In the spring semester of 1992, Dr. Peter Buirski, dean of the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver, handed out to his doctoral students the standard assignment for his Ego Models course:
Read "Portnoy's Complaint" and write a paper which formulates the character's psychological problem according to the psychoanalytical theory of Sigmund Freud. Specifically, what is interfering with Alexander Portnoy's ability to lead a productive life? List his problems and then using a psychoanalytic understanding gleaned from this class, explain how these problems came about.
Like many universities, DU divides its graduate psychology programs into two separate schools. The psychology department offers a Ph.D. to students who plan to stay in academia, teaching and conducting research in the field of psychology. By comparison, DU's Graduate School of Professional Psychology trains students to enter the clinical, practical side of psychology. The school operates the Professional Psychology Center, where, under the supervision of faculty, students counsel real patients. Once students complete their GSPP education, they gain a Psy.D. degree--doctorate of psychology.
Buirski, who in addition to being a teacher acts as administrative head of the GSPP, has an extensive background in Freud's theories of psychoanalysis, and the Ego Models class was reportedly a favorite of his. The subject of the assignment, Portnoy's Complaint, was written by Philip Roth in 1969. Roth, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year, has made his reputation by writing detailed confessional accounts of his life against the backdrop of a strict religious moralism. Portnoy's Complaint, a sexually graphic coming-of-age story about a young Jewish man, is classic Roth and nothing if not fertile ground for a Freudian.
Unfortunately, one of Buirski's students, a forty-year-old woman, didn't see it that way. In a long preface to her essay, she explained how "appalled and disgusted" she felt in being assigned to read and analyze Roth's novel. "The book was difficult for me to read because of its sheer sexism," the student wrote. "There were...times where I was unsure if I could continue reading...It felt like revisiting an ugly insult that I left behind in my past."
At one point, she continued, after coming upon a particularly disturbing section, she was compelled to scrawl a note to herself in the book's margins: "Without choice I have read this tale of misogyny, and it has made my heart heavy because too often it reminds of a not-so-long-ago past in which the common cultural practice was to view women as 'objects' which men used for their purposes...This really is too much--What the hell am I supposed to think and feel as a reader--a female reader?...I am numb, I feel only a black canvas of dread and knowing."
Depending on one's politics, it would be easy to dismiss the woman's comments as an angry student's stand against sexist literature or the whining of an overly sensitive feminist--if it weren't for one thing: Recently, the seven-year-old term paper was added as evidence to a turbulent lawsuit that in the past five years has laid bare more about the inner workings of Denver's premier private college than DU would ever want revealed.
The dispute started over a faculty member's job. In 1996, Dr. Sheila Deitz, a professor of clinical psychology and director of the Professional Psychology Center, was fired for incompetence. She blames most of her troubles on Dean Buirski, who she claims targeted her for intimidation when she first arrived at DU in 1989. Deitz's dismissal alone would be enough to make the lawsuit remarkable. Despite some recent assaults on the institution of tenure, the sacking of a university faculty member for poor performance is so rare in this country as to be virtually non-existent.
Yet because of who is involved, the quarrel has expanded--as evidenced by more than 700 separate exhibits on file in the case--to include much broader and more esoteric issues than simple employment law. For instance, that of Freud's place in a modern world.
In addition to citing the Portnoy term paper as evidence of hostile attitudes toward women at the GSPP, Deitz cites other misuses of Freud's theories there. She claims that Buirski referred to female incest victims as "Oedipal winners" and once said, "Any woman who is raped that is not sexually aroused is having an hysterical reaction." Buirski has denied making the comments.
Many legal disputes turn on what, precisely, a person meant when he said or wrote something. But in a lawsuit of and by trained psychologists, casual remarks about a person's mental condition that might be tossed off by the general population take on a serious specificity. So when Deitz called Buirski "a personality-disordered, narcissistic powermonger, sexist human being," it's crucial to know: Was she speaking off the cuff or making a clinical diagnosis?
And what did another female professor genuinely mean to say when she reportedly told Deitz she thought that Buirski was a "narcissist who suffered from an Axis II disorder?" (The woman later clarified that while she might have referred to the dean as "self-centered," the comment was intended in a "layman's sense," not a clinical one.)
