Some colleagues would say the chaos unfolded on purpose: that Professor Jacqueline Stevens knew what she was doing when she fired a public volley against Northwestern University on the same day thousands of Ph.D.s descended on Philadelphia for the largest annual meeting of American political scientists on September 1, 2016.
She was media-savvy enough, tenacious enough – it’s tenacity in part that won her bronze plaques, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and court cases against Immigration and Customs Enforcment over a 20-plus-year career.
Karen Alter learned about the allegations on the flight to Philadelphia for the American Political Science Association (APSA) convention. She says other graduate students and colleagues learned what Stevens had done when they reached the floor of the Pennsylvania Convention Center and heard, rather than fruitful discussions on Nietzsche or nationalism, one question: “What the hell is going on with Jacqueline Stevens and Northwestern University?”
“We were shell-shocked,” Alter says. “It was a complete ambush.”
Early that morning, Stevens pulled out a scratched Toshiba laptop in her Marriott hotel room and hit publish on the domain she purchased a week earlier: BrandNU.World.
The first post detailed Stevens’ version of a controversy that escalated tensions in her department to lawsuit level: an incident between her and a professor identified only as “the Slammer,” a complaint from Stevens that prompted the University to bring in what she calls a “pseudo-independent” investigator and a report that resulted in the dean calling her a danger to campus safety and banning her from campus pending a psychological examination.
Stevens says the altercation and the report were basically smokescreens; she says she was banned not because of any threat she posed to colleagues or students, but in retaliation for her criticism of the Board of Trustees and her successful campaign that year to unseat retired 3-star Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry as executive director of the Buffett Institute for Global Studies. She positioned herself as a lone voice speaking out against an oppressive system: “If this reminds you of Stalin’s Soviet Union, you can join the chorus of my colleagues at NU who know me and, as importantly, know the folks behind this.” Stevens says the APSA timing was beneficial for optimal attention, but purely coincidental. She says she solicited letters from former colleagues attesting to her good character because she’d only received Weinberg Dean Adrian Randolph’s specific allegations submission at the end of August, a month after her ban from campus. The blog and the letters may have saved her, but they certainly made her a cause célèbre among leftists and academic freedom activists. It also may have burned any remaining bridges between her and her colleagues.
The press immediately paid attention. Stevens emailed the link to journalists, and The Chronicle of Higher Education bit immediately, followed by a piece from the Chicago Reader that took Stevens’ side, musing: “Is an outspoken Northwestern professor a threat to campus safety?” Letters from former colleagues poured in. Friends started posting on social media in support, some saying they saw her as a quixotic figure fighting against corporate interests, others just smelling something rotten in the state of the NU administration.
“Northwestern’s behavior has been really disturbing and shocking to me,” says Jodi Dean, a political theorist at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York and Stevens’ friend of 20 years. “Jackie’s ‘You’re not going to screw me over’ is not surprising at all. She’s really brave.”
Back at Northwestern, the Slammer had just sat down in his Scott Hall office to work on the annual political science departmental review. To his left hung Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With. Martin Luther King Jr. hovered above his computer. When BrandNU.World went live, his phone started buzzing almost immediately.
Juliet Hooker, a friend and colleague at Brown University, texted him first: “You got into an altercation with Stevens?” Then, a reporter from the Chronicle, asking “Are you or do you know the Slammer?”
Alvin B. Tillery, “the Slammer,” heretofore known mainly as the award-winning associate chair of Northwestern’s political science department, decided to go public with his own version on Facebook.
“When I was 9 years old, I was lynched in my hometown in NJ for integrating my bus stop and standing next to a white girl.” he wrote. “I am writing now because I feel the same sort of powerlessness creeping over my body as many of my esteemed colleagues, even friends, begin to rally to the internet to defend my colleague Jacqueline Stevens against the recent disciplinary actions that Northwestern has taken against her … I just wanted to say that I will not be lynched again.”
