NASTY BUSINESS: Mac’s Class Wars

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By Steve Arnold, Hamilton Spectator

Paul Bates was warned from the start – McMaster University’s business school “eats its deans.” Over the next several years that’s exactly what it did to the savvy Bay Street executive and acclaimed university business school teacher.


 

Bates was named dean of the Michael G. DeGroote School of Business in 2004 after a lengthy career making money on Bay Street. When he stepped down nearly seven years later, he’d survived a snake pit of back-stabbing cliques absorbed in internal debates rather than training and shaping the next generation of industry leaders.

The internal battles over his controversial appointment became so bitter one staff member asked for a panic button in her office in case festering disputes erupted into violence. Others reported needing sleeping pills and anti-depressants and being unable to write research papers for fear of the intimidation and criticism they would face.

At its heart, the debate that enraged emotions in the halls of DeGroote was an old one for universities: could a man with actual business experience lead a school of business? Could he understand and appreciate the unique culture of the academic world?

What turned that debate into a scandal requiring two investigations and a lengthy tribunal hearing that disciplined five professors were the tactics some faculty adopted to support their arguments, including blocking promotions and attacking the credibility of colleagues because they were in the opposite camp.

The full sordid story has been shrouded behind a veil of confidentiality for almost a year after a tribunal ruled five professors were to be censured, three with suspensions long enough to effectively end their careers.

That veil was torn aside when 15,000 pages of documents were filed with Ontario’s Divisional Court recently as part of an application for judicial review of the suspensions. What follows is based on those documents.


 

Read the stunning documents

Key players

The latest news: Getting ready for a court appeal

Editorial: The Spectator’s view

 


 

The conflict at DeGroote consumed almost a decade, from 2004 to 2013. It centres on four people – Dean Paul Bates and professors Chris Bart, Wayne Taylor and George Steiner.

Other professors played their parts – two earning suspensions and another a formal reprimand – but the tribunal found Bart, Taylor and Steiner were the ringleaders of the anti-Bates camp and deserving of the toughest sanctions.

Staff conflict is not new at DeGroote. In the school’s 45-year history, Bates was the first dean ever appointed to a second term. In the 1980s things were so bad the entire accounting faculty quit and moved to the University of Waterloo. A more recent investigation found problems as far back as 1998 and concluded “effectively, the faculty and the Dean’s office appear to have fought each other to a standstill over the last 15-20 years.”

Bates was appointed dean in 2004 in a move the university hoped would bring “dynamism” back to DeGroote. In the previous five years enrolment in the Master of Business Administration program had fallen by half and research production and faculty morale were sinking. A radical fix was needed.

Bates – a 25-year veteran of Bay Street, member of the Ontario Securities Commission and award-winning teacher at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management – seemed to be the answer.

Some faculty grumbled from the beginning, demanding to know how a man without a PhD, or even a university degree, could appreciate the unique culture of the academic world.

“The truth is that a select few faculty decided from the get-go… not to support the appointment of a non-academic dean,” junior professor Linda Stockton wrote on a faculty association blog. “Their argument was how could a dean support research if he is not a researcher himself?”

Bates’ lack of academic credentials was supposed to be balanced by naming an associate dean with a strong academic background to handle internal affairs so Bates was free to raise money in the business community. That job was given to human resources professor Milena Head, but the appointment wasn’t enough to silence the critics.

“While a highly competent academic with strong research and teaching credentials, she lacked both the experience to provide needed mentorship in academic matters to the Dean as well as credibility” among Bates opponents, concluded the report of a special committee that probed DeGroote’s problems.


Against that background three critical decisions were made during Bates’ first term as dean that turned what could have been dismissed as merely academic snobbery into all all-out war for control of the school.

They were: removing Chris Bart from administrative control of the Directors College; closing the Health Leadership Institute conceived and directed by Wayne Taylor; and pushing ahead with a new Burlington campus despite faculty objections.

Closing their institutes, the tribunal concluded, turned Bart and Taylor into Bates’ harshest critics and leaders of the effort to block his second term.

Bart was creator of the Directors College, a joint venture with the Conference Board of Canada designed to train corporate directors in the wake of the Enron, Nortel and other scandals then sweeping across North America. It was also to be DeGroote’s way into the lucrative field of executive education.

Bart called it “the single greatest educational innovation in the history of (DeGroote),” bringing “national and international distinction to McMaster,” an innovation that “catapulted DeGroote onto the national stage.”

Executives paid $4,000 for each of five modules delivered during weekend retreats at a Niagara-on-the-Lake spa and by Bart’s estimate the operation was profitable in its second year.

Bates supported the idea at first, and even enrolled in the program, but by 2005 he concluded the college was in trouble because Bart was “a good teacher, but a very poor administrator.”

There were staff grievances, a complaint from the spa about a boisterous party (later withdrawn), questions about stipends Bart awarded himself and about profit margins Bates felt were far too thin. Most troubling was a complaint from the Conference Board about Bart disrespecting a competing program at the University of Toronto.

Faced with those complaints, Bates stripped Bart of his management authority, allowed the college office to be moved to Ottawa and later, at the insistence of the Conference Board, removed Bart as principal.

