Psychology department ‘crumbles’ after allegations of misconduct

Records show numerous complaints against faculty member; graduate students call for effective department leadership

ANGELICA RELENTE and EMMA LEDBETTER

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AYA STEWART | DAILY EVERGREEN ILLUSTRATION

 

Editor’s note: Some sources asked to remain anonymous to prevent retaliation and potential loss of employment and educational opportunities. An asterisk identifies a source’s name has been changed to protect their anonymity.

Graduate students in the WSU Department of Psychology are calling for new faculty members to lead the department to recovery after current administrators dismissed complaints of a professor’s acts of hostility and favoritism last spring.

Complainants alleged Chris Barry, professor in the department, favored undergraduate students in his lab by directing preferential recruitment toward female students and made some of his mentees feel “uncomfortable” with his behavior and “hostile” emails.

The Daily Evergreen obtained over 350 pages of investigative documents through a public records request that show the Office of Civil Rights Compliance and Investigation, formerly the Office for Equal Opportunity, interviewed 17 individuals related to a pre-investigation inquiry regarding Barry’s conduct last spring.

Graduate students claimed in the records that Chris Barry sent them “angry emails” after they spoke up to him during meetings or sought feedback and that they felt he tried to manipulate them with praise.

“[I have] never felt terrified of a mentor before,” a graduate student said.

Several months after the inquiry was closed, administrators told students in a meeting to refrain from spreading rumors and gossip to “minimize stress and disruption” in the department, so as not to affect Chris Barry.

Although the inquiry was closed in May, graduate students said since then no one has taken responsibility for the underlying issue and the climate problems within the department still persist.

The Evergreen reached out to Chris Barry, psychology administrators and CRCI staff, but they declined multiple requests for comment, instead directing the Evergreen to Phil Weiler, WSU vice president for marketing and communications.

Since CRCI closed the inquiry in May, some students say they have struggled to trust department leadership and are calling for action so similar issues do not happen again.

“There has still been no accountability,” said Alex*, graduate student in the department. “The complete nightmare of collapsing leadership in my program is still happening.”

The inquiry

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A WSU employee filed a complaint on March 7 alleging that Chris Barry discriminated against students based on sex and/or gender by selectively recruiting more women for his lab, according to the records.

The allegations included that Chris Barry sent hostile emails to graduate students who worked in his lab, favored “attractive” female undergraduates and had an inappropriate relationship with a student under his supervision.

CRCI started interviewing sources a day after the complaints were filed, but did not reach out to one of the initial witnesses, a former employee who heard rumors of conduct violations, until April 24, according to the records. The witness declined to speak with CRCI.

“I learned from my time at WSU that there is no advocacy or support for anyone, and I don’t want any more stress or mistreatment from WSU. I’ve had enough for a lifetime,” the witness wrote in an email to CRCI. “I’ve come to realize that your process is not confidential or trustworthy.”

Although records indicate multiple allegations against Chris Barry, CRCI closed the inquiry on May 30, which specifically focused on alleged inappropriate conduct violating Executive Policy #15 and Executive Policy #28.

EP 15 refers to discriminatory harassment, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct that can harm individuals or violate individual rights. EP 28 is a policy on faculty-to-student and supervisor-to-subordinate relationships.

CRCI and Human Resource Services worked jointly, saying in the closing memorandum contained in the records that there was “insufficient information to warrant further investigation or review.”

Graduate students in the psychology department said the inquiry only focused on the alleged EP violations and did not adequately address a separate issue: the climate in Chris Barry’s lab, which students described as “hostile” and “toxic.”

According to the records, a psychology graduate student also expressed concern that Chris Barry was targeting recruitment toward female undergraduates, not because of sexism against men, but because women are “more vulnerable, [and have] that willingness to do things, be involved in things.”

A graduate student said in an interview with CRCI that Chris Barry cited a male student from his previous institution as an example of why he does not like to work with men.

Psychology, as a field, is generally dominated by women, Chris Barry said in an interview with CRCI. He said he did not direct preferential recruitment to female students.

Chris Barry outlined a document for CRCI investigators regarding information about how he recruits students in his lab.

“I have [not] and do not target students for any demographic reasons,” Chris Barry wrote in the document. “I ‘target’ good students for recruitment when I have an immediate need for new research assistants.”