Even the science of psychology itself is, in a sense, on trial in the DU lawsuit. Everyone, including Deitz, acknowledges that she has some psychological problems. But a pivotal question in the dispute is whether they existed before she arrived at DU, or whether they developed because of the stress she was put under while there. In an attempt to answer that question, each side has produced detailed mental analyses of Deitz. The opposing psychiatrists interviewed Deitz at length and reviewed her health records, both medical and psychological.
But rather than clarifying the issues in Deitz v. DU, the psychiatrists arrived at widely divergent interpretations of the professor's state of mind. To critics of the squishy and seemingly subjective symbolism of the science of the mind, the unmatched results couldn't have been surprising: If professional psychiatrists evaluating a highly trained psychologist can't agree among themselves where perception ends and reality begins, what hope is there for everyone else?
Sheila Deitz works out of a cluttered five-room office in Englewood, where, despite the name on the door--Deitz & Associates--she labors alone. She does some family counseling (which explains the toys scattered around), but most of her work, as well as the bulk of her expertise, is as a forensic psychologist--a professional state-of-mind reader skilled at evaluating clients caught in legal proceedings.
A glossy brochure she hands out to prospective clients promises "heavyweight experience--in and out of court" and backs it up with a nineteen-page resume. A Washington, D.C., native (with a warm but philandering father and a mother with low self-esteem--it's all in the lawsuit's psych exams), Deitz graduated with honors from the University of Maryland in 1967. In 1975 she earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Buffalo, in western New York State.
Her education was followed by teaching and research positions at Colorado State University, the University of Virginia and the University of North Dakota. Like most serious academics, Deitz has carved out niches for herself in particular corners of her field. She is considered an expert in jury selection and has written several papers on the mental stresses endured by airplane pilots. But the most obvious thread connecting the various stages of her career is her interest in women's issues. It is a subject to which she has returned time and again in her research, continuing education and counseling.
At least some of that focus seems to have been informed by a professional environment that confirmed Deitz's suspicions of a world antagonistic to women. In fact, the sexism Deitz says she was to encounter at DU's Graduate School of Professional Psychology was only the latest instance in which she says she has been forced to fight for women's rights in academia.
Deitz was hired as an associate professor in the University of North Dakota's psychology department in 1986. Along with the teaching job, she was also named the department's director of clinical training, a demanding three-year appointment that left her with time to teach only one class.
Deitz says that she did the job well and that the students appreciated her stewardship. Her colleagues apparently disagreed, however, and by spring 1989, with her term set to expire, it became clear in a series of early faculty votes that Deitz would not be reappointed.
That fall, her fears were confirmed. In September 1989 Deitz was booted as director of the North Dakota clinical program, and a male replacement was selected. Six months later she filed a discrimination complaint with the North Dakota Department of Labor, alleging that the only reason she was replaced was her gender. "The department chair didn't like the fact that the university had hired an assertive woman," Deitz now says.
In its investigation of UND, the labor department agreed that tensions in the psych program were extremely high. But its investigators also found that Deitz's colleagues in the psychology department had been underwhelmed with her administrative style. They described it as "management by crisis," cited numerous unmet deadlines and necessary work left undone, and complained that she dealt with conflict by escalating it. In December 1991, the DOL concluded that there was no probable cause for Deitz's claim of sexism.
Deitz was not convinced. In 1992 she raised the stakes, filing a lawsuit against the University of North Dakota in which she cited several examples of the "disparate treatment" men and women received.
She claimed that male professors "referred to her in extremely derogatory fashion, [while] refusing to speak to her, making inappropriate comments in faculty meetings, displaying sexually hostile material in their offices, as well as making derogatory gender-based comments about Dr. Deitz to students in the Psychology Department."
Deitz also spoke up for the other women at UND. "Female students within the Psychology Department were also subjected to an atmosphere of sexual harassment and intimidation by male faculty members," she wrote in the lawsuit. Examples of this included "sexual advances to students by faculty members...threatening remarks made to female students, and disparate treatment of the female students in the form of ranking them low for purposes of competitive scholarships and research support grants."
The university vigorously denied any discrimination but eventually settled out of court, with Deitz receiving $90,000. By then, however, she'd long since left North Dakota behind and moved on to the University of Denver.
