Herbert Richardson v. the World

April 15, 2013
by Jake New
Chronicle of Higher Education
Photograph by Jason Greene

As a librarian for the University of Utah, Rick Anderson talks regularly to scholarly publishers. But he had never had a call quite like the one he got last summer from Herbert W. Richardson, the founder of Edwin Mellen Press.

The press was willing to donate $50,000 worth of books if the library wanted them. Mr. Anderson was not interested, and he explained to Mr. Richardson that most of the press’s titles were on topics too obscure for his library. Mr. Richardson defended his press, pointing out that it serves as a platform for scholarly work that often gets overlooked by university presses. But then the conversation took a peculiar turn.

“Do you know Dale Askey?” Mr. Richardson asked.

Mr. Anderson did know Dale Askey. Or he knew of Dale Askey, who had been a librarian at the University of Utah years earlier, before Mr. Anderson worked there. Mr. Richardson asked whether a blog post that Mr. Askey had written criticizing the press was the reason the university was no longer buying its books, as it had in the past.

Mr. Anderson said he was not even aware of the blog post, and he soon cut off the conversation to go to a meeting. At the time, he was left wondering why Edwin Mellen Press would be so concerned about a librarian with a blog.

As it turned out, Mr. Richardson was more concerned about the blogger than Mr. Anderson would have ever guessed. Two weeks before that phone call, Edwin Mellen Press had sent Mr. Askey two notifications of pending libel lawsuits against him seeking damages of more than $4-million.

By Web-commentary standards, the blog post was relatively tame. It refers to Edwin Mellen Press as “dubious” and calls some of its books “second-class scholarship.” For a few months afterward, several people chimed in the comments section, some agreeing with Mr. Askey, others supporting the publisher.

To many librarians and professors, the lawsuits were not just an overreaction, but a fundamental violation of academic freedom. When news of the lawsuits hit the Internet, it ignited a firestorm of criticism: More than 3,000 people signed a petition demanding the lawsuits be dropped, and more than 30 scholarly organizations condemned the press.

Why would Mr. Richardson, who has a reputation as a shrewd businessman, pursue such lawsuits when the backlash was so predictable? To librarians and some of his former colleagues, Mr. Richardson is simply a bully. But Mr. Richardson says he’s the one being bullied—that during his own time as a university professor, his colleagues derailed his career because they didn’t agree with his views.

Over the years, Mr. Richardson set up an alternate academic universe, one where he sets the rules. It started with his scholarly press and grew to include his own university.

The lawsuits against Mr. Askey are a reaction to what the publisher sees as a threat not just to his own good name but also to the world he has carefully crafted to help academics who don’t always fit in the traditional university system.

And in some ways, his legal threats are working. Several current and former colleagues of Mr. Richardson’s interviewed for this article refused to speak on the record out of fear they would be sued.

That fear could be justified. Mr. Richardson says the lawsuits are only the beginning of his counterattack.

Herbert Warren Richardson, born in 1932, describes himself as a “Depression-era asthmatic.” When Mr. Richardson was a student at Baldwin-Wallace College, he pledged with an interracial fraternity, where his friends included James Lawson, the activist and an architect of the civil-rights movement. In 1963 Mr. Richardson earned his doctorate at Harvard Divinity School before serving as an assistant professor there until 1968.

As a scholar of religious studies, Mr. Richardson made a name for himself early on, publishing a painstaking translation of the works of St. Anselm of Canterbury and an early exploration of American theology that critics described as “important” and “exciting.”

During the height of the ecumenical movement in the late 60s, he left Harvard for the University of St. Michael’s College, a Roman Catholic institution that is part of the University of Toronto. At first, St. Michael’s new Protestant professor proved to be a popular, if sometimes divisive, teacher. “Some compare me with Hitler, some compare me with God,” he would later say.

Dozens of academics and former students offered their testimonials of the scholar last year on a Web site created for his 80th birthday, with many crediting him with helping shape their careers. Jim Gollnick, a former student who regards Mr. Richardson as a “force of nature,” fondly recalled the way Mr. Richardson had his students rearrange their desks into a more intimate circle and allowed them to call him “Herb.”

