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The University of California statistics department paid at least $329,619.84 to an adjunct professor who did no research, was a terrible teacher, and engaged in sexual harassment

I have one of the easy jobs at the university, well paid with pleasant working conditions. It’s not so easy for adjuncts. Ideally, an adjunct professor has a main job and teaches a course on the side, to stay connected to academia and give back something to the next generation. But in an all-too-common non-ideal setting, adjuncts are paid something like $3000 per course and have to run around among multiple institutions to teach a bunch of classes each semester and pay the bills.

But not at the University of California, as I recently learned from a comment thread where somebody wrote:

One amusing case involved a statistics professor emailing a student with an invitation to Hawaii for a “dirty smoke-filled weekend of unadulterated guilty pleasure and sins.” I [my correspondent] personally knew someone who had received some inappropriate advances from said professor, but simply rejected his proposal and decided to move on with their life and not deal with the messiness. I had also heard of quite a few incidents that were not tied to any later public reckoning.

I did some googling and found the story:

OPHD found Howard D’abrera’s repeatedly emailed a student with invitations to Hawaii and other destinations, mentioning orgies and threatening to lower the student’s grade if they did not accept the invitation. Though D’abrera denies any sexual intent to his emails and communications, OPHD found D’abrera had more likely than not violated UC sexual harassment policy. He was placed on administrative leave the day the complaint was filed and later resigned in January.

I love the bit about how he “denies any sexual intent to his emails and communications.” Actually, I don’t love it at all. I think it’s horrible.

He was about 70 years old when he was planning this “dirty smoke-filled weekend of unadulterated guilty pleasure and sins.” I don’t think it’s good for a statistics teacher to promote smoking. It’s really bad for you!

At this point I was curious and I looked up his salary history at at the University of California. Here it is:

2010 30,099.96
2011 60,199.92
2012 30,099.96
2013 55,183.00
2014 60,200.00
2015 80,121.00
2016 13,716.00

The database doesn’t go back before 2010.

2016 was the year he was fired resigned so that’s why he didn’t pull in another 80K that year.

To pay $80,000 per year for an adjunct to teach introductory statistics . . . what’s that all about??? It’s just not so hard to find someone who can teach introductory statistics.

On the downside, dude had no research record and was a terrible teacher. But, on the upside, he was a well-connected member of the old boy’s network. I’m still trying to picture in my mind this 70-year-old guy trying to get his 19-year-old students to party with him in Hawaii. None of it makes sense to me—except the bit about the University of California paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to an unqualified creep who happens to have the right friends. That part I can believe. It’s not like the administrators were spending their own money, after all!

The UC Berkeley statistics department has had two famous cases of sexual harassment by tenured professors, and that’s even worse, in the sense that the tenured faculty have more power, making it harder for the harassed students to say no. But at least in those cases it was understandable why these professors were making the big bucks, as they were renowned researchers, world-class in their fields, so up until the moment it was revealed that they were abusing their power and breaking the rules, there was a clear rationale to keep them on the payroll. That’s a bit different from the case here, where the teacher in question’s only qualification seems to have been his personal connections. I dunno, perhaps his mediocrity was a sort of qualification too, in that someone who doesn’t know anything will be pliable and teach exactly the way he’s told to teach.

When it comes to unqualified people getting paid big bucks, I guess things are much worse in industry, at least the sorts of industries that have money just sloshing around.

Still, I’d heard so much about low-paid adjuncts that I was a little surprised to hear they were paying $80,000 for this unqualified person to teach intro statistics. I do think they could’ve found many people in town who would’ve done a much better job for a lot less money. Think of all the local businesses that hire statisticians: wouldn’t it be cool for the students to take a class from one of these people?

And then, with the money that was freed up by not paying $80,000 to someone’s pal, the university could’ve done something useful, like a personal trainer for the upper administrators on campus.

