February 25, 2009

UOC: Please Reconsider

by Nick Montfort · , 12:27 am

I learned in the past few days that Laura Borràs Castanyer of the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) is apparently being dismissed from her position at UOC.

This comes as quite a surprise, as Professor Borràs directs Hermeneia, a major European research group on digital literature; is also organizing the 2009 e-Poetry conference; has been overseeing the Ciutat de Vinaros Prize for digital literature; and is serving in the editorial collective for The Electronic Literature Collection, volume 2, the follow-up to the first volume that Scott and I worked on with Kate Hayles and Stephanie Strickland. Without having heard the complete story, the justification for this action apparently has something to do with her not having performed adequate service. This justification is also rather surprising, given only these activities that those of us in the Electronic Literature Organization know about.

Academics active in the ELO, and some from other professional circles, have begun a letter-writing (and in some cases, blog-posting) campaign, contacting officials of the UOC, and specifically Internet researcher Manuel Castells, who apparently became aware of the dismissal after assuming his new post at the University.

Supporters of Dr. Borràs have urged the University to reconsider its action, as I certainly do. The dismissal seems unusual from my perspective, and could hinder work in our field.

Thanks to many members of the ELO for discussion of this issue, particularly Stuart Moulthrop.

24 Responses to “UOC: Please Reconsider”

  1. Scott Rettberg Says:

    This certainly is upsetting — Dr. Borràs is one of the leading European academics in the field and has done a great deal to energize electronic literature in Europe. Her firing seems, on the surface, to be arbitrary and without merit. The removal of this researcher from the landscape of the field would have serious and immediate consequences. Among other things, the most important e-lit conference this year, the 2009 e-Poetry Festival, may have to be canceled if Borràs loses her job.

    I’ll attach a letter I sent to Castells and other concerned parties yesterday.

    Dear Professor Manuel Castells, Director of Research,

    I am writing to express my concern over the termination of Laura Borràs Castanyer at the Open University of Catalonia. I have come to know Dr. Borràs well over the past few years, through her work on electronic literature. She has been one of the most active international researchers working in the field, as a researcher and teacher, and also, importantly, as someone who has put a great deal of effort into developing international research infrastructure for the field. As the founder and a member of the board of directors of the Electronic Literature Organization, I have a great deal of respect for that type of work, which is essential to the development of a new field, even though it does not tend to be credited as much as more traditional academic work within the parochial confines of one’s local institution.

    I have seen Dr. Borràs present at a number of conferences and have also worked with her on a number of projects. I can attest that her academic work is exceptionally good. She has done a great deal to raise popular interest in and awareness of electronic literature, particularly within Europe and especially within Spain and Catalonia. By developing the research group Hermeneia and by developing and promoting the Vinaros Prize for electronic literature, Dr. Borràs quite literally put Catalonia on the map of the international research community in this field. By inspiring young writers and artists to create work in the networked electronic writing environment, Dr. Borràs has helped to create a thriving community of electronic writers where one did not exist before.

    Dr. Borràs has been willing to take on a number of important projects vital to the field, very importantly including organizing the 2009 e-Poetry Conference in Barcelona. I don’t know what the impact of her removal from UOC would be on that event, but I can only imagine it would be catastrophic. Keep in mind that this is a biannual international research congress that is one of the most important periodic gatherings in the field. Researchers and artists from from all over the world have had their work accepted and in some cases have already made travel arrangements. Should this event be canceled due to internal politics at the host institution, which further resulted in the termination of a world-class researcher, hundreds of people would be negatively impacted in their research, in their creative work, and in their impression of the professionalism and scholarly merit of the Open University of Catalonia. I myself am presenting work at the conference, and you can count me among the number who would sorely resent this development.

    As an associate professor at the University of Bergen’s Digital Culture group within the Linguistics, Literature, and Aesthetic Studies department, I have recently put forth an EU 7th Framework proposal on Electronic Literature and the development of a multimodal field of European cultural exchange. The international consortium, of which I am the coordinator, includes partners from Norway, Sweden, Finland, France, the UK, and Spain. Dr. Borràs was instrumental in the development of this consortium and our proposal, and UOC was to be a partner should the project be funded. The same consortium will in any case be likely to develop and submit other European proposals in the near future. While we value UOC as a partner, I cannot conceive of a situation in which UOC would be our partner without Dr. Borràs. In December, my wife Dr. Jill Walker Rettberg and I also traveled to Barcelona to meet with Dr. Borràs and initiate other research and pedagogical collaborations between UiB and UOC. Those plans will also obviously be for naught if Borràs is no longer a member of the faculty at UOC.

