On October 24, 2019, Abby Nissenbaum was officially expelled from Clark University’s Psychology doctorate program because she had failed to find a new advisor within one month of being dismissed by her faculty advisor, Professor Andrew Stewart. Reverberating far beyond the Clark academic community, Nissenmbaum’s case has raised several questions about the events leading up to her expulsion and the policies in place for other complex situations like hers.
According to the expulsion letter Nissenbaum received, written by Dean Yuko Aoyama, Nissenbaum was expelled because she failed to find a new advisor within 30 days.
When breaking the news, Nissenbaum described her expulsion as a form of retaliation on a student who “blew the whistle” on her former advisor, Professor Stewart, whom she alleged of research misconduct.
Nissenbaum broke the news on her then-public Twitter account, which quickly garnered support with tweets from academic circles in the United States. Eiko Fried, an assistant professor at Leiden University, described Nissenbaum’s experience as a “huge nightmare.” William D. Adler, an associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University described it as “BS.”
“The school has seriously wronged you,” tweeted one Clark undergraduate student who had Nissenbaum as their teaching assistant.
Shortly after Nissenbaum went public, Dessie Lee Clark, a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University, set up a GoFundMe to cover Nissenbaum’s potential legal fees in the event she decides to sue Clark University.
Nissenbaum’s story is particularly difficult for current PhD students at Clark. One PhD student, who wishes to remain anonymous, said they felt a “huge wave of terror and anxiety” when they first heard the news.
“I was holed up in my office for 20 minutes to let my heart calm down,” they said. “Anybody who enters a PhD program hears horror stories. It was terrifying that the department wasn’t supporting her.”
To write this article, The Scarlet interviewed Nissenbaum in person. Professor Stewart, Professor Johanna Vollhardt, Professor Esteban Cardemil, and Dean Yuko Aoyama, were all contacted via email with interview questions. Due to federal laws protecting student privacy rights, they are unable to comment on Nissenbaum’s case specifically. Dean Aoyama did answer some procedural questions via email. The Scarlet also received Nissenbaum’s September 4, 2019 appeal of her dismissal and her final October 24, 2019 expulsion letter, both provided by Nissenbaum.
Why did Nissenbaum need to find a new advisor in the first place?
When a student enters a doctoral program, they work closely with their faculty advisor. Professor Stewart was Nissenbaum’s faculty advisor. As part of this advisor-student relationship, Nissenbaum worked in Professor Stewart’s lab.
On April 2, 2019, the day after Nissenbaum received her en route Master’s degree, Nissenbaum received an email from Professor Stewart in which he dismissed her from his lab. This, by extension, also removed her as his advisee.
Nissenbaum tweeted a screenshot of the email in which Professor Stewart claimed that “we also decided last fall that you would not continue with the program after you finished your MA.”
Nissenbaum said she has no recollection of the alleged fall conversation. In a separate tweet, she said her and Professor Stewart’s research interests were not incompatible. She elaborated by explaining that Professor Stewart’s research was primarily concerned with “bystander behaviors as an outcome” and Nissenbaum’s MA thesis examined “the effects of masculinity threat and social dominance orientation on men’s bystander intervention behaviors to prevent sexual assault.”
Did Nissenbaum try to find a new advisor?
Yes, but there’s more to it. During the interview with The Scarlet, Nissenbaum said she had been trying to work with Professor Esteban Cardemil, the current chair of the Psychology Department.
“I thought that [Cardemil] was really going to try to mediate or step in himself to take me on as an advisee, because our research interests could have matched,” said Nissenbaum.
In Nissenbaum’s appeal of her dismissal, she also stated that she had “numerous communications with Dr. Vollhardt, about collaborating on my Ph.D. research, and [Nissenbaum and Vollhardt] discussed [Vollhardt] taking me into her lab.”
In her final expulsion letter, Dean Aoyama stated that she had interviewed Professor Vollhardt. From this interview, Dean Aoyama learned that “she [Vollhardt] tried to support you, and considered whether she could take on this advisor role with you, but your responses to her were neither adequate nor timely.”