Stevens returned to campus, but she wasn’t allowed to return to her office, and the blog alienated numerous colleagues. Professor Benjamin Page, who says he likes Stevens as a scholar and a person, spoke out against her as she returned, criticizing, in part, her conduct but especially her site.
“Jackie’s recent scorched-earth policy of tendentiously blogging about normally confidential personnel matters threatens to disrupt the very functioning of the department,” he wrote in a September 22 statement that he invited colleagues to share with anyone interested. Tensions were high. Tenured faculty walked out of a meeting, leaving a large group of new hires stunned, and several faculty signed a letter saying she should leave the department. Tillery filed a defamation suit. Stevens, almost a year later, filed a suit against Northwestern and Department Chair Sara Monoson for indemnification – reimbursement of legal funds in the Tillery suit.
Things have calmed in the last few weeks, faculty say, but both lawsuits are still pending. Stevens works from Locy Hall while Tillery looks for a new job. Some of her colleagues are baffled by the idea that she could be considered dangerous. The question on their minds is: how the hell did it get to this? For Stevens, the answer is simple: Powerful institutions like being powerful. She says the point of political theory is to hold them to account.
Now, she’s taken to calling her accusers “Orwellian” and comparing Northwestern’s administration to Stalin and Donald Trump. She calls her office the “Speaking Truth to Power Annex of the Political Science Department.”
The documents sit in folders and crude stacks high above South Campus in 302 Locy. They stand as a rudimentary record of her career: her research, her teaching, her battles. Pick one up. Maybe you’ll find a syllabus, or an academic paper on Socrates or Don Quixote. But to find the documents that put her in this office blocks from her department, you’ll need a computer: pages and pages of affidavits and emails from faculty and administrators submitted as exhibits and the outside investigator’s executive summary that birthed the ban. They allege in sum that Stevens is “hostile and aggressive,” so erratic that colleagues experienced “a loss of a sense of safety when working with her” and necessitated a guard being placed in Scott Hall in May 2016. They allege “gross incivility” and “disruptive, threatening, and disrespectful” behavior and making “statements that do not seem logical or rational.” The letter Weinberg Dean Adrian Randolph sent banning Stevens cited the need “for a safe and safe-feeling environment for our faculty, staff, and students.”
Stevens says the only thing she’s guilty of is the same good citizenship that’s driven her career. She says the University put her here, alone on the top floor of this non-ADA compliant building with an unreliable window air-conditioner, a leak in the ceiling and no elevator as punishment for treading too close to Northwestern and its Board in her pursuit of justice.
“This is just completely idiotic,” she says as she finishes showing me the building’s only bathroom – in the basement.
But forget the powder keg for a moment. Let’s focus on the spark.
Professor Tillery, who resigned from his position as associate chair in August 2017, will tell you he is the victim. In some ways, this all predates him. When Weinberg Dean Adrian Randolph banned Stevens from campus in July 2016, he cited a long-standing pattern of problematic behavior. But Tillery’s office is ground zero, if not for the entire conflict as a whole, then for the avalanche of events that led to the ban, the lawsuits and Stevens’ removal from Scott Hall. Tillery is calm and cordial, a man of average height, who dons monochrome sweaters and slacks on most days.
The same documents that spend hundreds of words attacking Stevens praise Tillery as the ideal colleague. “It appears to me that Dr. Tillery possesses and presents himself with dignity and restraint,” Professor Mary Dietz wrote in an affidavit. Professor Daniel Krcmaric wrote he was “calm, level-headed and the person of highest integrity.” Stevens even described him as “affable” in the 2016 email in which she first accused him of screaming at her.
Then, there was an altercation. A small one, really. On the afternoon of March 8, 2016, Tillery says he called Stevens into his office and offered a deal he thought she would love: trade an introductory political theory course, for which Stevens has mediocre CTECs (3.35 overall for the winter 2017), for her seminar on deportation that a handful of students consistently praise. It was a chance to help a new hire ease into Northwestern, he says. She says he lied to her by saying it was standard protocol to give new professors introductory classes (it’s not). Both say Stevens accused him of ulterior motives. Both say that Tillery asked if he had ever been dishonest with her before and Stevens said yes. Stevens says she told Tillery that he and Department Chair Sara Monoson lied to her when she tried to run for faculty senate. He says she brought up “conspiracy claims” about Shmulik Nili, a new professor from Israel whose hire Tillery says Stevens opposed. She says Tillery made up the Nili stuff.
