Whacking Weinbaum

Why has CSU fired one of its most accomplished professors?

Liz Phair, with Jason Mraz and Sondre Lerche Agora, 5000 Euclid Avenue 8 p.m. Wednesday, August 6, $20, 216-241-5555.
No one questions Batya Weinbaum's professional - skills.
No one questions Batya Weinbaum's professional skills.

Batya Weinbaum was an eccentric, noisy, untidy presence on the 18th floor of Cleveland State University's Rhodes Tower. She liked to argue politics. She liked to carry on about feelings. And she had a seemingly insatiable appetite for confrontation.

English department faculty must have known what they were getting when they brought her aboard in 1998. They were the ones who had advertised for a "multiculturalist," after all. The idea was to lift the department -- which has a reputation for being a living shrine to dead Brits, such as Chaucer and Milton -- into the 21st century.

Her passionate responses to interview questions should have been the first clue that she wouldn't be meek or accommodating. Weinbaum --who made a name for herself by writing about science fiction from a feminist perspective -- has always gone her own intellectual way. Getting her Ph.D. at age 44 made it possible for her to move from fringe writer-activist to a professor who could change society, one kid at a time.

"Batya really is a maverick," says Juda Bennet, an English professor at the College of New Jersey. "I have been totally amazed at her intellect." Weinbaum was older than the typical assistant professor, but her ideas were fresh. She'd written several books and traveled the world, and her essays marked her in academic circles as one to watch. Dr. Earl Anderson, then chair of CSU's English department, believed her dynamism was especially needed. He said that some of his colleagues had grown lazy and self-satisfied over the years. Weinbaum could provide a shot of in-your-face energy.

So the quirky, adventurous Ph.D. packed up her six-year-old and moved from Massachusetts to Cleveland Heights. She whirled into CSU like a "force of nature," as one professor put it. She taught courses in Asian, black, Jewish, and Latina literature. She established a feminist-fiction journal and got started on another book. She challenged her colleagues to seriously consider the literature of people of color.

Then they fired her.

The Faithful
Weinbaum's students don't gush over her. Instead, they display quiet respect -- and also bewilderment at the strange reasons for her firing.

Weinbaum had a following of students who would take one course after another, just because she was teaching. Rather than spoon-feeding them knowledge as if she were some arbiter of truth, they say, she encouraged them to investigate their intellectual passions. Thinking he wanted to become a high school teacher, Bill True signed up for a course in multicultural lit. But it was Weinbaum who helped him realize his passion for scholarly writing. She praised the risk-taking quality of his essay on gangsta-rap lyrics and post-colonial theory. "She said I could publish it," he says. "She was the first person to encourage me to publish anything. She had strong opinions, but her approach was really earthy and cool." Weinbaum ultimately convinced him to pursue a Ph.D.; he's now in his second year of graduate studies at Case Western Reserve.

Not all of Weinbaum's students go on to discover their inner genius, but there are enough stories from people like True to make you wonder whether she has some sort of magic touch.

How to Fire a Prof
If you work at a university, the job to get is full professor. You teach the best classes, you'll never be fired, and when teaching gets dull, you can take off for Ecuador on sabbatical.

Two steps down is the rank of assistant professor, also known as purgatory. Essentially, it's a six-year probation. There's no job security, and you get the worst assignments. All the while, you'd better smile and look eager to serve, because your tenured colleagues are watching your every move. In the end, they decide whether you stay or go.

Assistant Professor Weinbaum didn't mind the heavy workload; she still found time for crusades against what she considered chauvinism and elitism. Whether you were a buddy or a superior, if she thought you were wrong, she'd have no compunction about calling you a "spineless coward." She was blunt, relentless, and blessed with a unique gift for grating on friend and foe alike. She never learned, in the words of a lawyer representing CSU, to "respect the position" of higher-ups. Not until her four-year review would she discover how much that matters on the 18th floor of Rhodes Tower.

The four-year review is the moment of truth for an assistant professor. What your peers think of your work determines whether you're destined to move up in the ranks or out of the university altogether. Tenured colleagues make the call: They can promote you to associate professor. They can tell you to keep kissing ass and check back next year. Or they can issue what's called a terminal contract, which means you'd better start investigating new careers.

The judging, according to the union contract, is based on three criteria: teaching, research, and service to the university. The 12 profs who made up Weinbaum's Peer Review Committee had no quarrel with the first two: Weinbaum had received excellent student and peer reviews. She had published many times and been cited in more than 25 scholarly publications -- an unusually high number for a professor at her level and a testament to her national reputation.

It was the third category, service, with which the committee took issue when they voted her out -- unanimously, with just one abstention. It wasn't that she hadn't done enough extra stuff, they said. In fact, her service load was uncommonly high: She developed several new courses, she brought name writers to campus, and she served on multiple committees. The trouble, they said, had to do with her personal skills. Her attitude. But there isn't a category for "congeniality" in a professor's dossier, so the committee just sort of invented one.

This isn't unusual, according to research conducted by Professor Anna Agathagelou of Oberlin College. She says universities habitually turn to the "service" mechanism to get rid of inconvenient professors -- especially radical women and minority professors.

