The Bureaucratic Banality of Academic Oppression

by James A. Bacon

Two-and-a-half years ago, Kieran Ravi Bhattacharya, a medical school student at the University of Virginia, attended a session on “microaggressions” in which psychology professor Beverly Colwell Adams gave a presentation about her research. In what he thought to be a collegial manner, Bhattacharya challenged her analysis.

The challenge was not well received. Indeed, other participants in the session deemed his questions disrespectful. There followed a sequence of events in which Bhattacharya was investigated by the Academic Standards and Achievement Committee for unprofessional behavior, was told to submit to psychological evaluation, was suspended, was branded as a threat to the university community, was banned from the university grounds, and ultimately was expelled.

Bhattacharya has detailed his side of the story in a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Charlottesville against the University of Virginia and various university officials. The defendants filed for a motion to dismiss, but Judge Norman K. Moon ruled that the case should proceed. I base the account that follows upon the details contained in Moon’s ruling.

That ruling presents only one side of the story, Bhattacharya’s, and has to be considered in that light. But Bhattacharya version is well documented with emails and audio recordings. If substantially correct, the implications for freedom of thought and expression at the University of Virginia are extremely troubling. The lawsuit opens a window into the internal workings of Virginia’s flagship university. Free thought and expression are stifled not only by the widely recognized phenomena of doctrinaire faculty and Twitter Outrage Mobs, but by administrators acting through the university’s clunky bureaucratic machinery.

The microaggression panel discussion. On Oct. 25, 2018, Bhattacharya attended a panel discussion about microaggressions. One of the presenters was Beverly Colwell Addams, who has described her research interest as “the examination of microaggressions as one of the contributing variables to the decline of physical and mental health in strong black women.” After Adams gave a presentation of some 17 minutes in length, Bhattacharya asked some questions.

Bhattacharya: Hello. Thank you for your presentation. I had a few questions just to clarify your definition of microaggressions. Is it a requirement, to be a victim of a microaggression, that you are a member of a marginalized group?

Adams: Very good question. And no. And no–

Bhattacharya: But in the definition, it just said you have to be a member of a marginalized group — in the definition you just provided in the last slide. So that’s contradictory.

Adams: What I had there is kind of the generalized definition. In fact, I extend it beyond that. As you see, I extend it to any marginalized group, and sometimes it’s not a marginalized group. There are examples that you would think may not fit, such as body size, height, [or] weight. And if that is how you would like to see me expand it, yes, indeed, that’s how I do.

Bhattacharya: Yeah, follow-up question. Exactly how do you define marginalized and who is a marginalized group? Where does that go? I mean, it seems extremely nonspecific.

Adams: And — that’s intentional That’s intentional to make it more nonspecific…..

Bhattacharya went on to challenge Adams’ definition of microaggression. He argued against the assumption that “the person who is receiving the microaggressions somehow knows the intention of the person who made it.” He suggested that “a microaggression is entirely dependent on how the person who’s receiving it is reacting.”

He continued: “the evidence that you provided — and you said you’ve studied this for years — which is just one anecdotal case — I mean do you have, did you study anything else about microaggressions that you know in the last few years?” And later in the exchange, he said, “So, again, what is the basis for which you’re going to tell someone that they’ve committed a microaggression? … Where are you getting this basis from? How are you studying this, and collecting evidence on this, and making presentations on it?”

At that point, Assistant Professor Sara Rasmussen, a fellow panelist, cut off the exchange. “I think that we should make sure to open up the floor to lots of people for questions.” Bhattacharya agreed. After Rasmussen began speaking, however, Bhattacharya engaged with her. At one point he began to speak over her. That dialogue lasted about five minutes.

The reaction. Nora Kern, assistant professor of urology and an event co-organizer, filed a Professionalism Concern Card against Bhattacharya the same day. The Card, which record student violations of the medical school’s professionalism standards, identified “respect for others” and “respect for differences” as areas of concern.

This student asked a series of questions that were quite antagonistic toward the panel. He pressed on and stated one faculty member was being contradictory. His level of frustration/anger seemed to escalate until another faculty member defused the situation by calling on another student for questions. I am shocked that a med student would show so little respect toward faculty members. It worries me how he will do on wards.

Christine Peterson, assistant dean for medical education, sent Bhattacharya an email that made note of his “discomfort” with the speaker’s perspective. “Would you like to come share your thoughts with me? I think I can provide some perspective that will reassure you about what you are and are not responsible for in interactions that could be uncomfortable even when that’s not intended. … I simply want to help you understand and be able to cope with unintended consequences of conversations.”

Bhattacharya responded by email that he was not uncomfortable at all. To the contrary, he was happy for the opportunity to engage with the microaggression panel.

The two agreed to meet. But rather than address the microaggression session, it seemed to Bhattacharya that Peterson was more interested in determining his “views on various social and political issues — including sexual assault, affirmative action, and the election of President Trump.”

The ASAC meetings. The Academic Standards and Achievement Committee is tasked with examining “patterns of unprofessional behavior and egregious violations of professionalism.” On Nov. 14, the committee took up the issue of Kern’s “Card” against Bhattacharya.

According to minutes of the meeting, which Kern attended as a voting member, “the committee voted unanimously to send Kieran Bhattacharya … a letter reminding him of the importance in medicine to show respect to all: colleagues, other staff, and patients and their families.”

