any of my claims, to disprove them, to put me right, to assuage my fears; they simply refused to discuss the matter. They wanted me to sod off. However, I don't do that kind of thing. I am not a sodding-off type of chap.

So, what I did next was to follow another suggestion made to me by the Dean of Graduate Studies, to discuss my issues informally those involved. So, I asked her some questions. And, would you believe it, she did not reply. I also asked some questions of Caroline Vercoe, the Head of the Art History Department. Again, I received no answers; instead Dr Vercoe sent me an email telling me not to oppress her, or something like that.

I also received a letter - a PDF letter, on headed paper, which I could download and frame, from Mr Grant Wills, BSc (Hons) Cant., the University's Executive Officer. Mr Wills hold a special role in the University. To put it in filmic terms, if the Vice Chancellor is Sydney Greenstreet (a comparison often made) then Mr Wills is Peter Lorre. He is the fixit man. This, in part, is what he wrote:
A number of your recent emails to staff and others associated with the University have not been appropriately worded and, by addressing multiple questions (some of which are later supplemented with further questions) to several staff, valuable staff time is being wasted. Further, staff are finding the tone of your messages is becoming harassing and abusive. This is why I am instructing you that further correspondence about these topics must be addressed to this office. In addition, the University finds some of your claims are not accurate. For example, your claim that your attempts to resolve certain matters by mediation have been "rebuffed" is not correct. The University attended a mediation arranged by the Human Rights Commission at your request and the outcome of that mediation was signed off by both parties. Then, in August 2011, you approached the University Mediator with a statement of claim, which you requested be dealt with by way of mediation. That request was carefully considered by the University, then the Mediator explained to you that the University declined to enter into mediation with you on that occasion because, none of the issues you had raised were mediable.
Harassing, abusive; oh dear. On the bright side, we at least know to whom we can attribute the invention of the word mediable. But after all this huffing and puffing, Mr Wills did at least offer a glimmer of light:
While the University remains willing to address matters which have not been superseded and thus resolved, a proper process must be followed. This requires you to set out in a single document, separate from any complaints about staff, the full details of issues that have not been resolved, explain why they remain current issues, then provide the detailed evidence to support your allegations and any other relevant materials. If such a document is received and contains evidence of significant unresolved current issues then an investigation of those issues may be justified.
It is not much, I know; it is caged in conditions and written in the cod-legalese that Mr Wills prefers to intelligible speech. But I made use of it. I sent Mr Wills the same statement of claim that I had sent to the Mediator, with only minor modifications. I made the not-mediable into a proper process. That was on 20th November.

 So, you may be asking, "why is he telling us all this?" Here's why. On 31st December, I received another email from Mr Wills, on a related matter. In this email, he writes: "I am looking into matters you have raised and must advise that the information I have become aware of does not support the information in your emails below."

So, it seems that Mr Wills has fixed it again. Despite my providing mountains of evidence and despite the bare fact of my receiving no supervision for an entire academic year, Mr Wills can see nothing wrong.

 And I have had enough. I entered that vile little department to write a thesis. Instead, I found myself being deceived and harassed. The University has rules and guidelines, proper processes which were cheerfully ignored by Dr Caroline Vercoe - with the support of her superiors. Her abuse of her duty cost me an entire year, in which I received no supervision and much bullying. What's more, I had to pay for the privilege. That much is evident, yet nobody in the University administration has the courage or decency to admit it. So I am going to put on the show right here in the barn. I am making my complaints public.

Until now the burden of proof has been entirely on me; when I have provided that proof, it has been ignored. By making my claim public, I am inviting the University to prove my claims wrong, in public. Below is my complaint to Mr Wills. Make of it what you will.

 A complaint about unresolved issues 

 1. Admission

 I applied to the University of Auckland for admission as a Doctoral candidate in late 2007, with the intention of studying in the Art History Department. It was my first application to the University. More than twenty years earlier, I had achieved a Class 2.1 BA (Hons) from Nottingham University and an MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art at London University. I had also been accepted as a PhD candidate at Cambridge University to study under David Watkin, one of the world's leading architectural historians - an offer I did not accept. I had been awarded a three-year British Academy Scholarship. Added to these qualifications, I had seven years experience as the founder and Registrar of the Ministry of Defence Art Collection in London, among other career achievements. I had also established a growing reputation as a writer in New Zealand. In short, I was a high-calibre applicant.