P.S. There was confusion in comments so let me clarify one point. I’m very angry when I hear about adjuncts being paid $2000 a class, running around going broke teaching in 8 different places at once. It’s a real problem! That’s what makes me really mad about this unqualified guy from the old boy’s network getting paid $80,000 a year. Actual qualified hard-working teachers who in many cases also have a research record, are getting paid peanuts; meanwhile this guy who had nothing going for himself except some well-positioned friends gets paid a bundle. To me these are two sides of the same coin, which is that teaching is not being taken seriously at the university, so that actual teachers get the shaft while the money that is being made available for teaching is wasted by paying it to people with personal connections.

P.P.S. Above I described that professor as unqualified to teach introductory statistics. Let me change that to “he had no apparent qualifications . . .” It’s possible he had qualifications that I’m not aware of.

55 Comments

  1. Rahul says:

    “He was about 70 years old when he was planning this “dirty smoke-filled weekend of unadulterated guilty pleasure and sins.”

    Would it make it any more acceptable had he been 25 years old?

    • Andrew says:

      Rahul:

      No. The age thing just made it seem more absurd to me. When I first read the phrase, “dirty smoke-filled weekend of unadulterated guilty pleasure and sins,” I had an image in my mind of the movie Swingers (which I highly recommend!). Swapping in a 70-year-old statistics professor just makes the whole thing so incongruous.

  2. Michael J says:

    > The UC Berkeley statistics department has had two famous cases of sexual harassment by tenured professors

    When I googled this I found Terry Speed and Yuval Peres. Were those the two cases you were referencing?

    • Andrew says:

      Michael:

      That department has a webpage listing Past Faculty. Along with the legends such as Jerzy Neyman and David Blackwell, it includes a selection of other famous and not-so-famous names, each with a photo, including Howard D’Abrera and . . . Terry Speed! But it doesn’t include Yuval Peres. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe they can add Yuval in the next update.

  3. David says:

    You’re right, Berkeley should really do a better job of oppressing its workers. Paying them below the mean area salary to teach several university courses a year is too good for them when literal imbiciles could have been hired to do the same job. I don’t know anything about this guy but lay off the adjunct hate huh?

    • Andrew says:

      David:

      I don’t quite understand your comment. Just to state my position clearly: I do not think the University of California should be paying $80,000 a year for an unqualified professor, adjunct or otherwise. There are different sorts of qualifications: some professors do research, others are solid practitioners, others are good teachers, if you’re lucky you can hire people with multiple skills. But the person discussed above seemed to have none of these attributes to offer—and that’s without even considering the sexual harassment.

      Nowhere in my post did I suggest they hire “imbeciles,” literal or otherwise. What I wrote was, “I do think they could’ve found many people in town who would’ve done a much better job for a lot less money. Think of all the local businesses that hire statisticians: wouldn’t it be cool for the students to take a class from one of these people?” By “many people in town,” I’m not talking grabbing about a random person off the street. I’m talking about hiring someone who knows statistics, works in statistics, and has a genuine interest in teaching the subject. I do think such people exist and would be happy to do the job for $80,000 or even a bit less. It’s not adjunct hate to be annoyed that they threw money at some dude whose only qualification was personal connections. Similarly, it’s not administrator hate to be annoyed when the provost was blowing the university’s money on a personal trainer.

      Also I don’t get your point about “oppressing.” Nobody owed this guy a job, and no, I don’t think the university has any obligation to pay $80,000 to an unqualified person.

    • somebody says:

      I don’t think the university should underpay its adjunct professors, but I also think there are some basic obligations adjunct professors have that this guy repeatedly failed to meet.

      A well corroborated story from ratemyprofessors

      “Exam fiasco: He didn’t bring enough final exams for part of the class and made us wait for an hour. This then lead to part of the class getting more time. Some people tried to email him and he said not to waste his time in all caps. He seriously had the nerve to say this after he made us wait for an hour!! Rumors that he writes fake reviews here.”

    • Bob76 says:

      I read the post and did not sense any “adjunct hate.” Indeed, his characterization of the situation of people who try to make a living on the margins of academia by teaching as adjuncts is the “all-too-common non-ideal setting” seems sympathetic to me.

      I’ve taught for many years as an adjunct and I’ve benefited in several ways. But for me, the money is insignificant. So, I and others in my position do not create any market forces for universities to pay adjuncts more.