Students told investigators that Chris Barry had up to 16 students total in his lab, a majority of which were female, according to the records.

Preferential recruitment of undergraduates was outside CRCI’s investigative purview, according to the records, because “investigators did not have sufficient information to link that treatment to a protected class.”

Though CRCI declined further investigation because the issue was not under its purview, representatives did not deny the possibility of an issue could be present.

“There are times where we make a finding that conduct is not based on a protected class, but are not making a finding that the conduct did or did not occur,” Holly Ashkannejhad, CRCI director of compliance and investigation, wrote in an email to a graduate student.

Records show that Chris Barry sent the following text message to an undergraduate student on April 12, the day after he was notified of the inquiry, which raised concerns about potential retaliation. Chris Barry was a less credible witness because of this discrepancy and others, according to the closing memorandum.

Barry: Was it you who said someone complained about guys not being in our lab?
Undergrad: hahaha oh no, might had been me at some point [sic]. Why?
Barry: What you mean? [sic]
Barry: You were complaining or someone complained?
Undergrad: Oh no it was me I think, a long time ago though! Why? Sorry, I read your question wrong I [sic] initially
Barry: just trying to remember if someone whined about that or if I was making it up in my head. It’s a non-issue.
Undergrad: Yeah, it was just an observation I made the first time I went to a lab meeting! Okay!

The student who received the text from Chris Barry said in an interview with CRCI that the message did not stand out to her before, but should have.

“It’s a little manipulative. A lot manipulative,” the student said during the interview. “It makes me question all of our other interactions, was there a hidden motive. You don’t know.”

Chris Barry said in an interview with CRCI that he did not attempt to ascertain the identities of the complainants.

After Chris Barry was notified of the inquiry, a graduate student said in an interview with CRCI he was “nice to [the] point it’s almost manipulative.”

“I feel very much under a microscope,” Chris Barry said in the interview. “I don’t know what the right approach is.”

Tammy Barry, also a faculty member in the department and Chris Barry’s wife, said in an interview with CRCI that she had students tell her positive things about her husband. There is no reason to doubt that he is an “ethical” and “moral” person, she said.

Tammy Barry has a supervisory role over graduate students as the director of clinical training, said Greg Keiser, fourth-year clinical psychology graduate student. She was promoted from this position and began working as an associate dean of the graduate school on Nov. 1.

“Feels like he’s already been convicted in the court of public opinion,” Tammy Barry said in an interview with CRCI.

Graduate students avoided addressing their issues directly with Chris Barry out of fear of “professional retaliation,” according to the records.

Records show that though CRCI prohibits retaliation, students fear backlash from their faculty mentors because of the inquiry.

Alex said some graduate students expressed concerns about their mentors’ ability to write them letters of recommendation for internships, which are required for their degrees.

“[I] know we had discussion of retaliation, but [there is] only so much anybody can do,” a graduate student said in an interview with CRCI. “[Chris Barry] does wield a lot of power over our futures if we don’t distance ourselves from him.”

Records show that handling of the issue was delegated to department chair David Marcus, who several students mentioned is friends with Chris Barry.

Keiser said students saw no follow-up from either Marcus or CRCI, especially any that addressed the hostile lab climate. The department remained “radio silent” on the issue from the time the inquiry was closed in May until August, he said.

Alex said efforts to address the issue since the inquiry happened have been student-led.

“I feel like [we] all know something is wrong, but not wrong enough for something to happen,” a graduate student said in an interview with CRCI. “We want something to change, but I don’t see that happening.”

Mandatory department meeting

The psychology department holds a weekly meeting for graduate students on Wednesdays. Meetings are usually recorded for those who cannot make it, but on Aug. 21, Marcus emailed students ahead of time saying there was no plan to record.

Marcus called the meeting to address what he described in an email to the graduate student cohort as “professionalism (especially regarding rumors), and bullying.”

Ashkannejhad and Lisa Gloss, dean of WSU’s graduate school, stood near tables at the front of the room as students entered.

A week after the meeting, the Evergreen reached out to Marcus, Ashkannejhad and Gloss for further clarification. They declined to make a comment and directed the Evergreen to Weiler.

More than 25 students from the program who were in attendance at the department meeting whispered questions amongst themselves before Marcus began to speak.

After introducing administrators in attendance, Marcus announced they would be discussing — in limited detail — personnel matters that he implied most people already knew of.

