Communication Breakdown | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Communication Breakdown

With the resignation of the final two active graduate faculty in Pitt's Communication Department come renewed questions

Eighteen months after an external review labeled the University of Pittsburgh's Communication department an unhealthy place for women faculty and graduate students -- a charge denied by the administration -- the department has lost its final two active tenured women faculty. If anything, say the pair of professors who resigned Aug. 31, Robin Means Coleman and Carol Stabile, the department's atmosphere has gotten worse.


The department "spent a lot of energy trying to re-write the laws to accommodate our behavior," says Coleman about the time since the external review, a once-a-decade audit performed by three professors from outside Pitt. Many faculty say they have seen this report, although none provided a copy to City Paper.


Stabile and other former department faculty and students say the most disturbing charges in the report are accurate: that, as The Pitt News quoted from the report on April 15, 2004, "senior faculty routinely and repeatedly have engaged in consensual sexual relationships with graduate students."


"The broad generalizations by the external review committee regarding the atmosphere within the Department were not supported by the findings" of Pitt's legal counsel, wrote N. John Cooper, dean of the Faculty and College of Arts and Sciences, in a memo to senior faculty on Sept. 16, 2004.


"Most critically," Cooper continued, "the overwhelming bulk of male and female graduate students within the Department do not agree with the characterization of the current climate ..." In November 2004, Cooper released a statement saying that a university investigation had found "no evidence of any current faculty/student sexual relationships.


"The investigation did uncover evidence of past faculty/student relationships and determined that there were residual effects from these relationships ...," Cooper also wrote in his internal memo.


Coleman, Stabile and other former faculty (both women and men) say that more destructive to the department has been the terrible treatment of female full-time faculty by some male faculty -- treatment they say interfered with the women's ability to mentor students and caused them to give up on Pitt.


"It was a hostile climate for women in our department," says Stabile, who taught at the university for 11 years. "We felt that that was [also] true for the university, because they were unresponsive to our complaints."


Coleman says she taught at Pitt for the last five years in the belief that "maybe I could make a difference in my hometown" as a black faculty member teaching about African-American identity formation and media image. While Coleman, Stabile and other former faculty and students echo the high marks given to the department's academic reputation by the external review, many say the department's atmosphere got in the way of its mission.

 "People knew about that Communication department across the country and back again," Coleman says. "Everybody said, 'You're crazy to talk to them again,'" when she returned to teach in 2000 after completing two years of post-doctoral work there in 1998. "I made a mistake" in coming back, she concludes. "People came to that place because they saw our names on the marquee. We were responsible for people who had a devastating time -- people you run into and the first thing they do is cry."


On Oct. 14, 2004, Stabile outlined her difficulties in the department to Dean Cooper. Her six-page memo, which she told Cooper was "far from exhaustive," outlined the "retaliation" she claimed from fellow faculty after she brought to their attention: a male faculty-female student affair; an improper advance by the same male faculty member to a female during the interview process for a promotion in the department; contentious faculty relations; and lack of adequate action concerning these issues by those in authority.

By 2000, the internal strife had gotten so bad that a Women's Caucus formed among some graduate students, part-time instructors, staff and professors to discuss the issues and present their views to professor John Lyne, then department chair.

The men followed suit. In 2004, after the department's external review, male professors met as the Lytton Avenue Discussion Forum, named after the address of assistant professor Peter Simonson, in whose house they gathered. Simonson approached City Paper to defend the department off the record in 2004 and would not speak on the record for this story.


In a statement released last week to City Paper, Dean Cooper ascribes Coleman and Stabile's departure to "attractive opportunities elsewhere." Stabile has taken a position at the University of Wisconsin, Coleman at the University of Michigan. Both former faculty say they left because of their treatment in the department.


"How are they going to compensate me for uprooting my life?" says Stabile. "How are they going to compensate me for putting up with all this crap ... [and] all this stress? All we ever wanted was to be able to work in a healthy and professional environment. The culture here is so resistant to change. It's so much an old boys' club."