The Kids Like Her -- Big Deal
Favorite professors get axed all the time; it's an old story. Teaching and inspiring get you only so far in the layered game of faculty politics. But for an instructor with Weinbaum's accomplishments, usually there is an allegation of real misconduct.

According to arbitration transcripts, the English department's most "serious" grievance was over an incident that had actually been resolved the year before her review.

In 2001, Weinbaum took it upon herself to post a message for an English department position on an internet list. Instead of waiting to post a copy of the official, department-approved ad, she typed up a note suggesting that a feminist, multicultural type might be preferred. This wasn't exactly untrue, and if she had been less impulsive, there might have been no problem. But her more pedantic colleagues were annoyed.

"It seems like a small thing, and years ago, it would've been," says Kathe Davis, a Kent State English professor. But these days, strict affirmative-action regulations govern how faculty searches are conducted. "For someone new to the environment, it would have been an easy mistake to make."

Another complaint involved an old blow-up over the school newspaper. In 1998, the summer before Weinbaum started teaching, a student wrote an article stating that Jewish students were "inexplicably angry" over the wording of a protest banner put up by Muslim students. The banner equated Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories with the Holocaust.

Weinbaum was angry with the paper's advisor, Dr. Adrienne Gosselin, also an English professor. She felt that an explanation of why Jewish students were angry was important for balance. Gosselin believed it was not her place to edit for content. Furious e-mails ensued, and Weinbaum upped the ante when she wrote that Gosselin appeared to be in "Holocaust denial."

In another case, she irritated a colleague who had fallen ill with cancer. Weinbaum was insensitive, making too many demands on her time, said Professor Sheila Schwartz. She had voiced crude comments about Schwartz's weight and about her husband's academic success. Weinbaum didn't care that she was sick, said Schwartz. She didn't even send any get-well cards.

The whole case seems to have the evidentiary quality of a fight between middle school girls. "In all my 18 years as a union attorney," says Susannah Muscovitz, "I've never sat in an arbitration hearing engaged in the serious consideration of whether or not get-well cards were received, or whether remarks made at a faculty party were meant innocently or not. It's all very surreal."

Professor David Larson was instrumental in Weinbaum's firing. He declined Scene's interview request, but at arbitration he testified that there is "a difference between . . . idiosyncrasy and academic freedom, and [a person who] makes it extraordinarily difficult for the department to get anything done."

He didn't specify what, exactly, was not getting done. But his words underscore the essence of the department's case: Weinbaum really annoys us.

Did Someone Say Conspiracy?
One CSU professor with close ties to the English department characterizes the dispute in simple terms. "This is a story of horribly broken friendships," he says sadly. "Batya is an intense person. There is no question as to her scholarship -- look to her citations. But she pushes her friends too hard."

The personal nature of the fight has led to speculation about underlying reasons for Weinbaum's dismissal. Scene tried to speak the CSU profs directly involved, but few were willing to comment. However, Weinbaum's peers from other universities were able to speak freely. Theresa Crater, a Denver English professor, has seen this happen before. She thinks it has to do with fear of change and the unwillingness of people who have invested in a certain way of thinking to let go of their perceived power. In order to accept the idea that multiculturalism is important, for example, you have to loosen your grip on the idea that literature began with Beowulf. If that's what you have spent your life asserting, you might be reluctant to change your frame of reference. "Batya was hired to do things, but when she started to, they freaked out," says Crater.

Adds Nelson Pole, a CSU philosophy professor: "My guess is that the search committee chose Batya knowing that they didn't know exactly what they were getting. And in the end, they were intimidated and overwhelmed."

Others say that the possibility of anti-Semitism shouldn't be discounted. "Batya is forceful," says Marleen Barr, an English professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey. "WASPs and Jews often live by different cultural codes. From being Jewish in the south, I feel that I know what it has been like for her. If I breathed, people said I was aggressive. She's very strong, forceful, and opinionated -- but that's no reason to fire her."

The fact that Weinbaum is a forceful woman, says Davis, is an even more significant factor in the department's turning on her. "Even though other women are vilifying her," she explains, "what is important to understand is that sexism [is the] expectation of different behaviors from men and women. It doesn't matter who is holding the bias."

If the case against Weinbaum is short on evidence, so are the speculative defenses put forth by her friends. But there's little doubt that the department stacked the deck against her. In gearing up for Weinbaum's ousting, department chairman John Gerlach admitted, he asked only those professors with negative feelings to write letters relating to the quality of her "service." Further, after reviewing certain letters, Gerlach asked the authors to amp up their beefs with Weinbaum.

The bottom line: Due to bizarre dynamics on the 18th floor, a respected professor has been taken away from her students. And there remain the underlying issues of whether a professor's eccentricities are reason enough to dump her -- and whether it's kosher for CSU to spend more than $60,000 in tuition money to do so.

The school's position: Legally, none of this matters. Because Weinbaum was only an assistant professor, as long as the English department believes in its reasoning, the union has no case.

The union's position: The four-year review is a place to address professional qualifications, not personal conflicts. If CSU's decision is allowed to stand, it will only ease the way for the university to ax other inconvenient but qualified professors in the future.

The arbitrator's decision is expected to be made public August 12.

Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.