Bart disputed those allegations and alleged his “demeaning” demotion was punishment for not supporting the Burlington initiative.

The university tribunal, however, ruled “acting upon governance issues in collaboration with a joint venture partner whose concerns preclude Dr. Bart’s continued involvement in governance… is not harassment. Rather, these decisions reflect sound financial oversight and business practices.”


Similar questions surrounded the Health Leadership Institute formed in 2006 by Taylor. Again, Bates decided it was a good idea in the hands of a good teacher but bad administrator.

HLI was supposed to be DeGroote’s way of selling leadership training to health executives, especially through programs by the famous Disney Institute. Bates said he initially supported the idea and even helped get $1 million in seed money for it, but it soon became clear to him the program was being mismanaged.

The Health Leadership Institute was initially supported by Bates, who helped get seed money. But Bates decided HLI had to be closed.

Allegations included claims Taylor’s wife was on site giving “inappropriate” direction to staff, that Taylor contracted for a research program that didn’t comply with the university’s policies, that he was spending “significant monies” on marketing trinkets that bore the HLI logo but not McMaster’s and making improper payments and raises to staff.

“HLI had to be closed because of its disastrous financial performance,” Bates said. “It was clear to me that Dr. Taylor did not have the financial skills to run an organization such as the HLI.”

Taylor denies the accusations and claims he was targeted because he opposed Bates getting a second term as dean. The tribunal found, however, that after HLI was closed and Taylor was removed as director of the Health Services Management program he “openly declared war” on the dean.


 

The sharpest controversy concerned the expansion into a new Centre for Advanced Management Studies in Burlington.

From the beginning, that idea faced resistance from faculty who felt the plan lacked analysis and had been approved by a committee stacked with supporters. They also felt they should have been consulted rather than simply informed of a decision.

When five of the school’s six area chairs circulated a letter opposing the plan, they were slapped with formal reprimands on their personnel files. The reprimands were later removed, but faculty said the action “sent a strong and intimidating message” that told them they must “fear for their jobs if they did not endorse (the Burlington project).”

In the midst of those debates the university formed a committee to consider whether to offer Bates a second term in 2009. Arguing that the committee was stacked with Bates supporters, his opponents in the faculty decided to drop their gloves and start swinging.

As early as October 2007, Bart and Taylor had been urging other faculty to oppose a new term for Bates. A group eventually came together to do that – dubbed the G21 because of its number.

Initially, untenured faculty members were told to stay out of the debate because their jobs were vulnerable, but many felt the real message was “support Bates at your peril.”

“We understood that any… perception of support for the Dean, would not be looked upon favourably by those opposing him, especially Drs. Bart and Taylor,” Rita Cossa testified, adding she saw “a very clear threat that Dr. Taylor and other opponents of the Dean would interfere with people’s careers if they tried to support the Dean.”

Professors Milena Head and Terry Flynn, among others, found out just how real that threat was.

Both became eligible for promotion during the height of the anti-Bates debate and both promotions were delayed in what the tribunal later called clear examples of intimidation.

George Steiner, one of the louder anti-Bates voices, was a member of the committees judging both promotions, positions the tribunal found he used to punish perceived supporters of the dean.

At Head’s hearing, he did that by claiming he had a “very serious issue” that required answers. When Head was summoned, that “very serious issue” turned out to be a 90-minute grilling over the petty details of an administrative decision Head had made more than three years earlier.

The tribunal ruled Steiner’s questions amounted to “a premeditated plan of harassment” that “crossed the line of acceptable conduct.”

Head eventually got her promotion, but only after a process she said “resulted in significant emotional and physical trauma” and forced her to turn to professional help and prescription sleeping pills.

Flynn was branded a Bates supporter after telling the dean some of the negative things that were being said about him.

“My decision to provide this information to Dean Bates was not because of my support or allegiance for him. Rather, I felt it was inappropriate and disrespectful for individuals to make such statements about the office of the dean,” Flynn said in an affidavit.

Bart and Steiner both served on the committee judging Flynn’s application and both vented their anger: Bart by mocking the time Flynn spent on administration of McMaster’s new communications program rather than doing research; and Steiner with questions the tribunal ruled “seemed designed to discredit him and his work.”

Flynn ultimately had to take his case to the university senate before he was permitted to keep his job. Within days of that decision, however, he was “fired” as an instructor in the Directors College where Bart was still lead professor.

DeGroote became such a poisoned environment for Flynn he was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, gained 20 pounds and found he couldn’t write because of fear “the constant intimidation and harassment of him and his work will damage his reputation and character.” Finally he took the very rare step of transferring to another faculty.

Ultimately nine faculty said they felt their promotions had been denied or delayed because they were, or were seen to be, Bates supporters.

Steiner claimed he was also a victim of intimidation, arguing that when Bates first arrived at DeGroote he helped the professor get an overdue salary increase, but when he then made it clear he expected Steiner’s unquestioning support in the future, and Steiner refused, he claimed Bates “exhibited a mistrust” of him.