As an example of the Communication department's poor decision-making, she cites the hiring of James McDaniel, a University of Colorado assistant professor, as a visiting faculty member scheduled to arrive last fall. But on May 21, 2004, according to an article in the Boulder Daily Camera, he was arrested on multiple charges for "beating his wife nearly to death." It was not the first domestic incident for McDaniel, the Boulder paper reported. He was suspended from his job, entered an insanity plea to the charge of attempted murder and then on Nov. 14, 2004, he committed suicide, the Daily Camera reported.


"If any of the women in the department had known he was going to be hired, we would have pitched a fit," says Stabile.


"You recruit people you know, and people you are comfortable with," says Coleman. "The department was moving farther and farther away from repair."


Cooper would not address any allegations of harassment or affairs directly. "Most of the matters inquired about involve personnel or student issues or records which are confidential under University policy and the law and the University is therefore unable to offer specific comment," he writes.


"However," the statement continues, "any past complaints which have been made pertaining to the Department have been fully investigated by the University, and, where appropriate, remedial actions were taken."


"Those questions were not investigated by the university," says former visiting assistant communication professor Julie Thompson, who says she was asked for sex by a department colleague in exchange for a spot among the finalists for a department job in 1998. "Nor did anyone from the university ... contact me to ask me any questions" to investigate the matter, she adds. Although she says she reported the matter to the department chair at the time, Theodore Windt (now dead), this did not resolve the matter to her satisfaction.


The professor Thompson accuses responded to the allegations via e-mail: "I deny any accusations of misconduct or impropriety." He would not answer other questions.


Thompson today directs the writing center and other programs at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. She joined Pitt as visiting assistant professor in the Communication department in the fall of 1998 and left in August 2000.


In spring of 1999, Thompson negotiated an additional two-year contract with Pitt. "I wanted to stay because Pitt at the time was in the top 10 of rhetoric programs nationally," she explains. "I didn't see why I would have to leave. I thought the department should bear the responsibility of changing the department's environment."


No current faculty member contacted by City Paper would answer specific questions about the department's past or future, including Interim Chair Donald Egolf. The only female teacher with the rank of professor still on staff, Joan Leach, is on extended maternity leave in Australia and did not respond to a request for comment. Pitt spokesman Robert Hill says she remains a Pitt employee, but the department Web site no longer lists her among the 11 Graduate Faculty.


John Lyne, who was department chair during the late 1990s until his resignation on Dec. 1, 2004, released a statement pointing to the number of female instructors, lecturers, adjuncts (professors from other departments who also teach in Communication) and teaching assistants -- "about 30," he says -- as well as the number of female graduate students -- "about half" the department's 40, he reports. "During the time that I was chair, no allegation of improper behavior in the department reached me," he adds.

"We are proud of our record of placement for women with Ph.D.s from our department, and of the many teaching and research awards they have won," Lyne continues. "My hope is that we can attract and appoint a senior female scholar to chair our department, because this would send a strong signal."


Trudy Bayer, currently a department lecturer and director of its communication lab, has been with the department since 2001. Although she does not usually attend faculty meetings, since she is not a professor, she says she was invited to do so after the external review. "The behavior at these meetings was absolutely shocking," she says. "Very hostile, demeaning, belittling communication. I was shocked at these kinds of behaviors. It's very secondary school: making fun of [colleagues]. Bullying." Faculty were asked to come up with concrete strategies to improve atmosphere for women and minorities in the department, she reports, as several department memos and e-mails attest. Bayer and the recently resigned pair of female professors say the request was met with a tremendous amount of resistance from some of the male faculty.


"The [external] reviewers' statement that there was a 'resistance to diversity generally' also was not supported by the findings of the [university's] investigation." Arts and Sciences Dean Cooper wrote in his 2004 memo.


Some former faculty and students who would not speak on the record claim that interpersonal politics shaped the faculty clashes. Others who claim no harassment personally say the atmosphere hostile to female professors was obvious and certainly interfered with the department.


Allen Larson, now assistant professor of communication at Penn State-New Kensington, spent a decade in Pitt's Communication department, first as a doctoral student and then as visiting lecturer through the end of the spring 2004 semester.


"There's no question that there was a hostile climate there," Larson says. The larger problem, he says, "was how people were treated for questioning the ethics of the faculty members involved and those graduate students receiving preferential treatment" such as fellowships.