“Herb’s care for his students did not end with their graduation,” Mr. Gollnick wrote. “I am aware of how many young North American scholars he helped to get started through his personal generosity, astute editorial advice, and publishing know-how.”

That know-how refers to Mr. Richardson’s unusual role as both scholar and academic publisher. In 1972, only four years into his time at St. Michael’s, Mr. Richardson started his own scholarly press. It began as a side project that he ran from the basement of the home he shared with his wife and four children. The original goal was simply to publish dissertations by graduate students from his department at St. Michael’s. He remembers bringing up the idea at a faculty meeting one day. The faculty chair asked for a show of hands of who supported the idea, Mr. Richardson says, and he was greeted by a room full of raised palms.

“That day I took a dissertation, carried it over to Kinko’s, asked them to print out 30 copies and sent them out to some universities,” Mr. Richardson says. “That’s how the company got started.”

Soon, the fledgling press wasn’t just publishing dissertations from within his department but also dissertations of others who had trouble finding a publisher. While university presses may look for works that appeal to thousands of readers, Mr. Richardson says, Edwin Mellen Press looks for work that may appeal to only a few dozen. Mr. Richardson was not interested in making money, he says. Even decades later, when the company was turning profits, he continued to live modestly, driving a six-year-old Nissan Micra and living in a one-bedroom apartment. He says he was only interested in whether a work contributed to scholarship—just about any kind of scholarship. The press has published books on topics as varied as the health problems of migrants living on the Thai-Burmese border to the role of parrots in fiction throughout history.

He called the business Edwin Mellen Press, after his grandfather, a lover of books who died of a heart attack at just 58. By 1979, the press had grown large enough that Mr. Richardson’s wife, Dorothy, wanted the business moved out of the basement.

Edwin Mellen Press then opened up shop in Lewiston, N.Y., a village just across the Canadian border near Niagara Falls. The press continued to grow, soon publishing as many as 150 titles each year. Today its Web site boasts that universities worldwide purchase its books, including the University of London, with 4,926 of its books, and Harvard, with 4,731.

The press has its own guidelines for selecting and reviewing manuscripts, which it details on its Web site. It first considers an author’s reason for writing about a certain topic, then evaluates the author’s scholarly competence. If a Mellen editor is satisfied with the idea, a contract is offered—but on the condition that the author get approval from a dean or other university administrator. An editor reads the manuscript, and the author is asked to provide two sponsoring reviews recommending the work. The manuscript is then read by two anonymous peer reviewers. Before publication, a “senior scholar” must write a foreword recommending the book. The final decision to publish rests with someone called “the Lector,” an unnamed person who has the “power to override the vote of any” of the other reviewers.

Mellen’s process contains some elements found in the vetting done by other scholarly presses, says Douglas Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, but also some oddities, like the requirement of administrative sign-off and of individual sponsors for books. There’s more to vetting authors than peer review, says Mr. Armato, who calls the steps “over-elaborate.”

“The whole process is sort of just focusing on whether certain hoops have been jumped through,” he says, “and publishing isn’t about just jumping through hoops.”

Leonard Carrier, a Mellen author and a retired professor of philosophy at the University of Miami, says much of the criticism that Edwin Mellen Press receives is undeserved. After publishing one book with the press in 2011, Mr. Carrier was impressed by the selection process and is now a peer reviewer for the publisher. He says the guidelines that the publisher has in place weed out poor works of scholarship.

“It’s pretty strict,” Mr. Carrier says. “With my first book, which I published with a university press, there was not nearly as much oversight as at Mellen Press.”

Mr. Richardson says Mellen’s guidelines have changed over the years in response to criticism, and that the press is now more “conservative” about what it publishes than it used to be.

