‘Things Got Out of Control’:
By Sarah Brown
On Wednesday, when a professor published a blog post with the title “Why I’m Firing Michigan State: Sexual Harassment, Online Harassment, and Utter Institutional Failure,” it evoked themes familiar to anyone who has followed the Larry Nassar sexual-abuse scandal over the past year.
But the post, written by Joy L. Rankin, who was until recently an assistant professor at Michigan State, doesn’t just chronicle another case of misconduct on the East Lansing campus.
In the post, Rankin recounts a troubling series of events that she says led her to resign from the university, including a lengthy public takedown of her research by an independent historian, harassment complaints she filed against an associate dean, and a research-misconduct investigation that she alleges a Michigan State dean instigated in retaliation for those complaints.
The issues raised by the piece are legion: entrenched sexism in the academy, concerns about campus disciplinary processes and administrative retaliation, research methods, and what the scholarly study of history should look like.
It has also touched off a wave of support for Rankin among academics on Twitter, and prompted a heated response from the independent historian, Brian Dear, who initially took issue with Rankin’s research. Dear says her characterization of his criticism of her work as a personal attack is “horseshit.”
Rankin, meanwhile, said she had spoken out to call attention to pervasive harassment in the academy and the indifference of colleges that have incentives to protect themselves, not their professors and students.
The series of events in Rankin’s post involves multiple scholars and issues, a lot of allegations, and two starkly different sides of the story. Here is one day’s attempt to make sense of it all.
A 20-Minute Talk
It was the fall of 2016, just weeks into her first semester as a Michigan State professor, when the harassment started, Rankin said in an interview. “Initially, it was surreal,” she said. Much of her scholarly work concerns the dynamics of power, gender, and misogyny in the history of technology. “And here I am, being harassed by the associate dean.”
She filed a harassment complaint in December, once she felt it had escalated to the point of creating a hostile work environment. According to her, nothing much happened. She said she had to hire a lawyer and file a second complaint that spring before a full investigation took place.
In the meantime, Rankin gave a 20-minute talk at a conference in March 2017 about her research into gender roles and misogyny at an early computer network called Plato, a pre-internet platform created in the 1960s at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Some scholars at the conference praised her presentation on Twitter, and a video of her talkappeared on YouTube.
That’s where Brian Dear enters the picture. He isn’t a professor, but he is a longtime historian of Plato who has written a book about the computer network.
In May 2017, Dear published a 10,000-word blog post explaining why he thought Rankin’s research — as expressed in the video of the 20-minute talk — was “based on misunderstandings, historical errors, omissions, and confirmation bias, resulting in a general thesis that Plato was a horrible, woman-hating environment.” He also said he had talked to multiple women who used to work at Plato, were cited in Rankin’s research, but disagreed with her portrayal of its culture.
He then publicized his critique on an email list for the Special Interest Group on Computers, Information, and Society, or Sigcis. “It was not a personal attack,” he said in an interview. “It was a scholarly response to an extremely questionable piece of research, and it needed to be said.”
That’s not how Rankin saw it. Not only did Dear unfairly criticize how professional historians like her go about their scholarly pursuits, she said, but he propagated “a purposeful misunderstanding of my work that also made it an attack on me — and he made it very public.”
Her conference presentation, she said, explored complaints about sexism at Plato that she had uncovered while doing research for her book, A People’s History of Computing in the United States (Harvard University Press, 2018); it wasn’t yet a fully cooked academic paper. “In the humanities, conference talks are often tentative works,” she wrote in her post.
In the days after Dear promoted his post on the Sigcis email list, several scholars defended Rankin; one called Dear’s post a “screed.” Marie Hicks, an associate professor of history at the Illinois Institute of Technology who is also a vice chair of the group, wrote to the list: “Joy’s whole point is that this history has been suppressed. She is trying to correct the record and enhance our understanding.”
Nabeel Siddiqui, an academic-technology consultant at the University of Richmond who researches new media and the digital humanities, said he didn’t think Dear’s post had scholarly merit: “He didn’t have a grasp of historical research methods.” Dear’s efforts to go out of his way to undermine her work, he added, were definitely harassment.
At least one professor backed Dear’s critique and said he “did not just dash off a dismissal but addressed in detail what he sees as its shortcomings, with citations and quotations.”
As May turned to June, Rankin was continuing to grapple with the fiery debate over her presentation, and her harassment case against the associate dean was getting underway. Then she got some surprising news from Michigan State’s research-integrity officer: She was under investigation herself. For research misconduct.
A Complaint From ‘Faculty’
Elizabeth H. Simmons, then dean of one of the Michigan State colleges that Rankin was affiliated with, is the next academic player to appear in Rankin’s narrative. Simmons had brought the research-misconduct complaint against her based on Dear’s public takedown of her conference talk, Rankin said.