There are about 3,200 universities and colleges in the United States, which, according to the American Association of University Professors, support about 550,000 full-time faculty. Approximately 400,000 of these professors are either tenured or well on their way to the job security tenure promises. For teachers looking to set down academic roots, the pursuit of tenure amounts to a test. A university's withholding of tenure is a clear sign that an instructor's future at the school is effectively over. But once the status is granted, it is such an impregnable protection that only about twelve to twenty tenured university faculty lose their jobs in a given year.
Even that minuscule number is inflated. Most dismissals of tenured faculty are more accurately characterized as layoffs: Professors happen to occupy positions lost when university administrators decide to merge two academic departments into a leaner one, or when financial stresses force the elimination of jobs.
Every so often, professors are fired for cause. (DU has fired four professors, including Deitz, in the past decade.) A teacher might be dismissed for what is known as "moral turpitude"--say, trading grades for sex with a student. And once in a great while, a tenured professor is sacked for medical reasons that interfere with the teacher's job performance, although the Americans With Disabilities Act makes administrators wary of doing this without an airtight case.
The rarest of all firings, however, occurs when a tenured professor is canned for simple incompetence. This is because the rank is conferred only after a rigorous, even intrusive evaluation of the instructor's credentials and performance. By the time tenure is given, a person has been scrutinized and blessed by his peers. Except in extraordinary circumstances, the job is his for the keeping.
Deitz had been granted the rank in North Dakota just before leaving for Denver, and she says she never anticipated a problem getting it again when she was hired by the University of Denver. She was wrong, though, and the subsequent battle over Deitz's status at DU shows the lengths an academic is willing to go to in order to secure tenure--as well as the contortions through which a university must go to remove it.
Deitz says she heard about the opening at DU during a conversation with Nelson Jones, whom she knew from their work together in the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association. In 1989 Jones was the dean of the GSPP. Deitz says he invited her to apply for a position as professor. Not long after that, Jones confided that he was retiring and suggested she also apply for the dean's position.
After a lengthy application process, Deitz was offered the teaching job in May 1990. It paid $38,000 a year and was officially designated a "tenure-track" position--one from which she was expected to achieve the rank. She was less successful in her pursuit of the dean's job. While Deitz was a finalist for the position, she eventually was passed over in favor of an aca-demic from New York.
Like Deitz, Peter Buirski had strong academic credentials. After earning his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Adelphi University in 1969, he went on to complete lengthy post-graduate work in psychoanalysis. From there, he was hired by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he worked his way up to chairman of the psychology department and, later, the head of psychoanalytic training.
Like Deitz, Buirski had dug deeply into particular corners of psychology; he studied sex differences and dominance among baboons and chimps. But his career, too, was bound by a common thread separate from that work. In his case, it was an interest and expertise in psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud's theories linking a person's conscious behavior to his unconscious.
Many of the subsequent clashes Deitz had with her colleagues at DU seem, in retrospect, to have been matters of impression--events that were interpreted differently by different people. But most everyone agrees that she and Buirski were hired with different arrangements regarding tenure. When Buirski accepted the dean's job, he received the rank immediately. Deitz was promised only early consideration for it. (Carol Farnsworth, DU's vice chancellor for communications, explains that it is common for universities to grant newly hired deans immediate tenure, while teaching faculty generally must wait. Farnsworth declined to discuss specifics of the Deitz case, other than to say that Deitz was fired for appropriate reasons.)
Yet due to what appears to be a series of administrative errors by Buirski--her new boss--Deitz's tenure didn't come as smoothly as anyone anticipated. At DU, department heads must make tenure recommendations to a review committee each year by March 1. But for reasons that remain unclear, Buirski didn't do it until April 2--too late to give Deitz any chance at gaining the rank. Consequently, despite the assurance of early consideration, she never really was a candidate for tenure until the spring of 1992. (And even then, an outside auditor found Buirski was late again in nominating Deitz.)
More apparent blunders followed. When Deitz finally was put up for tenure consideration--a matter that is supposed to be entirely in the hands of her colleagues--Buirski for some reason permitted a student to vote on her candidacy. Worse, the student cast the sole dissenting vote, and Deitz was told to come back the next year for another shot at achieving the rank.
The school's tenure review committee met again in the spring of 1993. This time there was little ambiguity: Deitz's candidacy was shot down by a 3 to 0 vote. While her colleagues agreed Deitz was a fine teacher and scholar, they also agreed that she was a poor administrator--reason enough for denial.
