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Some Context:

A member of my MA thesis committee, for whom I was also a GA (graduate assistant), threatened me several times while I was still in my masters program (last year). For example, she threatened to fire me from my GA position with them-- which, in fact, she cannot do (only the department head can remove a GA from their position). When she realized she had no power to fire me, she threatened not to write me letters of rec for doctoral programs. She tried to pressure me into promoting her from reader to thesis chair on my thesis committee. I was very afraid of her at the time because she was my work supervisor, my professor (I was taking a class with her at the time), and a reader on my thesis committee.

I was afraid she would diminish my reputation in the department, give me a bad grade in her class, delay my graduation by holding up the thesis process, and not write me any letters of recommendation or worse, write me a bad letter of recommendation for a doctoral program. I did not stand up for myself or for others to whom she was abusive until I graduated last summer; I saw her retaliate against other students (primarily through grades and intradepartmental reputation) and I felt sure she could carry out some of her threats toward me. She bragged to me and other students that she successfully reduced the scholarly reputation of an academic at another institution whom she said was 'inauthentic.' Shortly before graduating, I did leave a record with the Ombuds of her treatment of me.

Now: I asked her to write a letter of rec for one of my PhD apps because I was afraid she'd be insulted if I didn't ask her for a single one (this is probably ridiculous, I know). I was accepted to that program and have decided to go there. However, this professor continues to be hostile toward me. In a recent email, she told me she had "just spoken to" the graduate adviser of the program I will attend in the fall, and implied that she speaks to this adviser regularly as if they are friends (somehow I think she's lying). Because of a pattern of behavior, I recognized that she still wants me to be afraid of her. I am loathe to admit that it's working, I think primarily out of ignorance of how academic/institutional relationships truly function (tempted to play the First Gen card here).

Question: Are such inter-institutional threats actionable, i.e. how likely is it that faculty at one institution can influence faculty at another institution in order to negatively affect the reputation of a student?

Please note: The question is not, "Is this professor a bad person?" or anything to that effect.

If this question is too individualized, I will take it down. I feel like I can't be the only one who has experienced/is experiencing a situation like this. I would appreciate generalizable advice (e.g. across disciplines, types of academic relationships), especially from academics who have gone through similar situations.

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    Sounds like an official complaint needs to be made against her - that is incredibly aggressive and unprofessional behaviour. As for your current situation, you may need to have a chat with your current supervisors - but, I would wait for some advice of some of the professors who are members here. – user70612 Apr 12 '17 at 14:55
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    "she aggressively pursued a relationship with me" If this can be documented by emails or other reliable evidence, I think you definitely have something actionable to act on. However, the rest of what you write suggests that maybe you meant "relationship" in a more general sense, and not in a romantic sense. (Saying "pursued a relationship with me" usually means romantic, by the way.) – Dave L Renfro Apr 12 '17 at 15:46
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    It's quite likely that someone with the character that you describe already has quite a reputation within their field themselves (and I don't mean that in a positive way), and therefore if she were to attempt to interfere it might well fall on deaf ears. – user2390246 Apr 12 '17 at 16:14
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    Yes, people like that exist and it is an unpleasant experience to be in their crosshairs. If she is consistently misbehaving, as you seem to suggest, her reputation precedes her. You may have some difficulties, but try not to lay tracks of what you are going to do and where you are going to go next. Try to cultivate other references which you can use. Do not give her material, information, anything you can avoid. She will be insulted about any way you take that is not hers, so there is nothing you can do to avoid her wrath. Be polite, but distance yourself as much as you can and hope she... – Captain Emacs Apr 12 '17 at 16:57
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    @JanIvan Hm, she did know, because I told her. I was taking her class at the time. Her response was, Yeah, that sounds hard, but things will get better soon. "Soon" turned out to be three months. I never called her a psychopath. (I don't think lacking empathy needs to be pathologized.) It sounds like you want me to empathize with her, and I certainly did on many occasions. I feel like this is very off-topic from my original question (are these threats actionable). – adspeed Apr 13 '17 at 12:16
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This sounds terrible, and like you said, I definitely think asking her to write a letter of rec was a mistake. However, regardless of whether she tried to sabotage you or not, you've been admitted! Congratulations.

Now is the time to sever all contact with her and move on.

You left a record with your previous university about your issues with her, and if she was going to create problems at your new school I really think it would have come before you were admitted, especially since she was a letter writer. Whatever she did or did not say, they gave you a big vote of confidence in offering you a place. Time to focus on the next stage.

Good luck!