Steiner also alleged his area within the school was reorganized by Bates to ensure supporters got more representation on the faculty council and other committees, and that despite being nominated by his peers, Steiner was kept off the committee considering a second term for the dean because he was known to be a Bates opponent.


 

The toxic atmosphere at DeGroote affected more than just faculty. Carolyn Colwell, coordinator of the PhD program, said in an affidavit she feared violence was a real possibility and asked for a panic button in her office.

“I can honestly say that I have become so concerned about the mental stability of members of the DeGroote community that I am genuinely concerned for my safety when I come to work,” she said. “I feel that this reaction is completely justified when I see the time and emotion that people have spent on relatively minor issues … I am deeply worried that this lack of perspective and increase in emotion may lead to violence if allowed to continue.”

A key part of the G21 campaign was a widely circulated December 2008 “performance report” outlining Bates’ perceived failures.

“Mr. Bates has failed to meet the main objectives of his recruitment. Indeed, we are unable to identify any success of substance that can be credited to him. His tenure … has been characterized by continuous discord and management failure unprecedented in the history of the Faculty,” they wrote.

Among other failures, they alleged Bates alienated mutual-fund king Michael Lee-Chin to the point where he gave $10 million to the University of Toronto rather than McMaster.

The group opposing Bates was dubbed the G21 because of its number. It circulated a report saying he had failed to meet his objectives as dean.

Bates challenged all of the report’s assertions and the tribunal ruled the report “recklessly and wrongfully impugned the reputation of Mr. Bates,” was “drafted in bad faith and with no due diligence,” and was “not only riddled with false information, but was part of a larger self-serving agenda” of Bart and Taylor.

As the debate over Bates’ reappointment worsened, the McMaster University Faculty Association, at the urging of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, stepped in to conduct a vote of the business faculty. Of the 61 full-time faculty at DeGroote, 44 voted; 36-6 against Bates. A vote among business students at the same time got 724 votes with 605 in favour of reappointment and 119 against.

Students also sent a letter to President Peter George supporting Bates and questioning the motives of his critics.

“He is a natural leader with a heart. He is a leader that the DeGroote School of Business not only needs, but deserves,” they wrote. “The individuals behind these attacks do not have the interest of the school in mind; just their own personal agenda.”


 

Two investigations of the situation were conducted – one by McMaster’s Human Rights and Equity Services office, and another by a panel of professors from other faculties. Both found multiple breaches of the institution’s anti-harassment policy and called for strong action.

In March 2010, equity officer Mile Komlen found “an underlying and pervasive culture of hostility” had taken hold at DeGroote that “could deteriorate if the status quo is left unchecked.”

Komlen concluded “the time for further analysis has passed” and urged convening a tribunal with the power to impose penalties ranging from reprimand to firing.

Another review by the President’s Advisory Committee on the DeGroote School of Business issued a report in December 2010 that found DeGroote “has a strong cohort of faculty… that has the potential to be much more effective than it is at present.” The problem was that in place of a “unified sense of doing what is best for the school or the university,” the school’s culture was marked by “bullying, harassment, mean-spirited sarcasm, intimidation and disrespect.”

“There is no doubt that the antagonistic climate in the School would challenge even the most skilled administrator and this may explain the difficulty that past Deans also encountered,” they added. “Despite this ongoing history we are of the view that the degree of impasse in the School currently is greater than it has been under any other recent dean.”

The only solution, they concluded, was new leadership.

“As we studied the views we had heard from within the School we reached the clear conclusion that it was essential for a change in leadership in the school,” the committee concluded.

Aside from intimidation and mean-spirited sarcasm, other actions during the bitter debate conjure images of spoiled children three-year-olds rather than distinguished researchers.

In an affidavit, Linda Stockton said junior professors serving on contracts were often belittled as “retailers of information” who “contribute to the intellectual deficit of the school” to such an extent that “we might as well be a community college.”

In another allegation, Bart was accused of deliberately parking in Bates’ reserved parking spot as a “deliberate affront to the dignity of the dean.”

Others claimed they were intimidated by posters Taylor often stuck to his office door – one showed a picture of a transport truck with the warning “Those who take the middle of the road … get run over” and another a picture of the toy Slinky and stating “some people are like Slinkies … not really good for anything … but they still bring a smile to your face when you push them down a flight of stairs.”

Bates was appointed to a second term in 2009, but stepped aside in December 2010 after the President’s Advisory Committee report, taking a non-academic job as executive director of the new Burlington campus. He now serves as an assistant professor of leadership in the McMaster Divinity College.

Bates’ departure from the DeGroote school was greeted with the same bitter division of opinion as his arrival. Lecturer Marvin Ryder wrote in an email to Bates “I can’t help but feel that this is a victory for ‘the dark side.’ It may even be a pyrrhic victory as I have no idea who would want to act as Dean for this motley crew of academics.

“You have acted honourably and with integrity throughout your time as Dean. To be honest, as I said two years ago, I’m not sure ‘we’ deserved you.”

On the other side, Wayne Taylor was seen dancing in the atrium of the Burlington campus singing “ding-dong the witch is dead” from the Wizard of Oz. A new dean was eventually headhunted from the University of Calgary.

sarnold@thespec.com

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