Graduate Student: Beware Oregon State University!
The following essay describes my personal experiences with racist and sexist abuse at Oregon State University. It includes observations of repeated incidents constituting a pattern of systematic abuse directed towards women of color in the Oregon State University Geography program within the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.
After witnessing and finally reporting on these incidents, I was subjected to retaliation by my former department and the Oregon State University Graduate School. Any student who is thinking about attending OSU at the graduate or undergraduate level should carefully consider their options before agreeing to attend. Any funding agency or donor should likewise look to one of the many other universities out there unless and until substantial reforms are made to guarantee that students are protected from exploitation.
Oregon State university cares about one thing above all others: its own reputation. This is a university that swiftly ejected a student for playing cam-girl in the library and getting caught, but a white male graduate student in chemistry who got caught putting racist bumper stickers on cars was formally kept in his program even after his arrest.
And so it buries controversy whenever it can — like when a student like me writes a multi-page letter to the CEOAS Dean detailing repeated incidents of faculty abuse of students. I actually believed that when you did something like that, people were supposed to take you seriously.
What actually happened was that the graduate school violated my civil rights, wielding the inherent power dynamic that makes graduate school such a dangerous debt-trap for too many. They banked on me disappearing like so many other graduate students who later feel pressured to remain silent about what they saw and experienced for fear of gaining a bad reputation.
Though it is now four years later, I still feel it important to make sure this is out there. What people at a provincial, inward-looking place like Oregon State don’t realize is that — as the brilliant show Letterkenny puts it — bad gas travels fast.
And the more people are willing to share what kind of behavior institutions like Oregon State enable tenured faculty to get away with so long as they keep bringing in grant funds and awards, the greater the combined impact will be when universities begin to be held accountable. They are part of a predatory system that has become one of the single greatest barriers to social mobility: the education-debt complex.
Bottom line: If you are a potential graduate student looking at your options for the coming academic year, I have one piece of vital advice you ignore at your own risk:
Avoid Oregon State University
Feel free to go about your life if convinced, read on otherwise.
EDIT 3/29/2021: I got chills when I read this article on OPB about Grace Kuo’s treatment by Oregon State University.
So much of her experience tracks with everything I saw. The Oregon State University adminstration has clearly fostered an environment where anyone who reports allegations of abuse experience retaliation.
Oregon State University need to be investigated from top to bottom. Racist and sexist abuse goes on all the time and is shrugged off.
All OSU cares about is its reputation. It will try to crush anyone who fails to toe the company line.
I hold two graduate degrees from OSU. I was successful, right up until I wasn’t. I should be smiling and pretending it was great to protect my personal “brand” but leadership at Oregon State is too venal to leave unchallenged.
So this is my advice to prospective students.
AVOID OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY AT ALL COSTS!
Graduate or undergraduate, you can get a better education cheaper almost anywhere.
This essay details my observations and experiences after spending more than six years in graduate programs at OSU, during which time I was a very successful student — right up until the moment I wasn’t. As a student I published peer-reviewed work in a top journal, wrote and submitted National Science Foundation proposals, and made my research impact felt in a number of fun places by assisting other scholars in their research.
I am publishing this piece four years after quitting my doctoral program at Oregon State University as a result of the treatment I saw the predominantly white faculty mete out to students of color. Worse, University officials enabled Oregon State University Geography program faculty abuses and turned their backs on students who reported what was happening to them.
Taxpayers in the state of Oregon are funding a university and at least one department that have a habit of treating students as disposable sources of revenue, especially those who aren’t white. Despite being made aware of the unethical and abusive behavior of multiple faculty members, Oregon State University did little to nothing to prevent them from continuing their mistreatment of vulnerable students.
Here’s my story.
I was encouraged to join the Geography PhD program by several faculty after completing my first Masters degree at Oregon State. Because I was already enrolled at the university, I chose to get a head start on my doctoral course requirements and wound up becoming closely acquainted with the cohort of incoming PhD students immediately before my own. Four were students of color, which I took as an excellent sign — Oregon State University is disproportionately white and has seen numerous racist incidents in recent years.
Unfortunately for all of us, this high proportion of under-represented graduate students did not mean the Oregon State University or the Geography department within the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences were actually committed to graduating them.
Instead this cohort appears to have been admitted mostly in hopes of improving the department’s demographic statistics, which can boost the odds of winning grant funding. From there they were systematically under-supported and encouraged through neglect to leave for better places, as most eventually did.
After three years only one member out of six remained in the department — all the others were essentially given a Masters and forced out or chose to transfer elsewhere. The last who remained and eventually defended a dissertation was an immigrant who had already completed a doctorate in his home country, but was forced to re-do years of his life to be recognized as a PhD-holder in the United States because of diplomatic squabbles. He was also subjected to what looked to many of us like constant abuse — but his dogged determination to succeed was enough to carry him through, I was happy to hear, after enduring for six long years in that place.