"My mentors were the women faculty," he says, including Stabile. "As they became perceived as troublemakers who were not in harmony with the boys' club, services got taken away from the area they worked in" -- mostly media studies. "The thing that was so tragic was watching all that unfold. I was living in the fallout of all that."


His colleague in New Kensington, professor Jennifer Wood, was a master's student in the department from 1988 until 1990, then a doctoral student from 1994 through 1999. Wanting to be a scholar in Pittsburgh, she says, "Pitt was probably the best place for me to do that. Intellectually, it ranks very high."


However, Wood says three fellow female grad students confided in her about sexual advances or harassment by male profs during her years there. That the department lacks active, tenured women professors today "is really the testament to how awful that place is for women," Wood says.


Cate Morrison, a current doctoral program student who recently received her master's from the department after two years there, represents the department today in the university-wide Graduate Student Association. "It is very difficult to square these allegations with my own experience here, which is absolutely counter," she says. "As a female student that has had all-male committee members and a male adviser, I have never at any point felt marginalized, felt trivialized -- nothing but supported." Nor has any official student complaint been lodged with her, she says.


Still, she allows, "For a communication department there is very little communication going on openly, if there are any substantive problems. There is obviously something that is not getting resolved. We need to talk about these things."


"I feel lucky that I left there relatively unscathed," says Carrie Rentschler, who taught undergraduates in the department from 1999 to 2004. "The issue is not whether every single woman in the department experienced sexual harassment, gender discrimination, or retaliation for speaking out about these issues. The issue is why the department remains such a hostile work environment for so many women, even after Carol, Robin and a few men in the department have directly drawn attention to the department's culture of gender discrimination in order to change it."


Rentschler and husband Jonathan Sterne, who was an assistant professor in the Pitt Communication department from fall 1999 until spring 2004, both teach communication at McGill University in Montreal today.


"By the time I left," Sterne says, "the situation had deteriorated to the point where I didn't really want to stay."


When he was hired, he says, "I was under the distinct impression that Carol was the star of the department, though you'd never know it from the way she was treated. With the exception of Robin, each new hire who was brought in had the expectation placed on them that they would help heal the divisions in the department and change the climate. I sort of believed that too. I thought we needed to hire more women and that would help change the climate. In the end, we did hire more women and it didn't change the climate."


Sterne says his female colleagues were surprised by his placement, by then-department Chair John Lyne, on a high-profile panel discussion at a National Communication Association meeting. "When I told Carol, she said, 'Wow, they never did anything like that for me.' I felt like the little brother, where my older sisters had to fight to stay out past 10 p.m. and get the car keys while I was given a car, a cell phone and instructions to call home if I were going to be staying out late.


"I think it's embarrassing," he adds, "that the first woman professor tenured in the history of the department eventually quit because she hated her job."


"I resigned from the department, but I definitely felt forced out," says Danae Clark, the first woman tenured by Communication in 1995, after the department had formed from half of another Pitt department the previous year. Clark had entered Pitt as an assistant professor in 1988 and resigned in August 2003. Today she heads an East End community group, Green Lots, focused on vacant land stabilization.


"As the climate worsened over the past five to six years," she says, "my teaching and scholarship began to suffer as a result, and even my passion for my career began to deteriorate. I felt that I could not go on working here. I felt that I had lost myself. Basically, Pitt had taken the life out of me.

"What disturbs me," she concludes, "is how many in this story have not come forward."


Indeed, several former department students said they would like to talk about their experiences in the department, if only their careers as communication professors did not depend on good relations in the tight-knit world of academia. Other former students or professors, whose personal letters or e-mails complaining of incidents involving department faculty City Paper viewed, did not respond to requests for comment.

Regina Renk, who spent 15 years as the Pitt Communication department's undergraduate secretary until resigning abruptly in 2003, says she warned her own daughter about grad school as she headed for the University of Michigan last month.


"I told her, 'Never be alone with a professor. If you have to be alone, make sure the door is open.'


"Women were demeaned there," she says after observing Pitt Communication department faculty. "Their work was trivialized. When they would leave the office, the men would talk about it. There's no question. After working there, I've lost a lot of respect for higher education. It's a boys' club. I don't think parents realize what they're sending their daughters into when they send them out."