Numerous Boston University students allege Orientation Director Shiney James created a “toxic” work environment and fostered a culture of fear during their time as Orientation leaders — an experience they say continues to impact them months and years later.
Allegations against James include verbally degrading students, harshly disciplining students who did not meet certain expectations and forcing employees to disclose personal information she would use against them.
Many said she wields such power over the University and the Orientation program that employees feared reporting her behavior.
James, who has run BU Orientation for nearly 15 years, greets thousands of incoming freshmen and their parents every summer, has taught new students in FY101 classes and works closely with many Orientation leaders for several months.
BU Orientation holds five sessions for incoming freshmen and transfer students each summer, and training for the program begins toward the end of the Spring semester. Orientation student leaders go through an extensive application process, where they interview with James herself. Seventy members worked on the 2021 Orientation team.
Student leaders can work as ambassadors for different on-campus organizations, as program coordinators who plan Orientation activities, as student facilitators — group leaders for incoming freshmen and transfer students — or as program managers who work in the Orientation office. Regardless of their position, all students who spoke to The Daily Free Press had some contact with Shiney James.
James did not respond to requests for comment, including multiple emails and phone calls to her office.
Private Attacks and Public Humiliation
Behind the scenes of Orientation is where students claim James would lose her welcoming, approachable demeanor to “systematically” berate individual students and “rip them apart,” said one former Orientation leader who requested anonymity due to the specific nature of their role.
The person, who has since graduated from BU, said they remember James exerting extreme control over student employees, breaking their spirits and invading their privacy.
“[James] would take a student into the office, tear them down and make them feel grateful that she was telling them how they need to be a better person,” they said. “She would demand personal stories from us and personal pieces of information that, in my opinion, was just not her business … she basically expected that we should all tell her things, and if we don’t, we keep secrets, we’re liars, we’re not team players, we’re bad people.”
Rachel McLean, a 2018 graduate of the College of Communication, worked Orientation in 2016 under James. She said she remembers training exercises that “almost intentionally singled people out.”
One such exercise, she said, had students walk around the room to answer certain questions. For instance, if you were a first-generation college student, you moved to one side of the room, and if you were not, you stayed on the other. However, McLean noted some of the questions James asked were too personal, including one asking students about their sexuality.
Consequently, McLean said the activity forced one student “to out herself to her coworkers.”
“I understand what her intent of it might have been, I think a lot of the exercises that we did were to unify us in some way,” she said. “But sometimes, they were a little bit traumatic.”
Humiliating her employees, publicly and privately, was apparently commonplace and habitual, said other students who worked Orientation with James in-person and remotely.
Summer 2018 College of Engineering student advisor Allison Casey, who graduated in 2020, said her time as an Orientation leader was “extremely emotionally intense.” James would hold catered lunches at the George Sherman Union following every Orientation session and called out students for their mistakes to “publicly shame” them, Casey said.
“It was this really interesting dynamic where she would obliterate us while we were eating,” she said. “She would give this long-winded speech and basically call you out in front of all your peers and decimate you.”
Before her first-hand experience with James, McLean said she had not heard of James’ behavior. A 2017 BU Today profile on James mentions these end-of-Orientation meetings — the article paraphrases a then-student advisor for Orientation, writing “debriefing after Orientation sessions can be difficult.”
McLean said at the end of one week, she sat with other leaders as James yelled at them and made them all apologize to her one-by-one.
“She went off on all of us and listed off all these things that went wrong with Orientation,” McLean said. “After that whole experience, I ended up having to stand in a line behind other people to go up to her and tell her I was sorry individually.”
Berating and degrading female students
Multiple people claim James would specifically target female students.
A former student, who asked to remain anonymous because of “the severity of [her] experiences,” said during her time working at Orientation, James would seemingly only discipline women. The former student added some male workers, who she said was often not productive, would “never” get in trouble.
As a woman herself, she said she, along with another female employee with whom she worked closely, was “emotionally targeted” by James.
“It definitely became very anxiety-inducing for me, and to the point where I was kind of forced into therapy,” she said. “Being targeted for being a woman by a woman … that was what hurt the most.”
Despite this, the former employee added James would ask about her goals and her mental well-being, possibly to establish a mentor-mentee relationship. But because of how mistreated she felt, the student said those conversations “felt really odd.”
James allegedly invaded other students’ privacy, including one past Orientation leader who has since graduated, but asked to remain anonymous due to the “power” James wields.
There were multiple instances where she alleges James called her into her office, where she would “rip [her] a new one.” One day, James allegedly scolded the student for her inability to make friends at Orientation, which she said is not appropriate for a boss to discuss with an employee.
“She is not my therapist,” the former student said. “For some reason, she had a real vendetta against me and would like to tell me parts of my personality that she thought should be fixed or that I needed to do better, and she would rate me on it.”
Naveen Inim, a COM graduate student, served as a library ambassador for Orientation 2018. Even though Inim did not work directly under James, she said the environment was “scary” when James became angry at students, and she saw the effect it had on her friends who were student leaders.
“I didn’t believe it at first because the way she marketed herself to us at the beginning was this … woman of color who really ascended to this director role at BU in a place that is predominantly dominated by white male figures in higher ed,” she said. “It’s a very inspiring story, and I’d always thought she was really really cool at first, until this volatile, mean-spirited behavior started to happen.”
Another past Orientation student leader, who requested anonymity in fear of retaliation, said they noticed how some of their female coworkers would be called into James’ office, where James would bring them to tears in the name of strengthening their character.
“These girls just [leave] her office crying, feeling unworthy, and only [James] could save them,” they said. “This whole, weird, culty ‘I’m the mother’ kind of dynamic.”
