Tuesday, June 23, 2015


The following, as modified slightly for posting by removal of names, phone numbers, and addresses, is the complaint I filed with HHS:

To:      Division of Compliance Oversight (DCO)
Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP)
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
From:  Lewis Seagull
Re:      Complaint about potential violation of human subject research at:
Kean University,
            1000 Morris Avenue
Union, NJ 07083
            Allegedly committed by:
            Professor Sarah “Sally” Chandler
            Kean IRB Officer Joseph Cronin
I was the victim of a violation of the Common Rule as a student at Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, NJ 07083 during the spring 2013 academic semester. I promptly brought my complaint to the National Institute of Health, which informed me that it did not have jurisdiction.

Only this morning did I learn that your agency may have been the appropriate venue.

The seriousness of the alleged violation, which involves systemic institutional malfeasance by the Kean IRB in willfully and knowingly failing to monitor the principal investigator, should override the delay.

Kean is a research institution that provides “Federal-Wide Assurance” that it complies with all federal regulations regardless of funding source. The issue for you, I believe, will be whether the research falls within the exception provided in 34 C.F.R. § 97.101 (b) (1) for “Research conducted in established or commonly accepted educational settings, involving normal educational practices…” I contend that it does not.

Confidentiality: I do not request it. I waive any complaint against you or your agency if, as a result of your investigation, my identity becomes known to Kean or its employees. Confidentiality was important to me in 2013, but I have recently advised Kean that I am filing a complaint against it.

Background: I am a student enrolled in Kean’s “M.A. in English and Writing Studies” program. I expect to receive my Master of Arts degree in December 2015. 

Incident: During spring 2013, as a student in ENG 5030, “Writing as Being Saying and Doing,” my professor, Sarah Chandler, required the members of the class to provide autobiographical information in separate tape-recorded interviews. The professor had recently published a book on writing theory based on the same type of "data" obtained from students in prior semesters.

The students in the class, including me, were not asked to sign consent forms. Instead, we were required to participate and not permitted to withdraw without penalty. We were required to transcribe the interviews, and post the transcripts on a public website. 

Early in the process of transcribing, I realized that I had given more intimate details than I cared to share—indeed, was horrified by some of what I had admitted. I expressed my distress in an email to my professor. Later, I told her privately that I did not want to share my “data.” She told me that I must—I had no choice under penalty of receiving deductions from my grade. I told her I did not think that was right, and she said, “Too bad—it is a course requirement.”

Neither the course syllabus nor the course blog, however, indicated that publicly posting the transcript of the interrogation by our professor was required. The relevant portion of the syllabus states,
For this course, posts are primarily directed toward development of your research.  Writing should reflect critical, reflective analysis of ideas and practices discussed in class.
2. Notes & contributions to class data base: During the first two weeks of class we will brainstorm a list of the kinds of data we want to collect.  These data will include pre/post surveys regarding attitudes, relationships to dominant discourses, and mental states; an oral history, and a series of detailed descriptions of experiences associated with writing.   We will decide as a class where/how to post these material, and how/whether to make them available to the class as a whole.  At the very least, I will have access to pre/post data, detailed descriptions, and your written transcript of the oral history interview.
3.  Research project.  We will work as a group to develop an assignment sheet designating criteria for the research project.  In general, I am expecting a revised draft for an essay suitable for publication in a research journal.  Grading will vary from project to project - since different focuses/methods will require different standards for evaluation. The project will require you to conduct original, primary research on a topic of your choice related to the course focus.  The grade for the project will be based on the quality of your data, the rigor of your analysis of that data, the draft essay, the significance of the findings, and the writing process you used to create the essay. After we negotiate specific criteria as a class, they will be posted on the course blog.

The course blog is more specific in relating the details of the process:

Thursday, February 7, 2013
* * * *
Can you tell me again why we are doing the oral histories/interviews about writing?
We started class with a long discussion about the interviews, the interview process, and transcribing the interviews - and that led to a discussion of the "research project" mentioned on the syllabus and the calendar.

Purpose of the interviews: Your interview provides evidence of the language, story patterns, subject positioning, and so on that you use to talk about writing and your relationships to writing.  It also provides a set of stories that "come up" in your mind when you think about writing.  The research we will be reading for the rest of the term…suggests ways for researchers to study, "take apart," and put back together (in new, more constructive ways) our representations (and therefore our understanding) of our identities and our relationships.  We are going to use these methods to analyze our data base, and to see if we can see some patterns in relationships to writing, stories about writing, constructive (and not so constructive) ways of telling stories about writing (and these will certainly be different for each of us) and many other things. 