According to Dean Aoyama, Professor Vollhardt asked Nissenbaum to submit a complete research plan by May 21, 2019 to help Professor Vollhardt assess her willingness to take on Nissenbaum as an advisee. In the expulsion letter, Dean Aoyama said that Nissenbaum did not provide Professor Vollhardt with a research plan by the stated due date.
Back to policy and procedure
According to the Psychology Department’s handbook for graduate students, the “period of transition between advisors is expected to last no longer than one month.” Nissenbaum was given until May 3, 2019 to find a new advisor, but had asked for an extension on May 1, 2019. She was granted a 20-day extension.
Nissenbaum had failed to secure a new advisor by May 21, 2019, as outlined previously, so the Psychology Department unanimously voted to dismiss Nissenbaum from the program in a meeting on May 22, 2019.
“If you look at the policy, it doesn’t say anything about an advisor being able to fire their student,” said Nissenbaum. “The [one-month period] is activated when a student decides they would like a new advisor.”
Nissenbaum interprets the Psychology Department’s handbook for graduate students as one that gives students agency over whether or not they would like a new advisor.
When asked over email if professors are allowed to terminate students from their lab, Dean Aoyama said, “yes.”
Dean Aoyama did not say where this is codified, but did make the following statement.
“It is important to note that the role of the faculty advisor is fundamental to doctoral education,” said Dean Aoyama. “In doctoral education, either party may terminate the advisor-advisee relationship. Such changes typically happen, for example, when the research interests of the advisor and advisee diverge or when the collaboration is otherwise not working.”
She also reiterated the following quote from the Psychology Department’s handbook for graduate students: “The student-faculty advisor relationship is critical to the student’s professional development; thus, students are expected to have a primary faculty advisor at all times.”
In an Inside Higher Ed article about Nissenbaum’s case, Steven Piantadosim, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley – who has previously advocated for graduate students in a case against the University of Rochester – called the one-month period to find a new advisor “unusual.”
Did Nissenbaum appeal her expulsion?
Yes, which is why it took up until October 24, 2019 for Nissenbaum to be officially expelled.
The Psychology Department dismissed Nissenbaum on May 22, 2019. To challenge this dismissal, on June 24, 2019, Nissenbaum submitted a formal departmental grievance procedure, which consisted of a grievance committee, including a student representative of Nissenbaum’s choice. Nissenbaum also requested to switch a faculty member on her committee, which was granted.
On July 31, 2019, the grievance committee decided that Nissenbaum’s claims of (1) improper departmental procedure of her dismissal, and (2) a separate claim about Professor Vollhardt’s use of data had no merit.
On September 4, 2019, Nissenbaum submitted a report to Dean Aoyama appealing the grievance committee’s decision. In this report, Nissenbaum’s main appeals were to address (1) how there is no written policy that states an advisor can “terminate a student from the program,” (2) her claim that the program retaliated against her for speaking out against gender-based discrimination, and (3) how she received perceived “unethical and retaliatory” treatment from Professor Stewart.
On October 24, 2019, Dean Aoyama wrote back upholding the Psychology Department’s decision to dismiss Nissenbaum. In this letter, Dean Aoyama outlined three things: (1) Nissenbaum was not dismissed from her program inappropriately, (2) her dismissal was not triggered by advocacy on certain issues, specifically stating that Nissenbaum provided no evidence for her claims, and (3) there is “no evidence to support [Nissenbaum’s] claim that Professor Stewart engaged in research misconduct, nor is there any evidence that he retaliated against [Nissenbaum].”
What about these claims of research misconduct, gender-based discrimination, and retalitatory treatment?
This section was largely informed by documents from Nissenbaum and Dean Aoyama’s letter of expulsion.
RESEARCH MISCONDUCT ****ITALICIZE ME****
Through his lab, Professor Stewart’s research was looking at outgroup male target hypothesis (OMTH), which posits that discrimination is generally more targeted towards outgroup men than women. Professor Stewart was specifically concerned with heterosexist harassment in the workplace of both homosexual and bisexual people, and how their experience may or may not disprove OMTH.
As part of the research, participants had to fill out a survey and describe their sexuality on a scale of one to five, one being completely heterosexual, two being mostly heterosexual, three being bisexual, four being mostly homosexual, and five being homosexual.