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    Thanks, @jeff-- I won't lie, it has been a trying experience, to say the least. This was in the midst of the death of my younger sibling, too-- this prof doesn't seem to have an empathetic bone in her body. She ate up way too much of my intellectual and emotional energy. Seems she still is! I think you are right, I need to focus on what's next. Thanks again for responding. – adspeed Apr 12 '17 at 17:19
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    @adspeed - just to note ... assume that you are dealing with a sociopath (whether she is or not, her behavior is very reminiscent of that), and deal with this accordingly. For example, severing all contact with her is good advice. Not acting on any of her pulling your triggers is another. It seems like she is playing a game to wield her power over you, and it has been working. Leave that part of your life behind, and if need be, protect yourself from further contact or manipulations in any reasonable manner that is required. – Dennis Apr 13 '17 at 19:20
  • @adspeed: How is a "professor" of such dejectable character allowed to continue with their job? – The_Sympathizer Apr 15 '17 at 22:51
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    The OP writes in a subsequent comment that "this professor is prominent in a subfield of my field (which is very small), and she is a low-level organizer for the biggest conference in our field. There is a good chance that she will actively seek me out at this and other conferences". I think this changes a lot the question. Social contact should be kept, but the OP's PhD group is by far the single most important entity now - and in the future. – Helen Apr 17 '17 at 4:50
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First of all, if these actions can be (or already are) documented, start a case on that professor. This is mobbing, and breaking a few global ethical rules.

Asking her for a reference letter was a mistake, but it is not un-recoverable.

Personally, I do not believe she would have major effects on your status of acceptance. Academics get to know a lot of people and they are aware of these kind of people in academia. Hence, they will not judge you by only one letter of reference.

If, on the other hand, an institution judges you by a single negative letter of reference, then I (again personally) would doubt the credibility of the programme. There are many ways to get to know a potential PhD student, such as reading your work, Skype interview, face-to-face interview, talking to your references on the phone etc. Taking a decision regarding to a single reference letter is not very professional. Another possibility is that the institute might have already decided not to hire you, and they might use the letter as an excuse to dismiss your application.

It is true that there might be some cases where an institution can interfere with your reputation, but those cases are either documented, or reported unanimously.

As a result, if I were you, I would

  • Press charges both legally and academically.
  • Ignore the person during my application period,
  • Avoid mentioning her to my potential supervisors unless I am asked.

I had a similar case where a project supervisor claimed that he "hired me despite all the negative feedback from my superiors." Ended up getting nothing but a decrease in his reputation.

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    "start a case on that professor" does not seem like good advice for a newly-admitted PhD student at a different school. – Jeff Apr 12 '17 at 18:10
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    @Jeff I think it is a good advice for every single person on the face of the earth. If you keep silent against such a behavior against yourself, then the chances are you will ignore them in the future. If this is not the reason for pressing charges, I don't see what else would be. – padawan Apr 12 '17 at 18:23
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    @Jeff Unfortunately, I believe quite the opposite. This is about priorities of a human being, regardless of the position and title. Personally, I always prefer not to get the position if it depends on me ignoring some offense. This is some serious stuff, and strictest actions should be taken. Or, simply "what should happen to start a case?" – padawan Apr 12 '17 at 18:49
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    Youre escallating your rhetoric here. Threatening legal action against a professor you didn't get along with, but that you asked to write you a letter of recommendation, for a program you got admitted to, strikes me as basically insane. Not to mention there's nothing the OP said that sounded remotely illegal. – Jeff Apr 12 '17 at 21:07
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    If neither "threatened to fire me from my GA position with them" "tried to pressure me into promoting her from reader to thesis chair on my thesis committee" is not illegal, set aside making a student very uncomfortable about their future (which is also something you cannot do according to code of ethics), then we're on different pages and there is no point in discussing further. – padawan Apr 12 '17 at 21:54
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If this person is as bad as you say this will be well known, and she is probably less influential than she thinks.

My advice is from now, just ignore her. Don't read or reply to a single email from her. Set an email filter to delete her emails before you see them if it really bothers you and get on with your life. She'll soon be a distant memory.

Alternatively, why not deliberately foster a strong enmity, having an enemy you can righteously work against can be a great motivator in life, and provide much entertainment, provided you like this kind of thing.