Some of the early work it published drew controversy. In the early 1980s, it published research, by Mr. Richardson and others, about the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church, which had been accused of using cultish brainwashing techniques disguised as religious conversion. Mr. Richardson personally defended the young faiths, arguing in a paper that Scientology concepts like auditing and engrams were no different from baptism and “original sin.” At one point, he was even a paid spokesman for the Unification Church. “For a period of time, I was involved in religious freedom and really getting to know members of these groups, and that led to my being excommunicated from the company of respected theologians,” he says.

Throughout the 1980s, Mr. Richardson’s marriage was crumbling, and he sought treatment for what he says was a kind of depression brought on by alcoholism. He was also suffering from chest pains, which he found worrying, since his grandfather, father, and brother all died young after heart attacks.

These setbacks did little to slow Edwin Mellen Press’s growth, however. It soon opened offices in Wales and Austria.

To juggle his responsibilities as both a professor and a publisher, Mr. Richardson would spend Monday through Friday in Toronto teaching, then drive the 80 miles to Lewiston and devote his weekends to running the press. (It wasn’t too different, he says now, from the part-time job he held as an editor at Harper & Row  when he was still an assistant professor at Harvard.)

Back at his day job, Mr. Richardson had become a tenured fixture on the St. Michael’s faculty. He was also a product of a bygone era. He, like the rest of the faculty at St. Michael’s, was asked to sign a document pledging a strict adherence to Roman Catholic teachings. He declined, citing academic freedom and using his tenure as a shield.

“I said, ‘You know, this is a little bit silly, and I am a Presbyterian minister and under the authority of my own presbytery,'” Mr. Richardson says. “‘You can’t put me under the authority of the Catholic bishop.'”

St. Michael’s interest in ecumenical ideas seemed to be waning, Mr. Richardson says, and, so was the college’s interest in paying a Protestant professor who refused to follow the college’s return to orthodoxy.

Then one day in 1991, according to the college, Mr. Richardson lost his temper. He had asked his students to rearrange their desks into a circle, as usual, but the students responded slowly, and the professor began to grow impatient. His impatience turned to anger, and Mr. Richardson—who colleagues describe as a detail-oriented perfectionist—allegedly began yelling at them for not making the circle as neatly as he desired. When someone he had hired as an unofficial teaching assistant told him to calm down, Mr. Richardson fired the assistant on the spot. Mr. Richardson says he only directed his yelling at the assistant, who was refusing to circle up himself.

Either way, several students reported the incident to university officials, and the college began monitoring Mr. Richardson’s classes to make sure the outburst was not a common occurrence. The following month, the chair of the religious-studies department sent a memorandum to the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science about the professor’s behavior in the classroom. “Richardson’s behavior was a time bomb waiting to explode,” the chair wrote. “This may be the explosion. In some ways, it would be a relief.”

In December 1992, a St. Michael’s vice dean suggested to Mr. Richardson, who was 60 at the time, that he should take early retirement—in three weeks.

Mr. Richardson refused (he needed his full pension, he says, to support his new wife and infant son), but the request left him reeling. In January, worried about his heart and a recurrence of depression, he asked for medical leave to enter a cardiac-rehabilitation program at Duke University. He told friends he couldn’t possibly continue teaching a full class load in his current condition.

“I’d be dead by February,” he said in testimony he would later submit to the college.

He was granted the leave, and for two weeks, he did attend the Duke program. But he left early, he said, because of its cost.

Instead, he followed another directive by his doctor—to get out of town for a while. The result was a dizzying world tour. He accompanied an Edwin Mellen employee to Wales. He visited Dodge City, Kan., to pay respect to his father who is buried near there. He spent some time in the small desert town of Borrego Springs, Calif., to scope out a place for possible retirement.

His travels also involved a new educational venture: Edwin Mellen University.

The new institution was, in many ways, an extension of the press. Like the press, it eschewed the traditional model and drew a fair share of criticism for it. While some scholars described the university as a not-so-cleverly disguised diploma mill, Mr. Richardson calls it valid and altruistic.

One inspiration for the institution was a dissertation his press received from a young man whose epilepsy had prevented him from completing his Ph.D. Yet Mr. Richardson felt the student deserved a doctorate. Couldn’t there be a way for people like this author to earn a degree despite his circumstances?