Nissenbaum ran an analysis of the data and to consider people who put down one as heterosexual, two, three, or four as bisexual, and five as homosexual. According to Nissenbaum, this analysis was not statistically significant. Professor Stewart then told her to rerun the data with people who put themselves down as one or two to be heterosexual, three to be bisexual, and four or five to be homosexual. According to Nissenbaum, this produced a “statistically significant result.”
Nissenbaum takes issue with Professor Stewart’s omission of this first round of data from their manuscript, as well as published abstracts and conference presentations. Nissenbaum believes this omission of data is an example of p-hacking.
According to Mark Hallahan, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the College of the Holy Cross, p-hacking “describes continually changing the approach to data collection or analysis until a desired result is obtained. […] In data analysis, it could involve carrying out different versions of a statistical analysis and then reporting the most favorable result. This is considered bad practice because it increases the likelihood of false positive results.”
According to Dean Aoyama, Nissenbaum’s description of events “does not serve as evidence that Professor Stewart engaged in data falsification.” In the expulsion letter, Dean Aoyama said that evidence would consider how results were written, the author’s transparency of their data and process, and if the author’s work misled the audience. Dean Aoyama wrote that “no such writing was ever produced.”
“There are published abstracts and conference presentations with my name and Professor Stewart’s name that show we only presented the findings that were consistent with his theoretical claim,” said Nissenbaum.
After consulting with six faculty members who are “experts in quantitative research methods in Psychology,” they all agreed that Nissenbaum’s analysis did not constitute research fraud.
Dean Aoyama’s consultation with the six faculty members was not an attempt of nor in line with the aforementioned formal inquiry process into allegations of research misconduct.
“It’s problematic because Dr. Stewart is the sort of in-house statistical consultant for the psychology faculty,” alleged Nissenbaum. “If he was found guilty of research misconduct, their work would be under the microscope as well.”
GENDER-BASED DISCRIMINATION ****ITALICIZE ME****
In Nissenbaum’s appeal, she stated that she believed her dismissal was in part due to what she describes as Professor Stewart’s “gender-based poor treatment [she] received as his advisee.”
She had reported such instances to Dean Aoyama, who brought it to the Title IX office. According to Nissenbaum’s appeal, the Title IX office found the claims to be out of their jurisdiction.
In her appeal, Nissenbaum dedicates a section alleging that the program retaliated against her for speaking out against gender-based discrimination, but she does not provide examples of the kind of discrimination she spoke out about.
In a separate part of the document, however, Nissenbaum outlines an example of such discrimination. In the fall of 2018, Professor Stewart called Nissenbaum “defensive,” which she feels was a “gendered comment and would never be made to a male student.”
According to Dean Aoyama, who interviewed Professor Stewart, the “defensive” remark was made because Professor Stewart “observed during a presentation that [Nissenbaum was] dismissive of critiques provided by peers.”
In the expulsion letter, Dean Aoyama told Nissenbaum that “I found no factual basis for your claim that your dismissal from the program was based on any form of advocacy, whether that included advocacy for #metoo or any other matter.”
RETALIATORY TREATMENT ****ITALICIZE ME****
The crux of Nissenbaum’s argument is that she was fired by Professor Stewart because she raised concerns over potential research misconduct. In her appeal, Nissenbaum outlines various examples of how she felt Professor Stewart became increasingly hostile towards her after she raised these claims. At its core, this is a he-said, she-said claim that lacked evidence, but also lacked investigation.
So, does any of this make sense?
Yes and no. Although Clark appears to have followed procedure when expelling Nissenbaum for not having found a new advisor, the jury is still out on two issues: (1) whether or not Nissenbaum’s dismissal from Professor Stewart’s lab was justified, and (2) whether or not Professor Stewart engaged in research misconduct.
Dean Aoyama has determined that, through evaluation of the documents Nissenbaum provided and conversations with six faculty experts on quantitative methods in psychology, Professor Stewart did not engage in research misconduct. This process, however, is not what is outlined by Clark University’s policy.
Clark University’s Guidelines and Procedures for Dealing with Allegations of Research Misconduct states that a formal inquiry would consist of a committee of professors across four disciplines – not just psychology.
“Dean Aoyama said that she didn’t deem an inquiry to be necessary [to investigate potential research misconduct],” said Nissenbaum.