    While from Norway I cannot gauge all of the specific local interpersonal conflicts that led to the decision to remove Dr. Borràs from her post, it seems to me that it should require a grave circumstance of negligence or professional misconduct in order to remove a researcher of Dr. Borràs’ caliber from her tenured post. I can see no evidence of such in her case, but in fact the opposite. It would appear that an exceptional researcher is being punished, rather than rewarded, for her excellence, her work ethic, and her international repute. I strongly urge you and your board to reconsider the decision, which will have profoundly negative effects for your institution, its students, and its reputation within the international research community. The removal without substantial cause of a researcher like Dr. Borràs will paint UOC in a very negative light indeed. I hope that this disaster can be swiftly averted.

    Very truly yours,

    Dr. Scott Rettberg
    Associate Professor of Linguistic, Literary, and Aesthetic Studies
    The University of Bergen, Norway

  2. Matthew Kirschenbaum Says:

    I would like to add my support to Nick and Scott’s above.

    Matthew Kirschenbaum
    Associate Professor of English
    Associate Director,
    Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH)
    University of Maryland
    301-405-8505 or 301-314-7111 (fax)

  3. josemanuel Says:

    Why was she dismissed? Does anyone know the full story?

  4. Domingo Sánchez-Mesa Says:

    As colleague of Laura Borràs since more than a decade now, I thank Nick Monfort and Scott Rettberg for their letters and support for Laura in these difficult moments. I just want to inform you that a group of Spanish academics, working int the field of digital literature are also circulating among the various networks and academic organizations linked to our field a letter of support to be sent to the Rector of the UOC and the Catalonian and Spanish Press. Universities are (or seemed to be) one of the few last spaces for excellence and intellectual authority, but everything is turning “darker” lately, too quickly… I believe this absurdity will be reversed though.

    All the best.

    Domingo Sánchez-Mesa
    University Carlos III (Madrid)

  5. Giovanna di Rosario Says:

    Hi eberynody,
    I’m Giovanna di Rosario Laura Borras’ PhD candidate, I would like to thank Scott and Joseph Tabbi and all the members of the ELO that sent so many letters to support Laura. What happened to Laura is completely unbelievable and unfair. As you know, she is a great researcher, a hard worker and an incredible director. I do hope the UOC will reconsider its totally unfair decision. This decision doesn’t concern her work, it’s just envy caused by her dynamism and her capacity in doing research and in having international visibility!
    Please feel free in contacting me for any information you may need.

  6. Noah Wardrip-Fruin Says:

    I also wish to add my support for Dr. Laura Borràs — who has founded one of the field’s most ambitious and innovative research groups, done a great deal of service to the field, and also continued to produce a large amount of scholarly work for presentation at major international venues. The news of her dismissal came as a shock and I strongly hope it will be reversed.

  7. Patrick Minetta Says:

    Jose Manuel’s point is VERY important: “WHY was she dismissed? Does anyone know the FULL story?”.
    Perhaps her being fired is justified, despite her being a very good researcher. We just need more information! Do you have it? If not, all of us should be more cautious about this case.

  8. Scott Rettberg Says:

    The only justification I’ve heard the U provided is that she did not do enough “voluntary service” — I don’t know if she missed a committee meeting or something, but she certainly has done a great deal of voluntary service on an international basis, and she definitely stayed on top of her teaching. At conferences, she would often spend evenings grading papers or otherwise communicating with her students (her courses at UOC were online). The MA program she just started had 50 students enrolled in the first year. I have great doubts that there was any justifiable reason for her dismissal. Could be the university is having a budget crisis, or something of that nature, but I seriously doubt that she deserved to be dismissed on the basis of her activity as a teacher, researcher, or on the basis of her service to the university, which she promoted actively and recruited many students for.