“There’s something unfair about this university system, if a person in Europe can get a degree for a dissertation only, but someone in the States has to do coursework,” says Mr. Richardson.

For less than $1,000, Mellen University offered M. Phil’s and Ph.D.’s based on dissertations and “life experience.” In 1993, just eight months after its creation and accreditation through the Turks and Caicos Islands—to take advantage of looser regulations—the university granted its first degrees.

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, Joseph Boyle, principal of St. Michael’s College, started receiving phone calls from a mysterious “Mr. Shaw.” The caller told the college leader that he was a former employee of Edwin Mellen Press and that he thought Mr. Boyle might be interested in learning how Herbert Richardson was spending his medical leave. Mr. Boyle was surprised to learn about the professor’s rather vigorous travel schedule, and the college hired a private investigator to follow Mr. Richardson’s movements.

Mr. Shaw turned out to be an alias for Robert West, the Edwin Mellen employee Mr. Richardson had accompanied to Wales. The publisher had fired him for “conflicts of interest” sometime after their trip together (Mr. West had been Edwin Mellen’s San Francisco director until, Mr. Richardson says, he solicited authors for his own company by using Mellen’s name), and now Mr. West was angry at the man who fired him after jet-setting around the world with conflicting interests of his own.

When Mr. Richardson returned to campus, the university decided the professor had abused his medical leave and it would no longer pay its share of his salary. Because of rules concerning tenured professors, Mr. Richardson couldn’t simply be fired by St. Michael’s. He needed to either resign or subject himself to a public tribunal.

“I talked with my wife about it, and the faculty association about it, and I decided the issue was of principle,” Mr. Richardson said. “If they wanted a public trial then they could go ahead and do it.”

The proceedings, which began in the spring of 1994, were extraordinary—the first such tribunal the university had staged in at least 25 years. The process took 17 days and cost the university an estimated $500,000, with university officials attempting to prove that they had grounds to dismiss the tenured professor for what they called gross academic misconduct.

Mr. Richardson quickly became a cause célèbre for Canadian tenure rights and, as such, the tribunal drew considerable media attention. In articles in The Washington Post and TheGlobe and Mail, Edwin Mellen Press was referred to as a “vanity press”; Edwin Mellen University was called a “diploma mill.”

The university issued a variety of accusations. There was the incident when Mr. Richardson fired his assistant. There was the charge that he noticeably played favorites among his students, taking a strong paternal interest in some while insulting and embarrassing others. There was the amount of time he was spending on Edwin Mellen Press and Edwin Mellen University. There was the charge that he abused his medical leave.

“One of the charges was that I didn’t close the window after an evening class so a lot of heat went out,” Mr. Richardson says. “Another charge was that I didn’t erase the blackboard. It’s tragicomic, as they say.”

In the end, Mr. Richardson lost the case, but based on only two of the more than a dozen charges: abusing his medical leave and not “fully” disclosing the amount of time he was spending on Edwin Mellen business rather than on his students. According to a copy of the tribunal’s September 1994 decision obtained by The Chronicle, Mr. Richardson said he spent only three or four hours a week on business outside the university, yet Edwin Mellen Press by that point was a $3-million-a-year enterprise, and the professor gave the press’s phone number to students should they need to reach him.

The accusations about his teaching, the decision reads, while serious, were harder to prove, as the college relied on various witness accounts from years before the hearings. The negative accounts were also frequently countered by students saying the professor had “changed their lives.” In October 1994, Mr. Richardson was fired from St. Michael’s College, just three years shy of mandatory retirement.

According to Mr. Richardson, the university paid him an additional half a million dollars in severance.

To Mr. Richardson and some observers, his case is a textbook example of a phenomenon known as academic, or workplace, mobbing, a type of bullying in which members of a department or university “mob” a colleague through isolation or embarrassment.

That’s the view of an expert on the topic, Kenneth Westhues, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Waterloo.