I became friends and close colleagues with two of the students in this cohort, both high-achieving and incredibly competent women of color whose treatment at CEOAS explains why the attrition rate was so high in this — and I suspect many other — groups. Both of these young academics experienced a stream abuse from the faculty they were assigned to work with.
I witnessed much of it firsthand, and in this essay stick to what I actually saw and experienced myself or was directly told by someone I trust. When I reported my observations to CEOAS and Oregon State Graduate School leadership I was targeted too, eventually resulting in my quitting my doctoral studies entirely.
Frankly the experiences are still moderately traumatic to remember — part of why I’m writing it all down now and making it public. Too many people keep getting hurt by selfish, privileged individuals given positions of power they never should have been trusted with, so it is past time to do whatever I can to prevent as many people as possible from going through what we experienced at Oregon State.
The first — I’ll call her Jen —was a 4.0 student who already held a masters degree and was committed to powering through her doctorate. She was working with a professional faculty member named Todd Jarvis who I saw verbally abuse and threaten her on two distinct occasions.
One time this happened in a parking lot where he prevented her from entering a car so that he could berate her for another few minutes after having already done so on the other side of the street (he followed her) for some fifteen minutes.
Another time he trapped her in his office and literally screamed at her over the space of an hour — and that was just the time I stood and listened.
The kicker was that Julia Jones, the Geography Program Head, was standing in her office across the hall and well in earshot when it happened.
My heart is already pounding with anger as I write this remembering, so I think it is best to back off and give a little context about this especially egregious incident.
Jen’s program at Oregon State was all but cursed from the start. An intense, driven personality, she was a non-traditional graduate student with substantial experience in the private sector. The main members of her doctoral committee — Todd Jarvis, Aaron Wolf, and Mary Santelmann — essentially used her comprehensive exams and apparently large portions of her coursework to have her do program development work that directly benefited their careers and programs within OSU.
For non-academics, comprehensive exams are usually (the process varies widely across disciplines) a multi-day event where the faculty you work with give you tasks designed to represent a microcosm of the kind of research tasks you’ll be qualified to do. They are intended to test your knowledge of your scientific discipline’s core theories and methods and can offer a relatively even playing field for evaluating different students.
Trouble is, the actual composition of these exams is, in the United States, often left up to a doctoral student’s committee. These are supposed to make the test fair and truly comprehensive… but there is no enforcement mechanism in place to ensure this always happens. Further, even within individual scientific disciplines — especially the humanities and social sciences — there is tremendous variation between faculty working in the same areas in terms of what is considered comprehensive.
And Graduate students in the United States exist in a space with almost zero professional protections. So when you wind up with a committee member or two who has an ulterior motive or who simply dislikes a student, bad things happen to careers.
Universities do usually require a person from outside the student’s department to serve on the committee that judges the work, but in practice this is a toothless piece of enforcement because faculty across disciplines enforce a norm of non-intervention in other disciplines’ affairs. These committee members know their place, are generally serving because they have to, and only defend the student’s rights in rare cases.
Jen’s main committee members, Jarvis and Santelmann, forced her to use Comprehensive Exam time on work that personally benefited them — developing a program and curriculum tied to a prospective collaboration within the university. Doing this properly left her with almost no time to focus on the discipline-specific questions other committee members like Aaron Wolf expected. As a result, the committee failed her — then all hell broke loose.
Turns out, Todd Jarvis was never supposed to be Jen’s advisor in the first place. A mistake had been made where he had effectively been given a role he, as a professional and not tenured faculty member, had not been authorized to hold. Further, the University-mandated external committee member declined to do anything to press the issue once it was discovered, so Jen had little recourse despite the failures of the committee to put together a reasonable exam.
When Jen raised these issues with the department and university a fix was engineered where Aaron Wolf, a minor committee member and former mentor of Todd Jarvis, was essentially retroactively declared her chair. She was then required to completely re-do her entire program of study to satisfy his requirements, which meant adapting research in progress to meet an entirely different set of requirements. Making things more difficult was the fact that Jarvis took this badly, and he and Wolf were friends with a prior mentor-mentee relationship.
It was during this that Todd Jarvis called Jen into his office for a meeting that was supposed to last around an hour, but went on for nearly three.
Jen and I shared an office and so I had become aware of what was happening with her program and helped as little I could. On this occasion she was over half an hour late for a meeting we had discussed— something that rarely happened with Jen — so I went up to Jarvis’ office to see if they were still meeting.
I was shocked to hear his raised voice the moment I exited the stairwell. He was berating her loud enough for the whole floor to hear, his office door cracked open as if he wanted to be heard. I walked up to the door to see what was happening and saw him sitting with his back to me while insisting angrily Jen had “ruined things for anyone like her” coming into the program.