The student claimed during initial introductions at training, one female student supposedly jokingly remarked that she did not know the full name of Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and that her Orientation position meant she wouldn’t have to remember it.
James supposedly became “really mad” at this comment and later confronted the employee in private, the anonymous source said.
“[James] basically verbally berated her … basically just completely tears her apart, her entire person, everything she wants to do,” they said. “She would bring you into her office, and she would berate you for 30 minutes, tearing these kind of impressionable girls apart.”
An additional former staffer confirmed this account. The student allegedly involved in the incident declined to comment.
When one of McLean’s female peers asked James for a letter of recommendation, McLean said James rejected the request, allegedly telling the student they “didn’t smile enough.”
“Who says that?” McLean said. “Who [says] that to a young woman and tells them that they don’t smile enough, as a woman?”
‘Do you see what you did wrong?’
Those working directly with James reported a similar pattern of behavior when it came to email correspondence. After sending an email about Orientation, the students claim James called them into her office and forced them to re-read their message to find errors in their writing. Several students said James would pick out minute mistakes and inappropriately punish and upset them.
While working for James, one anonymous student said their emails often sparked needless discussion and discipline. After sending an email to certain staff members, unaware they had to include the entire senior staff on the email chain, the student said James screamed their name from her office. Walking into the office, the student claimed James turned her computer screen toward them and demanded they re-read the email they sent only moments prior.
James allegedly asked the student what they did wrong.
“I know what I said, I wrote this literally five minutes ago, I don’t know what I’m looking for,” they said. “It was like a guessing game, every single time you just had to guess what [the mistake] was.”
After re-sending the email to other staffers, the former employee claimed James called her back into her office to further correct their apparent mistakes.
After months of working under James, the student said the experience has permanently altered their interactions with colleagues.
“Working in that office has really set back my professionalism,” the student said. “One of my networks the other day literally started off the call by saying, ‘You know, I could tell that you read your email three to four times and fix it every single time before sending it over.’”
McLean said she had “extreme anxiety” for a portion of Orientation when she had an “extremely hurtful” conversation with James about an email. McLean said she emailed James about an incident involving one of her students in her Orientation group, and James called her into her office to speak.
Upon entering, McLean alleges that James showed her a printed copy of the email and asked her what was wrong with it. McLean said James then proceeded to tell her what she had missed, and the situation escalated.
“She told me that I was a coward,” McLean said. “She told me that I gave students a bad experience. She told me that I hadn’t grown. Probably for 10 to 15 minutes said all these things … the way that she spoke to me was really inappropriate.”
James then supposedly left the room and told McLean she could take a moment to collect herself.
“Loyal to her out of fear” — James’ powerful network
Students working at Orientation claim they are subjected to a “toxic” environment that is carefully controlled by James and the power she has over the entire Orientation program. Because of her position and the small administrative team that runs Orientation, former employees say they felt like they had nowhere to turn.
“She created this whole vetting process, cult-like dynamic where she basically makes [program managers] very loyal to her out of fear,” one student said. “Some girls would be extremely loyal, but were the ones that clearly had Stockholm Syndrome.”
Inim said she did not know of anyone reporting James. McLean said she told her College of Communication advisors about her experience.
McLean said students may have been scared to report James due to her “huge network” that was often touted over students, who knew that James could write recommendations for them.
One former student employee said James “fosters such a fear-mongering work environment that no one really says anything to her,” let alone reports the behavior to a higher authority.
Another student who worked at Orientation in 2019 said others may not want to relive or remember aspects of their work experience because of its lingering negative impact.
“I think she’s just hurt so many students and mentally abused just hordes of students through fear and intimidation and this manipulation,” the former staffer said. “Some of my memories I just don’t remember from Orientation … and I think that’s pretty consistent with other people I know that are just like, ‘I’ve really tried to not think about it, and now, I just know it was an awful summer.’”
While she didn’t understand how James’ alleged behavior continued, Casey said the Orientation director would reference her network of connections and inadvertently prevent students from coming forward with allegations of mistreatment.
“I think because she carried such weight in the way she spoke of herself in being involved in the University and that everyone knew her,” she said. “It felt like if you were to say something, then it would negatively affect you.”
Despite rumors of James’ behavior among former staff and alleged knowledge of her harsh attitude and practices among other faculty members, it is unclear whether anyone has lodged a formal complaint with Human Resources or other University entities.
BU’s Office of the Ombuds, a resource through which community members can seek confidential guidance and support, declined to comment as a part of standard practice. The Office of Human Resources deferred to BU Spokesperson Colin Riley.
The Daily Free Press initially emailed James directly in June, during Orientation, but Riley wrote in an email that she forwarded the request to him, and he declined to comment on the allegations.
“There are avenues open to students, staff, and faculty who have concerns about their work environment,” he wrote. “BU student employees are essential to the University’s operations in so many ways, and by-and-large the students involved in summer Orientation are among the very best.”
James never responded to multiple follow-up emails and phone calls this Fall.
The allegations against Shiney James, though varying in impact, span several years, including the completely virtual Orientation 2020. Despite this, an anonymous student said “institutional politics” may prevent the University from doing anything.
Without large-scale changes to the structure of Orientation, as well as its management, the student said young staff may continue to mentally suffer. After hearing other people’s experiences with James, the former employee said her behavior can no longer go unchecked.
“[My boss] talked with people, and basically nothing really happened, I think it was hushed up,” the student said. “I want her fired, but also I want better for my university.”
Rachel McLean was a staff photographer at The Daily Free Press. She was not involved in the editing of this article.