How many of us have contemplated the cost of speaking out against bad behaviour and thought, “no, it’s not worth it”? And how often as a result do perpetrators – great and small – get away with it?
A Hlcarpenter.com investigation revealed that nearly 300 academics had been accused of bullying in universities. This can be devastating for victims, particularly if there is a power imbalance. The fear of recrimination and victimisation (such as loss of authorship on papers or damning letters of reference) mean that often people feel it is preferable to keep their heads down, however painful it may be.
I know from first-hand experience what it feels like to come forward about sexual impropriety from a senior professor. I was believed, but I was still regarded as so tiresome as to need silencing. The arguments I faced when I raised this bad behaviour – things were different then, we mustn’t single out this guy just because there is evidence when there isn’t about others, blah, blah – left me feeling sullied and disgusted. And I was a senior professor, physically unaffected – and believed. How much worse if you are an early career researcher and your whole professional future is on the line?
We have a culture of bullying in our universities that needs to be sorted out. Fast. I was dismayed to see some of the reactions on social media that appeared to trivialise the problem. Take, for example, a member of the senior leadership team at University College London, who seemed to suggest that, since the higher education sector was no worse – if not better – than other sectors, we shouldn’t be overly concerned. He was not alone in his views, and this attitude worries me – even though UCL has now promised to publish its data.
If an HR investigation does not uphold a bullying complaint it does not, to my mind, prove there was nothing to investigate. When reading about the magnitude of the problem, I thought of Henry II’s comment about Thomas Becket, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Some of Henry’s henchmen saw this as an opportunity and cut Becket down, in Canterbury Cathedral, though there was no explicit incitement to murder and so responsibility could be ducked.
Likewise, if direction from the top suggests that the complainant is more expendable than the accused, there may be a subliminal steer towards finding in favour of the latter. It is too easy to conclude that the evidence is not strong enough to prove anything definitively, and the professor lives to bully the student another day; or, more usefully to the university, to win more research grants and publish more high-impact papers. It is hard not to believe that such a philosophy lay behind the early stages of the case involving University of California, Berkeley, astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, for instance. For some administrations, big names are just too important to lose, and HR may get that message without anything quite so crude being said.
Universities should be looking hard at their practices for dealing not only with formal complaints, but with the way many senior academics treat those below them in the pecking order. The competitive and metric-driven environment in our universities puts pressure on all academics. Additionally, in science departments there are typically teams of some size, where a number of PhD students and postdocs can be dependent on a single individual. If that relationship sours, the students are incredibly vulnerable. How many students are going to risk their PhDs to complain? But if they don’t speak up, and if no one does anything to protect them, they may lose their PhDs anyway as they despair and leave.
I am angry. Angry that too many people fail to realise how their behaviour amounts to bullying, while simultaneously making all the right noises about creating a supportive environment for everyone. Just a few days ago I received a message from a friend describing how a student of one professor “ran into my office in absolute floods of tears and [was] completely inconsolable for an hour and a half”. This professor has previously volubly told me how much he cares about his female students. Presumably he is blind to his own behaviour.
Bullying comes in many guises: from those who habitually thump the table and lose their temper, to those who think it is amusing to spread rumours (even more noisome if they are about someone who has already been victimised); from the supervisor who shouts at a student who dares to aspire to a work-life balance, to the head of department who has favourites and burdens others with unreasonable demands.
Every university and every senior leader should be inspecting their practices and not assuming that things are OK because there aren’t many formal complaints. I know Cambridge, my own university, is looking inward to try to tackle this pernicious problem. We are only now getting to grips with the magnitude and scope of the issue. It must be fixed.
• Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics at Cambridge University and master of Churchill College