All of that, though, is less important than what happened next: Stevens claims Tillery stood up and yelled “get out!”, then slammed the door on her.
“He just exploded,” Stevens says.
Tillery says Stevens had the outburst, and then started making accusations against him.
“The fact of the matter is the University knows that Professor Stevens fabricated these stories,” Tillery says.
The walls of Scott Hall are thin. Three professors in nearby offices and a graduate student wrote affidavits in August swearing they heard nothing. One undergraduate, Matt Greene (WCAS ‘16) signed an affidavit saying he was sitting in the hallway when he heard a slammed door and a male voice yelling “get out.” In the time between the incident and the affidavit, Stevens hired Greene as a research assistant who had been volunteering at the Deportation Research Clinic.
Stevens filed a complaint with the University immediately. Tillery responded with a cease–and–desist letter from his attorney alleging Stevens “intended to adversely affect Dr. Tillery’s relationship with Northwestern and harm his reputation.”
Tillery says he could hear Stevens down the hall telling students he abused her.
“Imagine every day I’m sitting here and her office is down there, and I can hear her telling students about me and that [Department Chair Sara Monoson] and I are against her, we’re part of the military- industrial complex,” Tillery says. “Think of the gender-racial dynamics. Where do middle aged men accused of abusing women in the workplace go?”
Stevens had sparred with a previous chair, and Tillery says he had been warned there could be conflict, not only because of her behavior at Northwestern but at her previous institutions, University of Michigan and University of California, Santa Barbara. But on the few occasions he’s in his Scott Hall office these days, he looks back mystified at how a seemingly innocuous request to change classes created so much chaos.
People like to call Stevens a conspiracy theorist: Tillery on Facebook, Weinberg Director of Administration Beth Clifford Smith in subpoenaed emails, a graduate student in The Daily, and, most notably, then-Provost Dan Linzer in front of the entire Faculty Senate as Stevens’ fight against Eikenberry came to a head.
Stevens had been leading a charge against Eikenberry since fall 2015, when she discovered, while browsing University expense reports, that trustees were wining and dining the general to be the new executive director of Buffett. Along with Spanish and Portuguese Professor Jorge Coronado, Stevens co-authored letters signed by dozens of faculty at first critiquing the process – students and professors, including those like Stevens who worked in Buffett, were basically shut out of the search – and Eikenberry’s lack of a Ph.D. or publications in peer- reviewed journals. But then it grew, and she talked about the Board and statements Eikenberry made about soft power.
Students first got a glimpse of this fight when organizers of the student-run prison divestment campaign Unshackle NU invited her to speak on her work uncovering the arguably unconstitutional wages detainees are paid in private detention centers, as well as her work finding U.S. citizens wrongfully detained by ICE. She did that – and then she started talking about Northwestern’s Qatar Campus, WikiLeaks, ties between Northwestern’s Board of Trustees and massive multinational defense and construction contractors General Dynamics and Caterpillar, and ties between those trustees and their companies with the State Department and a Wikileaks cable Stevens found from the U.S. Qatar Embassy discussing the need to improve coverage of the U.S. She mentioned how she saw Eikenberry as the trustees’ way to advance these business interests.
Unshackle organizers said they had no idea this was coming, though they found it fascinating. Stevens is not the most engaging speaker – the phrase “boring” and “very dry” appear repeatedly in her lecture CTECs – but she consistently displays a passion for her subject that can be infectious, an irreverent can-you-believe-it laugh when she discusses what she sees as particularly galling evidence.
“She’s somewhat intoxicating to be around, just the pace that she moves at,” says Austin Jenkins, one of Stevens’ graduate research assistants.