Academic mobbing usually begins with an actual but often minor offense that is exaggerated into character assassination. Mr. Westhues has outlined the stages of academic mobbing in several books, including one about Mr. Richardson’s case, published by Edwin Mellen Press. What begins with social isolation soon turns to harassment and rumors, then accusations of misconduct in the classroom, before a “critical incident” occurs that serves to confirm the mob’s suspicions and results in administrative action. The target usually ends up leaving the university, either on his own or after being fired.

The critical incident for Mr. Richardson was when he yelled at the teaching assistant, though the mobbing most likely began when the professor did not sign the stricter teaching agreement, says Mr. Westhues.

“St. Michael’s pulled out all the stops to get rid of Richardson,” he says.

In its decision, the college briefly responded to such claims, saying the increasing conservatism of the Roman Catholic hierarchy had no bearing on its decision.

After the tribunal, Mr. Richardson turned his attention to the press, which was expanding to publish more than 350 titles a year and maintaining an active inventory of more than 5,000 books (though he says it remains a small business, employing about a dozen people). At first, his university grew too, but over a period of about 10 years, it faded and eventually closed as many of its principal administrators took jobs elsewhere.

As the years passed, Mr. Richardson seemed more and more concerned with how his press was perceived, particularly online.

He lost a $15-million libel lawsuit against Lingua Franca, the now-defunct magazine, for a 1993 article that called Edwin Mellen a “quasi-vanity press cunningly disguised as an academic publishing house.” In 2007 and again in 2012 he sent letters to The Chroniclethreatening to sue for libel over negative comments about the press in online discussion forums.

And years before Dale Askey would write his blog post about Edwin Mellen, the librarian made what Mr. Askey calls “a snarky comment” about the press on an electronic mailing list. The comment found its way to Mr. Richardson, and the two exchanged e-mails, with Mr. Richardson accusing Mr. Askey of academic mobbing. Later, when Mr. Richardson read Mr. Askey’s blog post in 2010 and then decided to sue, he wasn’t just accusing the librarian and his employer, McMaster University, of libel; he was accusing them of a broader conspiracy to ruin Edwin Mellen’s reputation.

“The Web allowed me to criticize Edwin Mellen Press,” Mr. Askey says. “The Web should also allow Edwin Mellen Press to defend itself. If he wants to be heard, it’s there for his use, as well.”

Mr. Richardson says the criticism of his press began in the last decade, when online forums that allow people to offer their opinions anonymously became popular. “It’s just this kind of backroom smut,” he says of The Chronicle’s forums in particular.

Defending Edwin Mellen Press’s reputation against the “smut” is a battle Mr. Richardson and his employees constantly fight. Often when a discussion of the press’s quality arises online, the criticisms are rebutted by a number of defenders copying and pasting the same, or similar, arguments onto message boards across the Web. In an October 2012 newsletter, the publisher urged the press’s authors to fight “false and malicious comments” being published online, including in Chronicle forum threads.

Some review copies of the press’s books come with guidelines written by Mr. Richardson as to how to properly review a book.

“It’s powerfully insulting to humanities scholars,” Alex Watson, a faculty member at Japan Women’s University who was sent the guidelines in February, said in an e-mail. “It provides a list of 10 items that any scholarly review should include, and that are eloquently offensive in their simplicity.”

Mr. Westhues says that Mr. Richardson’s actions fit a pattern of those who have suffered from academic mobbing. “It messes with the target’s head,” Mr. Westhues says. “In some cases, the target takes some rash, bold, bizarre initiative to regain a positive identity and recover personal legitimacy, even though an outside observer can see that the initiative will not only fail but exacerbate the target’s disrepute.”

Some people close to Mr. Richardson say they warned him not to pursue the lawsuits. They could see what Mr. Richardson apparently couldn’t, or at least wouldn’t: that the backlash would only further damage the press’s reputation.

When news of the suits against Mr. Askey broke, thousands of professors and librarians took to Twitter using the hashtags #FreeDaleAskey and #mellendrama.