      As an example of what I believe Andrew would characterize as the “ideal case” at his alma mater see
      https://lids.mit.edu/people/facultypi/g-david-forney.

      That’s an example of the ideal adjunct professor (emeritus)! Forney would quality for a tenured chair at any university in the world—but he probably didn’t want the committee meetings and didn’t need the money.

      Bob76

      • Rahul says:

        Adjuncts are sort of a bimodal distribution.

        There’s the senior, famous guys who don’t need the money and then there are the guys who couldn’t make the cut as a tenured Prof or due to other reasons choose the Adjunct track. For them the money matters.

        But in any case, I find most adjuncts actually give teaching the attention it deserves. Unlike (many not all) tenured faculty who focus on research, publications and grants.

        Teaching becomes a necessary evil.

        • Andrew says:

          Rahul:

          Based on my impressions the adjuncts in statistics are not a bimodal distribution; there’s a whole range, including retired people who teach for fun, working people with full-time jobs who teach to keep a foot in academia, recent Ph.D.’s who are teaching a course or two while trying to figure out what to do next, and people who are teaching several classes as a way to make a living. I agree that if you are an adjunct professor, teaching is the purpose of the job and so that’s the focus.

  4. Rahul says:

    When I first read the headline I went wow, that’s a lot of money! Divided over 7 years it’s not that much is it?

    What annoys me a bit is that had this been a regular prof we wouldn’t have brought up the salary.

    It’s a bit negative towards the adjuncts.

  5. somebody says:

    And then, with the money that was freed up by not paying $80,000 to someone’s pal, the university could’ve done something useful, like a personal trainer for the upper administrators on campus.

    When I was there, administrative misuse of public funds had become an undergrad meme.

    https://media.thetab.com/blogs.dir/176/files/2016/11/15039509-1764793303785290-2112478320108189584-o.jpg

    https://media.thetab.com/blogs.dir/176/files/2016/11/14938109-1162196917179174-8323988867007850417-n.jpg

    I can’t find my favorite of these anymore. But yeah, every aspect of that school was a complete administrative hell-hole. It’s incredible how long a good reputation can sustain a complete failure. So long as you have a good reputation, you attract good researchers. So long as good researchers are there, you attract undergraduates and have a good reputation. So if you’re running a school with a good reputation, you can do an arbitrarily bad job and keep the good reputation.

  6. David D. says:

    You’re cherry-picking his single most lucrative year ($80k) as though that’s typical. The median income of the years you list is $55k — which is hardly making it rich teaching introductory statistics, especially in the Bay Area. Good lucking finding someone qualified to teach a 3-3-3 + 3 summer courses for that amount, which is the standard courseload for a UC lecturer.

    • Andrew says:

      David:

      I didn’t cherry-pick anything. I reported the entire salary history I could find, and $80K was the last salary he was receiving before he got canned was allowed to retire. (Given the timing of everything, I’m pretty sure the $14K in 2016 was for only part of the year.) I strongly doubt this person was teaching 12 courses in a year or anything close to that. In any case, I’m not saying that the pay was making him rich; I’m saying that for this amount of money the university could afford to hire someone who could actually teach. I’d be cool with them paying a higher rate if that’s what it took. See P.S. above.

    • Although a lot of UC systems are on quarters, I believe Berkeley is still semesters. Not that this changes much, but it might mean a bit less diversity of courses to teach.

      I’m sure his teaching load was less in the years he was paid less right?

  7. Sean Mackinnon says:

    Leaving aside that this guy is awful and was right to be fired, which should be a given… It’s actually pretty hard to find people willing to teach intro statistics!

    We just hired an 1 year LTA as a sabbatical replacement for me (at a decent Canadian University, with fair salaried pay) and we got only 4 applicants!

    After accounting for the small pool, people who can actually teach it well is even smaller.

    Heck, in my psych department most of them hypothetically have the knowledge to teach intro stats… But maybe like two people would be actually willing to do it. On the whole, faculty kind of hate teaching intro stats, in my experience.

    The great stats people can usually make way more money outside thd academy.

