Academic bullying

By Ruud Abma

In his novel The Overstory, Richard Powers pictures how the career of tree-ecologist dr. Patricia Westerford goes down the drain by a chain of events set in motion by three senior male colleagues. In her research, Westerford finds that sugar maples in some way alert each other whenever an insect invasion is looming. She publishes her results in a reputable journal, as soberly as she can: all chemistry, concentrations, and rates. The popular press picks it up as: ‘Trees Talk to One Another’.

A few months later, in the same journal, three leading dendrologists tear down Westerford’s peer-reviewed article, and write that ‘Patricia’ displays ‘an almost embarrassing misunderstanding’ of the basics in the field. Her university doesn’t renew her lectureship. No one in the profession bothers to replicate her research. Only decades later, when she has disappeared into oblivion, fresh researchers independently confirm her earlier results.

The vicissitudes of Patricia Westerford could have served as an illustrative case in the recent report Harassment in Dutch Academia. Twisting its purpose, you could read this shocking document as a manual ‘How to Sabotage Someone’s Career’. This can be done by ignoring or degrading someone’s work and competencies or by thwarting promotion. You can also more directly try to undermine a person’s self-esteem by denigration, intimidation and sexual harassment. #MeToo is an issue within academia as well.

Abuse of power, yes indeed, and universities should put an end to it. The report suggests obvious measures, such as ‘breaking the silence and creating awareness’, ‘improving support structures’, ‘creating a culture of care’ and the like. This is all good and well, but the analysis points to competition in academia as one of the root causes. Upward mobility requires complying with your superior’s demands. And when your boss is regarded as an excellent researcher, a ‘golden boy’ who time and again brings in lots of research money, who are you to have a mind of your own and speak up against him? Banning the word ‘excellence’ and abolishing the system of tenure tracks might be more effective preventive measures.

Patricia Westerford was badgered by her fellow students because she took pride in recording the growth of the plants in her room. This precocious sign of scientific commitment had to be punished: ‘Let’s get Plant-Patty drunk’. ‘Patty’ didn’t change, however. She developed into a researcher with an open mind and original ideas. Offended by one of her publications, the establishment in her field responded by academic bullying. Deja-vu.

Intimidation in the work-place does serve a purpose. It helps perpetuating positions of power. It stimulates the careers of some. Meanwhile it feeds conformism within the scientific community: those who can’t survive in the rat race disappear – and, like Patricia Westerford, they are not always weaklings from a scientific point of view. Harassment might serve some scientists, but it doesn’t serve science. Don’t be surprised, though: universities have become companies, and competition (including a little intimidation) is part of the game. Academics, verbally well-trained as they are, might even be better at this game than most.

Ruud Abma is affiliated with the Descartes Centre of Utrecht University.