My PhD at Marquette: The Human Cost of Academia’s Abusive Culture

Academia is entering an uncertain future and I’m experiencing very contradictory emotions about its fate. Since middle school I’ve dreamt of a vocation in the intellectual study of history, so sadness engulfs me. Alternately, as someone who saw that dream become a nightmare, due to the abusive practices fostered by the current system, I find myself feeling a degree of relief. My hope is that this crisis will precipitate real reforms that provide a better existence for one of the most vulnerable labor populations in academia, first-generation grad students.

In the Spring of 2004 at the age of twenty-seven, I was determined to become an academic historian. My background made such a professional goal difficult, but not impossible. I was the first member of my family to graduate from a bachelor’s program and my roots were in an anti-intellectual and precarious proletarian soil. In my naïveté I thought the most important criteria for a PhD program was the program’s geographic closeness to your dissertation sources. I wanted to research the Catholic Worker, a twentieth-century American social movement. In my Master’s program I had interviewed a Catholic Worker who had served prison time for Vietnam draft resistance. The experience transformed me. I knew I wanted a PhD so I could tell this story of Catholics and others who followed their conscience instead of the dictates of their culture and government.

Since the group’s archives were at Marquette University, I thought it was a natural choice for the PhD. My mistake was not considering the critical question of who I would work with there. In my fear of research travel costs I did not reckon with the larger cost of a dysfunctional faculty.

I received a tuition scholarship from the History Department and began my studies in the fall of 2004.  I was determined to succeed, and for the first three semesters I did. My writing could improve, but that could be said of most grad students, and few faced the obstacles I had. I proved in a research seminar that I could produce original scholarship, even if I chose a topic unpopular with the professor.

In the Fall semester of 2005, I had my first teaching assistantship. It was difficult, but I proved very capable. However, my stress was reaching dangerous levels. I was not sleeping, so I went to the student counseling center. The center put me in contact with its psychiatrist, Dr. C. Years later it turned out that I had a form of PTSD resulting from experiences in early childhood and adolescence. At the time I was diagnosed as OCD.

With my symptoms raging I attempted to drop one of my classes. The professor, Father Steven Avella (who had led the aforementioned research seminar) asked me not to. He said I was doing such good work that I shouldn’t withdraw from the class. He would even give me an incomplete if I needed it. So, I finished that semester with two A’s and an incomplete.

Over the Winter 2005 break my anxiety and depression increased. In the Spring I had one research seminar and the incomplete to finish before I could take my comprehensive exams. I met with Father Avella a few times trying to explain my situation. At first, he was understanding, but that attitude quickly dissipated. He began to make the situation less about my health and more about my respect for him. In one meeting he told me I was one of the top people in the department. In another meeting he accused me of not respecting him and of not being that strong an intellectual. At one point, he said that when it came time for me to go on the job market, departments would be asking him what he thought and he would have to give them negative feedback. In the end my psychiatrist attempted to contact him, but Father Avella refused to take the call saying “he wanted to handle this in the department.”

Looking back, I realize that my relationship with Father Avella was always strained because he was set against research on the Catholic Worker. After a very frustrating seminar experience, I decided I could not research the Worker if he was the dissertation advisor. When I informed him I was not pursuing the topic, he told me he was glad. The fact that I faced such a bias at Marquette, home of the richest Catholic Worker archives in the world, was an ironic tragedy. My inability to work towards a dissertation topic of my own choice only added to the intensity of my symptoms.

A few weeks later I found out what “handled in the department” meant. I lost my teaching assistantship for the next year. The head of the graduate program met with me and explained they were very happy with my teaching but that there was a sense that I was not as good a scholar as I presented myself to be. What troubled me was this all seemed based on one paper being late and Father Avella’s feelings towards me. I found out that other students had incompletes lasting over two semesters, but there was never any retribution towards their funding.

I then went to the chair of the department, Dr. James Marten. In a very confusing interview he said that of all the students in the department, I knew most what it meant to be a historian. He then said I was always on the bubble in terms of financial aid. All of this was incomprehensible to me as it would be to anyone.

This chain of events led to a worsening of my health. While I kept up with my teaching responsibilities, I was unable to work in my final research seminar. One reason being, in addition to the financial stress and the symptoms of my illness, that I was working towards a dissertation topic I was not committed to. At the end of the semester, I decided to leave the department because I felt I had no options. Yet, after a few weeks outside the department’s toxic atmosphere, I decided I could not give up on my dreams. I would not walk away from a topic I was dedicated to or be bullied into giving up on my vocation.