I could see Jen’s face and sensed she was very angry but physically okay (despite being trapped) so I didn’t intervene — but I lingered in the corridor, horrified. A few minutes later an adjunct faculty member whose office was adjacent to Jarvis’ exited and waited a moment in the corridor before hurrying out of the building, looking nervous. Then I noticed that the door to Geography Department Head Julia Jones’ office was open, just a few doors down across the hall. I walked over to investigate because from the outside it looked as if the door might have been left open by accident — it was the end of the work day, and getting dark.
But Jones was right there, standing in the dark, office phone in her hand. There was no way she could have failed to hear what was happening — but despite being the Head of the Geography department and with a responsibility to act she did absolutely nothing.
I lingered in the corridor for about half an hour after, then could tell Jarvis was finally wrapping up and about to let Jen go so I went back to our office. She arrived then broke down in tears and told me, when I said what I’d overheard, I had missed the worst parts.
From that point on Jen was treated with coolness by most of the faculty and the attempt to reboot her program fell apart. Jen appealed to the Graduate School for help, and one member of the administration — Brenda McComb — tried her best. But at Oregon State University the Graduate School and the Departments appear to live in a tenuous relationship that neither likes to disturb. The Graduate School Administration declined to do anything to ensure the department gave Jen the time and resources needed to establish a new program or to find a new advisor.
Ultimately Jen left, eventually earning her doctorate at a prestigious university in Europe. So in a way, things turned out okay for her. But the abuse should never have happened in the first place, and certainly should not have been tolerated.
But hers isn’t the only story of abuse I’ve got from my days in the Geography Department at Oregon State University.
Thea, let’s call her, was from the same cohort as Jen, also coming in with a prior Masters. She also had recent experience working with the National Science Foundation — NSF, probably the most esteemed funding source for scientists in the United States.
Thea and I shared an advisor — Hannah Gosnell — and wound up working closely for a couple years as I tried to help her deal with our mutual boss’ constant disrespect and unrelenting microaggressions.
Some people roll their eyes at the idea of microaggressions — small actions that cumulatively amount to a campaign of harassment. But in Gosnell’s case I watched them happen and play out on a regular basis, always directed most at women of color who were always treated differently than white middle-class students.
Gosnell was also the kind of professor who thought it perfectly natural to be absent from a third of her own scheduled lectures during an academic term, constantly having students fill in and show a move or proctor an exam while she traveled to conferences. Having done my share of filling in, I can attest that most students took this as they should: they felt as if their professor had no respect for them and wondered why they were paying to sit and watch nature documentaries.
Something I discovered across three years of leading recitation sections and even teaching a summer course of my own design is that Oregon State University is one of those places that sees students as sources of revenue above all else. A dead giveaway is the fact that the vaunted (and usually losing) Oregon State University football team requires subsidies from student tuition to stay afloat — and the number of banners on campus that show how great it is. Tip from somebody who went to Berkeley: if a campus is a good place, it doesn’t have to tell you it is when you’re already there.
That’s cult-like behavior, which many universities encourage to avoid having students ask hard questions about the value of the services they’re getting for their money. Or the true meaning of the degree they (might) receive at the end of the day.
Another giveaway of the real for-profit motivations of Oregon State University is the fact that there was absolutely zero comprehensive, university-wide training for graduate teaching assistants in how to actually teach undergraduates. A dirty truth about big public universities like Oregon State, who happily raise tuition every year while always demanding taxpayer subsidies from government, is that they generate an astonishing amount of revenue from massive, multi-hundred person lectures that to give a closer experience put students into 30–40 student-sized hour-long “recitations” (in Oregon, often “sections” elsewhere) led by a graduate student.
The lectures are usually taught by an adjunct making $40,000-$50,000 a year (if they’re full-time, much less if part-time, as so many are) and served by 2–4 half-trained GTAs paid about quarter of that. But the revenue they generate (ballpark: 300 students x 4 credits at 300/credit = $360,000) is many multiples of that.
This system subsidizes the immense costs associated with paying the salaries and benefits of full-time tenured faculty members who live with the comfortable — and almost unique in American society — privilege of lifetime employment at a high wage. Faculty members who additionally have access to a constant stream of graduate students who are expected to work for them in order to earn a degree these same faculty members get to choose when and how to award.
To have professors — Gosnell is far from the only offender — routinely push off teaching duties onto their students is symptomatic of the privilege afforded to those with tenure. And this disrespect for those in a subordinate position showed in her treatment of Thea — and, incidentally, Jen too, in the seminars we took together.
As best as we could ever tell, Gosnell primarily wanted Thea as a student in order to get insider information about the National Science Foundation grant-award process. Once she had obtained this, Thea was subjected to constant criticism in every aspect of her work, and rarely was it constructive.