Simmons is now executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of California at San Diego. In a written statement provided by the San Diego university, Simmons said she had simply followed campus policies.
“The allegations of research misconduct were brought to my attention by faculty in the college. Due to the ongoing Title IX investigation with Dr. Rankin as a complainant and me as a respondent, I consulted with the Office of General Counsel. They advised that I was obligated, as an officer of the university, to forward the allegations to Michigan State University’s research integrity officer for an impartial investigation, which I did.”
Rankin, on the other hand, saw something potentially retaliatory in Simmons’s intentions. The associate dean she had reported for harassment worked for Simmons. The primary grounds for bringing the investigation was Dear’s personal blog post, which seemed suspicious. She also said Simmons never talked with her before filing the complaint.
“After her many years as a physicist and administrator, Simmons surely knew that a research-misconduct allegation was so serious and toxic that any junior scholar would be stunned or shamed into self-protective silence,” Rankin wrote in her blog post. “Which would make it all the more effective as retaliation.”
It was notable, she said, that another dean took a very different view of the situation. She said Sherman W. Garnett, who leads the other Michigan State college that Rankin was affiliated with, wrote a letter to the provost, the general counsel, and the research-integrity officer “emphasizing how problematic MSU’s pursuit of such an allegation was for any scholar working in the humanities or social sciences.”
Rankin said Garnett read her the letter over the phone in August 2017. He didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Chronicle.
Who was the “faculty in the college” who had brought the allegations to Simmons’s attention? Rankin said she doesn’t know. But she said it was C.K. Gunsalus who had tipped that person off.
Gunsalus is director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the Illinois flagship. Decades ago, she had worked for Plato. Dear said he had contacted Gunsalus after viewing Rankin’s conference talk about misogyny at Plato and asked what she thought of it.
In an interview Gunsalus said her experiences at Plato didn’t line up with the rampant sexism that Rankin was describing. She said a number of other people shared her concerns.
As Rankin tells it, Gunsalus “verbally complained about my talk to someone at MSU” and then “repeatedly emailed MSU” using her university address, even though she was “not acting in a professional — or ethical — capacity when she complained about my conference talk.” She described what both Gunsalus and Dear had done as typical tactics for harassing scholars.
“What happened to me — in terms of having someone who is not an academic, or someone who is inflamed or incensed by the research that I or others have done, then complains to a university about it — it’s something that is a known issue in universities,” Rankin said.
Gunsalus wouldn’t confirm that she had complained to a Michigan State faculty member about Rankin’s work. But she said she had told a Michigan State official during the investigation that she didn’t believe it was a research-misconduct matter at all.
She also expressed sympathy about Rankin’s harassment case: “I feel bad for what it sounds like she went through. I have no desire to harm her.”
‘Not Safe on Multiple Levels’
What can be made of this tangle of allegations and investigations and scholarly scuffles? It’s not clear. Ultimately, the Michigan State associate dean wasn’t found responsible for harassment. And Rankin was cleared of research misconduct. She wrote in her post that the university “refused to investigate Simmons’s research-misconduct allegation against me as retaliation.”
A Michigan State spokeswoman offered this statement on Rankin’s harassment complaints: “In this case, the employee appropriately reported the incidents to the Office of Institutional Equity, which is charged with the responsibility of conducting investigations.”
In May 2017, after Dear shared his criticism of Rankin’s research and scholars began writing heated replies, the Sigcis email list was shut down for three months. “The list basically erupted after Brian’s post,” said Andrew L. Russell, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the State University of New York’s Polytechnic Institute and chair of the group. “Things got out of control.” He and others then put in place some basic policies for the list about tone and values.
Sigcis also banned Dear from the list for six months and said he would be reinstated only after he apologized to Rankin and “conveyed to us that he understood the harm his behavior had caused.” He hasn’t apologized, Russell said, so he’s still banned.
Dear, for his part, said that he had been removed from the list with “no due process,” and that he “had absolutely nothing to do with this MSU stuff.” He believes Rankin twisted together two situations — her sexual-harassment case and the criticism of her research — in a way that is “very misleading.”
“I have no interest in hurting anyone’s career. My only interest is in facts about Plato history,” he said. He said he plans to respond at length to Rankin’s criticism of him — which he calls “libelous” — in a future blog post. “It will probably be 20,000 words long.”
Rankin said it was the accumulation of dealing with the harassment case and what she describes as a lack of support from Michigan State that led her to finally leave her faculty position. “I will say, I recognize that there are individuals within MSU, there are people who are trying to effect change from within,” she said. “But I felt like I was not safe on multiple levels.”
With her blog post, she said she wanted to send a message to graduate students and junior faculty members about what online harassment tactics can look like and how damaging they can be — and to administrators that they need to be aware of such tactics.
She’s not yet sure what she’ll do next. “To me,” she said, “it wasn’t worth hanging onto a tenure-track position just to have a tenure-track position.”
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