Because tenure is such an important part of academic life, DU's rules permitted Deitz two separate levels of appeal. The first, by another GSPP committee, reached the same conclusion as the tenure committee: Deitz had been refused tenure for good reason. The second review, however, by a university-wide faculty committee, found "a series of procedural errors, irrelevant criteria, and bad judgments, including mismanagements" by Buirski. It ordered Deitz's case reconsidered.
That would have meant starting all over again, though. So in late September 1993, DU provost William Zaranka, sounding exhausted and making references to the friction that Deitz's case had already caused in the university's psychology program, made a Solomonic decision.
"Enough time and effort has been spent already in our various processes," he wrote in a memo sent to Deitz and Buirski. "I am sure that no one who has been part of the process to this point would want to begin again. Furthermore, it seems that the stakes rise with each new review and appeal, so that, as would appear to have been the case here, the charges multiply, more and sharper hooks sprout from the grapple, which is cast in a wider and higher arc, until it catches on some fault, and fault is attributed everywhere."
The provost ordered that Deitz be granted her tenure--but not until the following summer, after she had demonstrated improvement in her administrative skills. For his part, Buirski was to demonstrate, through his leadership as dean of the GSPP, an "improved academic and collegial atmosphere." Independent observers were selected to keep a close eye on the progress of both.
Zaranka ended his memo with a hopeful prediction. "Both newly tenured Professor Deitz and continuing Dean Peter Buirski [will] be commended when, on July 1, 1994, the independent observers report on, and the School of Professional Psychology is witness to, a new spirit of community and cooperation at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology." As it turned out, he was only projecting.
Both Buirski and Deitz later denied there was any personal friction caused by their competing for the dean's job in 1989. In a letter sent to a former colleague at the University of North Dakota in the spring of 1991, Deitz seemed thrilled by her new appointment. "My new colleagues are terrific and are much too focused upon productive activity and excellent teaching to be involved in departmental politics," she exulted. "I actually can't wait to get to work every day--it's that much fun to be here!"
Yet an examination of internal university documents shows that the two new hires couldn't get along almost from the start. Exacerbating the clash of their personalities appeared to be DU's Graduate School of Professional Psychology itself.
While the number of students in the school is sizable--about 100, mostly women, many of them older, "non-traditional" learners--the number of faculty is small. Only four full-time professors work there (there are three now, with one position currently vacant); the rest of the teaching is picked up by part-time instructors.
That gap has, in the past, meant a relationship between faculty and students that was less than personal. According to court documents, a program review by the American Psychological Association in 1993 found that the disparity in numbers was so great that during meetings, faculty members had to refer to a class photograph to make sure teachers could point out the individual students they were talking about.
The school also seemed insular, like a rural town where everyone's business becomes everyone else's. Even Buirski admitted that when he arrived, his impression of the GSPP was "a mom-and-pop operation" that needed "shaking up."
Some of the bad feeling between Deitz and Buirski often surfaced as petty arguments (she taped a "Cathy" cartoon to her door; he didn't like it and let her know it). But more often, their differences seemed to spring from their contrasting focuses within the field of psychology: She saw the world through a feminist prism, he through the sexual lens of Freudianism.
According to later testimony, for instance, Buirski supposedly remarked to a female student that the mace canister she carried on her key ring was "wishful thinking"--an apparent reference to Freud's suggestion that many women harbor a rape fantasy. (The earlier "Oedipal winner" comment supposedly referred to another of Freud's theories--that women desire their fathers.)
Buirski has denied making any inappropriate comments. Still, another woman reported that when she was in his class, "he created an environment that was so titillating sexually that it was very...difficult to try to understand what the merit could possibly be."
Deitz, meanwhile, seems to have reached the conclusion early on that Buirski and the GSPP were hostile to women, a notion that colored virtually everything that happened, no matter how benign (she has cited a 1992 incident in which Buirski complimented her weight loss as an example of sexual harassment). In March 1993, Deitz filed two grievances against Buirski, one with the university's Equal Opportunity Board and another with DU's Sexual Harassment Board, alleging sexual harassment.
The investigations were inconclusive, offering only partial vindication for both Buirski and Deitz. Neither board found any cause for action; however, each did uncover reasons for concern. After interviewing three students, for instance, the Equal Opportunity Board concluded that "Dr. Buirski did direct his abrasiveness to specific students (female) who tended to be more outspoken or challenged his views in classes that he taught."