I took my story to the graduate school and, after some road blocks, was able to meet with the dean, Dr. William Wiener. With a letter from my psychiatrist, I explained the events that had led up to this point. In a follow-up meeting he informed me that I was being reinstated and that I was “allowed” to finish the research seminar from the Spring 2006 semester, so that I would not have an F on my transcript. My naïveté still strongly in evidence, I thanked him and followed his instructions to again meet with the chair of the History Department.

The meeting with Dr Marten was one of the most difficult experiences in my life. I think I knew what was coming when he closed his office door after I entered. In the most demeaning way possible, he told me I had caused him a great deal of trouble. That if I had a disability, it was my responsibility to the inform the disability office and the professors, that in finishing the final research seminar paper I was not allowed to speak in person with Dr. Kristen Foster, the professor in charge of the class. That in pushing me away from research on the Catholic Worker Father Avella was acting in my own best interests. He accused me of lying about my illness and that was why my teaching assistantship was taken way. That in the future I would receive no financial aid and without having more experience as a teaching assistant I would never get a job.

He was retaliating against me for bringing my issues with the department to the graduate school. At this point few graduate students would continue working under these circumstances. I felt I had no other choice.

After this traumatic meeting I went to the student disabilities office. I showed them the email (which I still have) containing the conditions under which I was supposed to finish the class. The staff member in the office told me to finish the paper. I was at a complete loss. Being put in this position was malevolent, to work towards a dissertation I did not want, doing a research seminar when I could not talk to the professor in person, and with no financial aid. All of this while I had been diagnosed with a severe health issue. It was a nightmare.

Nonetheless, I tried to stick it out. I even took a theology class in the Fall of 2006 thinking I could work from the Theology Department on my topic. I was torn between trying to finish the seminar paper or contacting the provost with my complaint. I sent a copy of my seminar paper on the Catholic Worker to Dr. David O’Brien of Holy Cross College, to get a neutral take on my work. Dr. O’Brien is one of the top historians of American Catholicism. He thought it was a great paper. He felt that I not only had a strong dissertation topic but even the beginnings of a book.

The final stroke fell in November when I found out (by newspaper) that Dr. C, who had promised to back me up in any complaint, had been accused and arrested for sleeping with a patient. I felt as if the universe itself had abandoned me. I decided the least bad choice was refusing to work in these conditions and file a complaint with the provost. Before I could do that, the graduate dean sent me a letter dismissing me for my refusal to complete the research seminar. I immediately sent my complaint to the provost who kicked it back down to the dean, even though I had cited him in my complaint.

The dean set up an appeal with a board of three professors he chose. I alone had to face the dean, his panel, and Dr. Marten in the meeting. I gave them the complaint I sent the provost, who never met with me. Then Dr. Marten gave the same abusive performance as he did in our personal meeting: mocking my problems, accusing me of using an illness I lied about to get away with something and painting me in the worst possible light with no evidence. The dean then excused Dr. Marten and myself, and a few hours later I received an email. I was again dismissed from the program due to my inability to finish the seminar paper. No mention was made of the Dr. C. situation, my complaints, or Dr. Marten’s conditions for my work on the seminar paper.

I tried to find a lawyer but of course I could not afford one. My symptoms now out of control, I made a suicide attempt in May 2006. I’m sure Dr. Marten would again say I was just trying to get away with something. I wonder what he would say of the years of counseling and ECT that followed. Because I stood up for my non-existent rights and dignity as a graduate student, Maquette destroyed my career and almost my life.

Since then, it’s been a very rough road but I’m still here. In 2020, finally free of student loans, I decided to try and finish the PhD. My fear is that my Marquette transcript will leave me blacklisted. I have no delusions that speaking out will fix anything; after thirteen years it may make things considerably worse. I know revisiting and writing about these experiences has been incredibly difficult. While the arc of the universe may bend towards justice, the arc is very, very long, the powerful are still powerful, and grad students have few if any rights or protections. But sometimes speaking truth is in itself justice, and might even lead to acts of solidarity with graduate students facing this type of abuse today.

Chris Arnold holds an M.A. in History from SUNY Brockport. He is currently an independent scholar and has presented at academic conferences. He is continuing to work on his Catholic Worker project.