 I was treated like dirt by the admissions office. Admissions had not heard of the Courtauld Institute and was not prepared to find out about it. Art History had to obtain a letter from my former supervisor at the Courtauld, who had since retired. I was humiliated. My application took from late November 2007 to the beginning of March 2008. I lost money because of the University's stupidity: I could not take a job during that time because I did not know if or when I would be admitted to the University.

One of the issues by which Admissions delayed my enrollment was its staff's inability to understand the Courtauld MA grades. These were only two - Pass and Distinction; Professor Rankin instructed the Admissions Office of this difference from most universities. I had obtained a Pass: no bad thing when it comes from the best school of its kind in the world. Yet Admissions was incapable of understanding that and so decided to invent a Grade Point Equivalent for me. They decided on a GPE of 6 points. At the request of Art History, a single point was added to that score to acknowledge the quality of the school where I had obtained my MA. Since the University website said that a GPA of 7 was the minimum requirement for a scholarship, I did not complain.

 2. Scholarships

I had thought I was eligible for a scholarship, but then my Supervisor, Dr Don Bassett, told me that only graduates of New Zealand universities - those with a Grade Point Average were eligible. I believed him. So I did not apply for any scholarship during most of my first year: I missed out on several opportunities for University or Faculty of Arts scholarships. Then I discussed the matter with Professor Elizabeth Rankin, my co-Supervisor and HOD. She spoke to Dr Jennifer Curtin,  Associate Dean (Postgraduate), who revealed that my Grade Point Equivalent was the same as a GPA, so I could apply. I was encouraged to apply for scholarships by Elizabeth Rankin and Dr Curtin. Since the University website said that the minimum GPA was less than my GPE, I applied for scholarships. I was unsuccessful each time.

I was never told why I was unsuccessful. In 2010, I asked this question of Associate Dean Postgraduate Lee Wallace, Dr Curtin's successor. She gave me a reply that was curt to the point of rudeness and did not answer my question; she also refused to tell me the criteria by which applications were judged and closed the correspondence. Later, I asked the same question of Caroline Daley, the Dean of Graduate Studies. She told me, on 27th September 2010, that my scholarship applications would be judged on the two most recent full-time equivalent years of study prior to commencing the PhD; she also told me that my GPE was unlikely to be enough. So, after almost three years at the University, I was finally told what everyone else knew all along: that the scholarship was rigged in such a way that I could not obtain one. Not once did anyone say that my GPE would not be enough. Had I known that, I would have gone elsewhere - to the Courtauld, to Cambridge or one of many universities worldwide that could have provided proper funding and much better treatment than I received at Auckland.

 The fact of the matter is that I was deceived. I had a high-enough GPE and other qualities to meet the requirements mentioned on the University website. I was not told that a higher standard was applied, which would be the main criterion for selection. Elizabeth Rankin, Jennifer Curtin and Lee Wallace all deceived me, as did the University website.

  3. Supervision

My Supervisor, Don Bassett, turned out to be lazy, incompetent and bullying. I made several complaints about him to Professor Elizabeth Rankin, HOD and my co-Supervisor, who did nothing. I described my experiences in my Annual Report for 2009, which consequently was rejected by various parties, none of whom had the right to be involved. I suffered a year without any supervision because of those people interfering in the reporting process.

I had been granted about ten supervision meetings in three years in the Art History Department. Meetings were infrequent and always prompted by me. I had no supervision during University vacations. In the second semester of 2009, when Dr Bassett was on sabbatical and Dr Rankin was my main supervisor, I had one meeting. I have described my experiences in my 2009 report, which I shall include with this statement.

I had a lengthy meeting with Professor Rankin about Dr Bassett's shortcomings. She promised to speak to the School of Architecture about the possibility of having a co-supervisor from the School to make up for Dr Bassett. Nothing came of this. Later A/P Len Bell made a similar promise: again nothing came of it. I could have had suitable supervision during 2010, but clearly the Art History Department did not want me to have it. Of course, they would have lost money if my supervision had changed, so they had every incentive to do nothing. 