Marcus said CRCI asked those who knew about the situation not to spread “rumors” or conduct their own investigation and to report any additional information to CRCI. As the department chair, he said his main allegiance is to the program’s success.

“If the outcome of that is there’s no evidence to support that, then we have to move forward,” he said in the meeting. “The faculty member who had been the target of those allegations needs to also be able to be successful to be able to continue to contribute to the program.”

Keiser asked at the meeting if CRCI recommends students not discuss their experiences.

Ashkannejhad said the university would never tell a student not to seek out support from close friends and family but to do so in a way that would “minimize stress and disruption in the workplace.”

A graduate student said at the meeting their cohort cannot access mental health services in the community because most local mental health professionals are in some way connected to their program. Because of this, the students said they often depend on each other for emotional support.

“When I say that you could talk to your friends, that includes people within your department or within your program or cohort,” Ashkannejhad said. “It would mean that you’re talking to people that are your close support network.”

“We are. Collectively, the graduate students are a close support network,” the graduate student responded. “Am I wrong?”

Ashkannejhad opened the floor for questions and several graduate students raised concerns over being discouraged from talking to other students in the department, as their peers also serve as their support network.

In response to the concerns, Marcus restated that CRCI did not find sufficient evidence of an inappropriate relationship, and that he was concerned further discussion would perpetuate rumors.

Though Gloss and Ashkannejhad repeatedly told Marcus it was best to stop talking and sit down, Marcus continued to push back against what he described as a belief of “guilty until proven innocent.”

“The program can’t go forward like that,” Marcus said. “I don’t know how I could work with you guys like that.”

Students speak out

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Keiser said it is impossible for some graduate students to have faith that their advisers will interact with them in an unbiased way.

“That’s a scary thing for graduate students to hear, where this person [who] has so much power over them, doesn’t know how to treat them professionally,” Keiser said.

It would be difficult for some students to regain trust in some faculty members in the department, he said.

“When people aren’t feeling able to share their experiences, abuse can be perpetuated … that is my genuine fear — that there would be a chilling effect here,” Keiser said. “It will block students from feeling like they can discuss these things, report them and get justice for them.”

Records show that students confided in some faculty members in the department about issues they have been facing over time, including the alleged hostile climate.

“I know a couple students have told me that their biggest fear is to have to come forward and have nothing happen. I can’t tell them what is going to happen. I don’t know how to respond to that fear,” a faculty member said in an interview with CRCI. “I don’t know what you can even tell me.”

June*, graduate student in the psychology department, said a lot of her frustration is with CRCI and how it handled the inquiry. The situation did not give a chance for faculty and students to gather and discuss the issue at hand, she said.

“They really pitted the faculty against the students,” June said. “It really just divided everybody up.”

June said a lot of the frustration comes from CRCI’s lack of follow-up with the department.

“I think [CRCI] made a really big mistake really showing allegiance to the university first versus being there for students,” June said.

Gemma*, graduate student in the department, said a professor held a meeting in his class to discuss the importance of free speech rights a few days after the mandatory meeting.

“It didn’t have to be him,” Gemma said. “I wish it would have been someone in a position of power taking control of the situation.”

That professor has since taken medical leave, citing mental health stressors caused by the state of the department as the reason for his departure.

Rosie*, graduate student in the department, said Chris Barry was not receptive to feedback and denied multiple requests to have graduate student-only meetings to discuss specific projects.

Rosie said he does not have weekly meetings with graduate students after their first year, which could be difficult because some students need more guidance even after then.

“I really found that that was a big struggle for me because his communication style was very unclear and very abrasive because we didn’t have regular meetings,” Rosie said. “It was very unclear what his expectations were.”

Rosie said the long-standing relationship between Marcus and Chris Barry could have contributed to the issue in the department. She said their friendship concerns her, especially when it comes to Marcus’ ability to protect students.

Records show that a graduate student said she received an “extremely random piece of praise” over text from Chris Barry after she found out a graduate student left his lab. He later came by her office and hugged her as she was sitting down.

“For me, that felt like an attempt to give me just enough to keep me from leaving,” the graduate student said in an interview with CRCI.

Some undergraduates in Chris Barry’s lab said they shared no ill feelings toward him.

“I have complete trust in Dr. Barry,” said Megan Wong, undergraduate biology and basic medical sciences student.