Eleven days later, Associate Dean for Admissions and Student Affairs John J. Densmore sent Bhattacharya a letter stating that he needed to be seen by CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services] before he could return to classes. Bhattacharya responded by email objecting to the medical school’s ability to “mandate psychiatric evaluations.”

ASAC scheduled another meeting to discuss Bhattacharya’s enrollment status, and invited him to attend. With only three hours notification, however, he had little time to prepare and was unable to obtain legal advice.

Jim B. Rucker, committee chair, explained that ASAC was concerned by Bhattachary’s interactions with others since the microaggression panel discussion. “What we’re concerned about is some of the behaviors you’ve shown since then. … There’s concern about your interactions and behaviors most recently.”

Another ASAC member, Bart Nathan, reiterated the reservations about Bhattachary’s behavior. He described Bhattacharya as “extremely defensive” and noted that Bhattacharya’s “recording” of the hearing was “unusual behavior” not typical of a medical student. He said that ASAC was requiring him to change his “aggressive, threatening behavior.” Moreoever, he said, “Any patient that walked into the room with [Bhattacharya] would be scared.”

Suspension and trespass. The committee voted to suspend Bhattacharya, and sent him a letter to that effect. “The Academic Standards and Achievement Committtee has determined that your aggressive and inappropriate interactions in multiple situations, including in public settings, during a speaker’s lecture,  with your Dean, and during the committee meeting yesterday, constitute a violation of the School of Medicine’s Technical Standards. … Those Standards … state that each student is responsible for demonstrating self-awareness and self-analysis of one’s emotional state and reactions.”

Bhattacharya filed an appeal of ASAC’s decision and sent information about his ordeal to SecureDrop, a website through which individuals can anonymously transmit documents to dozens of news organizations.

On Dec. 30, Melissa Fielding, deputy chief of the university police, called Bhattacharya to inform him that the UVA Police Department would be issuing a No Trespass Order against him. He would be forbidden to enter any property or facility on the grounds for four years — except as a patient. When he asked the justification, she provided no additional information at that time. Later, she would reveal the order had been issued after “concerns were raised” about chat room comments “that were perceived as threats.” Those comments “raised safety concerns for the community.”

The next day, Associate Dean John J. Densmore informed Bhattacharya that, due to the No Trespass Order, the Medical School would “not be able to proceed with an appeal of [his] suspension.”

On Aug. 7, UVA upheld the No Trespass Order on the grounds that Bhattacharya had “engag[ed] in conduct that threatened the well-being of members of the community through various social media platforms.” His conduct “directed at members of the university community compromised safety and security and caused fear.”

Bacon’s bottom line. There is a bizarre symmetry here. The controversy began when Bhattacharya contested the notion of “microaggressions” on the grounds that “the person who is receiving the microaggressions somehow knows the intention of the person who made it.” Ultimately, his words and actions led to people perceiving him as aggressive, threatening, and fearful — reactions that he almost certainly did not intend. In an irony of ironies, by expressing skepticism of “microaggressions,” Bhattacharya committed a microaggression. And then by defending himself, he committed even more.

The case, I expect, will revolve around the validity of the perceptions of Bhattacharya’s aggressiveness. If Bhattacharya displayed a pattern of being loud, belligerent, and threatening, the actions taken against him conceivably might be justified. Conversely, if it turns out that he inadvertently offended a group of emotional snowflakes, this could be a case in which passive-aggressive individuals used their hyper-delicacy to silence and expel an individual whose ideas they found alien.

Before judging the case, it is necessary to see what evidence the defendants present. My hunch, based upon reactions to my own behavior at times, is that Bhattacharya might be passionate about his beliefs. He might speak with intensity, and he might raise his voice without meaning to be belligerent or threatening. Those with exquisite sensibilities might misinterpret his manner as aggressive. That’s pure speculation but it’s a possible explanation of the widely divergent views.

Two other points stand out more definitively.

First, Bhattacharya’s critique of “microaggressions” was devastating. He challenged the reining orthodoxy of the UVa administration, and various professors, and deans, and associate deans, and factotums took offense. Rather than rebut him on the substance — which, I suspect, they could not do effectively — they attacked him for his tone.

Second, the administrative process is highly subjective and lacks due process. It is extraordinary that the Academic Standards and Achievement Committee could compel Bhattacharya to obtain psychological (or psychiatric) counseling before resuming his studies. This is reminiscent the Soviet-style tactic of labeling social and political critics as psychological deviants. Rather than institutionalize Bhattacharya, the UVa medical school bureaucracy suspended him.

More importantly, Bhattacharya was given virtually no time to prepare a defense or hire legal counsel. Any normal person would be outraged by such treatment. Any normal person would be forgiven for venting his frustrations on social media. Whether some of those statements were personally threatening toward his persecutors, we don’t know. We’ll have to await the evidence the defendants present. Here’s what we do know: someone used the administrative process to execute a No Trespass Order, which appeared to come as a total surprise to Bhattacharya. He was given no venue to contest the order, even though it effectively resulted in his expulsion from the university.

This is how free speech and free expression are squelched at UVa. The Left often says, “words are violence.” Bhattacharya challenged the orthodoxy, then refused to back down. Offended faculty and administrators never attacked him directly for his views. Rather, they portrayed his words as aggressive, threatening, and potentially violent, and used the machinery of academic bureaucracy to banish him.