I spent last year navigating various offices meant to support research trainees at my institute. This was almost as distressing as my supervisor’s abuse itself. Below, I provide lessons learned from my experience for others considering reporting misconduct.
Know what your supervisor can be held accountable for
The ombudsperson and department leaders are not inherently callous, but their priority, intentionally or otherwise, is to cover up misconduct and make “troublemakers” (you) go away. In my case, they were not concerned about behaviors such as threats, name calling, or giving away your first authorship. However, supervisors can be held accountable for illegal acts such as title IX violations, sexual harassment, negative job action, and fraud.
Gather allies and evidence
Bullies and predators in academic leadership are not careless enough to leave damning evidence. An email with harsh language is not evidence. I needed unambiguous proof of discrimination or sabotage. I had an email from a potential employer saying that my supervisor had initiated contact and caused him to retract my job offer. However, I was told by the ombudsperson and department that I could be an isolated incident or that my supervisor could be justified in reporting trainees “not cut out for science”. I was advised to let it go and return to my home country.
Approaching ex-coworkers for support led to mixed results. Many were afraid of reporting misconduct and gave the following reasons:
- Belief that the ombuds office and feedback system is broken and no practical action would be taken to address the misconduct. For some, this came from prior experience of reporting abuse.
- Fear of retaliation. Some had already suffered retaliation or received threats from our supervisor.
- Moved on. Unwilling to “get dragged back” into conflict that might become public.
- Belief that misconduct witnessed or suffered not severe enough to report. Some found it difficult to believe that the department was unaware of the abuse throughout the years, and reasoned that the inaction of faculty implied that misconduct was permissible.
- Abuse a “rite of passage” in academia and unworthy of reporting. Reports might damage those doing well in the lab.
For the most part, reporting abuse is emotionally draining with high risks and low rewards. This is one reason abuse is so rampant.
Despite this, most of my peers shared their experiences of abuse and offered to help. Because many people had been bullied by my supervisor, there was a good number willing to report abuse to the ombuds office.
Prepare For Resistance
When I insisted that I was not going away, I was given two options:
- Launch a formal investigation that could last 2 years, during which my supervisor and the victims would be publicly investigated by the Faculty of Academic Integrity. Reading about similar scandals in the news regarding my university informed me that a formal investigation would likely not assign blame to my supervisor and instead peg me as a disruptive individual.
- Seek help informally. There was no precedent that the ombudsperson could use to advise my situation despite having served thousands of people at the institute over several years.
I negotiated with the ombudsperson to start collecting complaints to informally share with the department and the dean of graduate studies. However, the ombudsperson made it clear that they could not advocate for us and was only a messenger. This did not encourage my peers to trust the ombudsperson. Their individual conversations with the ombudsperson also led them to believe that they were not going to get help. The months-long process of soliciting complaints lacked transparency and permission to share was asked for ambiguously such that reports could be excluded when full permission was not given. As a result, when the ombudsperson communicated the reports to our department, the department initially thought that there was only one report of abuse.
Persist. Reach out to as many people as possible
I called the ombudsperson, told them I knew the exact number of trainees who had reported abuse, and asked them to clearly tell the department and dean of graduate studies that there were multiple reports of abuse. I informed the postdoc office, as well as multiple faculty and trainees in the department and the diversity offices across multiple campuses. I communicated my experience to my network of scientists in the field along with my PhD supervisor and alma mater community. I also shared my story anonymously in an online publication with significant readership in the research community.
When it became apparent that multiple offices and people in the department were aware of the misconduct and that I had journalist contacts, those in charge realized that they would be scrutinized for their decisions and could no longer cover up the misconduct.
Abusers are charming in public and among colleagues
One faculty member, a friend of my supervisor, did not immediately believe us. They asked for multiple lines of evidence. Fortunately, I had retained emails from my supervisor instructing trainees to apply for funding based on work that was not reproducible, while secret bonuses to favored trainees could be traced in the lab’s financial records.
Other faculty members took us seriously. Instead of asking for more evidence, they reassured me that misconduct was unacceptable at our institute. They took action to look after the remaining trainees in the lab and advised my supervisor to desist in their abuse of trainees.
However, I still had to persuade them not to ask my supervisor to write reference letters for trainees moving on. When contacted by my potential employers, my supervisor denied wrongdoing and portrayed me as a disruptive individual. The department and dean agreed to act as my references and assure future employers against foul play.
Standing up against misconduct was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. It’s very unlikely anyone would initiate and endure the process without justification. Even then, not everyone can afford to spend half a year fighting misconduct while trying to find employment and getting sabotaged by their supervisor.
Not every trainee will be so fortunate to encounter faculty leaders who take their reports seriously and act to stop the misconduct.
While abuse is prevalent in current academic culture, the process of reporting misconduct is understatedly harmful to trainees, with no guarantees of accountability or transparency.
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