Book Review: "Administrative Mobbing at the University of Toronto", by Kenneth Westhues

April 2004

Kenneth Westhues. Administrative Mobbing at the University of Toronto: The Trial, Degradation, and Dismissal of a Professor During the Presidency of J. Robert S. Pritchard. 483pp. Queenston, Ontario: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.

This book is a work of compassionate advocacy, a brief for the defense by a professor of sociology who has himself been convicted (later exonerated) by academic process run wild. In his detailed account of the dismissal of Herbert Richardson, Professor of Religious Studies at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto on the charge of “gross misconduct” in 1994, Westhues charts and establishes a new field of sociological inquiry, “academic mobbing.” Boxed text summarizes some 30 “compare and contrast” case studies (including my own), plus an appendix of nine essay-length commentaries on the book (but unfortunately not including one from the prosecutor’s side).

Academic Mobbing reads like a “who-dunnit,” or rather, a “what-dunnit,” because it is only on page 231 that we learn what Richardson is convicted of. In the eight-year build up, allegations included bad teaching, abuse of students, administrative neglect, plagiarism, scholarly misrepresentation, disloyalty to Catholic teaching (!), mis-using a four-month medical leave, and failing to disclose his activities in “Mellen Enterprises” ─ the Edwin Mellen Press (which his opponents labeled a “vanity press,” and, it must be noted, published Academic Mobbing), and Mellen University (which, perhaps because it is chartered in the West Indies, accusers labeled a “diploma mill”).

Prof. Richardson’s biography is fascinating. Born in 1932 in Baltimore, Maryland, he was reared in Lakewood, Ohio, in a downwardly mobile but politically liberal WASP family. Forbidden by his father from joining any “Whites only” fraternity, Richardson became part of a racially mixed group of pre-theology students at Baldwin-Wallace College, outside of Cleveland. In 1955 he did graduate work at Boston University with Martin Luther King, Jr. as classmate. From 1956-62 he completed a doctorate at Harvard University Divinity School where he also served as Assistant Professor from 1962 to 1968.

In 1968, Richardson became the first Protestant theologian appointed to the Roman Catholic faculty of St. Michael’s during the ecumenical euphoria with which he identified. Achievement-oriented, self-confident, hard-working, free-thinking, and entre-preneurial Westhues suggests Richardson’s quintessentially American, Protestant, liberal personality was sure to create friction eventually.

According to Westhues, the trigger for the “mobbing” was theological differences. An example was Richardson’s 1971 book on sexuality and women’s issues, Nun, Witch, Playmate: The Americanization of Sex (Harper & Row). Then there was Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, tagged by opponents as a “cult” which Richardson defended from 1976 to 1985, even testifying before the U.S. Senate on the legitimacy of religious conversion. More problematic was his 1974 founding of the Edwin Mellon Press in Lewiston, New York, building it into a 3 million dollar a year publishing house, with four thousand titles by 2001.

Religious attendance had fallen dramatically. Theological careers were problematic. Ecumenism suffered as conservative Popes and administrators took power. By 1986, Richardson and St. Michael’s were seriously at odds. Despite his stellar productivity — 20 books published (authored, edited, or translated); 25 Ph.D. dissertations and 30 Master’s theses directed, many of them subsequently published; a distinguished teaching award; 100 invited talks at other universities and seminaries — his request for a year’s leave of absence (without pay) was denied. His Dean wrote that the college would “not be destitute” if he decided his future lay elsewhere.

When Richardson refused to sign the theology bylaws the College demanded in 1989 as part of a new contract, saying they violated his academic freedom, each side engaged attorneys. In 1991 Richardson lost his temper in class, shouting at his assistant “Get Out! Get Out! Get Out!” Students complained, reporting their fear of “violent, abusive behavior.” Another protested to six administrators that Richardson questioned the seriousness of the problem of violence against women on campus. (However, he usually got high teacher ratings.) The tribunal struck down the charges of bad teaching and poor scholarship.

The charges sustained against Richardson centered on his non-disclosure of information about Mellen Press and Mellen University, alleged conflicts of interest, and the embarrassment caused, plus the charge of abusing a medical leave. Westhues succeeds admirably in his brief for Richardson’s defense and also in documenting the mobbing phenomenon, although I thought he tap-danced around the creation of Mellen University, saying he found it less interesting to discuss. While I know of colleagues who have (very legitimately) started publishing houses and other businesses, I know of none who have started another university!

SAFS members will enjoy this book. Worthy of a screenplay, it will serve as an excellent source book for many years to come.