    • Andrew says:

      Sean:

      Interesting story. At Columbia we’ve been able to find adjuncts who are working locally, but maybe that’s an NYC thing. Also I have not been involved in this hiring, so I don’t know how difficult it has been to find these people.

      My guess on the University of California story is that this person had some personal connections in the department, then he got hired to teach, nobody really looked very carefully about how his teaching was going. Maybe he was even a good teacher for a few years before he got lazy, who knows? Also it looks like he got a Ph.D. from the department (in 1973) and some places are kinda snobby and think that anyone who graduated from their department must be good. Finally, connecting to a previous comment, it would be interesting to know how many classes he was teaching.

      • Sean Mackinnon says:

        Could be an old boys club or connections! No idea if it was, but seems possible.

        On the other hand, the public teaching evals average out to a 3.7/5 on rate my prof. Some students really liked him, some really hated him!

        https://www.ratemyprofessors.com/ShowRatings.jsp?tid=884915

        Some students even said he was kind and accommodating! I’m not sure how you would have detected this kind of terrible situation in advance, but I don’t think teaching evals would catch it (and those are usually how admin folk monitor teaching!)

        My guess would be that they perpetually had difficulty finding anyone to teach intro stats, and without any obvious red flags they just left him there. Probably had a leg up as alumni, but also some protections from a union once he had a few years experience.

        The worst thing about creeps is that they can act really nice when someone with power is looking…

        • When I was at Shiraz Universty in Iran [learning Parsi], the persian professor and chair of the language department made a pass at me. I belted the dude. Smile. Then I reported him. The university did nothing. He wasn’t good looking anyway. Smile

          • Sean Mackinnon says:

            Ah, that’s awful Sameera :( At least you got one well-deserved hit in, I guess.

            • It was awful b/c it derailed my learning Persian at the university. Surprisingly, there was no beginning persian classes. So I had to rely on individual instruction. It was a further embarrassment b/c my father and grandfather were professors of arabic and persian literature.

              I hadn’t had that sort of experience in the US fortunately. No academics hit on me.

        • somebody says:

          I know someone personally who took his class, and apparently he stopped teaching entirely for the last third of a semester after reading his own ratemyprofessors ratings, only assigning readings and homework digitally. Not teaching entirely seems like it should probably have been pretty easy to catch. This is a bit of a far fetched theory, but it’s possible he wrote his own ratemyprofessors ratings to bump the score.

          • somebody says:

            Ah, here it is, corroborating the email that was read to me

            “Professor D’Abrera forces his students to rate him good here. or else he will make harder exam, even though his materials are already hard enough. IF students think he is good, they will rate themselves, rather than being forced to do so.”

            and one with a good rating

            “To the people who slander the professor by saying he forced us to give him reviews, you should all be ashamed of yourselves. It is no wonder you’re all complaining about doing poorly in this man’s class for misunderstanding his suggestion. The point of the reviews was to help FUTURE students. That just goes to show this man’s character. He’s great.”

            This story is the gift that keeps on giving. It just gets funnier the more you look at it

            • Andrew says:

              Somebody:

              Feedback is really tough. Years ago I had an operation, and in recovery I was treated by an incompetent nurse. I mean, he was really a weird guy. I told him I had to go to the bathroom but I wasn’t sure if it was safe. He acted like he didn’t want to get too close to me and he kind of stood a few feet away from me, not supporting me as I walked over, and then I collapsed. I almost bled to death! (Not right away; it was a slow leak.) The next day I told the other nurses about what happened and they said, ummm, who was that, was it Tom? I said, yeah, that was the name, and they were like, yeah, he’s a really weird guy. Later, I thought about writing a letter of complaint to the hospital but I didn’t bother.

              From the other direction, sometimes I do a bad job teaching a course, and I’m sure that lots of the students want to complain to someone, and I bet some of them do. Actually, my first year as a professor some students complained to the department chair and he came and sat in one of my classes and gave me advice. That was super helpful. Too late for the students in that semester, unfortunately, but I’m pretty sure that this advice made a positive difference going forward. And, yeah, I knew I was teaching badly, I just had no idea of how to right the ship.