Rather, every time Thea would submit work to Gosnell, the majority of comments that Thea would receive would seem to be related to the quality of her writing. This was immensely frustrating to Thea as one often shares drafts with an advisor that have obvious issues — the point is to get feedback on the deeper stuff, like study design, the scope of the literature review, and the quality of conclusions drawn from analysis.
But Gosnell would insist that Thea needed to attend writing workshops at the library, and fail to offer deeper, more useful comments on the parts of the work that truly mattered. After a while I offered to help Thea out by editing her work — I’d often done that for other graduate students, native English speakers and English as a second language friends both, because that helps me learn the material and get ideas for my own work.
But that didn’t work either. It was as if in Gosnell’s mind Thea’s English was always bound to be poor because her first language was Spanish, and nothing could change that set opinion. The sad irony was that much of my own work I sent to Gosnell over the years — who had been on the committee that awarded me my first Masters — was of lower quality than anything Thea ever submitted. Yet not once did I receive comments about the quality of my English or my writing.
Thea was treated horribly by the department throughout her program of study and as far as I could tell completely without justification. The harassment got so bad that a group of fellow students petitioned Brenda McComb at the Graduate School to offer some oversight, which made sure Thea was able to leave with a Masters.
I should stress here that I don’t believe that everyone in this department is intentionally racist or sexist (yes, women can be sexist too), no more than the rest of us. But they have committed racist acts in the unconscious way so many white people habitually do in the United States, and their actions have dramatically and negatively affected people’s lives without any shred of justification.
For that, there ought to be some justice.
So where do I fit into all this?
Straight up: I’m a white man who was able to stealth my way through the program for two years while Thea and Jen were suffering the full wrath of Oregon State University Geography department’s deeply-embedded culture of abuse and exploitation.
It was only when I finally began to speak out openly that I saw myself being lumped into that category of other and targeted just like they were. This was fairly easy for the faculty involved because I am moderately more vulnerable than the average white dude for two reasons: first, I am a veteran, and second, I am on the autism spectrum.
White, educated Boomers — the people presently in control of most leadership positions in Academia — mostly look down on veterans. They may go out of their way to say they are pro-veteran and to laud veteran students in their departments, but they want them as Masters students, not Doctoral students (unless they come with defense sector grant funding, then all is well), and most remain intrinsically suspicious of anyone with a military background. It’s a sad statement on American society — ironic given that I am probably more instinctively left-progressive than most professors— but Vietnam-era liberals were trained to think military service is for idiots and murderers, while younger ones were trained to worship military service while quietly being afraid of veterans thanks to a generation of warped media messages.
And despite Academia’s reputation for being friendly to autistics — this, sadly, is not at all the case outside of those disciplines where there are real, hard scientific principles that can be evaluated fairly in any PhD candidate. Success in most of Academia depends critically on networking — academics hate to admit it, but they are in a business like any other, with the main prize motivating most people to enter it being the lure of guaranteed lifetime employment with a six-figure salary.
Naturally, people on this quest develop alliances and cliques to help one another along the way — academic disciplines like Geography, Economics, Political Science, History, and so on grew up around the desire of like-minded scholars to work together on topics of interest — and to secure their mutual position. Comprehensive Exams, Dissertation Defense — these are tests instituted to restrict the number of people who can enter the club, just like professional tests used in fields like Medicine or Law. Not bad, but always vulnerable to abuse if wholly unregulated.
Yet unlike professional fields there is no true universal oversight to the process of awarding PhDs — and so there exists ample room for manipulation of the rules of the game to ensure only certain people thrive. This is why most people with PhDs remain white people from middle or upper class backgrounds despite many of these same people spending thirty or more years writing about the importance of diversity.
Now, I actually understood this was the climate going in and thought I could navigate the rocky shoals— but it turned out to be impossible to hide certain facts about one’s own identity when working closely with colleagues in the same place for six or more years. And in truth for the first three years or so I had great success: I completed one Masters degree and most of the work for a second, then was invited into the Geography PhD program after having members of my first Masters committee (who came from two different disciplines) actually argue over who would get me as a student.
Todd Jarvis and I spoke about working together before I made my formal application — and later, after I was assigned to be advised by another of my prospective chairs, Hannah Gosnell, he verbally threatened my career, accusing me of betraying him. Which I obviously didn’t take seriously, nor do I think this had any impact in what happened to me later. But it was a telling moment about the subculture of power within the department — and the desire to pull value-producing students in using misrepresentations and outright lies if need be.
In the end, I do have to take responsibility for my own failure to perform full due diligence on the doctoral program I was joining. In truth, the Geography program at Oregon State University was the only one I applied to because I had good relationships with faculty on campus, a proven track record, and — the main reason I enrolled in courses there in the first place — it was the closest research university to where my wife and I have chosen to settle.
Yet at the same time, particularly looking back now, it is brutally clear that the Geography department deliberately misrepresented itself to me and many other students. I was promised — verbally, of course, as too many faculty at OSU have a marked reluctance to put things into email — that I could change to another advisor if my relationship with Gosnell didn’t pan out.