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    Thanks for your advice, I very much want to get to the point of "she is a distant memory!" I almost mentioned this in my original question, but I didn't want to clutter it up too much: this professor is prominent in a subfield of my field (which is very small), and she is a low-level organizer for the biggest conference in our field. There is a good chance that she will actively seek me out at this and other conferences. The very thought gives me a lot of anxiety. Deleting her emails is easy, avoiding her in person, maybe less so. Any thoughts on this? – adspeed Apr 12 '17 at 17:28
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    p.s. While the thought of having an academic archenemy appeals to my comic book self, I think in actuality it would not play out well. Like, she might academically crush me. XD I say that because she makes a point of interfering with other people's academic personas, spreads rumors, etc. Also, I am not exactly competitive or aggressive. I am more like Arthur (from The Tick) than Batman... I should probably stick with filtering her out of my inbox/life! – adspeed Apr 12 '17 at 17:36
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    @crobar Not everyone thrives on enmities. It's also a waste of time if you have a real life (as scientist and human). If she seeks OP out at conferences, my recommendation is to look on, not nod, not shake head, wait until the storm is over and continue doing what they have been doing before. Or, if they are being told something they cannot agree with, they can say "I respectful disagree." In calm tone, as often as is necessary. It might be worth changing topic for this, in fact, if she controls the field. But if she is just a low-level organiser, she probably upsets enough people as it is. – Captain Emacs Apr 12 '17 at 18:35
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    On the plus side, if she makes a point of doing this sort of thing often and broadly, she's likely known for it among others in the field. Given that, people will tend to discount negative judgments they hear from her because they won't be particularly reliable. If she's been around long enough, having her trying to slag your reputation could be a badge of honor - it means you've made it onto her radar. – Phil Miller Apr 12 '17 at 22:09
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    ultimately conferences mean little in academia -- Except in computer science, where they mean far more than journals. – JeffE Apr 14 '17 at 3:34
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"She repeatedly pressured me to take her classes, make her my thesis chair, become her graduate assistant, etc. etc. I never picked up on anything sexual."

There was some initial confusion about the type of pressure, but that has now been clarified -- thanks.

Questions: (1) Are such inter-institutional threats actionable? (2) How likely is it that faculty at one institution can influence faculty at another institution in order to negatively affect the reputation of a student?

(1) You can check your university's code of conduct and policies, but even if they were actionable, since you'll be leaving soon, I'd recommend that you simply cut off any future communications with this professor, and look forward to being in a different department soon.

(2) We can't possibly predict the behavior of this professor, nor the reaction of the new department were this professor to actually contact them, but I would advise you to inform your department chair what's going on. Surely s/he will instruct the professor not to contact the new department.

Related to the above, I recommend that you make a clean, complete break in communications with the professor. Here are the basic action steps needed, as I see it:

  1. Inform your department head that you are uncomfortable receiving any communications from this prof. Provide three concrete examples of harassment. Include email quotes if possible. Leave out the background info and make it very simple. Ideally, the department head will let the prof know that communication from her would not be welcome. If not, send one short email to the prof with this statement, and don't read her response (see next step).

  2. As someone else suggested, set up a filter to block incoming email from the prof. Since she might try to play mind games with you, but since you might need to have a record of future messages from her, forward all incoming mail from her to a trusted friend (without it ever hitting your inbox). But ask your friend to simply archive the messages without sharing them with you, unless there's something alarming coming in.

  3. (This step is optional) Telephone the graduate advisor in your upcoming department and calmly explain, e.g. "Prof. XX in my department told me she has been contacting you with negative remarks about me. I've informed my department head, Prof. YY, and made him/her aware of the situation. In case Prof. XX contacts you, I wanted to give you a heads-up." This is not something to say over email. If you have trouble reaching him or her, try to leave a message with a secretary, or in the worst case, write a brief email requesting a phone appointment, and mention several chunks of time when you'll be able to take a call and speak discreetly. Again, keep your tone very neutral and leave all the emotions out of it.

At the same time, get discreet support, perhaps through your university counseling service, perhaps through a relationship safety group in your town, perhaps with your closest friends. But be discreet in your department. If you need to leave the room when she walks in, just quietly discover a need to visit the bathroom.

  • Where did that first quote come from? – donjuedo Apr 14 '17 at 18:20
  • @donjuedo - That comment appears to have been removed. I will edit my answer. – aparente001 Apr 14 '17 at 19:21
4

As other already told: They are toxic and there is no chance it will be any better for anyone else but them. On the other hand there is innegligible chance it will be even worse for you.

Step one: Document them. You, your schoolmates, document the behaviour. The last email itself is good evidence to sent them in between their limits.

Step two: Report them. By yourself or as a herd of students. Start serious debate within your school about their behaviour. If asked why the reference from this professor, you can show them the email. Maybe, this would be a painful backfire for them.

Be ready to face consequences; as a backup plan look for another research group to work with, just in case...