With Stevens, though, you can start to notice this drift. Her talks on ICE–detained U.S. citizens and other work that won her a Guggenheim float into discussions about the Board of Trustees, General Dynamics and secret agreements with the State Department.
This came to a head at a Faculty Senate meeting that March, when she gave her full theory on Eikenberry and the Board’s business interests. Linzer walked up to the podium minutes later. “The remarks wove together a number of comments from different contexts from different sources that seem to me a conspiracy theory,” he said. But the damage was done. Eikenberry withdrew a month later, and Stevens believes everything that’s happened to her since – the altercation, the ban, the psychological test that led her to blog and the banishment from Scott Hall – has been retaliation for that campaign, as well as for unpublished work questioning the validity of Northwestern’s charter.
No Northwestern political science professor interviewed for this story believed Stevens’ ban was retaliatory, but many will cede she had an impact on Eikenberry.
““Morty [Schapiro], [Jonathan] Holloway, [Phillip] Harris – what they want is to pick the head of Buffett without Jackie Stevens being the lioness that she is,” Tillery says.
And they can’t. The search for executive director of Buffett restarted this winter, with the University reaching out for student input and holding faculty assemblies, neither of which happened two years ago.
Despite Benjamin Page’s outspoken criticism of Stevens’ actions, he’ll concede that her research has been impactful, and that her campaign against Eikenberry worked, for all its controversy then and since.
“I believe that Stevens was right about the Buffett search,” he says. “And things look better in the current search.”
Talk to the cooler heads, the ones who aren’t suing anyone or signing affidavits and, really, really, just want to get back to work, and they will tell you that this is all one great intra-office dispute that blew far out of anyone’s control. They will tell you that this has nothing to do with the Board of Trustees, but also that Stevens has a point when she insists that she never physically threatened or harmed anyone.
They will tell you Stevens is a brilliant and deeply principled person who always fights for what she thinks is right, and that this is part of what makes her an incredible academic. But sometimes in an academic department, you need to pick your battles.
“That same persistence and relentlessness so useful in other parts of her career does bump up against how departments work,” says Page.
“Jackie is absolutely brilliant,” says another Northwestern colleague. It’s a common opinion. The traits behind her success are twofold, current and former colleagues say: an all-encompassing persistence that can be rare in the academic world and a mind that never stops working.
“She was one of my favorite students, very feisty – I mean, she hasn’t changed at all,” says Joan Cocks, a former professor of Stevens. “Everything in her life is subordinate to this struggle to make institutions more just.”
Jodi Dean called her “the hardest working academic” she knows, praising her willingness to not just theorize but go to courtrooms and archives and her lack of patience for conventional wisdom.
“She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, she doesn’t tolerate a lot of BS,” says Dean.
But a department may require toleration, and colleagues say that Stevens is not one to let things slide. At times, this has been to her and her colleagues’ advantage. In 1998, she successfully sued the University of Michigan for gender discrimination after being denied tenure. Jill Crystal, who sued Michigan for discrimination a few years before Stevens and settled for $100,000, recalled Stevens’ case against an “old boys’ club” where tenured men would frequently make lewd comments about women. “She was a decent person,” Crystal says.
But at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Professor Lisa Hajjar recalls her as “a highly engaged but sometimes difficult colleague.”
The friction at Northwestern started when she was hired, Stevens says. Department chair James Farr didn’t have an office ready for her, and her books and papers were stored inaccessibly. She bugged him about it periodically. Grievances mounted. Emails show Stevens expressing strong concerns over who was selected for an advisory council, then concerns about how her concerns were characterized. Affidavits show disputes over another admissions committee. She vocally opposed spousal hires – under the belief they encourage nepotism and allegiance to the University – while spousal hires were in the room.
Stevens says they’re all adults and should be able to “argue intensely,” but Page says it got out of hand.
“If you insist there be elaborate due process on everything, it all grinds to a halt,” Page says. “It got to the point almost every senior member of the department would not be willing to be chair under this circumstance.”
