Opinion: Challenging poor behaviour in academia

LVNH symposium: Challenging poor behaviour in academia

By Wioletta Ruszel

The resonance and urgency in  times of #MeToo and #TimesUp and recently #MeTooAcademia and #TimesUpAcademia requires serious discussions and actions against intimidation and abuse of power in Academia. People in the academic world start to speak up, share their experiences and name institutions which willingly or unwillingly do not provide a safe environment where harassment and bullying of any kind is confronted with a zero-tolerance policy.

On Friday 25th of May LNVH, the Dutch network of female professors, organized a symposium in the Academy building in Leiden about “Challenging poor behaviour in academia: How to tackle and prevent intimidation and abuse of power”. I attended this symposium because of my interest in designing policies regarding diversity and inclusion. I think preventing harassment and intimidation, power abuse  and bullying of any kind is one important issue in creating a work environment where people feel safe and can thrive.

The meeting started with the keynote speakers Oscar David and Claartje Vinkenburg.  Oscar David introduced the public into the topic. As an expert psychologist on ethical leadership, he gave a presentation about the integrity of power. According to him there are three forms of power: the instinctive one, related to the excess of hormones which makes it addictive,  the regulating one, involving bureaucracy and over-regulations, and the integer one, where people follow their moral values when executing power. Dr. Claartje Vinkenburg, an expert on gender and ethnic diversity, spoke not only about sex-based harassment in academia, but she also considered intimidation, power abuse, microaggressions and bullying. According to her the main causes of these phenomena are academic dependence structures, gender bias and high competition. In fact, an academic career involves a peculiar dependence structure. PhD students are dependent on topic of research proposed by the supervisor and recommendations. Articles are peer reviewed such as grant applications. The more particular the expertise the smaller the community becomes and the more dependent the structure is. On the positive side, such a structure can be very supportive, very often people find academic positions via colleagues rather than open applications.

Nevertheless this dependence makes the whole system very vulnerable. This was impressively and lively demonstrated in the second part of the program when a theatre group from “Het Acteursgenootschap” played on stage examples of poor behaviour involving sexual harassment (supervisor to PhD student and vice versa), power abuse (the rejected supervisor is refusing travel/courses of the student and diminishing the students work while at the same time department head refuse to act in order to keep the influence of the abuser intact) and misconduct.

The question is what can we do in these particular situations? A panel consisting of someone from  the Dutch Association Confidential Advisors, a Board member of the organisation of HR directors), a  lawyer with specialisation of sexual harassment), a spokesperson from Project EGERA and a editor from ScienceGuide were asked this question.

Shockingly the answer was: nothing. Not as it is today. First of all victims are scared to speak up as this might have consequences for their career. So there is a lack of information and numbers, and therefore the urgency of employers to act accordingly. Furthermore will HR in conflict of interests always side with management and confidential advisors just don’t have power to actually do something. Needless to say the audience was dumbfounded, upset and even angry.
So how to change this? One possibility, which was shown during the meeting and proved itself to be very efficient in practise, is the so-called “Active Bystander Training”. It shows very practical tools to address poor behaviour. The “bystander” assesses a situation involving some kind of poor behavior, evaluates the options and chooses a strategy. It is summarized in 4D’s (direct, distract, delegate, delay). Small steps of a bystander can make a huge difference for the person involved in the poor situation.

Furthermore, three universities who will start the possibility of an ‘ombudsman’. Someone who is supposed to analyse a critical situation from an independent professional point of view and who has no conflict of interest. This has already been discussed by employers and trade unions and is taken up as a pilot in the new labour agreement. Furthermore is the VU designing an online information system (helpmatrix), like the one of the university of Cambridge. It’s meant to guide victims to find the right help and people who are interested and want to have more information.

The audience agreed that Ombudsmannen/vrouwen and help-matrices are good first steps in the right direction, but much more needs to happen. First of all, a zero-tolerance policy in the CAO and all Dutch university policies. But if they truly want change, universities can implement recommendations done by for example EGERA (Effective Gender Equality in Research and Academia). They published recommendations for institutions which can be applied to any kind of harassment and abuse. At legal level, they recommend to formalize what is meant by harassment, abuse and bullying and employ standard formal procedures. At institutional level EGERA suggests to install independent specialized units dedicated to prevention, information, assistance and mediation for the affected. Furthermore they suggest pro-active actions and measures like periodic information of students and staff and periodic obligatory awareness trainings for staff.

All in all was the meeting an eye opener for many people. I think it’s very important that people who know (or are themselves) victims of harassment or power abuse, do not feel alone. This community gave the feeling of empowerment and support to tackle these problems together.