It began as minor personality clashes among professors, the type that can be common at any university. But what evolved at the University of Massachusetts Amherst chemical engineering department has proved far nastier.
Over three years, the dispute has turned into an ugly power struggle over an aggressive — one report said “bullying” — attempt by four members of the department to recruit others in a coup to oust their department head.
Documents and e-mails provided to the Globe paint a picture of the extended battle. Some involved in it describe screaming at faculty meetings, a rigged department election, vindictive annual reviews, and an attempt to block a professor from securing a full-time position.
Facts about who is ultimately to blame are harder to find. What is clear is that for the prestigious department in the state’s flagship public university, with its renowned faculty, millions in funding, and promising research, the imbroglio created a poisonous atmosphere that has disrupted the scientists’ work.
Beyond the department, it pulled in the faculty union and Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, who called the situation “quite serious.”
On one side, professors accuse four colleagues of trying to bully other faculty into supporting a bid to undermine then-department head T.J. Mountziaris, who served for nine years.
On the other side, professors said Mountziaris, who lost his chairmanship last year
One voice that seems to offer an impartial analysis of the clashes is that of an outside investigator the university hired to assess the conflict. But the objectivity of the investigator has been called into question.
Robert T. Duby, who spent 16 months interviewing faculty and attending meetings, beginning in 2012, reported to the chancellor that the department head was “very capable,” but called the department “fractured.” Duby, who was paid $17,000, described how one professor “employed what may be best described as bullying tactics to berate the way that faculty voted.’’ But e-mails reveal the university never asked him to write a report and that Duby told the provost at the time that he had destroyed his notes; it was unclear why. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Perhaps more concerning, e-mails show Duby collaborated on his report with a former professor who believed he had been bullied, undermining its credibility. Duby asked the professor for feedback on “content and tone.”
The turmoil in the department began as early as 2012. That year, a professor described a “disturbing” faculty meeting where a few professors “threatened and intimidated” Mountziaris. In an e-mail to the then dean, the professor described how another faculty member told Mountziaris: “We are your worst nightmare.”
Two years later, as problems persisted, the university hired a mediator, former UMass dean Janet Rifkin. Rifkin, who lives in California, flew to Amherst over the course of the 2014-15 school year, spending 32 days with the 17-member department. She attempted to quell the unrest and was paid $51,000, plus $10,000 in reimbursements. She was not asked to write a report.
One incident that roiled the chemical engineers involved the annual reviews of the four professors accused of using bullying tactics.
In 2013, when the department’s personnel committee critiqued the four professors in their annual reviews, they filed a union grievance and the administration asked the committee to consider revising the comments, according to university documents provided to the Globe. But instead of removing the controversial feedback, the committee went further. It said the four defied university policy and submitted a “secret petition” to the dean to oust Mountziaris and criticized him aloud for 2½ hours at a faculty retreat in 2012, according to the committee’s report.
This year, the provost banned three professors, including Mountziaris, from serving on the personnel committee for three years, citing “clear violations” of UMass policy and the union contract. The ban was later reduced to one year.
The punishment angered some professors. “It seems to me that the provost plans to punish faculty who’ve tried to expose and question the bullying,” said one faculty member who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
UMass administrators declined to discuss specifics of the turmoil. Provost Katherine Newman said in a statement this month that “sustained personal conflicts” are confidential matters that required “actions, rarely used, to reform department governance,” including hiring Rifkin and a new department head from outside the university. Newman cited the importance of restoring order to the department: Chemical engineering brings in an average of $4 million for research annually, she said, and administrators called it “one of the most robust and growing parts of the university.”
In 2014, UMass held campuswide training for professors and employees, which cost $98,000, on how to prevent bullying in the workplace, citing an internal survey that suggested it was prevalent. The university said the training was not prompted by the turmoil in the chemical engineering department.
Specialists said higher education is one of the fields most plagued by workplace bullying.
Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute in Idaho, said academics often are promoted because of scholarship, not management skills, and those people sometimes lack training to stop bullying.
“The unfortunate thing in higher ed — and it’s true of a lot of industries — is the fact that management comes from within their own ranks, and they’re not taught how to manage people,” Namie said.
James M. Douglas, a professor emeritus of the UMass department, said he is ashamed to be associated with a university that he believes “buried” a formal bullying complaint filed by one professor.
The school said all complaints were withdrawn.
Several professors said the problems are far from resolved, but they are tired of fighting. They want to focus on their work and are hopeful the incoming department head will help. This month, the university hired John Klier, a chemical engineer and executive at Dow Chemical Co. He is set to start Oct. 25.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized an alleged attempt to block a professor’s quest to obtain full-time status on the faculty.