 4. Supervisor's retirement

 I learned that Dr Bassett was to retire from one of my peers, at a gathering for graduate students in December 2009. Subsequently, an undergraduate told me that in - March 2009 - Dr Bassett had told students of his plans to retire. Dr Bassett did not bother to tell me. It seems also that his retirement plans were known to other members of the Department, including Professor Rankin. She told me, eventually, in late December 2009. Had I known that he was retiring earlier I would have gone elsewhere. The information, it seems, was deliberately withheld from me. I suffered a further year in that awful Department, with little supervision because Dr Bassett, Professor Rankin and others chose not to tell me.

 5. Application for GTA position

 I applied for a GTA position for two courses Dr Bassett was teaching in 2010. Dr Bassett made his hostility to my application quite clear. However, I needed the money and the teaching experience. I was clearly the best-qualified candidate for the job and had already marked papers for one of the courses. I faced a hostile interview panel. Dr Bassett said very little throughout the interview, which ended with the three members of the panel - Drs Bassett, Vercoe and Woodward - laughing at me for having asked a question that was quite reasonable.

I didn't get the job. Caroline Vercoe's letter said that I was turned down because I lacked tutoring experience - although I had such and had said so during the interview. Another candidate for another GTA position had no tutoring experience and an overseas academic history like mine, yet she was given a GTA job in a course that was quite unrelated to her PhD research. But then, she was Dr Vercoe's student. She told me she had approached Dr Vercoe before the interviews about tutoring Dr Vercoe's course but Dr Vercoe had already decided on a GTA. So the other post was probably her consolation prize. The GTA process is rigged.

Later, Dr Bassett told me that I was not selected because I am a middle-aged man and the panel wanted young women to do the jobs. Elizabeth Rankin had said much the same when I spoke to her about my rejection. The Art History Department is riddled with cronyism and outright discrimination. I complained to the Dean of Arts. She and the staff she appointed to investigate my case chose to ignore the evidence I presented about the other GTA candidate. They also gave Drs Vercoe and Bassett the opportunity to make some new and abusive comments about me, my imaginary lack of tutoring experience having been forgotten.

I took my case to the Human Rights Commission but I could not prove it - Dr Bassett had lied about his original statement - so I was obliged to drop my complaint. I asked the Dean of Arts to help me obtain another supervisor - I had gone months without any supervision - but she did nothing. The GTA post was not just a part-time job (as the Dean of Arts so condescendingly claimed at the meeting with the Human Rights Commission). It was an opportunity for teaching experience. By discriminating against me the Department has damaged, if not ruined, my future academic career prospects.

  6. Annual Report 

After Dr Bassett told me why I had failed in my GTA application, I dropped him as my supervisor. So he used the Annual Report as an opportunity for revenge. His report is a pack of lies. I could have proved he was lying but was prevented from doing so by Dr Vercoe and Associate Professor Lee Wallace. They did not wait for me to complete my part of the report but demanded I write a 10,000-word chapter for them. I refused, since they had no authority to make such a demand, they had no right to interfere in my research and doing such a task would amount to admitting that Dr Bassett was right.

So Vercoe and Wallace denied me supervision. Dr Vercoe appointed Associate Professor Len Bell to deal with the matter, as she was then under investigation for my GTA complaint. Associate Professor Bell pretended to be an impartial mediator. I later discovered from Associate Professor Caroline Daley that he chaired the Art History Department's Post Graduate Studies Committee, and that other members were Dr Robin Woodward, Dr Erin Griffey, Dr Gregory Minissale and Dr Caroline Vercoe. This committee, of which Associate Professor Bell had said nothing, was preventing my report going to the Board of Graduate Studies. It is notable that Dr Vercoe was a member of the committee.

 The Art History committee had no authority to be involved in my report. Further, my privacy was violated by the members seeing the report. Almost every member of the Department had seen my report, most without any entitlement to do so. None of those involved had any right to interfere with my report, yet nobody prevented them. I believe they wanted to conceal Dr Bassett's shortcomings. I have still not received a report: Associate Professor Caroline Daley prevented it from being approved.

