A year after The Torch was so populated with eye-popping accounts of Binghamton University’s (BU’s) attempts to force graduate student Andre Massena out of its Masters of Social Work (MSW) program, the student newspaper the Binghamton Review lays bare the case of another MSW student, Michael Gutsell, caught in the crosswinds of the Department of Social Work’s vague and unforgiving disciplinary system. Unfortunately, despite FIRE’s appeals to the BU administration to apply basic fairness and respect for students’ First Amendment rights to his case, Gutsell was expelled from the MSW program without knowing why, much less having a chance to properly defend himself against nebulous allegations.
Ostensibly, the grounds for the hearing that ultimately resulted in Gutsell’s expulsion were rooted in two classroom incidents this past fall semester, which are difficult to chalk up as anything more than mere misunderstandings. The Review summarizes them as such:
The first occurred on October 27th, during a class with Professor Kevin Murphy. According to statements by Gutsell, Professor Murphy told the class that they were to reach a unanimous decision as to the content and format of their midterm exam. Once the class reached a consensus, they were informed that the exercise itself was their exam. Having tricked his students, Professor Murphy joked about them coming after him after class, to which Gutsell responded jokingly, "well just be careful when you start your car."
The second matter presented to the Advancement Committee was a story that Gutsell told during a November 17th meeting of Murphy’s class. The topic being discussed was, according to Gutsell, "the docking of employee pay for infraction." Gutsell mentioned that in Ontario, where he once worked, it is illegal to dock an employee’s pay unless that employee violated the law. He proceeded to tell a related story about an incident that occurred years earlier. "I said that an employer had tried to dock my pay for taking a pick-axe to a chair. It was my pick-axe but they couldn’t prove it was me so they were unable to dock my pay," Gutsell wrote in a statement to the Office of Student Conduct (OSC). [Gutsell later stated that he was not the one who had hit the chair with the pick-axe anyway.]
Although this second incident was relevant to the class in which Gutsell described it, several students approached Murphy to say that Gutsell had made them feel uncomfortable and threatened. BU took their complaints seriously. Even though nobody had complained directly after the October 27 classroom incident, three days after the second classroom incident, Gutsell was contacted by the University Police, who were now investigating the October 27 classroom incident as a threat. Gutsell was shocked. When interviewed by the police, Professor Murphy brushed off the October 27 remarks and confirmed that Gutsell’s "pick-axe" story had been relevant to the class discussion. The University Police closed its investigation; an investigation by BU’s Office of Student Conduct likewise ended without charges. Even so, Gutsell was summoned to an "Advancement Hearing" on December 1 and interrogated about the two incidents, and on December 4 the Advancement Committee notified Gutsell it had recommended against his advancement (i.e., his continuation in the program), telling Gutsell that there "appears … to be a significant discrepancy, at times, between the purported intention of your verbal behavior and the ways in which your verbal communications are perceived by others."
This "significant discrepancy" was something BU had tried to assert itself over earlier in the semester, by forcing Gutsell to sign a contract which placed vague and chilling restrictions on his speech. As per the contract the department made him sign in September, Gutsell was to seek improvement in, among other things, "[e]vidence of ability to build and maintain rapport with peers, instructors, colleagues, and clients—no reports from instructors or students that they are uncomfortable with you." (Emphasis added.) This ominous requirement left Gutsell exposed to false, unjustified, oversensitive, or malicious reports against him. Nonetheless, BU determined that Gutsell had complied satisfactorily with the contract, and continued his advancement at the end of October. The Review has more on the pins-and-needles culture whose sanctity Gutsell allegedly threatened:
Gutsell signed the contract in September after returning from medical leave last spring. Professors’ concerns, including one subjective report about "rude comments" Gutsell made in class, were considered cause for the written plan and a subsequent "trial period" this fall, during which Gutsell’s performance would be evaluated by his professors and department chair Laura Bronstein before he would be allowed to advance in the program. One particular incident, says Gutsell, in particularly [sic] caused a peculiar overreaction by the department. After registering for classes last Spring, he emailed the department secretary thanking her for her help with the registration process: "This is excellent. Thank you again for all your hard on helping me with this. It is very much appreciated." The email was obviously missing the word "work" after the word "hard," but nonetheless caused considerable concern amongst the department’s faculty.
Gutsell appealed the Advancement Committee’s decision, reasonably thinking that he only had to defend himself against these two most recent incidents. There is strong evidence, however, that the department used not just those two incidents but the totality of all of Gutsell’s encounters with his fellow students and the social work faculty. In fact, in rejecting Gutsell’s appeal, the department as much as says so, telling him in its January 8 letter that "the two incidents reported from Professor Kevin Murphy’s [class] this past fall (2009) are not the primary basis for your dismissal." What was the "primary basis," then? Gutsell will likely never know; demoralized, he withdrew his final appeal and is now expelled. Not only was he forced to leave BU, he was forced to leave the United States as well; being a Canadian citizen, his visa stipulated that he remain enrolled full-time to be able to stay. He has now returned home with no degree, a lot of debt, and a lot of questions he will probably never have the answers to.
Torch readers may be familiar with FIRE’s previous case at Binghamton, when Andre Massena was ruthlessly prosecuted and nearly expelled for protesting the appointment of a local housing authority official to the department by posting fliers around the BU campus, before FIRE successfully intervened on his behalf. Maybe BU’s failed attempt to rid itself of Massena gave it the practice it needed to effectively dispose of Gutsell. As the Review points out,
The parallels between the Gutsell and Massena cases—in terms of department abuse—are glaring. Neither was informed in advance of the charges that were being brought against them by the Advancement Committee, denying them their right to prepare a defense.
Similarly, during the Massena case, Bronstein added dozens of pages of new charges, unrelated to the posters, after Andre’s appeal.
The most blatant consistency, however, is the department’s treating of innocent words as expellable infractions. Gutsell, who describes himself as "critical," "assertive," and "not afraid to disagree with people," blames this on department culture. "They don’t like a lot of disagreement. They don’t like diverse views [and are] very much about conformity."
The Binghamton Review paints a troubling picture of Binghamton’s social work department, albeit a rather unsurprising one, given its recent history. That the preceding might hardly raise an eyebrow among readers may be the loudest siren of all calling for change or even an external review of the department. Maybe, one day, justice and fairness will come to the Department of Social Work. But it will be too late for Michael Gutsell.