Transcribing.  In order to produce a record of your interview, you will "write" what you hear on the recording by producing a word document.  I suggest that you mark speakers (S for me, your first initial for you).  Your first time through - you can go quickly.  You don't have to get everything right.  I suggest (in light of the conversations we have had so far) that pretty much everything we have talked about sheds some light on writing, so you probably need to transcribe every conversations.  I suggest that you "track" where you are in the interview (especially at stories which feel important as you are listening) by noting the time (or the counter on the tape recorder) so that you move easily back and forth between the recording and your transcript.  That way, you can go back to conversations which seem relevant to what you see as emerging themes.

Keep your voice recording.  Make a copy of it.  You will need it.  The transcript is a "reduced" and much less informative version of our talk.  At the same time, it is necessary.  It holds the data still so we can look around inside it.  At the same time, for the stories you are most interested in - you are probably going to want to listen to them - to make sure you are interpreting them correctly.

Your interview data is yours.  You are not required to share it with anyone.  I am hoping each of you will feel comfortable sharing at least parts (and hopefully large parts) of your data - either through your own analysis of the material, or through making your "talk" available as data for the class.

Thus, both the course syllabus and blog seem to indicate that participation in the interview, the transcribing of the interview, and the public posting of the transcript are optional and voluntary. However, in her oral statements to the class, and to me privately, Chandler made clear that participation was neither optional nor voluntary. Not until after the semester was over, and she wrote me about my grade, did she state in writing the coercive nature of the process: 

Adequate participation in in-class writing, the oral history was created + transcribed.  Points lost for not making an edited transcript available to class data base + not posting notes/drafts to the class data site for essay development.

I cooperated as far as transcribing the interview. As I typed-up the transcript, I was becoming ill at the thought that my classmates would be permitted to read it. I expressed my feelings to my teacher in an email.

I sent the transcript to Dr. Chandler, as she required under penalty of a reduction in grade. In the transmittal email attaching the transcript, I included the explicit instruction not to post the transcript on the website until I could edit it. She later said she did not see the instruction.
She posted it, for all of my peers to see, on April 8, over my express objection. 

I sent her an email objecting to her posting; she said she had not opened my email, and showed me her inbox which contained my email, still in bold font indicating that it had not yet been read. When she showed me her computer screen so that I could see that my email had never been opened, all of her other emails had been opened—mine stood alone. To claim that she had not read my email, all she had to do was click a button, “Mark as Unread.”

My objections regarding posting my transcript had spanned a several-week period from late March until early April, during which my formal and informal dealings with the professor were becoming increasingly hostile. She held various instrumentalites of power over me. She was not only my professor in both courses I was taking—my fourth course in two semesters with her—she was also my faculty adviser and the director of the program.

On Monday, April 15, 2013, in ENG 5002, “Research and Methods,” a different class taught by Chandler in which I was a student, a guest lecturer on research ethics reviewed protections for research participants, including the requirements of informed written consent and the right to withdraw. Chandler was not present. I asked the guest if research ethics applied to classroom activities, and he said “yes.”

[Regarding the issue of whether preparing transcripts of interrogation by a professor is a “classroom exercise” or “human subject research,” it is 5002—Research and Methods— where we study the techniques of collecting data. In 5030—the class I am complaining about—we were collecting “data” to use it to write research papers for the purpose of publishing them for the academic community, not to learn how to collect data. We were using each other as human research subjects.]

Having learned that research universities have Institutional Review Boards to monitor and safeguard research, I went the next day—April 16—to the Kean IRB to find out what recourse I had. The Kean website indicates that research participants may make confidential inquiries or complaints to the IRB. I met with Joseph Cronin, the Assistant Director of the Kean Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, and a member of the Kean IRB.

I stated to Dr. Cronin that I thought I had been the victim of violations of universally accepted principles of research ethics (no informed consent; no right to withdraw; coercion) which I told him were committed by a tenured faculty member, but did not otherwise identify my teacher. 

Before I gave Cronin any details, I requested and received a promise of confidentiality. He closed his window and asked me to call him “Joe,” which lent an air of reliability to his promise. During the ensuing conversation, Cronin tried to suggest the professor’s initials, I remained silent. That I never mentioned the professor’s name is confirmed in an email exchange with Dr. Cronin the following day:
Re: Question
From: Joseph Cronin jcronin@exchange.kean.edu
Sent: Wednesday, Apr 17, 2013 at 9:46 AM
Hi Lewis,
I just want to clarify something.  The class you talked to me about yesterday, was that an undergraduate or a graduate class.  I seem to recall that it was a graduate class.  I just want to make sure my records are clear. 
Joseph M. Cronin, Ph.D.
Assistant Director
Office of Research and Sponsored Programs
 I replied:
From: Lewis Seagull
Sent: Wednesday, April 17, 2013 11:03 AM
To: Joseph Cronin
Subject: Re: Question
Graduate course. Does it make a difference?
He responded:
From: Joseph Cronin jcronin@exchange.kean.edu
Sent: Wednesday, Apr 17, 2013 at 11:04 AM
No, it doesn’t.  I just want to make sure I understood everything fully. 

