Burn it Down: Emails of Adviser & Professor Abuse Expose Systemic Crisis in Academia

Previous Post: "A Field Where The Old Devour the Young is a Field that is Dying"

*This conversation began with my posts about what happened to me, see "Why I Left Academia Part I" and "Part II" and "Part III"

I received this email a few days ago: Thank you for sharing your story. What happened to you happened verbatim to a friend of mine…. Ironically, I found your blog after a faculty member that I am friends with on Facebook shared your post in order to express his outrage over it. It took everything I had not to comment publicly on his page: “This happened in your own Department while you were the Graduate Advisor.”

The toxic culture of academia has reached a point of no return. There is a palpable collective trauma that has emerged, and this recent study about mental health in graduate students points to the enormity of the problem. It leads me to wonder if academia itself is the cause of depression.

The cyclical nature of trauma and abuse can transform victims into abusers, especially when one is a part of a culture that places impossible demands on those within it, and has such a well-established system of silencing and abuse that it all seems commonplace, and to be expected. The conversation must be continued, and that is why I decided to summarize, in excruciating detail, what I have been receiving in my inbox. It is not my intention to transform this site into a collection of horror stories, but rather, to demonstrate precisely how widespread issues of advisor and professor abuse, negligence, plagiarism, and other forms of career and emotional sabotage are. I have no answers, and my most cynical side is not even sure if there is a solution. From where it stands, academia needs to be razed to the ground so that we can re-build it into an institution that actually supports young and radical scholarship, and the scholars who produce it. What suffers most from this type of institutional corruption is innovative scholarship itself, and by extension, the entire education system. It should not be this way. We owe it to ourselves, to scholarship, and to academia to continue talking about this, and hopefully, to push for a better future.

Even if this toxic culture has always been around, is that really an excuse? That is the exact same excuse used by Frat boys during hazing. Shouldn’t we, as intellectuals, be better than that? Dr. Mao told me horror stories of their advisor, one of the top respected scholars in our field, who had neither the time nor the patience for graduate students, much less undergraduates. (The larger question here is, what exactly is their job, if it is not to educate?) Mao told me of how they were consistently undervalued, belittled, and made to feel their scholarship would never be important, and would never make a critical impact.

Dr. Mao went on to perpetuate that with their own advisees. I have personally watched Mao’s other advisees called out for their “poor” writing, for their inability to become scholars, and for not being worthy enough of a recommendation letter once on the job market.  Mao treated their students of color far worse than they treated me. I have heard Mao’s mocking words in regards to other graduate students, especially those in the exact same field. I heard all of this beginning in year two of my graduate career. Hungry and driven, I resolved never to be one of those students whom Mao so openly mocked. When Mao accompanied me on a research trip to Europe (for which I had gotten a small travel grant), I booked and paid for our hotels, trains, and car rental. I was just honored to be traveling with Mao. Months later, when I emailed Mao an itemized list of what I had paid for asking, politely, if I owed any Mao any money, and if not, what their share of the expenses were, they never responded. Later, in person, Mao informed me that it was my parent’s responsibility to pay for my expenses, because, after all, Mao’s parents had supported them through graduate school, as well as paid for their Ivy league undergraduate education. I assume this was Mao’s way of informing me I would not be paid back. When I gently informed Mao that my parents had no such responsibility, and that I supported myself, Mao rolled their eyes. Mao seemed genuinely baffled by anyone who would not have wealthy enough parents who would financially support them, and their various desires to go on vacation and buy new clothes, through the many years of graduate school. Nevertheless, I still wanted to be the special one. So, I never asked for Mao to pay me back again.

Why wouldn’t Mao take advantage of their students while simultaneously mocking and belittling them? As my story demonstrates, Mao had only incentive, and nothing to lose, by treating their advisees just as Mao had been treated by their own advisor.  There is no recourse, and no consequences for such behavior.

Worse than Mao, however, is the complete failure of departments and university administrators to protect their students (and to protect professors, I might add, but more on that in another post). My former department issued a response to my blog in an email to their current graduate students. In the email, they only mentioned the suspected misappropriation (predictably discrediting me by citing the internal investigation that took place), but the email mentioned nothing about the abuse and neglect that occurred when I simply sought advice about what to do from others in the department, and from the university as a whole. Rightly, this outraged current graduate students, who interpreted the letter as evidence that the department not only didn’t take their concerns seriously, but also didn’t care.