 I had thought that the annual report was to be used supervisor and candidate to discuss differences. Yet Dr Bassett used it to make demonstrably untruthful allegations against me. It is also noteworthy that, on separate occasions, both Dr Vercoe and Associate Professor Bell asked to see the work I had been doing - the compilation of the most comprehensive annotated bibliography on New Zealand architecture; yet when I asked each in what format I should supply the material - as a database or a document - neither replied. I think both Dr Vercoe and Associate Professor Bell were trying to catch me out, to find grounds for failing me.

 I also believe they were trying to delay taking any action to provide me with supervision because that would deprive the Department of income. I endured four pointless meetings over an extended period with Associate Professor Bell, in which he made promises - such as speaking to the School of Architecture - he did not keep. At the last meeting, which Professor Rankin also attended, he told me the Department had decided that Dr Rankin - who knows nothing of my subject and has never troubled herself to learn anything of it - should be my sole supervisor.

 I went without supervision for the entire 2010 academic year. It was only when the new Acting Head of Graduate Studies - Associate ProfessorCaroline Daley - became involved that I was able to get out of Art History and go to the School of Architecture. She promised to investigate the matter but then, seemingly having found out what was going on, refused to tell me the result of her investigation. She also put the blame on me, for "resisting" the demands of Dr Vercoe and Associate Professor Wallace. Further, Associate Professor Daley insulted my intelligence by claiming that the vetting of my Annual Report by the Art History Postgraduate Studies Committee was in line with international best practice.

7. Environment 

The Art History Department is a thoroughly unpleasant place. Most PhD candidates stay away; most have nothing good to say of their supervisors. Cronyism is rife. So is malice: certain members of the academic staff never miss an opportunity to say something nasty about their colleagues or, far worse, their students.

 Here are some examples. At one of the rare social events in the Department, a rather dismal party to celebrate Professor Rankin's departure from the post of HOD and Dr Vercoe's accession to that post, another member of the academic staff told me that Dr Vercoe would be just as bad in the job as Professor Rankin had been. At the Department's postgraduate conference in 2010, one academic staff member told me that one of the PhD students, my colleague and friend, was "strange." After a departmental seminar presented by a student, one academic staff member took the opportunity to mock that student once she was out of earshot. I too have been the subject of gossip by members of academic staff, who have spoken to students about me.

This sort of vicious and juvenile behaviour is astonishing. Not surprisingly, the Art History Department has a very poor reputation within the Arts Faculty and in the art world. Often I have met former graduate students who have had unpleasant experiences in Art History. Often I meet academic staff who express their contempt for the Art History Department and their pity for its students: one senior Faculty member described Art History to me as a "basket case." In three years I have never met anyone with anything good to say about Art History. The Department is toxic. I was subjected to three years of abuse there.

Paul Litterick


Hans Versluys said...

Is your thesis the "Maltese Falcon" for the university administrators?

The Gay Blade said...

The UoA is a very strange place, with some staff who couldn't function anywhere else - it is for some a sheltered workshop. There are some wonderful people and departments there, and I'm glad you are happy in Architecture, but I've also heard that Art History is a mess.

University administration is an example of Weberian bureaucracy gone mad. For the staff who are dedicated to their students and their work, they will know the ways around the traps and support you and work with you. But I've met others who have had similar experiences to you. And the Human Resources people and their policies are a joke.

Amanda said...

It sounds ghastly. I'm glad Architecture has proven more supportive and congenial. Sadly I don't find anything very surprising in your account of the Art history dept. It has been my observation that academia is rife with such dysfunctional, nasty backbiting hotspots.

As to your claim- objectively speaking what I think is missing from what you have posted here is a statement about what you want- I'm not on the administration's side but it's hard to see what a mediation would achieve as you don't want to continue in a relationship with art history. Can you articulate what would resolve the issue for you? e.g. do you want your fees refunded? An apology? Your complaint raised at a University council meeting and the Art History Department officially censured? Also, while I have every sympathy with you wanting to fight this at the highest level- think carefully about how you proceed if you might want to apply for an academic position in New Zealand in the future. This is a very small country.

