Me Too—Too Far!

Siem Reap, Cambodia
Saturday, March 10, 2018

 

 

Me Too—Too Far!

My most intense personal experience with the wrong side of the Me Too cultural wave concerns a young professor I met with from 2016-7. I have his express permission to describe the painful story. Nonetheless, to protect his privacy and confidentiality, I call him Joseph Lister and alter other identifying information.
Referred by the major university where he taught chemistry, Dr. Lister sought to understand and change behaviors leading to him being disciplined by the institution. He had been suspended because of the way he treated two of his female graduate students. University officials placed him on a one-year unpaid leave and ordered him to receive psychotherapy as well as executive coaching.
Dr. Lister consulted me for the former. In the course of our sessions, I learned that Dr. Lister had fallen in love with one of his female advisees in 2014. Initially, he kept his feelings to himself.
Months after they began working together, the student began to have difficulties in the graduate program. She lacked sufficient motivation; she struggled with some of the assignments. Dr. Lister wondered if they were the best fit for his particular research project.
Even though he did not think his positive feelings affected the relationship, he exercised caution in dealing with the situation. He consulted with colleagues; he met with the faculty committee. These various officials agreed the student would be best served by switching advisors. All parties involved, including the student, ultimately believed she would be better served by continuing her research with a different supervisor.
After the transfer, Dr. Lister noticed himself missing the student. He felt a sense of loss, realizing his feelings towards her had grown quite strong. Because he no longer supervised her, he felt freer to openly discuss his feelings for her.
Subsequently, Dr. Lister posted love poems about her. Later, he also shared his feelings with another female graduate student. More than a year after Dr. Lister shared his feelings with the other graduate student, she filed a complaint alleging unprofessional behavior. Also, she encouraged the other student—the object of Dr. Lister’s romantic feelings—to file one as well.
In response, the university initiated a long, internal investigation of the complaints. A surprising departure from standard due process, Dr. Lister was never allowed to read the complaints or the details of the investigation findings.
When the investigated was completed, Dr. Lister was charged with gender discrimination. He denies the charge. Ironically, he had been a leader in recruiting women into the male-dominated field. As previously noted, he was suspended, banned from the campus for a year, and required to receive executive coaching and psychotherapy.
Perhaps I am unaware of other, more sordid details. However, I never heard any accusations of actual touching. Sexual harassment was never alleged. Dr. Lister’s misdeeds, of which he grew painfully aware, were reducible to naivette, lack of experience with supervision, and poor judgment.
Dr. Lister had been immature. He was appointed to a full professor at an unusually young age. He had failed to grasp the importance of professor-student boundaries. He did not consider the impact of sharing his love story with the other graduate student, who perhaps had feelings for him. Also, he tended to be excessively perfectionistic, with himself and others. We reviewed these issues, in great detail, in the course of our meetings.
Dr. Lister’s unprofessional behavior pales when compared to the  many, truly salacious stories dominating the media of late. Sexual abuse, sexual assault, manipulation, abuses of power, and more are reported on the news daily. None of these abusive behaviors occurred in Dr. Lister’s case. Victims felt harmed, for sure, but his actual misdeeds consisted solely of those just mentioned.
Compared to other professionals required to seek help, Dr. Lister was genuinely motivated. He attended our meetings punctually; he participated actively in them. Dr. Lister patiently explored multiple angles on the behaviors that led to the discipline—in an open, non-defensive way.
As often occurs in these situations, the  process often pained Dr. Lister, eliciting feelings of shame, guilt, and loss. He felt badly that the women had been hurt in any way; he felt ashamed of his own errors in judgment; also, he felt frightened for his future.
Meanwhile, activists on the campus continually called for his dismissal—despite his compliance with the discipline and the rehabilitation program. When he occasionally presented on the campus, with permission, protests were held.
I proposed the metaphor of radioactivity to describe how Dr. Lister came to be viewed by these activists. He emanated radiation wherever he went. Students protested; colleagues avoided him. He fell victim to the zeitgeist of our times. The radioactivity proved an apt metaphor. More than just affecting students and colleagues at the university, Dr.Lister found his “dangerous” reputation affected him throughout his field.
Although Dr. Lister viewed his future at the university with pessimism, I remained optimistic. I reassured him. Already a well-established scientist, his behaviorally demonstrable motivation to explore his behaviors and change them seemed sure to impress university officials as well as students. His professional behaviors demonstrably improved.
Meanwhile, the discipline had its own adverse effects. Dr. Lister was unable to conduct any significant research during the year’s suspension. The loss of salary created financial hardship. He endured mean-spirited tweets and other social media attacks on him in addition to the aforementioned protests. Despite his making every personal and professional effort to change, he remained radioactive.
By mid-2017, university officials held a meeting regarding Dr. Lister’s status. Two years had passed since the incidents in question. His immediate supervisor re-assured him he would be fully re-instated. I joined her in expecting that all restrictions on his tenured faculty status would be removed, and he would be fully re-instated.
Dr. Lister expected the worst.
Again, I thought he was overly pessimistic.
As 2017 drew to a close, Dr. Lister’s expectations for his future proved the most accurate.
Instead of re-instatement, the university urged him to resign.
In reaction, Dr. Lister felt devastated, betrayed, misled.
I was dumbfounded, puzzled.
How could nearly two years have passed, overt behavioral changes occurred, and university officials—who seemed eager to retain him—radically change their mind?
Did they think change impossible?
From my limited, perhaps biased perspective, it seems the university decided—from a self-interested and financial point of view—to discard the controversial Dr. Lister. It chose self-preservation over honor, deceit over truth, and ease over struggle.
Naturally, I fully support the recent uprising against sexual harassment.
I fully oppose harassment, discrimination, and all of the varied causes heralded by the Me Too movement.
But ways the Me Too movement strays too far also deserves attention.
I remain pained, even as I describe the tale months later, to think of a promising, young scientist’s life possibly destroyed by the polarization characteristic of contemporary culture.
Reminiscent of McCarthyism, Dr. Lister was blacklisted. A quarter of 2018 has passed, and he remains unemployed.
Towards the end of last year, alternative employment seemed possible. He was offered a job as post-doc, for a younger, female professor (a true irony). The job offered a much lesser professional status and poorer compensation. Humbled but eager to continue his research, Dr.Lister readied himself to live on the lesser salary and in the lower stature position.
At least our meetings ended on a positive note.
Dr. Lister could move forward in his field; he could begin to build his reputation again.
However, I just recently learned that Dr. Lister’s radioactivity also infected his planned employment. His female colleague remained willing, even eager to supervise him. Her employer rescinded the offer—even after Dr. Lister formally accepted it—because of his negative reputation.
I find Dr.Lister’s still-unfolding story deeply troubling.
In sharing it, I do not intend to demean the many positive changes the Me Too movement has fomented in our society.
Policies are changing from Wall Street to Hollywood.
Previously frightened persons have emerged to air their complaints and allegations.
And yet, as the story of Dr. Lister clearly demonstrates, sometimes Me Too goes too far, creating precisely the type of mistreatment, discrimination, even abuse it strives to prevent.

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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP

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