Tackle the areas of tension in academia

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University is rife with harassment. Guest lecturer Clara van der Woude at the faculty of Social Sciences analyses the areas of tension from which this culture of harassment originates. She also makes suggestions on how to improve this structure at universities.

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On May 17, I attended a conference of the National Network of Female Professors (LNVH). One of the topics discuss there was the report Harassment in Dutch Academia, commissioned by the LNVH. The meeting was as inspirational as it was depressing: apparently, universities are rife with harassment, and apparently, up until three weeks ago, not a whole lot was being done to stop it. Mostly women, but some men as well, become victims of intimidating behaviour.

‘That’s quite scandalous really, how can this be? And: how do we solve this mistreatment issue?’

That’s how I would’ve responded fourteen years ago when I, freshly out of college, joined the ranks of academia as a part-time work group supervisor. Now, years later, I’ve got a better eye for the complexity of academic organisations, and with it, more insight into the tough character of the problems. My point of view is that these mistreatment issues are related to the structure of the university itself. That means searching for a solution is a tough job, because you’ll have to scratch away at the heart of the organisation!

In DUB, the Executive Board’s Annetje Ottow says that she wants to take these complaints about unwanted behaviour seriously, and that there’s a zero-tolerance policy in place. Because I want to contribute to the search for a solution that leaves academia’s identity intact, I devised the following strategy: let’s look at these problems in terms of areas of tension, which you can (learn to) deal with. I’ll take a shot, with the LNVH report in the back of my mind.

Monitoring at work
Firstly, I’m signalling an area of tension between monitoring at work on the one hand, and academic freedom on the other hand. The latter is a great good, and I don’t think anyone would want to change that. Wouldn’t they? In the past few years, researchers have been consistently encouraged to bend their urges to explore to the direction of subsidise-able projects, or projects where you’ll be able to claim a third source of money. ‘These days you’ll only receive money if there’s an fMRI scan in your research proposal.’

In research, academics aren’t completely free anymore. The level of control has increased in education as well, with all the quality requirements and criteria one has to meet these days. All in all, there’s a high level of interference in the content of our work. However, how we do our job, how we treat our dependent co-workers, how our fellow coordinators guide young teachers, or how our fellow PhD supervisors treat their PhD candidates: that’s a no-go area, we don’t interfere with that. We leave each other alone. The question is whether that’s wise.

Dependency breeds vulnerability
A second area of tension is one we’re all familiar with: the tension between competition – a core value in academia – and sharing information. Sharing information isn’t exactly self-evident in academia, and that’s understandable. But information is essential for employees to be independent and resilient: a lack of it makes one dependent, and dependency makes one vulnerable.

The LNVH report discusses how a lack of relevant information can make one’s work impossible to do, sometimes directly (if the employee doesn’t have access to data necessary for their job), sometimes in the long run (if information about planned meetings, strategic decisions, or career options is systematically left out). The accepted behaviour of selectively spreading information can get out of hand and turn nasty, the report shows. A tricky dilemma.

Misbehaviour isn’t dealt with
Thirdly, the university is set up like a professional bureaucracy, with conditions of employment defined in the collective labour agreement. We’re working in a highly regulated environment. That makes it even more peculiar that adequately tackling misbehaviour consistently fails to succeed. Or is that in fact to be expected? Could it be the case that the powerful labour agreement and the employees’ rights that flow from it actually make it difficult to create a tough approach? It seems to me that the pressure on the employer is quite high, if an (alleged) instance of mistreatment is reported. That PhD candidate for instance is a temporary employee, and there’s years left of working with that professor: how do you keep things pleasant after dealing with an incident? And how expensive can taking action get, in case things happen with someone who’s got a permanent contract in a high pay grade? The consequences of actually taking action are unpredictable and possibly great.

Fear of repercussions
Fourthly, the university has a hierarchical character, and that makes it difficult to criticise it. I had already noticed that even the critical group ReThink had members using pseudonyms in fear of repercussions (I went to a meeting once). And the LNVH report highlights the fear of speaking out: fear truly plays a role.

This isn’t surprising, because the imbalance of power at universities in the Netherlands is currently remarkably great. We’re in a situation that sees different generations in quite extremely different positions. The generation that’s, say, 55 and older, has worked at the university for years, has a generous legal status, a proportionate network, and a wealth of experience. My generation (I’m 52 years old) seems to be represented only moderately in academia. The staff in academia is shaped like an hourglass, with the smallest waist around my age group. Below me are the younger people, and almost all of them work with flex contracts. Further research is needed into the ages of scientific staff: we all recognise the truth of older people with permanent contracts and younger people with flexible contracts. This situation is begging for trouble.

Power imbalance is of all ages
The current generational situation is temporary by definition: a time will come when the oldest group retires. But, young people, trust me when I say things won’t be okay by themselves! We, the youths from the ‘80s, thought at the time that the issues with emancipation were solved. We were wrong, and many ladies of around my age paid dearly for that mistake. Power and power imbalance are, by definition, focus points, and regardless of what time we live in, it’s necessary to watch out and ensure the power imbalance doesn’t become too great.

Directions for solutions
Based on my list of areas of tension, I’ll select a number of directions for solutions that seem essential to me; keeping in mind the recommendations from the LNVH report. Here they come:

1 Less control on content, more on process: ensure PhD candidates have regular contact with multiple seniors, don’t keep them too isolated. Ensure PhD candidates and junior teachers meet each other, and organise intervision for supervisors and coordinators. Ensure that people who, after reorganisation, end up alone are included in a relevant group.

And establish a professional complaints system, creating the ability for proportional, timely, adequate action when necessary. The importance of adequate action in case of complaints cannot be overstated.

2 Share the success: if we notice that important information is being left out, we need to confront managers about it. I’m calling for a culture of visibility, in which everyone can be seen – not just the ones with the greatest successes. This contributes to a pleasant, inclusive environment, making things a lot more difficult for potential bullies.

3 Modernise Human Resources: be alert for signs of harassment and take notice that the devil is in the cumulation of incidents that by themselves aren’t severe enough. And realise that bullying always creates muddled situations. A bullied person loses balance, won’t function optimally, and at a certain point, unrest will start to grow on the work floor. Don’t wait until the situation gets out of hand. Proportional action, tit for tat, limits the damage for all parties involved.

4 Test the hierarchy: you can’t just change the entire structure of the university. You can, however, test the policy on criteria that measure power imbalance. To me, it seems like a wise decision to offer young researchers the option of becoming Principal Investigator, to limit their dependence on seniors. The seniors already have enough influence – in this phase, it’s desirable that policy measures reduce power imbalance instead of creating an even bigger division.

5 Create a different mentality: if women and immigrants feel more welcome in academia, competition will increase even more. We’re fighting for the same prize with more competitors. Therefore, it’s incredibly important to make losing less important. A ‘the winner takes all’ system doesn’t just create a grim environment, it also wastes a lot of talent. That can be improved. I’d love to dedicate a symposium to the subject – does anyone want to join me?

I conclude with the observation that there’s a lot of work to be done.

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