Stevens built her early career by thinking grandly, in terms of the nation-state and the entire Westphalian system, former Pomona colleague John Seery says.
The same thinking has led to her critique of the Board of Trustees. Those in and outside Northwestern political science are split on Stevens’ trustee work. Some see it as yet to be fully substantiated, but solid groundwork for real investigative reporting. A talk she gave in fall 2016 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison laying out her research on Northwestern Qatar and the Board earned a warm audience reception. Others just see it as a distraction. “It all goes back to General Dynamics for her,” says Tillery, who withdrew his signature from the public letters against Eikenberry after he says it became about the Board and the military rather than the process.
But no one in the Northwestern political science department interviewed for this story believes that Northwestern administrators had a plan to retaliate against her for the campaign against Eikenberry. To the contrary, Page has written about the failure of Northwestern leadership, and Tillery says none of this would have happened if Northwestern administrators listened to his request, shortly after the altercation, to move his office and give him a one-line apology saying they believed his account.
Stevens pointed me to her website, where she says she has proof that Monoson is involved with the Board and these multinational entanglements. She reproduced emails Tillery, Monoson and Will Reno sent to her when she was corralling signatures for a public letter. She says they were the only three people who bothered to email a response. “Those behind the ban, Tillery especially, have gone out of their way to claim they did not care about the Eikenberry appointment or my concerns,” she writes on her website.
Monoson’s email is abrupt: “Please make sure that my name is NOT on this letter. I disagree with it in its entirety.” But Tillery’s response politely explains that while he would prefer an academic, he is all right with Eikenberry; he sees military service as an extra credential.
The documents also allude to Stevens using staff phones, because she claimed the FBI was spying on her device. But here, Stevens has reason to be concerned. In the most recent ruling on her case against the Georgia immigration judge who threw her out of a courtroom, a judge noted immigration authorities had put unprecedented surveillance on Stevens, tracking and alerting others of her movements to courts and detention centers across Georgia. In 2013, her phone started autofilling in German and showing she was on a German network. A surveillance expert commissioned later wrote in a report that it ’“appears to me to be software in connection with governmental surveillance.”
But her concerns have also put off students. Although she insists she never used the word “spying,” she fired a research assistant in 2015 after what she saw as troubling activities and poor performance.
Jamil Mirabito, who worked as an assistant for Stevens analyzing data from FOIA'd documents briefly in 2016, says he was concerned by her insistence he only contact her through a specific app and an email backed by security. “I’m like, that’s interesting,” he says. “Am I doing something that’s illegal?”
All this doesn’t quite explain how intra-faculty squabbles became such a spectacle, nor why, nearly two years later, Stevens sits in her office–in-exile and tensions are still high.
Stevens doesn’t employ the language of a normal professor. She talks about being “betrayed” in casual conversation. In emails, she nonchalantly refers to colleagues as “my chief nemeses in the department.” Her website compares Northwestern’s administrators to Stalin – Stalin! – and Donald Trump.
For a scholar known for her ability to parse the intricate details of dense texts in the classroom and on the page, her language can be blunt. Take one of the smaller examples, “the Slammer,” not just a pseudonym but a term that flattened a professor into a single (alleged) aggressive act.
This language, which served Stevens so well with other massive institutions she has tried to hold to account, became the language for her colleagues and even a research assistant in emails, affidavits and message boards. This happened after numerous faculty had called a colleague “hostile” and “aggressive.” They had accused her of “breaks from reality.”
The Deportation Research Clinic is smaller than Stevens’ Locy office, but busy. A small team of undergraduates and graduates work processing letters from families of people in detention, each with a laptop open, some on the floor, some at desks, some scattered about the room. They send out FOIA requests for detainees they think may be U.S. citizens and appeals when ICE gives them the wrong, incomplete or absurdly redacted commission. Green and orange markers cover the walls: lists of students and their to-do-lists, elaborate family trees for suspected citizens, timelines of their family’s immigration to the U.S.
