A good friend of mine who is a Professor in the US sympathised with my Courtauld ordeal and drew my attention to the issue of the way the Courtauld is prepared to deal with mental health issue. In the US and, according to their legislation, Joanna Woodall and Rose Marie San Juan’s careers would already be over, on March 2012, after suggesting me during a tutorial not to tell the Courtauld about my depression because it would compromise my career. Instead I am being investigated for ‘misconduct’ and have been punished with one full academic year of being ignored. According to UK law and Courtauld regulation, it is my ‘personal tutor’, Mignon Nixon, the person that should be probably asked her resignation after not asking me even once about my personal situation after I informed her of my mental illness. However, this article aims at transcending the issue of the individuals and placing the discussing on a regressive system according to which a confession of depression becomes something ‘subject to medicalization’. In other words, if one suffers from depression (or any other mental illness), one is supposed to vanish and not expect the institution to be of any help.  The issue here can be summarised in Rose Marie San Juan’s statement: ‘if you tell the Courtauld of your depression, you will be medicalised and your career will suffer’. Get depressed and you will be punished.


Doctorat Comme Mecenat

The UK PhD system is a sort of ‘patronage system’ or ‘mecenat academique’. It is a sort of fraternity where knowledge is being transmitted between two agents.  There are no clear boundaries and, as a result, no rules or accountability mechanism to deal with any deviation to normalcy from any of the parties. The tutor has the power of making or unmaking careers through the institutional labyrinths that he or she has privileged access to. The student, however, remains ignorant of those machinations and suffer what would potentially have a definite impact on his career. In other words, there are not clear rules and the system does not nurture talent but tutorial self-assertion. Therefore, a big portion of the institutional tutoring depends on the integrity and honesty of the tutor. But let’s not talk about such universal things such as integrity and honesty because there are moments in life such as divorce, separations, deaths, stress, midlife crises where any human being loses track of its own idea of himself or herself and thinks that he or she is doing the right thing but actually they are causing damage. What if the tutors has paranoid, neurotic or sadistic tendencies and the bar of what is normal and what is acceptable slightly (or not) starts to move. Who protects the student?

A Place Where Tutors Cannot Fail

It is obvious that at the Courtauld there is no link between ‘succesful dissertation’ and ‘quality of mentorship’ and no intellectual lineage is, therefore, created. A phrase that I hear repeatedly from former Courtauld students is: ‘The Courtauld is a place to get the degree and leave’. The fact that Joanna Woodall can afford to have (at least to my knowledge) four PhD candidate failures within two years should not be an indication of the performance of the student but of her performance and , of course, of the quality of her tutorship.


Another problem has to do with the fact that the best student can be rejected at the Courtauld because a particular tutor is not interested by the topic. In my case, having won the Courtauld MA Dissertation Prize left Joanna Woodall no choice but to supervise me. The lack of transparency in the allocation of tutors and on tutors agreeing to work with a specific student should be a process with absolute transparency. Joanna Woodall rejecting Monica Babitch and Heather Brindle as PhD candidate was opaque and stopped their academic career. That is unfair. Finally, if a tutor agrees to work with a student without being fully convinced or because the Institute forces him or her to do so, what resources are at the student’s disposal to prevent his tutor to be totally indifferent to him or her. I have evidence from me and other PhD students that Joanna Woodall ‘blackmailed’ students and force to lie on their annual monitoring form saying that she had seen them more than once. The result is that not having contact with the tutor ends up in failure. A PhD dissertation can be a very lonely and confusing endeavour.


How to Contain Arbitrariness

However, when the relationship between tutor and student are fluent and good, it can be magical. Because the intellectual synergy occurs and knowledge is transmitted and produced. However, when this is not the case and any insecurity appears the relationship of trust might break down and all the system’s arbitrariness emerges.

So the first question regarding a depressed student is which are the guidelines the institution -Courtald Institute- has in place to deal with student disabilities? In its website there is a policy but does not list mental illness, it seems more oriented to understand disability as exclusively a physical one:

Nevertheless, it lists resources available to students, and the first one is a personal advisor (in my case, Mignon Nixon who never asked me how I was and didn’t hesitate to accuse me for immediately after that vanishing). According to the Courtauld Guidelines, Mignon Nixon is part of the ‘i) Personal tutor system: all the students at the institute are allocated a personal tutor who is responsible to advise them on matters related to work and social/personal problems’.


Therefore, even if my behaviour was ‘aggressive’ and ‘not productive’ (in Joanna Woodall’s words) I was not outside the parameters of my student-tutor relationship in relating my personal issues and expecting consideration. The problem is that they decided to lie and punish for that. Then the institution somehow found it advisable to ignore the unprofessional behaviour and initiated a process to make me leave. I broke down, I ended up hospitalised but I stayed.

