Mob Mentality and Toxicity in Academia

I’d like to thank the incredible outpouring of support and emails that I have received. If I have not yet responded to your email, have patience, and please keep writing me. If you are a dean or tenured professor, thank you so much for reaching out. Let’s keep this conversation going. We owe it not just to ourselves or to academia, but most of all, to those whom we educate. As of posting on Monday at 1:30, my blog has received over 160,000 hits. I am also now in the top 0.01% of the most searched for people on  This is bigger than any of us know. This is no longer about the suspected misappropriation of my work, nor even about the depressing reality that legal action was brought against Dr. Mao by another graduate student a year prior to my own. This is now about how and why this was allowed to happen, and about the mob mentality of those in academia who refuse to acknowledge the writing on the wall.

I have heard from so many people. Deans, tenured professors, graduate students, and Ph.D.s who chose leave, or were forced out.

Many deans have emailed me asking what types of policies can be implemented to prevent what happened to me from occurring again. I have no answers, all I have are hundreds of emails outlining systemic abuse, entitlement, and narcissism.

I refuse to believe that all of the emails that I have received are from bitter, failed academics. In fact, I know this is not true. Many of those who have written to me either already have multiple published books or have book deals. Many are long tenured-professors who said my posts brought them back to the trauma of graduate school. Many of the people I have heard from are, by all respects, successful academics.

If this is the case, then why did my posts resonate so deeply with them? This points to a problem much, much bigger than our individual stories. Their experiences and narratives only enliven, in full color, the toxicity of the culture of academia. Their stories do not expose their individual failings as scholars, but rather, the failings of academia itself.

Academia is in crisis. These stories that continue to pour into my inbox are symptoms of a well-advanced disease. This toxic culture points to a system that is dying. This cannot happen. We must fight for more jobs, for the abolishment of the adjunct system, for our rights as academics to publish what we wish without fear of retribution, and most of all, for our right to educate the future. This means our right to educate graduate students, the future of academia, as well as undergraduate students, who represent the most important, and broader, future.

Their stories go like this: a shy graduate student is bullied out of the field by their peers. A tenured professor’s work is stolen by another, higher ranking, professor, leaving them with little to no recourse.  Graduate students’ work is stolen or belittled so fiercely that they leave. A professor stands up for a graduate student who was plagiarized, and receives low evaluations, and is thus denied a promotion. An advisor and tenured professor writes in that they love their students and strive to protect them, but feel helpless to do so.

It’s fucking heartbreaking.

Especially if you believe in academia, especially if you believe that the most important thinkers of our generation are academics, who are furthering scholarly pursuits on the highest levels, and inspiring undergraduates to question everything around them. This is what I believe.

Graduate students replicate the system of abuse and intolerance perpetuated by their professors and advisors. The vicious cycle repeats, and what ultimately ends up losing out is the furthering of scholarship. That is, the pursuit of knowledge, in which everyone once or currently involved in academia so adamantly believes.

None of us are innocent.

During my tenure as a graduate student, public dissertation proposals were common. Meaning, you presented a 20-minute outline of your entire dissertation, your chapter breakdown, and its contribution to the field, in front of the entire body of graduate students and whatever professors happened to be on campus. If you are reading this and not in academia, it’s hard to underscore just how fucking intimidating this is. You are a graduate student, who has perhaps passed their Ph.D. exams, but still, are nonetheless, a novice. And yet, you are expected to dance in front of everyone, like a trained monkey, to a tune that you have not yet learned.

Personally, this meant months of agonizing preparation, drafts emailed out not just to your advisor, but also to your larger committee for revision. You did not go up for your dissertation proposal without this happening, because you had seen what had happened to those before you who did not: public humiliation. I did not sleep for three days leading up to my own. I don’t think any of us did.

This was because I had attended the dissertation proposals of students who had come before me. I watched, and unfortunately, repeated, the vicious behavior of fellow graduate students. The grad students would attend these public dissertation proposals hungry for blood. We would take notes on our peer’s proposals, looking for any hole in their argument in order to launch crippling questions at them during the Q&A session. The name of the game was to ask a question that caught the presenter unprepared, that is, caught them with their pants down, in front of their entire department. The point of this was to make yourself look impressive in front of the most likely indifferent and bored faculty members in attendance. To undercut our peers so as to make ourselves look better.

I later inquired to a professor about what exactly was the point of a public dissertation proposal. Both before and after my own, I adamantly argued this was counter-productive towards research, that the questions asked during the proposals were usually petty and unhelpful. That all of the real feedback that actually mattered happened behind closed doors in the weeks leading up to it. I argued we had to defend our dissertations before they had been written, in front of our peers and our superiors. This professor merely shrugged their shoulders and informed me it was good practice.

Good practice for what exactly? I also remember inquiring to Dr. Mao about the process afterwards. Their reply was why do you still care? You passed and it’s behind you, it’s not your problem anymore. What this insidious comment implies is beyond the scope of this current post, but will be explored in more depth in my next post.

At some point, accountability must be had. What exactly is the reason for this cutthroat behavior? This question ultimately points to an uncomfortable reality that hardly anyone is willing to acknowledge. That is, it brutally exposes the depressing condition of corporate academia in which we all find ourselves. Less high paying jobs, more adjunct positions, which means less health care to pay for, and more money for the bloated bureaucracy.  We are all threatened. There are not enough jobs, and far too many graduate students. We only sort of know the stakes going in, we know that we are entering a system that is highly competitive. But we only enter into that system after we are told that we are good enough, that we can make it.

What exactly, does it mean to make it in academia? For most, this means tenure track jobs. The ability to teach your own courses and to publish your own work. For sabbatical. For knowledge.  As my previous posts have outlined, there are no more tenure track jobs. Certainly not enough to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of those graduating with doctorates. Some long tenured professors, many of whom are advisors, plead ignorance. It wasn’t like this when we started. The job market is changing so rapidly, we can’t keep up.

But isn’t it their responsibility to keep up? If you are promoting your program, if you are justifying the 6+ years spent at poverty pay (in the best of cases), shouldn’t you be aware of the statistics of the job market? Don’t you owe it to your students to inform them, from the beginning, that their chances of securing a tenure track job decrease every single year?

Who exactly is responsible for its reform? Until we all acknowledge our complacency in its toxicity, until we turn our hard-won research and critical thinking skills onto the problem of academia itself, we are all doomed to repeat the cycle of victimhood, and to fail the very aims of academia itself. And, most especially and urgently, to fail those whom we pledge to educate. 

While I have chosen to leave, and honestly, encourage anyone on the fence about doing so to leave themselves, I also adamantly believe in academia itself. I fundamentally believe that now, perhaps more than ever, there is the need to train the next generation to be critical thinkers, to question the world around them, and to be enriched by a diversity of cultures, voices, and perspectives. All of this makes our existence as humans somewhat more understandable. Education makes us better people.

If academia is failing those at its highest levels, as the mass of personal stories I have been sent suggest, what does this mean for those whom we are meant to educate?


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