Which it did not. For virtually all of my first year I was pretty much ignored by my advisor. This wasn’t all bad — I’m highly independent and put together a full committee and held a program of study meeting — a major progress checkpoint usually completed in the second year of a doctoral program, not the first.
But the few contacts we had revealed problems early on. Emails I sent went unanswered time and again, promised comments on research were brief, unhelpful, and usually suggested I dive into a body of completely unrelated literature.
Teaching recitations was primarily a babysitting exercise, doing my best to help students through repetitive homework drawn from Pearson-brand textbooks pushed by their ever-present campus representatives. Only the competence and welcoming presence of a few incredible adjunct professors made it at all worth the tuition the undergrads paid.
My advisor, as I’ve mentioned before, was one of those who clearly understood the benefits of tenure when it came to avoiding scrutiny of one’s teaching ability. But her treatment of Rhea and Jen in the graduate courses — seminars — we took together really took the cake: relentlessly skeptical and negative of anything they had to say, supportive to the point of fawning over the comments of the hipster white students who were always somehow distantly connected to Noam Chomsky.
And when I chose the wrong side in a discussion, I saw how quickly one could fall into the wrong category and be subjected to abuse. Nothing destroyed my belief in the process of graduate school quite like seeing an open discussion about a complex, interesting topic be derailed by a professor shunning any ideas coming from one part of the class then shutting down the debate.
Problems mounted steadily a few months into the formal start of my doctoral program. Three separate students who had worked with my advisor warned me independently of one another that she had a reputation for taking credit for her students’ work without attribution. Oddly enough soon after she suggested that I take the summer to write a National Science Foundation proposal that she could co-sponsor to fund my doctoral work.
This excited me a lot, because all year I had experienced difficulty getting this advisor to offer clear expectations for any phase of my doctoral program — including the all-important comprehensive exams. Despite this lack of guidance my advisor rather strangely insisted that I abandon a second Masters degree I was scheduled to complete in the first year of my doctoral program, saying I wouldn’t have time for it. I didn’t listen to her, thank goodness — and in fact, later co-published in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal the results of the research I did to earn my second Masters with the amazing faculty member who chaired my Public Policy committee.
She, being awesome, insisted I put my name first — a sign I was in the wrong place (and that even in horrible situations there are always some good people who will help if asked, even if there’s only so much they can do).
This is not an accomplishment most graduate students achieve so early in a career, yet my advisor seemed only piqued by it when I later gave her the news. And in our meetings during the year she was always so disorganized and repeatedly confused about my research that I had to work mostly with other members of my committee — not that I minded, because they were cool… even later warning me when Julia Jones was going around the department actively discouraging people from becoming my advisor when the relationship with Gosnell was toast.
And on that. So when I was given the green light to do an NSF proposal, I jumped at the chance, with one condition: I would actually submit the proposal to NSF unless I was specifically told not to and separately from my affiliation with Oregon State University. This would let me get the best possible professional feedback on my project early on, without risking anybody’s reputation if the reviews were terrible.
Gosnell agreed, and I went to work, producing a draft that I circulated to my committee, receiving extremely helpful comments from everyone… except her. Then came total silence through a summer of intensive edits where I routinely updated my committee on my progress and even incorporated my own non-profit research organization in order to be eligible for submitting a grant proposal to NSF. And with no objections from anyone on my committee, that’s what I did.
Here’s where it gets strange. On National Science Foundation grant proposals — dense 15-page documents with hundreds of citations, mind you — there is space to list out any faculty who might have a conflict of interest if they were asked to be a reviewer.
For NSF grants, the process involves applications being ranked by 3–6 people with PhDs and who have the knowledge base to assess the research being proposed. So as you can imagine, research communities being tight-knit, the difficulties this poses in giving every proposal a fair assessment.
What I didn’t understand until too late — what few in academia will admit openly — is that faculty with any ambition do everything they can to find a way to get one of these highly-sought after grants, including becoming friends with the kind of people who might wind up reviewing proposals in the future. The reason so many academics spend so much time going to conferences boils down to two key factors: self-promotion and networking. Both help a prospective academic get a sense for the big players in their chosen field, the ones everyone else knows they have to imitate in order to be accepted to the disciplinary club.
The dirty secret of academic research is that despite all efforts to make peer-review a blind process, where no one knows the identity of the person or people submitting their results for professional scrutiny, many people’s writing styles and specialties are distinct. And what’s more, academics use citations strategically to signal to other academics what club they belong to and to boost their chances of a paper or grant being approves. Couple this to the tendency to uncritically assume certain institutions are elite and others naturally lesser, and you have a recipe for a system that can be and is gamed.
