Boston College unlawfully retaliated against a bipolar chemistry professor when they blocked his attempt to reintegrate into the university after a mental-health-related medical leave, according to the findings of a state agency.
The university has been ordered to pay the professor, William Armstrong, back wages and $125,000, as well as interest, because of harm inflicted, according to a decision issued this month by a hearing officer at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Boston College has appealed.
The decision also reveals that Armstrong, before he sought treatment, himself retaliated against a professor in the department, including writing an attack e-mail about his colleague under a fake name.
But the commission, which is charged with enforcing anti-discrimination laws, ruled that Boston College erred when it pledged to accept Armstrong back into the school following his medical leave but instead retaliated, going so far as to move his lab and office out of the chemistry building.
Armstrong alleged that members of the chemistry department refused to allow him to attend department meetings and events, took him off the department e-mail list and did not let him participate in decisions after he returned to campus from his 2002-2003 leave, during which he sought psychiatric treatment.
The hearing officer ruled that Boston College systematically isolated Armstrong from the chemistry department even after he successfully completed the conditions of his leave.
“The actions . . . were highly irregular, hostile and isolating,” the hearing officer, Betty E. Waxman, wrote in her 44-page decision, issued July 1. The department’s behavior, she wrote, “put the brakes on a course of reconciliation and reintegration implemented by the deans of the College of Arts and Sciences and President [William] Leahy.”
BC’s lawyers, during the 11-day hearing held last year, held that the chemistry department chairmen were within their rights to bar Armstrong from meetings. But the hearing officer said the chairmen do not have unlimited power to restrict Armstrong from his duties as a faculty member, which included attending meetings.
BC hired Armstrong, who has a doctorate from Stanford University in inorganic chemistry, in 1992 and awarded him tenure two years later. He comes from a family with a history of mental illness and in 1997, his condition began to impact his work, according to the decision. He he began to drink heavily and became severely depressed and in 2001 was diagnosed as bipolar, it says.
The complaint includes portions of e-mails, including one from a chemistry professor, Amir Hoveyda, to the former provost, that said “there is no point in us talking unless you have one or the other of the following pieces of news for me and my department: 1. Armstrong is fired. 2. Armstrong is retiring. There is NO third option for me.”
The complaint shows that Armstrong, before he sought treatment, used a fake name to e-mail a postdoctoral fellow who was considering an offer to work at BC. He told the man that Hoveyda was “ruthless, vicious, manipulative, intimidating, vindictive, deceptive, subversive, mean-spirited, insincere, two-faced, hot-headed, excessively self-promoting, predatory, an extreme aggressor, scientifically narrow-minded, derogatory, polarizing, intrusive, obnoxious, overbearing, over-controlling, power-hungry, resource-plundering, underhanded, dictatorial, vitriolic, conniving, profane, Machiavellian, and disruptive.”
He also allegedly kept a private log where he ranted about Hoveyda, calling himself a “self-appointed watchdog.”
Before he took his leave, Armstrong was unable to finish teaching two courses because of his illness. Students in the spring of 2002 complained about classes being cancelled, exams postponed, homework not reviewed and classes disorganized, the decision says.
When Armstrong returned from his leave, he signed an agreement that outlined steps by which he would reintegrate into the school.
The hearing officer acknowledged that Armstrong’s behavior — especially the anonymous e-mails — were inappropriate. But as Armstrong tried to reintegrate, the chemistry department’s resistance increased, she found.
“The chemistry faculty, in effect, punished [Armstrong] for seeking to enforce the terms of the reintegration agreements which constituted an accommodation to his disability. Such action, in my judgment, constitutes retaliation,” the officer wrote.
In 2007, Armstrong filed a complaint with the school’s internal grievance committee, which found in favor of Armstrong. BC administrators at the time said they viewed the committee’s conclusions as “advisory.” Later that year, he filed a complaint with the discrimination commission.
The officer also found that Armstrong’s salary was “substantially lower” than his peers in the chemistry department and she ordered that Armstrong be paid the difference dating back to 2003-2004. She also ruled that his office and lab be moved back into the chemistry building.
Reached by e-mail Friday night, Armstrong declined to comment. Lawyer Alan D. Rose, representing BC, said only that the college “is pursuing all available appellate remedies.” In the event of an appeal, the usual recourse is for the full three-member discrimination commission to consider the case in a limited fashion. It could affirm, reverse or modify the decision but it is unlikely they will take new testimony or evidence.
Discrimination commission lawyer William Green represented Armstrong until his recent retirement, when another agency attorney took over. Green could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.
Clarification: This version of the story clarifies when Armstrong took some of the actions described in the complaint.