Steve Braunias said...

You had me at "estimable", but the more I read on, the more I was troubled by: Nottingham. Nottingham!

Peter in Dundee said...

I agree with Amanda. Your statement is a complaint without obvious remedy which is probably why it was deemed not amenable to mediation (I decline to repeat that word). Your complaint about the format of your bibliography is curious. The correct formats for such thesis contents should be in University regulations. They certainly were at Otago when I did my PhD. For eg I was aware when I produced my thesis that they had changed to allow me to double side the pages.

Amanda also makes a good point about not poisoning the academic well for yourself.

I'm glad you have what you consider to be good supervision but you are doing a PhD part of the point of which is learning to do be self sufficient at research. Your age and academic experience (presuming your MA was research based) would probably lead me to think you would not need your hand held.
My own supervisor was absent for much of my PhD, a situation which was not deleterious. In fact my thesis chapters were returned, with comments overnight when he was overseas, unlike when he was just along the corridor.
As with your problems with the Rationalists, you need to learn to let go and move on.

Peter in Dundee said...

In addition when complaining to any institution administration you need to make it overt which rules have been broken. In what way for eg was your experience in Art History at variance with the postgrad regulations and policies?

Recrafting your complaint wrt the regulations, guidelines, policies etc in place would put them on a much stronger footing that would be harder for the administration to ignore.

Lay aside the heartfelt complaints, you nee to get much more legalistic and bullet pointed I'm afraid. Much less emotionally satisfying I know, but if you want something done that is how you have to go about it.

Anonymous said...

Shit, and I thought MasseyCorp TM was the only crap institution when it came to regulating and supervising PhDs.

You poor bugger. Due to my own experiences at the above institution, I certainly sympathise...

Craig Y

Zach said...

If you think that your problems with unethical and incompetent Auckland University managers were bad, I have two words for you: Paul Buchanan. I am sure that you remember him.

linger said...

I have to agree with Amanda and Peter in Dundee.
From the perspective of being a supervisor, I would add that we accept that MA students are still learning how to do research, and need more proactive guidance -- but we tend to presume that PhD students already have experience of doing research, and so ideally the project (and the supervision process) is more driven by the student. For example, a PhD student may be expected to have to actively plan the meeting schedule, and the agenda for the next meeting, with their supervisor. But in any case, the supervisor-student relationship is something that must be clearly communicated and negotiated by both parties.

Paul said...

Thank you, gentle readers, for your comments. I can see that I have some explaining to do. I can assure you now that this is not an issue of my needing to be spoonfed; quite the opposite: my research has been entirely driven by me. One of my main problems was getting my supervisiors and others in Art History to understand that what I am doing is not only original but unique. I shall explain these and other difficulties in future posts.

Stephanie said...

I concur with the comments above.

I have a friend working in the AH Department and his stories of 'collegiality', unclear communications, back stabbing, etc leads me to think you have done well to escape the hell hole.

I know how hard it can be to turn the other cheek in situations like this but it may be that posting your complaint may be sufficient for your purpose.

I do wish you all the best in this matter. I am a firm reader/fan of the Fundy Post and wish you had more time to post more often!

Kia kaha

PS What is it about Nottingham that gets Steve Braunias going? Please explain (my thoughts immediately went to DH Lawrence for some reason. GKW).

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
I sympathize with you entirely, and I just want to let you know that you are not alone. I had a very, very similar experience when I briefly spent time in a university art history department in NZ. I studied abroad at a very good institution and it was a terrible shock and a horrendous experience in general. But I am happy to say that all departments are not like this and I have many, many lovely and professional colleagues in NZ, So, like me, you may eventually find that your faith in other human beings will be rekindled. So don't lose hope.
The individual I mentioned was eventually weeded out, and I reported them, but the problem is often that University departments are helpless (or sometimes ineffective) with regard to dealing with this kind of stuff. One piece of advice - let it go if you can. It is not worth the energy and all that negativity can rebound.
It is hard being an outsider and often things can be difficult at first - not to mention that is is tough finding work here in any case.
Anyhow, I wish you the best and it was very brave of you to speak out.