  9. Patrick Minetta Says:

    Giovanni di Rosario, one of Laura’s PhD candidates at UOC, says that her dismissal is due to “pure envy” but I guess that there must be more serious reasons that forced the UOC institution to take such an important decision. It is also obvious that the reasons of her dismissal cannot be said to be related to her avoiding voluntary service since, as pointed out by Scott, Laura is one of the best researchers of that institution. That’s indisputable! So I’m afraid that there must be deeper/more serious reasons that may have to do with the way she is. We are still in the dark.

  10. Patrick Minetta Says:

    By the way, I’ve been told that Dr. Joan Pujolar, the chair of Laura’s Department at UOC, has recently been removed from his position. This is a bit surprising since Laura was not in good terms with him. I would appreciate if someone from UOC could inform us about this scandal.

  11. Scott Rettberg Says:

    An update — though UOC has not reversed their decision, Laura Borràs Castanyer is pushing ahead with the e-Poetry conference, which will take place as scheduled, albeit without the support of the former host institution. Professor Manuel Castells, head of research, has resigned from the administration of UOC in protest of the decision.

  12. Charles Mend Says:

    I can not believe that a so drastic decision from the UOC can be taken with no profound reasons. Moreover, Spanish Legislation is very protective about Worker’s rights and UOC could not take this serious resolution with no deep and serious arguments. The UOC is keeping intact the sentence even with the high pressure of other institutions and individuals all around the World, so they seem to be very sure of the decision. It is not reasonable to think the reason is “envy”.

  13. Nick Montfort Says:

    Yet no profound reasons or serious arguments have been offered, and we have no evidence of why the decision was made. The evidence is that a lack of “voluntary service” seems absurd as a rationale for Borràs’s dismissal. It seems only reasonable to ask that UOC reexamine its decision, and to base our requests on the justifications that are or are not provided – not on some blind trust that institutions will do the right thing.

  14. Juan B. Gutierrez Says:

    The reasons for the dismissal of Laura Borràs form her professorship at UOC are mysterious at best. Not even *she* knows exactly what happened. To those who suggest that there is some undisclosed reason that puts her at fault are *plain wrong*. There is a power struggle at the UOC, and Laura got caught in the middle. Had she been at fault, she would have not been hired at the University of Barcelona (a world top-200 university) after her dismissal from the UOC; she is transferring research projects to UB in this moment. I have worked with Laura as an instructor in the master she organized, and as a researcher in the Global Poetic System (a platform she and I designed that will be shown at e-Poetry, Barcelona 2009), and I can attest that there are soap-opera-like tensions inside the UOC. That university is funded with public money but has private management. By a loophole in the Spanish legislation, UOC has a special status since it is primarily a distance teaching center, so standard academic procedures were not required nor followed in Laura’s dismissal; rather, it was based purely upon personal reasons by an antagonist and very small group of people with the ability to make decisions. This is a shame for Spain and the Autonomous Community of Catalonia; luckily, it seems to be an isolated case and not the norm in Spanish academia. Her dismissal will cost UOC at least 660K Euro just this semester. If there was a good reason for this dilapidation of public money, the UOC would have made it public by now, especially after the immediate and massive reaction of the international community of scholars in several fields. Laura is moving forward, and she will keep making contributions to this field. This community has done the right thing: show support based on merit.

  15. Jordi Pujol Says:

    Charles Mend, Patrick Minetta. You both do not exist (do you know something called Google?)
    I suspect that you are de same individual, that you work in UOC and probably you are responsible for Laura’s dismissal.
    Please, stop intoxicating.

  16. Artur Más Says:

    This is not serious. Jordi Pujol is a famous retired Spanish politician who obviously is not posting in this forum. Who’s intoxicating?

  17. Charles Mend Says:

    I really see unpleasant that just because the opinion is different, somebody can insult.
    I exist, I do not know who Minneta is, my only relation with the UOC is as user as a researcher of its virtual library and I have not been into Spain. If you think that if somebody is not listed in Google, he does not exist, you are killing 95% of the Mankind. If you think that Google rules truth you are not really a scholar. Probably, you also look at the wiki often.

    What you are selling is:
    – The UOC fires the best researcher….with no reason
    – The UOC loses 600k euros …with no reason
    – The UOC is controlled by both Public and private institutions. Both have supported the decision…for no reason
    – The UOCs Union is not saying anything against a decision taken…with no reason
    – All “massive international support” (just by chance, all close friends!) are faced by the UOC just…with no reason

    Yes, a good, honest, scientific and neutral thesis!