The students interviewed also noted "his refusal to permit critical discussion of psychoanalytic notions and theories in light of women's issues...and remarks Buirski made in class that were perceived as sexual innuendoes and jokes." It is an atmosphere that Deitz says she has come to expect: "As an academic female psychologist, you get used to it."
The Sexual Harassment Board, however, reached a more ambiguous conclusion: "The Board finds Professor Deitz's perception of her interactions with Buirski as hostile to be reasonable. But there is little direct evidence that allows the Board to conclude that the hostility is related to gender. As one faculty [member] commented, 'It's hostile here for everyone.'"
Despite the antagonism that Deitz's hiring brought to DU's psychology department, by the end of 1993, everyone seemed to be trying hard to get along. Deitz, in an effort to improve her administrative skills as per the requirements of her provisional tenure, signed up for a course at DU's graduate business school. Buirski appeared to reach out. At one meeting, the two psychology professors even seemed sincere about patching up their personal differences.
Deitz later recalled the incident: "Peter looked at me very kind of sorrowfully sad and said, 'Can we bury the hatchet?' And I said, 'You bet we can.' And he said, 'You're the most forgiving person that I've ever met in my life.' And I said, 'You bet I am,' and we gave each other a hug."
However, in retrospect, there were clear signs that unresolved hostility still lay just beneath whatever surface calm the two professors managed to project. In her business-management class, for example, Deitz had begun working on an essay that, had he known about it, might have given Buirski second thoughts about hugging her.
Called "Davida v. Goliath," it was a mixture of management and psychological analysis, describing a power struggle in a Graduate School of Professional Psychology between a female professor and a "Dean Brown," who "clearly viewed the Professor, his former competitor for the Director's position, as a threat to his base of power. The Professor, for her part, underestimated the extent to which Brown's needs for absolute power would operate in his new position."
Also unbeknownst to her colleagues at DU, Deitz had begun to tape-record all her conversations with them. The recordings were made on a small Radio Shack recorder hidden in her purse. Eventually, they came to fill four dozen tapes and included discussions with everyone Deitz encountered, from DU's popular chancellor, Daniel Ritchie, as they walked to her car in the parking lot, to some of her graduate psychology students when they telephoned her at home.
In May 1994, Barry Hughes, DU's vice provost for graduate studies, who had been assigned to observe Deitz as part of her tenure approval, completed his report. It was decidedly mixed. Although Deitz had kept appointments with him as scheduled and showed some improvement (she managed to clean up her office, for one), he concluded that "I honestly expected a stronger performance overall during a year of review."
One of the things Hughes found most troubling was the growing rumble of discontent from Deitz's students. They complained that she showed up late to class and was tardy in returning their papers. A few also criticized her level of teaching as far too elementary for a graduate-level course.
Finally, Hughes wrote, "There appear also to be inappropriate insertions of her personal life into the classroom (the 'boundary' problem, as some called it). An example is her discussion in a class of my review" of her. Yet following the lead set by Provost Zaranka, university administrators decided to keep Deitz, problems and all, rather than push the issue. That summer she was finally granted tenure.
But as 1995 began, Deitz's standing at DU appeared to deteriorate. More questions of the so-called boundary issues began to arise: Deitz, according to some students, often brought up her disagreements with DU's administrators in class. She also apparently had begun telling students details of private faculty discussions about them.
Some of her students began to rebel at her classroom manner. In September 1995 a student committee sent a one-page memo to Buirski detailing their gripes about Deitz's persistent tardiness and inattention to classroom detail: "These issues have persisted over several years. We are disappointed that this is a role model that the university has chosen for us to emulate."
In a later, face-to-face meeting with university administrators, the students also raised the now-familiar boundary issues. Deitz, the students complained, once spent "two hours in class talking about university treatment of her." She also reportedly had approached students to take her side in disputes within the school and gather information for her.
The university's case against Deitz continued to build. In October 1995, a Denver psychologist complained to DU about a patient who had received counseling from one of Deitz's students without any oversight. "I was appalled to find that the student had never met with Dr. Deitz and had no input from her," the psychologist wrote. "Therefore, this student had been conducting psychotherapy...with no supervision." In another instance, also in 1995, one of Deitz's graduate Forensic Psychology students claimed she had been sent to testify in court without supervision or preparation.