Instead of honoring his promise of confidentiality, Cronin contacted Chandler, whom he had deduced was the professor in question, to advise her of my inquiry. When I went to Cronin on Friday, April 19 to find out why he had backtracked on his sympathetic attitude, he said, “Call me Dr. Cronin.” Then he and Susan Gannon, the Director of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, asked me to leave, which I did.

On the afternoon of April 17, after the email exchange with Cronin, and—unknown to me—after he had violated his promise of confidentiality, I attended Chandler’s class. The class as a whole was “negotiating” how many points to assign to the “collection of data.” My position to the class was that it should be assigned no points because we had the right not to participate. 

Chandler guided the conversation against my position. Chandler presented to the class the issue of allowing classmates to examine my “data” for use in their research papers. I was the object of peer pressure; one of my classmates stated, “We all agreed; Lewis, you can’t back out.”

I then confronted Chandler about posting my transcript over my written objection. The professor denied ever receiving my objection to posting the email—“Lewis! How could I know?”—which was frightening to me, because, in addition to the emails in which I expressly stated that I did not want my transcript posted, we had had several conversations in which I had objected—I felt reality and history were being altered and I was thankful that I had at least two emails to give credibility to my assertion that in several private conversations I had objected to posting my transcript. When Dr. Chandler showed me that she had not read my email, I pointed to my earlier email, which she not only read but responded to:

The transcript of my interview

Lewis Seagull <lseagull@kean.edu>
Sun, Mar 31, 2013 at 6:39 AM
To: sally chandler <ENG5030.01@gmail.com>
Hi Sally,
I am attaching the first 34 pages of my transcript. Please do not post this where anyone else can see it,

Transcript of interview with Sally Chandler[2].docx

sally chandler <eng5030.01@gmail.com>
Sun, Mar 31, 2013 at 11:11 AM
To: Lewis Seagull <lseagull@kean.edu>
Thanks, Lewis.

To say that I agreed to any of this when I signed up for the course is not true. My financial aid agreement requires I take six credits. This was the only course that fit my schedule. I tried to get into a “Digital Literacy” independent study, but could not. If I had, I would have dropped this course.
But isn’t the protocol for the research flawed? One classmate stated that she deliberately did not mention certain subjects because she knew her transcript would be made public. Apparently, I was the only one who honestly spilled his guts. Some students actually wrote about the things they deliberately refused to mention in their interviews.

Dr. Chandler told us that one reason that the interviews require a two-hour, non-stop conversation is so that the subject will let his guard down. I was not able to protect myself.

One point about confidentiality and conflict of interest regarding the intimate details of my life that I shared with my professor: If she were a lawyer, I would have the attorney client privilege; if she were a therapist, I would have a privilege as a patient. She used her power over me to require me to divulge secrets. 

I was not the only student for whom “sharing data” was distressing. A classmate, who was concerned about how upset I was in class, wrote in an email to me,

            Sun, Apr 21, 2013 at 8:19 PM
To: Lewis Seagull <lseagull@kean.edu>
I want to tell you a lot of things. You should know that a lot of people are mad at you, and even though you might not care, we were all classmates, Lewis, and together had to endure a lot of uncomfortable things in Dr. Chandler's classes, albeit whether we believed or not that, technically, we didn't sign up for the some of what we had to do. Granted, I didn't sign up for a lot of the revealing and remembering and the hurt that came with all of it.
*  *  *  *
For now, goodnight. Take down my number and give me a call sometime this week; or just write me back. Here: 732 XXX XXXX.

Conclusion:  Not only did Kean University, its Institutional Review Board, and its Department of English (Daniel O’Day, Chair; Charles Nelson, Assistant Chair) take no action after being informed of the details of the alleged violation, they brought the power of the University down upon me. I was prosecuted for alleged violations of the Kean Code of Student Conduct for “hostile behavior” in complaining to my professor; I was terminated from my position as adjunct professor of English (hired September 2002; denied academic appointments commencing summer 2013)—this despite the fact that in January 2013, the assistant chair, Charles Nelson (who is responsible for assigning teaching positions), thought so highly of me that he recommended a newly hired adjunct to come to me for mentoring—and I did mentor her during the spring 2013 semester.

As an adjunct professor, I do not have tenure. Indeed, as an “at will” employee, I can be terminated for any reason or no reason, but not for the wrong reason. Charles Nelson has admitted that my complaint against Sarah Chandler is the reason I no longer receive assignments to teach at Kean. 

                                                                                                            Lewis Seagull

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