Thea felt that Gosnell brought her in to learn about the inner workings of the NSF process, then discarded her once that information was fully mined. I came to agree after an inadvertent accident (at least, that’s what the NSF section head I communicated with said it was) resulting in my NSF proposal being sent to Gosnell as a prospective reviewer despite my clearly stating in the proposal that she and other committee members should be conflicted out as my adviser.
I only knew this had happened at all because Gosnell called me into a meeting where she angrily berated me after receiving a direct email from an NSF section head asking why someone who listed her as an adviser on the NSF grant application was also seeking NSF funding independently. This, she claimed, had damaged a relationship she had been building for a long time in hopes of winning an NSF grant.
Her treatment of me soured steadily from this point on, and we did not speak much during the next year. This corresponded with the culmination of both Jen and Thea’s ordeals with CEOAS, including the one time I witnessed Julia Jones let Todd Jarvis abuse Jen.
And that particular moment later came back to haunt me as soon as I was forced to approach Jones, as Head of the Department and with substantial sway over faculty, to ask for guidance in changing advisors. In an incredibly awkward and frankly alarming meeting she not only insisted there was no one suitable to advise me in the entire department (despite my already having a committee established) but also called into question my ability to complete a doctoral program at all based on jobs I’d held in the past.
In that meeting she brought up both my military history and my status as an autistic person in overtly negative tones and aggressively belittled my accomplishment in successfully writing an NSF proposal — that was actually reviewed rather well despite my inexperience with the finer details. She cared little the fact that by this point I now held two Masters degrees, had an article heading to press in a peer-reviewed journal, and was nearing completion of all my coursework — though still waiting to find out what comprehensive exams should look like, a constant point of concern given Jen’s experience.
Julia Jones, remember, is the very same person who assured me before I agreed to join the program that students could freely switch advisors, that this was a normal process many students went through as their research evolved.
There are moments when you realize the fix is in, and that meeting was one of them. I left absolutely certain Jones wanted me gone, and soon Jen left — after having also been told by Julia Jones that she would not be able to switch advisors. Thea had a similar experience, she told me, but didn’t want to remain anyway after the nonstop harassment she had been subjected to. And who could blame her? I regretted very much my choice to join the OSU Geography department.
That summer offered a temporary reprieve where I took the opportunity to completely rewrite my NSF proposal. In fact it developed into a work I am still proud of, and would have made a strong contribution to Oregon’s effort to get off fossil fuels while also building rural economies I submitted it again (unsuccessfully, but with very encouraging comments — and NSF proposals have an acceptance rate of around 10%), and kept on working on my research, hoping that the next year would bring some path out of the quandary.
I managed to stealth my way through the entire first quarter of my third year, but it was obvious from the first day something had changed. I was suddenly shifted from TA-ing a course I had spent a year working with one of the amazing adjunct professors to revise and add new experiential elements over to a course I had actually been the Instructor of Record on the prior summer with no explanation other than TA assignments were never guaranteed — this despite a prior agreement with Mark Allen, who assigned TAs. The following term I was then assigned to a course completely out of my area of experience despite being consistently rated in the top tier of TAs in the department by students and well regarded by the faculty I worked for.
It was all part of an emerging pattern. All the graduate students in the department changed offices so that those sharing the same advisor also shared offices — but not me, who was left in the basement (Though at this point I liked it better that way). When I was asked to give any presentations on my research as students were every so often, Julia Jones was there looking disapproving and leaving negative comments on the reviews we later received.
And when I made the mistake of attending a department function towards the end of the term, I saw Hannah Gosnell and Julia Jones speaking together while watching me. Then I knew my time was up.
A day later they both summoned me by email to a meeting to be held the very day after — the last day before Winter Break — insisting we needed to speak urgently about my program of study. I refused to attend citing the short notice given, as I would not be in town, believing — correctly, as it later turned out — that they intended to present me with an impossible situation and force me to quit the program.
Instead I asked that we keep everything on email so there would be no misunderstandings and laid out my proposal for how I wanted my program to proceed. Simply put, I wanted active support switching to a suitable advisor and a reasonable accommodation due to my autism that covered the comprehensive exams involving an unbiased process where my committee would lay out the materials I was expected to know ahead of time (the norm in most reputable PhD programs) so that what happened to Jen wouldn’t happen to me. I also asked for a written commitment to offer a basic level of funding for the two additional years I expected to take perform the research required to complete my dissertation, based on my excellent teaching reviews (from students, which were the only ones I ever received in three years of being a TA and Instructor).
Both are absolutely normal in reputable doctoral programs across the United States, especially for a student with a solid GPA, proven track record, and excellent student evaluations. And it was a necessary ask: after over two years of routinely asking what my comprehensive examinations were to cover and how the department handled funding for ongoing students, answers were not forthcoming.
