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The Business School That 'Eats Its Deans'

The Business School That 'Eats Its Deans'

Photograph by Craig Swatton/Getty Images

The hostility between a Canadian business school dean and the professors that worked for him started as a scholarly debate. It will end in court.

Five professors at McMaster University in Ontario are appealing a decision made by the school to suspend them about a year ago. The 15,000 pages of court records made public in the appeal depict tensions that built for nearly a decade, culminating in an internal tribunal hearing that temporarily removed the professors from their positions at the school.

A special report published by the Hamilton Spectator on Saturday revealed how McMaster’s DeGroote School of Business became notorious for “eating its deans” and for a culture of “bullying, harassment, mean-spirited sarcasm, intimidation and disrespect.” The toxic work environment was fueled by both sides, the report said.

Normally, the big kid picks on the littler one. At DeGroote, bullying seemed to go both ways: The boss was accused of steamrolling underlings who reportedly plotted his demise, using sneaky tactics.

Long before DeGroote appointed businessman Paul Bates as its dean in 2004, the school had a reputation for impatience with its leaders. Bates was the first dean to last longer than the five-year term since the school was founded in the 1970s.

From the time Bates was appointed, faculty members were skeptical that a man who made his career in business could lead a group of Ph.D.s. When he started revamping academic programs in his first term, the Spectator said, three professors affected by the decisions launched an all-out revolt.

The professors waged a “lengthy and bitter campaign” to oust Bates, according to the Spectator, which included “trying to block the promotions of Bates supporters and undercutting their work through constant, unjustified criticism. Victims of those attacks said they suffered ill health and other effects.”

The university’s board of governors offered Bates a second term in 2008, over the opposition of 80 percent of the faculty. But Bates resigned early, in December 2010, amid reports that “several faculty members were on medication for depression, anxiety and stress-related illnesses,” according to the Globe and Mail.

Grievances between the two camps—professors who disapproved of Bates and those loyal to him—became public last year, when an internal tribunal heard complaints of harassment from both sides.

The tribunal ruled that it was the group of disgruntled teachers, not Bates, that had created a “poisoned” workplace. One professor, Wayne Taylor, was said to have “openly declared war” after Bates removed him from his position, and the tribunal said that Taylor and others “harassed, intimidated or retaliated against” faculty members who sided with the dean.

Five professors were suspended from positions at DeGroote for up to three years and were ordered to undergo sensitivity training, according to the documents.

The harshness of the punishments caught the eye of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, a group that lobbies the government on behalf of teachers. The association is paying for a lawyer to convince a judge to weigh in on the dispute.

“This was a staged trial ordered by the university under rules that violated every concept of natural justice in this country,” the former director of the teachers’ association told the Spectator, calling the tribunal  “a show trial.”

The Spectator said the appeal will be heard next year.

Kitroeff is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York, covering business education.

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