If you are interested, the email is posted at the end of this post, with names redacted**

As one professor commented to me, who also experienced advisor abuse, as well as plagiarism of their work while in graduate school: There is rot in the floorboards of academia and no one seems to be willing to acknowledge it.

 Another professor wrote to me: I also had similar problems during my postdoctoral fellowship when I filed a formal complaint against my supervisor. I actually left research for a while because, like you, I found that administrators and HR would not actually stand for what was right, but rather decided to protect the organization first and foremost.

 Yet another professor writes: I had a student come to me with a similar situation [as yours]. When I went to bat for them, I was smacked down by admin. I was told to keep my mouth shut (I did not and threatened to call my lawyer). And even though I am a tenured professor and could not be fired, I was punished with low-merit evaluations and therefore low or no raises. I also became persona non-grata and lost a few so-called friends.

 And another professor: The lack of care, the lack of tact, the lack of departmental support you received is, frankly, the most upsetting thing about your story from where I sit… I wish there were words to express my gratitude for your willingness to share this story. I completely agree, this is the real issue.

While the salacious material of my own circumstances is no doubt interesting, at this point I would like to illustrate that this is so much bigger than me and my story. I have received over 300 emails in just 2 weeks, and they all point to the systemic nature of this problem. And to the culture of bullying, victim blaming, and silencing by nearly everyone involved.  At least ½ of these emails outline advisor abuse, bullying, plagiarism, or another form of career sabotage. It’s also worth noting that, surprisingly, over 1/3 of the emails are from professors.

A tenured and well-established professor wrote in an email to me the following: I wish I could protest that you’re being too sensitive or that your experiences are an outlier, but sadly they are not… Graduate Students and Prospective Students: you don’t have the power to fight this kind of departmental culture, so you must work to avoid it. Listen to your gut. If your spidey-senses are telling you that the department you want to work in is abusive, pay attention and GET OUT… A department that routinely treats its students as Harbin describes is the kind of department that will rob them of their intellectual contributions.

 I should add, however, that more often than not, even with excellent super-hero like spidey-senses, students are incapable of knowing this before signing up with a department. The emails I have received have somewhat dimmed my optimistic hope that if graduate students could band together and speak out, the situation would be better. At this point, I do not think that is true anymore. As one commenter remarked on my blog: “we are all much better off if the PhD system collapses under its own corruption before any more students are burned by it.”

A professor and graduate coordinator writes in: I know such unethical things happen all the time in the academy… The professor who said that older professors can be afraid of graduate students was right. They can be--- if they don’t realize that we all become obsolete. The idea is that we contribute something to knowledge that students and other scholars assess and improve on.

A grad student wrote to me about her relationship with her advisor: I feel like I am viewed as a competitor that she needed to screw over in order to move herself forward, not as a student she should be helping… Until you hear that this is like that everywhere, you feel like you are part of the problem. Morale is down, people are depressed, and just want to get out as fast as possible from this nightmare.

 Another grad student writes: I deeply agree with you that academia is an abusive and narcissistic place where ‘smart’ people who rob people’s work can take advantage of others are often awarded. Two days after reading your stories, I realized that I have heard of at least four cases of senior academics plagiarizing grad student’s work, from robbing ideas in a conference presentation to Ph.D. advisors robbing grad student’s work… And I also want to point out that the sickening system has also turned grad students against each other… Many of my fellow grad students play this same game by being excessively narcissistic and socially bullying others. I foresee that these people will be the ones who succeed in academia.  (The bullying and belittling at the hands of fellow graduate students is also another post, and deserves much more attention than this one anecdote)

 And another grad student writes: This really hits close to home for me. Nearly everything you said has happened to me, except I wasn’t offered tissues.

 And another: Like so many others, I went through something similar during my Ph.D. and am still scrambling to salvage my career.

 And another: It is absolutely a norm: the sabotaging. It happened to me and to others during my time in grad school, and those who suffered from it aren’t in academia now. It ended our careers, too, but the professors prospered.

