A (prof.) ex-supervisor is actively trying to slander me. What now?
December 5, 2016 9:23 PM   Subscribe

Recently, I left a job at a major public research university in California to pursue a new position in industry. Unfortunately, the separation was not amicable, and the professor I worked for became irrationally extremely angry because the timing of my departure inevitably was disruptive to the work of his lab. I have since learned that he has been actively cold-calling other former colleagues and supervisors of mine (who he doesn't otherwise have any relationship with), just to slander me and make all sorts of absurd accusations about my alleged poor character and dishonesty. What do I do about this?

Everything I've heard suggests that this should be strongly against policy at nearly any institution, as it is a potential legal liability. As a last resort, I've considered consulting with an attorney (but what sort?) to have some sort of threatening cease-and-desist letter sent. Ideally, there'd be some university office I could contact about this, but I can't figure out which one. The department chair? I'm struggling to see how anyone in the department would want to appear to take sides against a senior tenured colleague in favor of a departed junior employee they've never met.

I know that you are not my lawyer.

I am no longer living in the area where the university is, and I'd like to invest as little time and money into solving this problem as possible. Of the two, though, money is more available than time.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Since it's in the context of an employment relationship, I think a plaintiff-side employment lawyer would be a good start. These folks typically do a brief first consult for free, so if the one you talk to thinks you ought to be looking for a defamation specialist, they'll tell you. They should be able to advise if a cease & desist is in order, or a clearly worded letter, etc.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:34 PM on December 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

I imagine any cease and desist letter should go simultaneously to the professor, his chair, and the head of the university + anyone else relevant, like board members. FUCK THIS. Cold calling to slander is beyond the pale. Do not wait to address this behavior and feel zero embarrassment.
posted by jbenben at 9:46 PM on December 5, 2016 [45 favorites]

If the university has an ombudsman's office, that's who I would consider reaching out to first. Their job is to deal with complaints against the administration and staff.
posted by phoenixy at 10:05 PM on December 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

If there has already been damage to your reputation, this could affect your ability to work in your field. If he's caused you harm that way, actually consulting with a lawyer is not unreasonable, I think. I'm not one to litigate, but I'd take this very seriously.
posted by amtho at 1:22 AM on December 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Their job is to deal with complaints against the administration and staff.

Yes, in the interests of protecting the University. Do not talk to these people until you have talked to a lawyer & taken their advice as to whether to talk to them or not. This individual is threatening your livelihood & you cannot trust the University to put your interests ahead of his or theirs.
posted by pharm at 2:06 AM on December 6, 2016 [32 favorites]

It sounds like what you need is an employment lawyer, but should you not be able to find one with experience navigating academia you might need to be prepared to do a lot of self-advocating with your own instincts or the help of an experienced academic who is on your side. For example, a lawyer letter cc:'d to the Chancellor or Board of Regents of your old university could simply signal an unthreatening unfamiliarity with litigating disputes connected to academia.

If you intend to continue in positions related to academia, sorting this out will be extremely important to your future.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:19 AM on December 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Concerning how to find a lawyer for a consult... Google for recent successful litigations or settlements against the university. Call that firm for a consult or recommendation.
posted by jbenben at 7:23 AM on December 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

You need a lawyer for sure, most likely an employment lawyer. Your state bar association likely has a referral service whom you can call for help. But you probably want a lawyer in your old state who knows the university there.

Are you willing to tell us what your former position was, specifically, were you a student (undergrad, grad) or an employee (staff, postdoc)? That may affect whom your lawyer could contact, because there are offices of student services that might help a former student.

Are you willing to tell us if you have any type of protected minority status (are you a woman, a racial/ethnic minority, queer, disabled, a foreign national, a veteran)? If you are, you might be able to have your lawyer contact the university's Title 9 office, which deals with protected class discrimination. Filing an EEOC complaint might also be possible in this case.
posted by medusa at 8:03 AM on December 6, 2016

This individual is threatening your livelihood & you cannot trust the University to put your interests ahead of his or theirs.

At the same time, their interest is very much in getting this professor to stop this potentially libelous talk so that their asses don't get sued. I work for a public R1 university and standard practice when discussing former employees is to confirm previous employment and say nothing else, even if it's positive, to avoid situations just like these. It's definitely a good idea to have a lawyer on your side, but I think you can also expect the university to try to shut down the professor's behavior immediately.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:41 AM on December 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think you can also expect the university to try to shut down the professor's behavior immediately.

This depends entirely on how much money the professor brings into the university. The point where the university will stop trying to bury this and protect the professor is exactly the point where they calculate the financial and prestige risk of doing so outweighs the money and prestige that particular professor brings in. We see this all the time when universities bury sexual harassment charges against their superstars.

Lawyering up increases the university's perception of risk, and makes it much more likely that they will act to protect the student instead of acting to protect their investment (the professor)
posted by yeolcoatl at 10:15 AM on December 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Professor here, involved with faculty governance. At my university the ombudsperson is really a mediator who helps people resolve problems themselves. They would absolutely not be the person to call.

My university is also very cautious about being sued. What would work here would be to obtain a lawyer, have them write a cease-and-desist letter that contains provable facts about what the professor has done, then send it to the University Counsel who would motivate the administration to put an end to this wicked fast. If this is an EEOC matter, it would be an especially robust response.

Sadly my experience is that there are professors who are extremely privileged and get away with stuff like this, though the university can at least make them stop. Be aware that they will probably continue to bad-mouth you informally. Please feel free to MeMail me if I can answer any other questions.

Also, I did a quick search and found this organization at Berkeley that might be able to help: https://advocate.berkeley.edu/. Even if you were at another UC Campus they probably know which internal process you can invoke to get the professor's conduct examined by his peers. This could be painful for you but is one way to help ensure it doesn't just get swept under the rug. Faculty who are found in violation by the internal greivence processes do get a reputation.

I'm very sorry this is happening to you. Good luck.
posted by procrastination at 12:21 PM on December 6, 2016 [11 favorites]

Came to say what procrastination has covered in spades. Get a lawyer, notify their lawyer, toute de suite.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 3:11 PM on December 6, 2016

If damage has already been done to your reputation, then cease and desist is important, but you may need some remediation also.
posted by amtho at 11:13 AM on December 7, 2016

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