In my communication I also laid out the exact reasons why I was requesting that we structure my doctoral program in this way: I had witnessed Julia Jones tolerate the abuse of students, I had seen the comprehensive exams developed for Jen that had no bearing to the discipline or even her program of study, I had observed numerous incidents of bullying of vulnerable students by senior faculty. After committing almost three years of my life to the department and looking at three more, I needed to know that I was going to be protected. Unlike many graduate students, I had a mortgage to pay.
Their response was predictably poor. None of my concerns were addressed and I was presented with a simple demand: re-do my entire program of study in three months and find a new willing advisor or be kicked out of the program.
I responded by pointing out that I had a three-year signed commitment from CEOAS promising a graduate assistantship. I had done nothing to break my end of the bargain, so they couldn’t simply take my funding away when I was fulfilling all my obligations. I had a signed program of study, was making all progress — only my difficulties pinning my advisor down to comprehensive examination format was holding things up.
Declare that I no longer had an advisor at all, giving me a ridiculously short deadline to find a new one — and of course, never acknowledging Jones’ involvement behind the scenes which I discovered and called her out on.
See I had already started the process of switching advisors the quarter before — and had been told in confidence that Jones was already bringing the issue up with members of my committee, and in ways that clearly indicated she thought they shouldn’t take me on.
This revealed the other dark secret about graduate school in the United States no one in the system likes to admit: students are utterly at the mercy of their advisors and even more so their Department Heads. If they want to be rid of a troublesome student, they’ll get their way. Faculty will rarely step up to defend a student other faculty have decided to attack because no one wants to be accused of being uncollegial.
Tenured faculty look out for themselves first, and everyone one else after. And if a student gets tagged with a label like difficult by someone in a position of power — life will be hard.
Julia Jones was careful never to put any of her insinuations about my ability in writing — she prefers one-on-one meetings where she can make you feel good or bad as she wishes. Many students in the department spoke of her as a friendly grandma who looked out for everyone — which worked very well as a tactic to discredit those she abused.
Some she favored, but not me, Jen, or Thea — and probably more I never met. Disproportionately, I’m certain, the ones who didn’t “fit” in the eyes of the tenured faculty. This is a department, mind you, where an old adjunct who has been there forever, Steve Cook, is allowed to have students come onto his personal property to clear invasive weeds as part of a public service component of the “sustainability for the common good” course he teaches when not visiting Albania. Their vision of “fit” is… unique.
Now after working over two years with the Graduate School to help Thea and Jen, I knew there were people whose job it was to help students in this kind of situation. Oregon State University has an Ombuds office as well as an office dedicated to Diversity and Inclusion and equal access. I reached out to them as soon as I saw what was happening.
I had several excellent meetings with a staff member in the Ombuds office, who was clearly appalled by what I had seen and experienced and promised to help. I met once with an ODI staff member who laid out several options for making the department accountable. I also, after conferring with them, wrote a multi-page letter to the newly appointed CEOAS Dean laying out what I had seen and experienced.
Then the Graduate School at Oregon State University got involved, and everyone stopped responding to my emails. The department, Ombuds, ODI — all went radio silent. A message came from a higher-up in the Graduate School — Brenda Mccomb had been moved to a different job and no longer worked with students as she had before — requesting a meeting.
I went, and it was a classic power play— without warning me in advance there was not one, but two people there: one simply sat silently taking notes the entire time when not staring at me, while the other proceeded to steer all conversations away from the abuse I’d seen and towards, incredibly, getting me help through the University counseling service!
A plus of having a spouse who spent many years representing victims of domestic violence and stalking in court is you learn the signs of someone gaslighting you. I just never though it would happen to me and especially not in this context.
At no point were my concerns about the institutionalized abuse of students of color recognized — the entire tone of the meeting was one of delivering an ultimatum while minimizing the legitimacy of my concerns and experiences. They said it had been agreed that I would be allowed to move to a different PhD program without any guarantee of funding, and that was it. The effective theft of a promised academic term of employment? Wouldn’t talk about it. Issues with systemic abuse in the Geography program? Not their area.
Nope, the official line was that I needed mental health support. Ombuds never responded to a message again. Neither did ODI. All contact ended the moment the Oregon State University Graduate School got involved.
I sat in that ambush meeting and got labeled crazy in exactly the way domestic abusers do to their victims when they ask outsiders or the police for help. If someone is crazy, how can you trust anything they say?
Needless to say rejected their offer and walked out of that meeting resolved to leave Oregon State University, though that meant throwing aside six years of coursework and research that I’m very good at. Academia never felt the same — despite being labeled a “rock star” by numerous faculty colleagues over the years, what was the point of working in a system where I was guaranteed to experience discrimination as soon as I ran into difficulty with someone in a position of power?
And it was far from lost on me that they chose to make cast me, an autistic veteran, as needing mental health support. The brutal caste-logic of academic was on full display that day.
I could have chosen to go elsewhere to complete my doctorate, of course, but what would be the point? As a former adviser and co-author put it, I’d get a solid look at any UK doctoral program — but that would mean moving across the world, upending my and my spouse’s life.