Jacob Briggs, sophomore psychology student, said he enjoys working in Chris Barry’s lab.

“He’s like my biggest support system here at WSU,” Briggs said. “He’s given me great advice and not only academically, but life-wise.”

The aftermath

Alex said Tammy Barry and Marcus addressed the fallout in a department meeting on Aug. 28, saying that Marcus should have followed up with the graduate students in Chris Barry’s lab.

Rosie said Marcus declared in a department meeting on Sept. 18 that he will step down from his position in the clinical training committee, but will maintain his role as the department chair. The clinical training committee oversees admissions to the clinical psychology program and conducts annual student evaluations, according to the Department of Psychology policies and procedures manual.

Keiser said he believes it is inappropriate for Marcus to walk away from the clinical program but still hold his position as department chair.

“If he’s going to step away from the clinical program … he either has to learn to work with us or step away completely,” Keiser said. “He’s straddling this very weird middle ground that leaves us in a really dangerous position.”

Alex said tension grew within the department because no one was willing to intervene.

“There was so much harm done to students, to faculty, to our program that I think never needed to happen,” Alex said.

The responsibility of following up with the students involved in the inquiry in a timely manner should not be a one-man job, she said.

She feels like there has not been an effort to provide closure within the department, Alex said, and that some graduate students reached out to faculty members in hopes of implementing a mediation process between faculty and students.

However, Tammy Barry suggested a student-to-student mediation process instead, she said, which most students did not respond favorably to.

“It’s so frustrating that students have been trying to make these things happen,” Alex said. “Every single progress that’s been made has been student-driven.”

She said the fallout from the CRCI inquiry could have been prevented.

“This wouldn’t be happening if our program had strong leadership,” Alex said.

Weiler said CRCI and HRS worked with Marcus, Gloss and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to address issues in the department.

“There’s a lot of work that has been done and — I think frankly — more work that needs to be done,” Weiler said. “Emotions are running high around this issue.”

Weiler said most faculty advisers expect graduate students to work independently, compared to undergraduate students, who might need more assistance because they are new to the field.

“In this case, it sounds like there’s a couple, one or two or more, folks who wanted more mentorship … with their faculty advisor,” he said. “They weren’t getting that, and they were upset by that.”

Weiler said it is important for students to follow a procedure when they bring up concerns about an issue. Students should reach out to their faculty adviser directly, then to the department head and eventually the dean.

“Take it to the appropriate body,” Weiler said. “Don’t spend your energy talking to your friends and classmates about it.”

Keiser said the administration has not adequately addressed faculty members who stepped away from their roles in the department.

“Everyone’s just kind of walking away from the situation, leaving [the graduate students] holding the bag,” Keiser said.

It seemed as if CRCI was focused on proving if the allegations violate any executive policies, he said, and if the allegations did not, the issue would go to HRS and eventually to the department chair.

“Everyone seems to be passing the buck,” Keiser said. “No one wants to take responsibility for this situation.”

Keiser said he does not feel like anything in the department was resolved and there has been little action or communication regarding the issue.

“We’re sort of in a very limbo state right now,” Keiser said.

One of the issues Keiser found in the inquiry process, he said, is the way CRCI gathered its sources. Keiser said they even contacted those who did not have a “clear connection” to the allegations or the lab climate.

He said he acknowledged there were rumors, but in the department’s attempt to quell those rumors, genuine concerns were silenced.

“They just kind of went to this sprawling process and asked a bunch of people … what they might know, and then everyone’s getting mad that we’re spreading the rumors when we’re just talking about what we all know,” Keiser said. “It’s very frustrating.”

Alex said she discussed with CRCI possible ways to help follow up with witnesses that would allow them to have a direct path to resolve concerns, including lab climate.

“Their process is flawed in a lot of ways because they’re not helping with the fallout, and they’re not helping to hold people accountable,” she said.

Keiser said graduate students tried different avenues to address issues present in the department.

“There’s really no trust in any in-house resources or leadership,” he said.

A policy needs to be implemented to ensure issues do not fall through the cracks, Keiser said.

“I don’t know if the university wants to sweep things under the rug. I don’t know if CRCI is completely underfunded,” he said. “The follow-through just crumbled.”

This story has been updated to reflect a factual error. The complaint on March 7 was not made by a former WSU employee.