'No One's Interested in Backstories'

This post pertains to my story of why I left academia, if you're new, start with Part I to understand the 'backstory' to this post

My former department is apparently uninterested in back stories (as in, my story), and is scolding current graduate students for posting support of my blog on their social media accounts. A faculty member from my former department allegedly responded to a grad student, who had expressed support of my blog, that no one is interested in backstories, and emphasized how much it had hurt Dr. Mao's feelings that current graduate students had publicly declared their support of me.

The unsurprising, but still disappointing, reality is that my former department seems to have doubled down on their support of Dr. Mao, declaring Mao a victim of social media (and me, of course, the crazy former graduate student). In doing so, the department completely failed to address the very reality of what my story ultimately reveals: a department that is rife with petty faculty grievances that get in the way of their ability to do their jobs, a total lack of accountability, and a complete disregard for current graduate students. The department's response, as one current graduate student speculated to me, is out of a fear of Dr. Mao. It makes sense that I was afraid of Dr. Mao, but other faculty members? That seems absurd. And extremely short-sighted with grad application season approaching. 

Prospective graduate students: Is this a department that you honestly feel you can succeed in? Departmental culture is crucial, and my former department's culture is one of negligence and disinterest in graduate students' rights and lives. 

Regardless of the suspected misappropriation of my work, Mao and my former department are equally guilty of neglecting their responsibilities towards me: my dissertation was submitted to my committee and outside reader without so much as a quick read-through by my advisor. I expressed concern in the fall to Dr. Hortense that I was worried about passing my defense given the lack of feedback, or even any responses to my emails that I was getting from Mao. A year prior to this, another graduate student brought legal action against Mao for discrimination, but the department refused to allow this student to remove Mao from their committee.

The department could have supported me. The department could have protected me. The department could have intervened when Mao's other relationships with graduate students were revealed to be less than sub-par. But the department did absolutely nothing but dig their heads in the sand even deeper. 

Other graduate students from my former department have commented to me how frustrated they are with the department's response-- they see it as impacting their careers and the reputation of their Ph.D.s. I don't blame them.

And the sadder thing is, the department could have used this as an opportunity to spear-head ethical treatment of graduate students, hosted a symposium to address the issue that actually took a cold hard look at how and why what happened did. And yet, they decided to simply declare social media evil and scold graduate students for voicing support of my blog.

Below is a guest post by a tenured professor, who, over many long emails I have gotten to know fairly well. They wished to remain anonymous because the story involves people with whom they currently work. There are so many good professors out there, who maintain the ideals of academia and genuinely care about their students. Perhaps, the 'good' ones in my department are too afraid to speak out, which, yet again, emphasizes the systemic problems inherent to the structure of academia: even professors fear speaking out because of the petty, back-stabbing culture that incubates narcissism and cut-throat behavior. 

guest post by a tenured professor:

(someone very much interested in back stories) 

When I saw the post by Allison Harbin, I was struck by the fact that once again academia has closed ranks and squashed the next generation. My initial anger was at the lack of recourse for graduate students who experience plagiarism, bullying or any kind of hostile work environment.  Setting aside for the moment the question of whether graduate students are employees or students, the base line should be that if you wouldn’t treat an undergraduate that way, don’t do it.  If most people in a non-academic environment would be shocked to hear how an employee was treated, don’t do it.  Better yet, if you don’t want to be treated that way, don’t do it.  What shocks me is how other faculty and administrators stand by and watch, pretend it never happened, deny someone’s obvious reality, and ultimately punish the victim because it wouldn’t be a problem if the victim had kept quiet.

            I am a faculty member, and I was concerned that Dr. Harbin wouldn’t want to hear from a member of the group of people who are the problem and who don’t speak out (in spite of having job security). I decided to take a chance in order to show that faculty are affected too.

She was very welcoming.  I have worked closely with graduate students for 20 years and I want to speak for them because I can (tenure or not, this has had costs). I have been one of the lucky ones, and I want to speak for those graduate students who have had to leave the profession in spite of their intellect and hard work.

            My story:  As a graduate student nearing the completion of my dissertation, I sent a paper to a journal in my field with the expectation that it would be a venue likely to publish my work (how naive I was). The editor walked the paper down the hall to a colleague “in my field” and asked them to review it (not good editorial practice).  The colleague read it, and gave a verbal review which was summarized in a paragraph for me (also bad practice).  The review trashed the paper and showed little understanding of what I was trying to do.  I cried.  Time passed.

