Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Most Appalling Professional Misconduct by an Academic Job Seeker Ever

The story that follows came to my attention awhile back, and while I have removed details identifying the perpetrator (whose identity is now known, and may be posted here subsequently--for now, we'll call her P) and the victim (whom I'll call V), as well as the school involved, I want to share the basic details to gauge reader reaction.

P and V were both on the academic job market.  (I know V, I do not know and have never spoken to P.)  They had somewhat overlapping areas of research interest, and so might have been thought of as competitors, as it were.  Both P and V were under some degree of consideration at Major Law School (hereafter MLS).  But V, unlike P, got a fly-back to give a job talk at MLS.  On the morning of the day of V's job talk, P sent the following e-mail under a pseudonym ("Jade West") from an e-mail account created for that purpose.  The e-mail began with a quotation discrediting V's scholarship and disparaging V's publications.  P alleged that this quotation came from an email that was sent to P's "colleagues" at MLS.  The e-mail concluded with these lines:  "In other words, WE DON'T WANT YOU...HERE AT [MLS].  You belong at a crap school like [name omitted].  Hope you blow your job talk today."

Fortunately, V did not see P's e-mail until after the job talk.  V was obviously very distressed, however, and the intent of the malicious missive was clear.   Its contents were also false, i.e., no e-mail had circulated among faculty at MLS like the one P purported to be quoting, and P was never a faculty member at MLS.

An acquaintance of V, a computer expert, set up a technological trap known as a "honeypot" to decisively link P's fake email account to P's school account.  P's identity is thus now known.

P, in fact, secured a tenure-track job at another law school. That law school does not know about P's appalling misconduct. 

Should MLS notify the law school that hired P about what P did?   Should V?  Should those of us, like me, who now know the identity, do so?  Should that information be made public?   The school that hired P did not know of P's misconduct; what should they do when they find out?  Is P's appalling misconduct a firing offense?  Grounds for tenure denial?

I am curious to hear what readers think, or if they have ever heard of misconduct this egregious.  Only comments with a full name in the signature line and a valid e-mail address will be posted.

UPDATE 9/9:  Please see the update.


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Obviously this is a pressing issue for those who are involved, or who are in the know. But for those of us who stand at a safe distance, it would also make a nice topic for a class discussion.

Does anyone have a duty to report P to the authorities at her new employer? I think not, although opinions will differ. Correspondingly, I don't think that the new employer has a right to receive a report. I know that some university honor codes impose a duty on all staff and students to report the offences of others at the same universities. I don't know what sort of atmosphere that creates.

Does anyone have a right to report P? I would say yes, everyone does. But only those who are well-informed about the details can responsibly do so, because only they will know what can reasonably be said and what would be unsubstantiated allegation. Those without that knowledge should stay out of it.

So I would be perfectly happy to see someone well-informed make a sober and restrained report to the new employer, copied to P, as suggested by Michael Teter above. I would only say "I have evidence that P may have behaved inappropriately in relation to V's application to MLS. You may wish to investigate this", and then attach the raw evidence. As soon as the person making the report starts to interpret the evidence, he or she puts a gloss on it that may prejudice the process, leading P to be dismissed unfairly, or (if P points out that the process has been prejudiced) leading P to avoid dismissal unfairly.

The person who set up the honeypot had better be prepared to detail every step in his or her work, and to have computer experts on P's side crawl all over that work, looking for loopholes.

Finally, how bright is P? If I wanted to do something like this (which I don't), I would go to an Internet café outside my home town, set up a free (no credit card!) web-based e-mail account, send the message, and never access that e-mail account again, even from another Internet café.

Posted by: Richard Baron | Sep 8, 2010 9:50:26 AM

I agree that this is information that should be disclosed to the relevant law schools and bars, but I think the actual text of the email (and its surreounding circumstances) is/are relevant facts. Taking the facts as presented, I would want to know if a colleague of mine had acted in this unprofessional way, and I think most law schools have procedures for dealing with these kinds of alleged misconduct.

But I'd also like to know more about the circumstances surrounding the "honeypot," which could also be tortious or criminal. If the identity of P was obtained improperly, V's possible collusion with the hacker is relevant also.

Posted by: Neil Richards | Sep 8, 2010 10:32:44 AM

I don't think, however clever it might have been, that any design of a honeypot could unequivocally link a specific human to this. Even honeypots that required them to give up personal or professional information could still be trapping not necessarily P but someone acting on P's behalf (with or without P's knowledge). As someone with considerable technical expertise, the worse case scenario in cases like these come about assuming that some technical process or scheme is infallible.

BL COMMENT: There are more details about the honeypot and the results it yielded that I have not gone into here that remove doubts about the sender of the malicious missive.

I don't think it makes sense to out P unless P confesses to it... and then, it's probably not necessarily best dealt with publicly.

Posted by: Joseph Lorenzo Hall | Sep 8, 2010 10:39:23 AM

I am not a lawyer, but a professional philosopher, specializing in ethics. This is seriously unethical behavior, as we all agree. Any member of the profession who has non-confidential knowledge of the offense, and I assume Brian Leiter is one such, has an obligation, both professional and moral to inform the Dean at P's school. Any other course of action, such as approaching P and suggesting P gives him/herself up, is open to the ethical objections mentioned in the previous post. If, for example, you knew someone stole a wallet, what would you do? Approach the thief and suggest he give himself up? No, you would report it to the appropriate authorities.
Such action may, and probably should, end P's career. But to have an academic post, especially in the current competitive climate, is an enormous privilege that carries great responsibilities with it.

Posted by: David McNaughton | Sep 8, 2010 11:19:04 AM

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