    Maybe you are confusing research with entreteiment, working in the University with being all time on TV, merit with popularity. You are asking for reasons all the time. So far, UOC has been very polite. Keep asking and as we say in English: Be careful of your wishes. They can come true.

  18. Scott Rettberg Says:

    I’m glad to hear that Laura got a new position at UB and her research is going with her. That’s great news.

  19. Scott Rettberg Says:

    We here at Grand Text Auto don’t have any policy against pseudonymous commenting, so I never assumed that Charles Mend is a name attached to a real person. But as a teacher of many Spanish ERASMUS students who turn in papers in English, I can say that Mend’s grammar (placement of articles, for example “…the Mankind” “the Wiki.”) is not that of a native English speaker. Still, I suppose there is no harm in speaking your mind from behind a mask.

  20. Juan B. Gutierrez Says:

    To Mend: Nobody has said that Laura was dismissed without a reason; on the contrary, we believe she was dismissed for political reasons. About your comment “Maybe you are confusing research with entertainment”, you ought to know that this community does not mistake research for entertainment; it simply happens to be that we study a cultural product that can be consumed for entertainment purposes. About Laura “being all time on TV”, do you hear yourself? You are simply validating Giovanna’s envy thesis (BTW, if you are not in Catalonia how could you know that she has a few minutes in a regional weekly cultural show?) About “only her close friends showed support”, what a coincidence that they are the leaders of the field around the world. Perhaps grandtextauto logs IPs, and perhaps yours could be disclosed to pinpoint your location… which I would not be surprised if it was in Spain, particularly Barcelona. Mr. “Mend” you are simply validating what we believe about UOC and the unfair dismissal of Laura Borràs; your obscure intervention has been illuminating.

  21. Santiago Rusiñol Says:

    “Hi ha dues maneres de triomfar: fent compassió o fent enveja. Però l’enveja és de més durada, perquè l’envejós té més constància”.

    “There are two ways to triumph: with compassion or with envy. Yet envy lasts longer, as the envious person is more relentless”.

    Santiago Rusiñol

  22. Tom Gardfield Says:

    To Gutierrez: I do not know anything about this but somebody who call himself “a leader” is not a leader. And not humble, obviously.

  23. Juan B. Gutierrez Says:

    Within minutes of post #22 by “Tom Garfield” on April 14th a person with the pseudonym “Marc” created a deplorable post in one of my personal blogs http://immigrationamerica.blogspot.com/ (see comments at the bottom of that page). That post was created FROM WITHIN THE UOC DATA NETWORK, according to Google Analytics. The data network report for April 15th is available at http://www.math.fsu.edu/~jgutierr/NetworksReport.pdf The other network usage in that report, from FLDOH is mine.

    The characters “Tom Gardfield”, “Charles Mend”, “Patrick Minetta”, “Artur Más” are most likely personas created by someone we have long suspected to be part of UOC. We suspect this was the same person who through a web of libelous accusations derailed Laura’s career at UOC.

    It is a great injustice that a person can abuse the tools that are essential to us to cowardly attack others from behind a mask. The malice of this person has caused large energy waste, has damaged a serious research group (Hermeneia), caused Laura’s dismissal, has put at risk the doctoral status of several students, has terminated the jobs of several people in Spain, has jeopardized e-Poetry… HOW LONG CAN THIS GO UNCHALLENGED?

    If you have the IP of any of the posts by this suspected person, I urge you to publish this information which would allow us to determine geographic location(s) and data network(s). The only possible answer to this dark person is the truth.

  24. Nick Montfort Says:

    Juan, the Grand Text Auto bloggers have discussed this issue. We are not going to publish or hand over the IP addresses where particular comments originated. If, for the first time, we shared information about the geographical location of a commenter, and published the unique identifier of the computer that a commenter is using, legitimate participants could be deterred from taking part in discussions.

    Based on the text of these comments, I agree with your general assessment of them, although they seem more meaningless than libelous to me – they are meant to suggest that Laura’s dismissal was somehow justified, but while they’re angry and antagonistic, they’re ultimately empty. Whoever is behind these sock puppets can’t come up with a justification. That will be evident to anyone reading this thread. I think the best way to the truth is not through IP addresses but by showing the vacuousness of these attacks, as we’ve done here.

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