At a conference, my paper was presented by that reviewer, and a professor at another institution asked the speaker where he got the idea.  The professor knew it was my paper because I had sent it to him first. The reviewer fumbled around, and then the professor said that they knew how the author had gotten the idea because the author had told him when she sent the paper to him in draft form.  The audience just went on with question and answer as if that had never happened. I heard about this from the professor who tried to confront this.  I went to a trusted colleague and she told me to forget about it because I would never win, exposing this would ruin me, and it happens to women all the time.  She said I would need to do twice as much work to account for work lost due to stuff like this (not wrong about that). Ultimately, I published the paper in revised form elsewhere.

            This and another instance of plagiarism later when I was a faculty member have been blips in my career. I was one of the lucky ones. I think a more typical outcome is that victims try to confront the problem with the hope that theirs is an isolated case.  It’s not.  They face a well-oiled machine when it comes to protecting the institution and running problems underground.  It is easier to gaslight a “disgruntled”, “angry” graduate student than confront a faculty member.  A department would need to admit they had made a poor choice with their hire and they fear the loss of face and resources it would bring.  Departments are convinced that they will not be rewarded for confronting problem faculty and they may not be wrong. Faculty take the path of least resistance and consequence for the following reasons:  1) They can avoid taking a stand (“There are two sides to the story and I don’t know who to believe”); 2) Avoid angering a colleague who may vote on merits and promotions if they remain on the faculty; 3) Avoid making a decision so they bear no responsibility at all (“the Dean should decide on this”) or “the university doesn’t have a specific policy for this” (they need one?); and 4) They have their own work to do, confrontation will take a lot of time, and they will be perceived as a problem in the college or university.

            What I see is a culture of silence and gaslighting, as well as tolerated and expected abuses of power.  Universities are supposed to be above that with tenure, and its protection to allow faculty to advance unpopular ideas.  Instead, we are trained since the first graduate student workshop not to make waves and try to survive.  This results in a tenured faculty that behaves the same way.  Of course, now something like 70% of instructional staff is part-time, so they are wise to stay silent as well.  I also don’t think that faculty is being repressed in most cases by administrators (even though we have seen a meteoric rise in their numbers), nor do I think current academic culture is a result of the corporatization of the university.  What we see is academic culture which runs on nepotism, playing favorites, lack of transparency, silence, gaslighting, lack of trust, lack of collegiality and professionalism and bullying.  This is a prototypical description of a hostile work environment, and anyone who chooses not to enter it is deemed unworthy, not suited to such a noble profession, money grubbing, etc., rather than someone with good sense.

            Plagiarism of graduate students is just one abuse that is allowed in current academic culture.  Successful unions can address many employment issues, but so many issues are left in the hands of the faculty.  In spite of universities creating mentoring programs for faculty and students, there is no real redress for graduate students who face grave problems.  Mentoring programs make it look like a university is doing something about bad faculty, but they aren’t really addressing the problem.  Would a lawsuit get attention? Who wants to sue their department, faculty and employer?  This is the last resort for most people who take this route, and why should someone have to get to that point to get their problem resolved or even heard?

            There are many problems to fix in the modern university, but the problems of academic culture listed in the previous paragraph can be fixed with no additional staff, workshops, resources, etc.  The fix is free.  Don’t play favorites, don’t undermine students or fellow faculty, don’t take someone else’s work, don’t threaten and bully, don’t be silent, don’t lie in the face of physical evidence, don’t be untrustworthy. Instead, be professional and collegial, and be transparent in all your dealings — and it wouldn’t hurt to be polite as well.  Don’t recreate Lord of the Flies, which shows how bad people can be to each other.  This should be obvious, even though university policies exist to address a hostile work environment (usually meant for staff).

            No policy can work without enforcement. There are always those who will do what they can get away with regardless of policy. Also, sometimes people do bad things for what they think are good reasons, or make a bad choice because they see no other way out.  These isolated incidents are not the main problem.  It is those who justify those bad decisions over and over again because they know there are no consequences that are the problem.  There are also those who will do the right thing at a potentially high cost to themselves. So, I would like to say thank you to every member of the university community who has behaved with integrity and worked to better academic culture.

Next post: "Alt-Ac Realness: Failure, Advice Exhaustion, & Chinese Finger Traps"

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