So what are the resources that the Courtauld provides so student can openly their disabilities without being subject to discrimination, mis-treatment or abuse from any member of the institution? The website does not provide an answer to this question, or list any resource office and or procedure for such declaration, leaving it then within the student/advisor relationship, we have to believe…#

The problem here is what happens when the tutor is blatantly unprofessional. Well, surely the personal tutor takes over. What happens when the personal tutor disappears. Well, the Director should contact the student directly. So…what happens when the director refuses to receive the depressed student. Well, I don’t know. I guess he has to leave and close the door upon departure. Will his money be reimbursed? I don’t know. Surely not.


Then the question should be what specific guidelines are provided to tutor and mentors when dealing with students with disabilities? How was it possible that such a regressive, punitive and ridiculous suggestion -”do not tell the institution about your ‘personal’ situation”- could have come from one tutor in the 2000s!?

Students With Disabilities

Just an example of how regressive the Courtauld seems to be is that in NYU, there is AN OFFICE (SSD) dedicated to help, advise, and advocate for students with disabilities. I contacted them they told me that they are seeing ‘more and more often and seriously consider, depression’. Other universities have equal or more complete services, for example North Western University in Chicago. Check this out:

The fourth question is how was it possible that a mentor, made aware that a student was undergoing a serious personal situation that he himself deemed debilitating as depression (see Second Part of this Article for evidence) took no precautions, made no one -no official in the institution, nor advisor- AWARE of this situation when a reference to ‘personal problems’ emerged at the very beginning? At the least a formal communication to the head of graduate studies explaining the progress of the situation and the obvious results should have been made!! It is common sense that it should not be at the discretion of the mentor/tutor/advisor to determine when the situation merits intervention or not… All circumstances should be made known with the people involved in the student’s studies and those who are trained to identify a problem should act on the student’s behalf.

I wonder whether there are no guidelines the mentor may refer in a situation like this. If that is the case, it seems that they say ‘just keep business as usual and not get involved’. I wonder whether Joanna Woodall’s decision to ‘not get involved and stop contact with the student for not being a productive discussion’ counts as negligence. If I commit suicide tomorrow, is Deborah Swallow responsible after weeks of telling this story online and a year of asking for institutional help?

The issue of delaying graduation due to “personal problems” that affect students performance is a very grey area in our beloved institution. In other institutions, mentors are provided guidelines precisely not to let them deal with those issues at their discretion, to protect the student, and, of course, to relieve the mentor or tutor from a kind of responsibility that can be overwhelming.

Finally, on the subject of medicalization: I think nowadays with increasing awareness of different kinds of disabilities and the taboo on mental illness, educational institutions are more responsible than ever, and should be at the forefront, of respecting, protecting and insure students that their academic success and careers would not be jeopardized because of these issues and old time (Victorian?) regressive attitudes. Taking a leave because of illness should not be a stigma in someone’s career but a sign of responsability and awareness. It is surprising that that kind of advise would come from women professors in the academia, but perhaps the years of struggle for equal recognition, benefits, and standards have not served well my advisors, or have not sensitised them to minority discrimination…

 Deborah Swallow Must Lead The Reform. I Am Ready To Forget Everything & Help 

The offer to take a semester medical leave was presented to me not as part of a healing process but as a punishment which carried the risk of being medicalised and stigmatised. I hesitated to do so for those reasons. Rose Marie San Juan and Joanna Woodall’s advice not to tell the Courtauld about my depression, put fear into an already depressive mind.  Regarding accommodations… that should also be a standard procedure for students with disabilities, which does not mean ‘special treatment’ or any change in curriculum and evaluations, but a sensitive and humane way to deal with moments of adversity. Knowing that I had so many personal issues, Joanna Woodall and Rose Marie San Juan should not make special arrangements for me to fail. They tried all the way to organise Viva’s for me to defend my work publicly against the advice of Sheila McTighe who as second reader in my Upgrade considered it totally unnecessary. I should have been granted an appropriate postponement of certain deadlines, and that should have been transparent and available for me before I had to cry in front of them. Why wasn’t I made aware that I had those options? I asked Gareth Morgan the papers for taken a semester leave and in an authoritative one and four months later, my ‘personal tutor’ Mignon Nixon (in charge of my wellbeing) send to me the requirements. It was far too late. I was weeks from hospitalisation.

The Courtauld must change. It seems impossible but I take the legacy of Samuel Courtauld as my own in order to humbly move the legacy forward into the XXI century.

Written by Rodrigo Canete. All Rights Reserved