That fall, Deitz's colleagues turned against her. In 1993, as part of the tenure deal brokered between her and DU, Deitz had been assigned to direct the school's Professional Psychology Center, a position similar to the one she'd held in North Dakota. But by the end of 1995, after two years of running DU's counseling center, Deitz's colleagues were fed up with what they viewed as terrible administration of the clinic, including numerous unreturned calls to students, faculty and patients. In October she was removed as its director by a vote of the faculty.
Deitz fought back. At first she was accusatory, at one point calling her colleagues "sadists." Later she was threatening.
"As a psychologist, I once believed, quite naively, that the ethics of psychology and psychologists could stand as a model for others to emulate," she wrote to Chancellor Ritchie. She added: "I have been the target of Dean Buirski's discriminatory conduct since 1991" for reasons "related to 1) gender, 2) the fact that I am an outspoken feminist, 3) age, 4) physical disability, 5) the fact that I have been an outspoken supporter of students who are members of legally protected classes (e.g., students over the age of 40, gay and lesbian students, ethnic minority students, outspoken female students who disagree with Buirski's views and theoretical approaches)...
"It is important for you to know that several graduates of the program have stated to me personally that they will never participate in making financial donations to the University because of Buirski's actions," she added.
Although Deitz asserted that the complaints about her teaching came from only a small percentage of her students, she later admitted that, at times, her performance in the classroom and as an administrator had been wanting. But she also contended that most of her troubles were the unfortunate result of a series of terrible illnesses. In 1992 a tumor was discovered in her ovary, and she'd had a hysterectomy--an operation that she says later also contributed to low levels of estrogen in her body. Gallbladder surgery followed in 1995. Later that year she also underwent surgery to correct a "tethered" spinal cord, a condition she describes as enormously painful and debilitating. Recovery from the operation, she adds, was difficult, frustrating and time-consuming.
DU officials were unsympathetic. On September 9, 1996, Deitz was fired. In a letter to her explaining why, Zaranka reviewed the now-common complaints about Deitz--tardiness, poor supervision of students--and added some others. Her performance as director of the Professional Psychology Center, Zaranka wrote, was "a disaster." And, he added, "you recently admitted making secret tape recordings over a period of at least three years of conversations and meetings involving yourself and various students, faculty, administrators and attorneys."
Zaranka also noted that, ironically, Deitz had dabbled in a form of sexual harassment herself. "You have acted unprofessionally and in a harassing fashion by disparaging your faculty colleagues, particularly Dr. Buirski, to students and others. As one example of this, a student testified that you called her on the telephone complaining about Dr. Buirski and stating that 'you were going to fry his ass.' And there are other instances...of your use of sexually threatening language when referring to Dean Buirski. These are too vulgar to repeat in this letter."
Deitz protested, and, once again, because of the importance assigned tenure and tenured faculty, the decision to fire Deitz had to be approved at another level, by faculty review committee. In December 1996 they released their twenty-page report, concluding: "In the collective judgment of the Committee, based upon all of the evidence presented to it, tenure does not require the University to tolerate of a faculty member the conduct portrayed by the evidence."
Deitz says the review-board members were nervous about their own jobs and so buckled under pressure from university administrators. But the committee reviewing the decision to get rid of Deitz was unanimous on all points except for one. Not surprisingly, in a battleground being fought out among people who make it their business to describe how the mind works, it was over the interior of the professor's mind.
The bible of psychiatrists (medical doctors with training in psychology) and psychologists (generally Ph.D.s) is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fourth edition (DSM IV), which makes a distinction between mental disorders and personality traits. The former occurs when everyday emotions (say, anxiety) are heightened and then are accompanied by other symptoms (heart palpitations, hot flashes, fear of dying).
Personality traits, by comparison, are a person's individual and, generally, unchanging responses to what the world throws at him--self-centeredness, for example. (If someone's personality traits are so out of synch with life that he has trouble functioning, however, he may be diagnosed with a personality disorder.)
But the divisions can be blurry, and the University of Denver faculty committee that reviewed the decision to fire Deitz from DU couldn't agree which description better fit her. Was the reason the professor of psychology acted like she did the result of mental disorders she developed while working inside the Graduate School of Professional Psychology hothouse? Or was it because she had imperfect personality traits? Like much of psychology, it depends on whom you ask.