 And another: The behavior that you describe in your blog is frighteningly common. After all, why WOULDN’T a professor steal ideas from his or her own grad students when there is literally nothing stopping them from doing so? Given that the professor has nearly 100% control over the future career of their advisees, as well as their ability to even get the Ph.D. in the first place, and given that professors themselves have found their career success plagued by their ability to publish in unpaid publications, in addition to rigorous teaching and advisory loads, there’s really nothing but incentive to abuse, plagiarize, and exploit grad students.

As this email so aptly puts it: Thieving supervisors are only one problem alongside the rampant misogyny, the elitism, the racism, and much more that our field encourages. The emails I have gotten from POC (people of color) students and faculty members are perhaps the most egregious, especially because in at 4 of them, their own advisors, also POC, sabotaged their advisee’s work.  Work, that may I add, is without a doubt the most important work being done in academia right now. And yet…

Further, it is essentialist to assume that women cannot also replicate the system of oppression, especially if they want to succeed within it. Female professors are often just as sexist as their male counterparts, which explains how and why it is still not only a disadvantage, but nearly a mark of shame to become pregnant at any point in one’s academic career.

A professor emailed me this: I saw so many women… being denied promotion and even tenure. But white men had no problems at all. Currently I am working to help a WOC who is being discriminated against and may lose her bid for tenure because she had two children over 2-3 years, and was on maternity leave twice in a short period.  That kind of discrimination is against the Human Rights Act [in this region] but the union refuses to take her case seriously.

 When I wrote my MA thesis on a lesbian artist (Roni Horn, wonderful work), a professor who proudly wore the label of Feminist Art Historian told me: you know, if you write about a lesbian artist people will assume that you are gay too. That this was said to me as I was struggling with my own process of coming out to my family, and to my department, is another story entirely.

And lastly, on this too brief note about sexism and racial discrimination of which we all know academia is rife (more of this in future posts): the emails I have gotten from first-generation college students or economically disadvantaged graduate students detailing abuse and career sabotage from their more socio-economically privileged professors and advisors is appalling. If you are reading this and have a story about the sabotage of your work along gendered, race, sexual orientation, or socio-economic lines, I would love to hear from you and, if you wish, have you do a guest post—either anonymously or with your name attached to it. This must be exposed, so that we can fight for a better path forward.

 A professor wrote to me that while in graduate school, their advisor, Dr. X, demanded over 15 hours of work from them per week while she was in the middle of her Ph.D. exams (an already 70+ hour work week, in the best of times), and, most egregiously, asked her to do so when her contract with Dr. X stipulated no more than 5 hours per week. This professor wrote: If I didn’t meet their deadlines, Dr. X would tell me I wasn’t cut out for academia and belittle me in many ways. The day after her Ph.D. exams, on a Friday, Dr. X gave her an even heavier work load, and when she refused to do them over the weekend, that following Monday, Dr. X physically threw the paperwork at her, and again questioned her future in academia. Even after miscarrying from the stress, this professor writes in: I feared what Dr. X would do to me in my career. Other professors started to hint about this to me, and were clearly not on my side, their tone indicated whose side they were on, and who was actually in charge. I considered reporting Dr. X, but I just wanted to graduate. To be done. I told a few people some parts of my story and others all of it—they were in disbelief. This was hell. Another classmate shared abuse they were receiving from this professor, and it was much worse than mine. This professor is still in academia, and thriving, despite her horrific start.

 What enrages me, and should enrage you, is that her story emphasizes the complete lack of recourse, and a collective attempt to silence her. I have over 20 emails detailing the same thing. While my pool is obviously skewed, and I am by no means a statistician, I nevertheless think that the massive amount of responses I am getting is indicative of something very, very important. I also have many emails saying they too have stories, but that they are too scared to share them. We’ll never know what those stories are. It’s also significant to note that most of these emails are from women.

Another former academic wrote that after being urged by many in her field to work with Dr. Y, she submitted a grant proposal to work with them. After several months went by, and she still hadn’t heard anything, so she assumed she had not gotten the grant. Several months later, at a conference, she heard Dr. Y give a presentation on her research topic which she had outlined, in great detail, in her grant application. Horrified, she then emailed the sources and institutions with which she had been in contact during her research, and which she had listed by name in her grant application.  These sources and institutions responded to her completely aghast, saying that Dr. Y had contacted them months ago for more information. They had willingly given Dr. Y all the information, assuming it was for her. A few months later, Dr. Y published this research that was not his own. This person is now 5 years removed from the situation and is a High School teacher.  

