Jennifer Dibbern and Michigan Student Unionization

Via a reader, this story about a grad student organization effort in Michigan, and a possible retaliation against a student, Jennifer Dibbern, who has lost her position as a researcher at the university. The university provost’s account, claiming that Dibbern was let go because of ‘poor reviews’ is here. The union’s response is here, with a further timeline (which I found more persuasive than the union’s response, albeit hard to follow in places), and details of Dibbern’s awards here (including her college’s Outstanding Graduate Instructor award from a few months before the firing). To be clear: I have only heard one side of this story – while Dibbern has been quite specific in her claims, the university has only made very generic noises about the reasons why it believes that Dibbern was fired, and why this was justifiable. But there is enough there to be worrying to me.

I’ve seen what I understand to be the email in which Dibbern’s supervisor (who, by Dibbern’s account, was vehemently opposed to the organization effort) first states concerns about Dibbern’s lack of focus, a few weeks before she is summarily kicked out. The email, after laying out a number of general complaints (that Dibbern seems unfocused; that she had not emailed a colleague about doing some work on Sunday, although she had gone ahead and done the work) goes on to say:

I realize you have many other things going on but an increased [sic] in your focus on research is urgently needed. This will probably require you to decrease your involvement in non-research related activities.

Dibbern states in her timeline that in a person-to-person meeting a couple of days later:

Goldman repeatedly instructed Ms. Dibbern to stop all outside activity, this time in person. When Ms. Dibbern asked for clarification, Goldman stated, “you know what I mean.”

On the face of it, this seems problematic. If a student RA under my supervision was deeply involved in some political or social cause that I vehemently disagreed with, say, campaigning for the mass deportation of immigrants, I don’t think it would be at all appropriate for me to suggest that they stop doing this, especially in the context of an email suggesting they were falling down on the job and needed to start pulling their weight or else. Obviously, my students’ political opinions and activities should be their own business, and I think it would be entirely reasonable for the student to interpret my suggestion as a threat. If I felt that they weren’t doing their job properly, I’d say so – but I wouldn’t for a moment connect this criticism to their extraneous political activities (how they manage their time to carry out their various responsibilities is entirely up to them).

Under the most generous reading that I can come up with, communications along the lines described are wide-open to misinterpretation. And the generous reading is certainly not the only possible reading. It is quite possible that there is another side, or other sides to this story (supervisor-supervisee relationships can be complicated, and battles like this often have a Rashomon quality to them). Still, at the very least, there is enough of a question here that a blow-off ‘move on: nothing to see here’ press statement from a university official is very definitely unsatisfactory.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.