Deitz first began seeing a psychiatrist in the spring of 1989 for what she described as severe and sudden panic attacks. The time of her first appointment coincided with the early signs of faculty disenchantment with her performance as director of clinical training at the University of North Dakota. Deitz told her psychiatrist her attacks felt like "rushes of adrenaline."
During her counseling sessions, she also told him that she'd been having nightmares, although they didn't need much in the way of professional analysis. She recalled that in her dreams, she was being chased by a particular male professor who wasn't supporting her candidacy for clinical director.
Deitz, the psychiatrist jotted in his intake evaluation, had an "adjustment disorder" and exhibited "histrionic personality traits"--that is, she seemed prone to melodrama and exaggeration. After trying a series of medications, they settled on Prozac, which seemed to work. By the time she quit seeing her psychiatrist in North Dakota, in April 1990, Deitz's problems seemed to be under control, thanks mostly to Prozac. Besides, she was leaving for Colorado.
It wasn't long after she arrived at the University of Denver that Deitz began seeing another psychiatrist. Dr. John Peters started treating her for anxiety and depression in January 1992. Like her North Dakota analyst, Peters, too, thought his new client "tended in the direction" of histrionic personality traits--melodrama, "impressionistic" recollections of events and facts.
That September, Deitz began treatment with another Denver psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas Luparello. Although at first he concluded that she suffered from some less-severe conditions (adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood), later, as Deitz's problems at DU mounted, he changed his diagnosis. Citing her nightmares (this time, of Buirski assaulting her), her fear of going to DU's campus and her "hyperarousal symptoms," such as anxiety and insomnia, Luparello deduced that Deitz had post traumatic stress disorder--the same condition made famous by soldiers returning from Vietnam.
Unfortunately, he couldn't say how severe it was or how long it would last. "It is difficult to prognosticate how persistent and permanent her disorder may be, to what degree she may become free of PTSD symptoms or where along the spectrum she may ultimately come to rest," Luparello wrote. "Time and continued treatment will be needed to determine the ultimate prognosis."
In August 1997, a year after Deitz had been fired from DU, the psychiatrist wrote: "Being forced to leave her tenured position at the University of Denver has inflicted an enormous injury upon her. Her identity as a teacher has been battered. Her self-esteem has been ravaged. Her symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder have been exacerbated."
If Deitz was to make a strong case against DU for firing her improperly, Luparello's conclusions were important. They meant the stress of working in the university's psychology program was so great that it caused her to have a serious mental disorder.
The other possibility, of course, was that Deitz had behaved the way she did at DU simply because that was how she had always acted.
Dr. Kathleen Matthews completed the second of two reports toward the end of 1997. In preparation, the Denver psychiatrist, who had been asked to evaluate Deitz by DU's lawyers, interviewed Deitz for more than seven hours. She also reviewed her previous mental and physical records. What she saw was far different from Deitz's other mind-readers.
The former psychology professor, Matthews insisted, "exhibited narcissistic personality traits...includ[ing] a belief that others are envious of her, a grandiose sense of self-importance...and a lack of empathy." As evidence, she pointed to several of the secret tape recordings Deitz made at DU (they have become part of her lawsuit against the university), in which she is heard trying to convince students to help her in her case against DU--an example "that illustrates Dr. Deitz's tendency to exploit others for her own gain, as well as a lack of empathy for her students," Matthews wrote.
Indeed, the psychiatrist implied, it seemed completely within the psychologist's character to become the perfect victim. "Because of Dr. Deitz's personality traits," Matthews concluded, "it is more likely than not that Dr. Deitz would take offense at perceived negative actions or comments by others, while a reasonable person would not."
Deitz v. DU, the lawsuit, has been ongoing for four years, the intramural discord among the university's psychologists closer to a decade. And it may be many months, even years, before the professionals and academics sort out who among them is, in fact, crazy and who is sane.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Recently, Deitz filed another lawsuit against the university, this time claiming that her firing during her medical difficulties was in violation of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. As part of the attempt to determine whether her case fell under the law, another expert was called in.
At the end of her technical report (it was her opinion that Deitz's case did merit ADA attention), the expert added her unsolicited opinion of the case's persistent background noise.
"I am surprised at the level of hostility and anger," she wrote, "especially considering that most of the individuals involved are professional psychologists.