Edwin Mellen Press eventually dropped the lawsuit against Mr. Askey and McMaster University, because of what the press called “the financial pressure of the social-media campaign.” Mr. Richardson has refused to drop the other lawsuit against Mr. Askey, however. In that suit, Mr. Richardson “pleads that he has been greatly injured in his personal and professional reputation and has been the victim of a malicious attack on his character.”

The lawsuit complains not just about the post, but about what one of the commenters wrote in response. The commenter stated that he had heard that Mr. Richardson was fired from St. Michael’s for trying “to convert his students to Scientology.” A blog comment calling him a “fascist Scientologist” has no place in a civil academic debate about a publisher’s quality, Mr. Richardson says.

The backlash to the lawsuits only helps solidify his view that there is an organized effort of harassment against him. When St. Michael’s began investigating him for misconduct back in 1991, Mr. Richardson says, people he thought were his closest friends refused to be seen with him at work, to get coffee with him, to return his phone calls. The pattern is playing out again, he says.

“The strategy was to make you so toxic that no one will even get close to you,” says Mr. Richardson. “That’s the goal. I lived through what most people would regard as a disastrous end to a teaching career, and as bad as it was, I am living through it again right now, with these attacks on me. My wife just shakes her head and asks, ‘How can they do this?'”

When Rick Anderson, the interim librarian at the University of Utah, read about Edwin Mellen Press’s lawsuits against Dale Askey, he says he couldn’t help but think of that phone call last summer. Mr. Anderson wrote two posts about his dealings with Mr. Richardson for the Scholarly Kitchen, a blog run by the Society for Scholarly Publishing.

More than a month later, the society received a letter from the press threatening legal action for the posts and some of the comments that went with them. “We do not believe you should have, as one of your bloggers, a person who is motivated by a personal grudge,” says one letter, from Amanda R. Amendola, a lawyer in upstate New York who is representing the press. “We are putting you on notice that the moment Mr. Anderson publishes or provokes any statement about our company or authors that is the slightest bit defamatory, we will pursue legal action not only against him, but your organization as well.”

The society temporarily removed both entries, and posted the letters online.

Mr. Anderson says that he does not have a grudge against Mr. Richardson and that his comments on the quality of the press’s publications are opinions informed by his experience as a librarian.

“It is an important part of a professional librarian’s work to evaluate the offerings of publishers, and I am both hopeful and confident that these recent events will do nothing to undermine that function,” Mr. Anderson says. “As for Edwin Mellen Press, I think the letter from its attorney speaks eloquently for itself.”

Mr. Richardson says his lawsuits would not be the last in his attempt to combat what he considers to be attacks on his press and its authors.

In the last two decades, he has lost his job as a professor, his reputation among scholars, and his university. A man who dreamed of challenging the status quo of higher education now has his legacy tied to the continued success of the remaining element of that dream: his press.

Mr. Richardson says he’s aware of anger he has caused, but he believes it’s worth that risk to protect his authors from what he considers to be cyberbullying. “I am experiencing a web of attacks that I would call organized cyber mobbing,” he says.

One of his causes in life, he says, is to inform the public that bullying is a phenomenon that is not confined to children and can be found running through every age group of society. Mr. Richardson says he’s not sure how much time he has left, but after fighting other theologians about new religions, after fighting St. Michael’s College, after fighting Lingua Franca, he has one last battle in him: combatting what he calls the “wild West approach” to free speech online. That battle could see him return to his lawsuit against McMaster, he says, or even turning his attention again to The Chronicle forums. He’s doing what he thinks is right, he says, and the rest is in God’s hands.

“The Edwin Mellen Press could be shut down and I’ll end up being stoned to death, but I do know something,” Mr. Richardson says. “I’ve already lived through this and survived.”

Here are some other stories from my  coverage of Richardson’s lawsuit against the librarian Dale Askey.
Edwin Mellen Press Sues University Librarian for Libel
Librarians Rally Behind Blogger Sued by Publisher Over Critical Comments
Edwin Mellen Press Drops Lawsuit Against Dale Askey
Edwin Mellen Press Threatens to Sue Society For Scholarly Publishing