            • Sean Mackinnon says:

              Oh WOW the plot thickens on this one, eh? A lot of weirdness going on.

              I think that unless students en mass report to some higher authority, nobody ever really checks up on other profs teaching. Sometimes that doesn’t even do it. Like, the bar for losing your job for bad teaching is like, pretty damn low.

  8. I think I’m missing something when it comes to the premise that he was not qualified to teach intro statistics (you mention his only qualification seems to be his connections). Setting aside the harassment, which obviously should disqualify him, what was the problem with his background?

  9. I could never figure out why professors would risk their reputations/careers. But it looks as if sexual liaisons were quite tolerated up until the 90s. I was very liberal chick. But hooking up with professors was simply anathema. Maybe being a daughter of a professor was an inhibition. Besides I saw them as my uncles or Dad’s colleagues.

    I am not the most secret oriented person to begin with. Not sure whether that is virtue signaling. LOL

  10. Modern Universities: The school doesn’t care about teaching, the teachers don’t care about teaching, the researchers don’t care about researching, the students don’t care about learning, the parents don’t care about paying through the nose…

    https://dilbert.com/strip/2015-12-09

  11. Will says:

    This guy sucks, for sure… but suggesting that a research background is correlated with intro stats teaching ability is a real headscratcher.

    • Andrew says:

      Will:

      Who is suggesting that a research background is correlated with intro stats teaching ability? Not me! The point of mentioning his lack of research record is to rule out an alternative possible reason he could’ve been hired. As we know, universities often hire people for their research, not for their teaching. But this person was clearly not hired for his research, which makes it all the more puzzling that they’d keep him on given what a bad teacher he was.

  12. Howard Edwards says:

    You know this sort of thing just gives almost 70 year old retired Statistics professors called Howard who occasionally teach Intro Stats courses to students on Pacific Islands a bad name …

  13. jim says:

    This guy didn’t get fired for sexual harassment! He got fired for being a bonehead. The fact that he would proposition female students and threaten them with grades by *email* in the year 2016 pretty much confirms that. Even the most permissive institution would’ve had to make a move on this guy.

    But what if dude was more subtle, tenured, and hauling down the grant money?

  14. Fred says:

    Have you ever heard anyone talk about the meaning of the word “outlier” and what it represents?

    • Rahul says:

      …death the great leveller

      • i.e. rabinovitz says:

        The virtuous members of the academy can still get satisfaction; they can dig up the corpse and subject it to some suitable punishment; as Harthacnut had done to his dead half-brother Harold Harefoot.

        • Rahul says:

          Didn’t we already?!

        • Andrew says:

          Ie:

          You say “virtuous” as if it’s a bad thing. I assume you don’t actually think it was good that this guy was a crappy teacher who harassed his students?

          • KKnight says:

            No one is defending his behaviour. But there seems to be a bit too much glee in crapping on a dead guy. Show some class.

            • Andrew says:

              K:

              I don’t see the glee. I posted it because it disturbed me that the university would be paying top dollar for mediocrity. There are lots of people who’d like this job, but instead they gave it to someone who didn’t want to do it and had no clear qualifications other than personal connections.

              • Rahul says:

                Not sure if I would call it glee, but there is a certain flavor in these posts that is off putting. Maybe it’s a matter of quantity or tone.

                It’s like the public hangings in the past: the guy may deserve it, but the clapping and cheering mob may still be a tad too much.

                Perhaps I belive there should be some end date to a punishment and not eternal reminders. If if death doesn’t suffice, what does?!

                But hey, that’s just me, I’m sure there’s other readers that love the flavour! De gustibus…..

              • Mike says:

                @Rahul

                As always, there is an xkcd for that.

                https://xkcd.com/774/

  15. elin says:

    I’m just going to say about the $80k. First, from that data base it looks like he was full time but possibly not tenure track (i.e. lecturer, visiting prof), sometimes for half a year.

    I wrote a whole long thing explaining how hard it is to fire an adjunct with experience at unionized places and also how at CUNY they now max out at $7800 for a four hour course plus an office hour, but really the best deal for all concerned is if they get a semester appointment as a substitute.

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