And the fact would remain that the Oregon State University Graduate School, the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, and especially the Geography program are abusing the public trust and students while faculty and staff reap the benefits year after year.
It will always be my position that I and many other graduate students were wrongly defrauded of years of our lives and the income we gave up to attend Oregon State University — not to mention the student loans one inevitably incurs, which frankly ought to be the responsibility of the university in cases like these.
So I want to do what I can to help as many potential graduate students as possible avoid the trap I fell into.
I probably should just walk away and shrug my shoulders — after all, I’m far from alone in my experiences, and many have had it worse than me.
But thing is, some of my tax money flows into Oregon State University.
I’m still paying these people’s salaries.
And they are still free to abuse students without any real consequences. They are damaging the futures of students, hindering the economic development of the state, and just being all around jerkwads.
I checked the Department website while writing this out, and you know what? Same names are all still there, drawing their forever salaries and pretending to be providing invaluable services to the community.
Sure, Todd Jarvis can apparently no longer serve as committee chairs — but he is still an abuser with an official status at a public university.
And the tenured faculty sucking up six-figure salaries into retirement and beyond?
They’re still pulling in students, profiting from the ones who pay tuition and the ones who work for a pittance in exchange for what I can attest is a poor excuse for an education, a “graduate” program far inferior to pretty much any undergraduate department in the University of California or Washington systems. Not that it’s bad taking half your classes with undergrads — the distinction is stupid anyway — but being asked to do extra homework to justify the added tuition cost is frankly insulting.
I learned a great deal in graduate school — most of it on my own. And you can too, if you’re willing to read a few books. One day I’d love to write a book helping students get the grad school training without the hassle — money needs to stop flowing to these programs.
There is actually little inherent value in a PhD — no one outside academia truly understands what one means or how little it qualifies a person to do — but the hope of getting a place in the Ivory Tower keeps people trying to win that lottery thus giving it value —meanwhile, actual, meaningful science is more and more being done in other countries because the American system serves the egos and retirements of a select few at the expense of a generation trapped under crushing student loan debt.
You could learn how to do great science too — and without wasting years of your life in a hole like OSU.
So if you are reading this, prospective graduate student, know this:
There are many places you could go and take the risks graduate school entails.
Do not make Oregon State University one of them.
And since I have a Masters degree in Public Policy from Oregon State University, I’ll conclude by making some recommendations to the general public.
And if you are a resident of Oregon, you need to start demanding some actual oversight and stop letting Oregon State University and University of Oregon act like for-profit private colleges while soaking up precious taxpayer dollars.
Oregon elected officials need to start actually investigating graduate programs in this state and asking hard questions about what educational institutions truly serve the public — and how to evaluate their service.
Regional institutions like Eastern, Southern, and Western Oregon University and the Community College system can easily do better education cheaper than the behemoths like UO and OSU. It is past time to defund the experience universities and fully support a network of smaller, more distributed colleges.
All graduate programs in Oregon must be reformed and invested with meaningful checks to prevent the rampant exploitation of vulnerable graduate students by tenured faculty. And discipline offering a Masters or Doctoral degree must be forced to disclose to students what material they are expected to cover before they commit to attend. They must also publish actual student outcomes with all the hard numbers, including admissions, funding, and future employment.
Any institution that fails to disclose this kind of information up front is basically a scam. Don’t let them lure you in by soothing your ego with a fancy acceptance letter — unless they’re offering you a great deal and real security, they’re not worth it. Grad school isn’t worth it.
And above all else, if nothing else, my and so many other students’ experiences have proven one thing to be true:
Tenure has got to go.
The hell of the most educated people in American society having lifetime employment is that there is nothing to stop them from insisting to everyone who will listen that tenure is essential to the free flow of information. But this is a myth: academics and scholars actively hoard knowledge, which is why they publish most of their research results in journals most people have to pay exorbitant sums to access and promote colleagues who do the same. They also maintain total control over the process for minting new PhDs, ensuring that academic disciplines remain narrowly focused and unable to solve real-world problems.
The time has come to kill tenure forever. In the Ivory Tower, academic freedom is only accorded to a privileged few who are accustomed to abusing their power.
The entire American university system is in desperate need of reform. Until that is done, choosing a graduate program will always be a game of Russian roulette, and substantially negative social impacts will mount with time.
At this point, the best way to fight back might be for graduate students who have experienced this kind of discrimination and abuse to start trying to sue their universities for damages. In a society that seems to care only about money and avoiding responsibility for things that go wrong, hitting these institutions in their pocketbooks may be the only way forward.
So hopefully there are clever attorneys out there who can come up with a way to make a class-action case.
In the meantime, all I can do is offer a simple warning to anyone considering graduate school options:
Graduate student beware:
Oregon State University is not the program you are looking for.