 As if this were a class-action suit, I picked this story to stand in for the 15+ stories that I have been sent that outline more or less the exact same thing: A grant fellowship submitted and denied, the contents of the application lifted and published before the victim was even aware this had happened.

Another story: A graduate student is awarded a prestigious prize for her thesis, but the awarding foundation pulled her prize because her advisor published the same research just prior to this graduate student being nominated for the award. The advisor had taken this student’s work and published it well before this student would have had the opportunity to do so. The award institution still chose the side of the advisor, and turned around and accused this student of plagiarizing her advisor.

A similar story, with, frankly, many more egregious ethics violations and sabotage by plagiarism happened to another person who wrote to me. When I asked if I could paraphrase it for this post, they wrote: As a group, I’m afraid this collection of stories is fairly identifying. Which… I theoretically don’t mind, but I’ve been advised not to be super public about my burning resentment (apparently, it’s “unprofessional” to tell people what your advisor did to you, even if it’s appalling).

 I would add that in academia, it’s considered “unprofessional” to tell people what your advisor did to you especially if it’s appalling.

I include this comment here because this is what I have been told, repeatedly, and what I have read from nearly everyone who has written me—please do not post specifics, my career is on the line. The culture of victim blaming is so deeply entrenched it is appalling. I’ve had a hard time processing all of these emails collectively, because, story after story, they all begin to wear you down. And by now, I know what exactly what the next line is going to say before I’ve even read because they are all the same.

 And this is not just in the United States, I have gotten emails from Canada, U.K., Norway, Brazil, and the Philippines. This makes sense to me, since most universities are structured on European models, and at that, perhaps one can trace this toxic narcissism directly to Enlightenment thought, but that is an idea to be pursued at a different time. Hopefully by a postcolonial scholar. 

Returning to the issue at hand, this email: While my work was not plagiarized, or at least not to my knowledge, my committee was largely absent during my dissertation writing years. Drafts were not read and feedback was not given by most of the committee until my defense when, of course, they tore my dissertation to pieces… The 8 years it took me to get my degree battered me intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually… I could say more, but there is really no need. My experience, like so many others, is pretty standard and it shouldn’t be.

 Yet another: My first advisor is now head of an institute. She has a long roster of grad students who did not finish their dissertations or did not get jobs… She stole ideas, lied about it, gave me feedback only on grammar (which was incorrect) instead of content, and was utterly selfish, self-serving, and clueless…. I was lucky that other faculty in the department knew this, and two agreed to serve on my dissertation…. Everyone told me that my career would be ruined if I brought the matter forward. This happens so often, and the cone of silence destroys ethical, hard-working individuals.

 And another: Part of what’s so frustrating is that so many people in the department see and understand what’s happening, but do nothing. There’s nothing they can do. Except maybe advise graduate students to avoid that faculty member as an advisor.

 I could add in hundreds more comments from the emails I have received in just 2 short weeks, in fact, it was hard to know where to cut this post off.  This pattern repeats itself in such predictable and egregious ways-- everyone wants to remain anonymous, everyone is afraid, and everyone has a story that is utterly traumatic.

I have no doubt that the emails coming to me are just the tip of the iceberg. After spending every second of my spare time this week reading and responding to as many emails as possible, and then trying to spot patterns so as to categorize the types of abuse being told to me, is it any wonder that I’d love to see academia in its current form burned to the ground? What we are dealing with is massive and widespread. No discipline that I have heard from so far is exempt. Stories from the humanities can easily be conflated with stories from science fields. Over and over. I just want to burn it all down.

Please keep emailing me, your voice matters 

If you need to, make up an email address for anonymity.  Also: I’m planning a post about adjuncting, adjunct contracts, and how to advocate for yourself as an adjunct, and I’d love to get some feedback.

If you are a statistician: I could use your help, please get in touch.

***Email:

Dear graduate students:

As most of you are aware, a recent Ph.D. of the Department has made certain research-related allegations against a faculty member in an internet posting. We want to make explicitly clear that the former student’s allegations were previously investigated and found to be without merit. Unfortunately, due to the nature of social media, this posting has been picked up and redistributed on the internet.

We believe it is critically important, and in fairness to the faculty member, to make this statement supporting the faculty member’s integrity as a researcher and valued colleague.

For the next post about Graduate Student Unions click here.