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    Thanks, @Crowley. I did document and file reports with Ombuds. At least two other students (that I know of) have done the same. I am no longer at that school, so I am taking the advice of some on here to simply ignore her and hopefully not run into her at conferences. – adspeed Apr 13 '17 at 12:35
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    Back your former schoolmates up, if asked. At conferences it will look quite odd when professor hunts down young PhD student to mock or backstab. Later, when you gain your reputation, it will be odd when there will be one professor to gossip against you. In all cases she wants you to think she has power; obviously, she doesn't. And trying to apply such "power" will cost her too much for no gain. – Crowley Apr 13 '17 at 13:59
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Four things:

You didn't say why she threatened you. If you killed her cat or you tried to abuse one of her other students, the discussion would be a lot different :) Or did she threaten you in an effort to steal your work? Sorry for the crude examples, but some mention of the reason/excuse is very crucial here.

Second, I am really sorry to say that several of the comments seem to come from people without much contact with academia. In the vast majority of cases, being a horrible person is not a disadvantage for being a professor. And if a person has been acting like this for a long time, it means that they have the power to do so.

This brings me to the third point: Other professors will never challenge such a person, but they might want to actively avoid them. I think first you'd better try to figure out if she has any contact with your current advisors through indirect indications, such as smalltalk or other. But as other answers say, they accepted you so the hardest part is over - and remember that nobody will fail a good worker only because of the drama of some other institute's staff.

Last, and perhaps more useful, I strongly think you should edit your question to add that you will continue interacting with her because of your subfield, as you wrote in some comment, because this is your main problem. (Unless she just relaxes and forgets about you being her hobby, of course. It really can happen.) And the answer to this problem is: your PhD group is your new academic family. They will support, protect you and promote your work in your subfield. So, please focus on them, and keep contact with the previous prof at a minimum and within the social norms.

It's one more horrible story, but at least I feel glad that SE can now bring these discussions into the open.

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    I felt like I should add a comment, more on the psychological side. Right now you need to finally feel safe and calm in your academic environment. Once your new program starts and a couple of weeks pass, everything from the past will look a lot less serious and more manageable. So please don't feel that you have to make any rash decisions right now (I mean, you don't). – Helen Apr 17 '17 at 6:40
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    "Being a horrible person is not a disadvantage"-- it appears that it may even be an advantage in some cases. For the record, I just want to note that I never said she's a horrible/bad/evil person. I think perfectly average people can treat others really badly, it doesn't make them 'horrible,' per se. But I agree about the 'not a disadvantage' comment, it seems that being aggressive and even hostile can actually be an advantage in some cases in academia. – adspeed Apr 17 '17 at 13:06
  • [1/2] As to why she threatened me... I think she thought she could control me as her GA (grad assistant) and student, and that didn't work out. By that I mean, she thought I would not question anything she asked of me or told me to do. For example, the first day of my GA position, she asked me to "write up and sign" an NDA that stated, among other things, that I wouldn't repeat comments she made to me about other faculty, staff, or students. She claimed this was commonplace and I could find examples online. In fact, it's not typical. The only NDA-type documents GAs typically sign are... – adspeed Apr 17 '17 at 13:10
  • [2/2] ...FOIA agreements to protect students, not NDAs to protect faculty talking about other faculty/staff/students. When I pressed her on this, she actually used the word "gossip." I checked with my department head, who said it was not necessary to sign any kind of NDA for this professor. I refused to write/sign anything for her without approval of the dept. head. She got extremely angry and walked away from me. This was after she'd already threatened to fire, so I was afraid, but moreso because I thought she might give me a bad grade in her class that term. So this is one example. – adspeed Apr 17 '17 at 13:14
  • :0 It seems indeed like you became her hobby... which is good since you didn't do anything objectionable yourself (and students standing up to academic abuse of power are exemplary, even more so if starting on their first day). Also it does sound like other staff acknowledge the situation (and "actively try to avoid her"). I would sincerely repeat the suggestions in my third and fourth point and comment. – Helen Apr 18 '17 at 8:47
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OP's comment revealed that severing communication will not remove the abuser from OP's life.

With this in mind, it is crucial that you get some influential person on your side who is aware of the situation, and agrees that a) the abuser wrongly did what you accuse them of, and b) who is both willing and able to back you up in the future, and who will be believed over the abuser.

As others said, acquire evidence if at all possible. As soon as you have an ally in mind (such as a thesis advisor or department head at your new program), and have built up a good working relationship with them, I would recommend bringing it up. I would not suggest bringing this up with the potential ally until you have built a favorable relationship.

If ignoring the abuser would guarantee that you have no further contact with them, then that is a good course of action. If, however, you are likely to come into proximity again (at a conference, or you may work with the abuser's colleagues in the future), then you need to tell someone. Good luck.

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    Thanks, @ancientcampus, for your advice. It is almost a guarantee that I will run into this prof again, so I am weighing all my options. – adspeed Apr 18 '17 at 20:57

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