Stevens goes over the agenda: Fliers need to be made for the clinic, and wouldn’t it be great if they could get a GIF of both Donald Trump and Bill Clinton and say “this is what deportation looks like”? Not on paper but in an email, that’s how most people will get it – and Matt, how’s the mother’s documents in that case coming?
“You know 'My [Great] FOIA Adventure'?” Stevens asks one undergrad, taking a pile of paper from the printer and handing it to them as instructions on how to file one.
This is Stevens at her best. There’s laughter in the air. It’s jovial, lighthearted and the work they do might free someone wrongfully detained. Austin Jenkins looks at his laptop and goes over his to-do list for the clinic’s website, which he runs. Stevens has been more than a professor or boss to him. His mom died last year. She was there for him, and patient with him and his work when few others were. He feels fiercely loyal to her, and committed to her work, which he finds inspiring.
“She’s honing me into another footsoldier in the war against government misconduct,” he says.
One of Stevens' research assistants, who is also affiliated with the Deportation Research Clinic, SESP Junior Anya Patel, walks in and, lacking a chair, slumps on the floor. Stevens asks her to share what she’s been working on. It’s an investigation into Northwestern Qatar and the State Department and Patel is excited.
“I had bronchitis,” she says. “I didn’t go to my first two morning classes, but let me show you what I’ve done here, there are two [documents] that are really interesting.”
Stevens stops her, tells her to go home, but she insists on finishing first, slightly hyperventilating throughout. There was an email they FOIA’d between the U.S. Embassy in Qatar and the Dean of NU–Q, and Patel’s been looking through it all night.
And God knows if anything will ever come of it. But damn if she isn’t excited, because, really, how many people, how many undergrads, get to touch anything close to the vast networks that run our world, let alone expose them? Jacqueline Stevens has made her believe she can change the world.
Clarifications and Corrections: March 23, 2018
This article was updated with links to Jacqueline Stevens’ BrandNU.world site, “Forensic Intelligence and the Deportation Research Clinic: Toward a New Paradigm” in Perspectives on Politics, and an article from the Chicago Reader. It was also updated to say that Anya Patel is a research assistant to Stevens and participates in work at the Deportation Research Clinic. Additionally, it was updated to note that Stevens' books and papers were stored inaccessibility when she first arrived at Northwestern. A previous version of this article said four professors in nearby offices signed affidavits swearing they heard no incident between Stevens and Alvin Tillery. While four professors signed affidavits, one of them was on the floor below. The story also suggested that students hired solely for immigration work at the Deportation Research Clinic examine cables between the Dean of NU-Q and the U.S. government in Qatar. We removed the reference. In addition, it said graduate students had suggested in a Daily Northwestern letter to the editor that Stevens was a conspiracy theorist. Only one graduate student published such a letter. A previous version of this article suggested that students at a Stevens talk sat agape. We removed the reference. This article was updated to include that Jamil Mirabito worked on statistical analysis of government data for Stevens. The article now includes a clarification to reflect that Stevens has disagreed with two political science department chairs at Northwestern: Sara Monoson and James Farr. This article was updated to more clearly reflect Stevens' claim that Monoson is involved with Northwestern's Board of Trustees. It has also been updated to clarify that Stevens co-authored letters with Jorge Coronado that critiqued the selection process for Karl Eikenberry. A sentence describing the timeline of disagreements among the political science faculty was also updated. The article's headline was updated to include Stevens' full name.
Corrections: March 16, 2018
A previous version of this article misstated the job description of Anya Patel. She is a research assistant to Jacqueline Stevens who is unaffiliated with the Deportation Research Clinic. The story also implied that Stevens has filed lawsuit on behalf of immigrants and maintains legal files in her office related to her work on deportation. She does not. A previous of this story suggested that Stevens believes that Tillery and Monoson were put up by the University to fabricate the altercation. We removed the reference. A previous version of this story suggests the article concerns Stevens, Tillery and the CIA. It was the FBI. NBN regrets these errors.