Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

Speaking Up in Academe

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Image: Office of War Information propaganda poster (NARA)

Is there a “keep your mouth shut” culture in academia? Two recent events — both indicative of larger norms — suggest that is the case.

The first occurred June 1 when Science magazine published its Dear Alice advice column (since redacted) containing some truly awful advice for a female postdoc. Although the postdoc noted that her “adviser is a good scientist, and he seems like a nice guy,” she added: “Whenever we meet in his office, I catch him trying to look down my shirt.” Furthermore, “he’s married.” She asked, “What should I do?"

“Dear Alice” replied with all of the tropes of terribleness: “Well, like it or not, the workplace is a part of life.” [Just deal with it.] “Once, a friend told me that he was so distracted by an attractive visiting professor that he could not concentrate on a word of her seminar.” [Are you sure this isn’t your fault?] “Your adviser may not even be aware of what he is doing.” [Men will be men.] After spouting an inaccurate interpretation of the EEOC laws, Dear Alice finally told the postdoc “put up with it, with good humor.” After all, “His attention to your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice.”

The takeaway? Shut up, and put up with the harassment because you need your adviser’s help.

Too true.

The second event was covered in depth by New York magazine’s Science of Us column, which traced the story of how an influential journal article in political science, written by a graduate student named Michael LaCour, was debunked by another graduate student named Mark Broockman. The problem? Broockman was repeatedly told by advisers and senior scholars in his field that he should not expose LaCour’s fake research because doing so — even if Broockman was correct — would hurt his own career too much.

So here we have two prominent cases in which junior scholars received similar advice: We know you witnessed wrongdoing, but speaking up about it will damage your academic career, so keep it to yourself.

Faced with such a choice, what should graduate students and faculty do? Should they report misbehavior? How can they do so without risking their own academic careers? Is such a thing even possible? I turned to an education law expert — Erika K. Wilson, an assistant professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — for help in answering those questions.

“Keep Your Mouth Shut” Culture

In academia, Wilson observed, “it is important to cultivate relationships with other faculty members and to not have any negative baggage attached to your name.” The fear of negative baggage may lead academics to be “more cautious about speaking up when they see behavior that is questionable or when they have concerns about another faculty member.” After all, Wilson noted, “you never want to be in the position of falsely accusing another faculty member of wrongdoing.” Furthermore, even if your accusation is correct, “there may still be a negative stigma attached to your name by even being associated or mentioned in the context of any faculty wrongdoing.”

That stigma, no doubt, led many of Broockman’s fellow students and advisers to encourage him to keep quiet. Even with strong evidence of wrongdoing, they feared that his being associated with a scandal might prove too much for his nascent academic career to bear.

And, as Wilson noted, academia “is not a meritocracy in the truest sense of the word for faculty members. If you anger — or get on the wrong side of — the wrong person, it can be difficult to advance, no matter how talented you are.” Graduate students, Wilson said, are “even more vulnerable, particularly to the extent they are trying to break into a tenure-track job (or any job) really.”

Discrimination Lawsuits: A Viable Option?

In the case of the adviser with wandering eyes, Science magazine’s Dear Alice certainly had a lot to say about whether the postdoc had a case under EEOC laws. However, in its June 1 retraction, the magazine noted that the published article “had not been reviewed by experts knowledgeable about laws regarding sexual harassment in the workplace.” Indeed.

I asked Professor Wilson about bringing lawsuits in situations like this. “As a matter of law,” Wilson said, “the option certainly exists.” However, “the practical realities ... are much more difficult.” Not because the laws don’t exist, but because the legal standards in practice don’t match up with human behavior.

The legal standard required to prevail on a discrimination claim is tough to meet, she said. “For example, if you are bringing a racial discrimination claim, you would need to show intent to discriminate because of race, by providing clear evidence that the treatment you received was a result of racial animus.” The challenge? “This is a very difficult standard to meet because overt discrimination is no longer socially acceptable.” It’s even more difficult in academia, she said, because people “are sophisticated in hiding discriminatory intentions.”

Because of that legal standard, Wilson explained, “any person bringing a discrimination claim therefore bears a high burden of showing that they were intentionally discriminated because of their membership in some protected class.” Protected classes include race, gender (including sexual harassment), and more. To prevail, you not only have to meet an exceedingly high legal standard — showing “that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive as to alter the terms or conditions of your employment and create an abusive work environment” — but also one that involves an element of subjectivity. “Courts have varied,” Wilson said, “in deciding what kinds of harassment meets this standard.”

Demoralized yet? We haven’t talked about what happens if you do win your case.

As Wilson noted, “You can often get monetary damages as compensation, but the compensation usually is not enough such that you would never have to work again.” And it would need to be — because, as Wilson explained (and as you’ve probably figured out), “if you are interested in remaining in academia, once you go to the lengths of filing a discrimination or harassment suit, you may no longer feel comfortable working” where you’ve been working. “While a court can order monetary relief and injunctive relief to make the discrimination stop, the court cannot, through an order, make an environment comfortable and welcoming enough that you want to continue working there.”

Best Practices for Survival

In short, bringing a discrimination or harassment lawsuit is not always the best choice — even when you have the right to bring one. I asked Wilson what her advice would be for graduate students and faculty seeking to make it through one of these tough situations without resorting to a lawsuit. Here are four tips she had to share.

  • Document everything. If you have difficult colleagues or managers, make sure that you communicate with them in writing and document conversations you've had with them in the form of confirmation e-mails. That creates a record so that there are no "misunderstandings" about what you should (or should not) be doing.
  • Adopt a buddy system. If you find it difficult to have conversations with a specific person or have had uncomfortable interactions with that person, bring someone else along to witness the conversation. Meet in public, conspicuous places if possible. Leave office doors open during meetings.
  • Check in with your institution’s ombuds office. Most institutions have one. The conversations are confidential. If the ombuds office spots a trend in a department or with a specific faculty member, it can usually take steps to try to rectify it without revealing the content of your conversation with that office.
  • Develop a network of allies. Relationships matter. If you can find a supportive group of faculty members whom you feel comfortable discussing issues with or who can advocate for you, they can help to combat a negative work environment.

Sometimes the safest thing you can do is be quiet, but you don’t have to be quiet alone.

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