A philosophy professor at Concordia is alleging that academic mobbing is what ultimately led President Judith Woodsworth to suspend him, despite her statements saying he posed a potential threat to persons at the university.
Dr. Vesselin Petkov, who also teaches in the science college and liberal arts college, sent an email to the media last week which included an excerpt of an email he received from Woodsworth in which she wrote that her decision to suspend him was based “on the fact that [Petkov’s] behaviour constitutes gross misconduct arising from serious threats to persons at the university as well as actions that seriously undermine the reputation of the university.”
Petkov responded to her comments in his email, writing that the president based her decision purely on fabricated claims, without evidence of any real threatening statements or action. He continued to state that what Woodsworth actually has “are claims by several mobbers, who started to feel threatened only after they were caught publicly denying documented facts.”
According to an article in the journal Chronicle of Higher Education, academic mobbing is “a form of bullying in which members of a department gang up to isolate or humiliate a colleague.”
Petkov believes that he was undeniably the victim of academic mobbing at the hands of a group within the philosophy department, whom he is confident also received the support of others at the university. Part of his reasoning revolves around a redesign of the philosophy department’s course calendar, which essentially eliminated the two courses that Petkov would have taught.
Judging by documents compiled on Petkov’s website, however, one factor that seems to have had a large motivating role in his suspension are comments he made relating to Valery Fabrikant, the Concordia professor who opened fire in the Hall building in August 1992, killing four professors and wounding one staff member.
Petkov brought up Fabrikant, as well as Justine and Yves Sergent, a McGill professor and her husband who committed suicide in 1994 after she was harshly reprimanded for perceived academic misconduct in some of her research, in various letters to the administration as he feels they represent the dangerous consequences of academic mobbing.
In an early Sept. 2010 letter to Petkov, provost David Graham wrote “I must advise you that the tone and content of your recent communications have been construed as seriously threatening.”
“In particular,” the provost wrote, “you have continued to make references to Valery Fabrikant and to compare your case to his, notwithstanding the fact that you have previously been formally notified that the use of the name of an individual convicted of murdering four Concordia faculty members was unacceptable and was deemed to be threatening.”
“Your use of terms such as “intellectual murder’ may also reasonably be construed as threatening,” the paragraph concluded.
Petkov sent a letter to Concordia’s lawyer Bram Freedman, as well as the Concordia university Faculty Association’s lawyer Harold Lehrer, where he questioned the legality of Woodsworth’s decision to suspend, noting that in barring him from being on campus and preventing him from accessing his email prevents him from “performing [his] other professional duties which, for example, require using the library and receiving and sending mail.”
Within that letter he also included part of a message that academic mobbing researcher Kenneth Westhues sent to Woodsworth, among others, which states “I have read the references to Fabrikant in Petkov’s open letter. The references strike me as thoughtful, reasonable, unthreatening, intelligent.”
“It is beyond me,” Westhues continued, “how making this kind of reference to Fabrikant can be a ground for suspension or dismissal.”
Despite the recency of Petkov’s suspension, the whole ordeal has been going on for quite some time. On his website, he writes that he has been subject to academic mobbing for a “number of years.”
During the first four months of 2010, a panel for the philosophy department, organized by Graham, deliberated on Petkov’s situation. The panel, in Petkov’s eyes, only represented a continuation of the academic mobbing, and he believes that “all statements in the panel report regarding [himself] are deliberately untrue.”
In a letter to the dean of the faculty of arts and science, Brian Lewis, Petkov wrote that the panel only “confirmed (his) suspicion that the university itself had been involved in the escalating campaign of intellectual destruction.”
The university has been far more close-lipped on the situation. Concordia media representative Chris Mota confirmed that Petkov had in fact been suspended under article 29.17 of the CUFA agreement, which states that the president can suspend a member for a stated cause “involving gross misconduct,” such as serious threats or physical acts to person or property at the university, or actions that undermine its reputation.
Mota could not offer additional details on the situation, however, writing that the university “will respect confidentiality and legal obligations in this matter, which prevent [them] from commenting further on the grounds for the suspension.”
This week, Petkov sent President Woodsworth a message, calling for her to resign. In the letter, he offered three main reasons why he felt she should step down: Simply, she made her decision to suspend a faculty member on the basis of claims by those involved in academic mobbing; she has lost the confidence of an increasing number of students and faculty; and her decision affected 100 students taking Petkov’s courses this semester, which he can no longer teach.
He has also filed a grievance with the university, which will now go to arbitration. “And if justice (based on facts, not mobbing) is not done, the matter will head to court and will be widely internationalized,” Petkov wrote.
Correction (Oct. 13): The headline of this story originally misspelled Dr. Petkov’s first name. It has been corrected.
Correction (Oct. 19): In in this article, a statement was incorrectly attributed to Prof. Christopher Gray in the department of philosophy regarding his colleague Vesselin Petkov. The Concordian regrets the error.