Why There is So Much Bullying, Abuse, and Harassment in Academia and What to do About It

This is funny (in an ironic way) because I had been meaning to write something (anything) here concerning academia, and here we are. It's a tough one, but aren't they all? This is a post about bullying, hazing, abuse, harassment in academia. I have countless stories to tell personally and I have begun to tell my stories in a lot of ways. It is important to me that I document some of what I went through because I don’t want to forget. I want it to be a reminder for me to always do better. ALWAYS. My friend even suggested I write a book about all I went through. Books are tedious and hard but blogs, not so much. So I will tell my story but today is not about me.

This past weekend, #academictwitter was ablaze. You may ask, "what is academic twitter"? It's simple, my friends. It's a part of Twitter where lots of academics (people with PhDs and/or who do academic research) share their research and work, resources, banter, stories, network and once in a while go batshit crazy. So it's basically analogous to Nigerian Twitter, Black Twitter, Astrology Twitter, Christian Twitter...look I'm making this up as I go but you get the point.  I should mention that I have not been particularly fond of nor was I really a part of academic twitter. If I do Tweet in that Twittersphere (please tell me we still use words like this) it's mostly to criticize the institution of academia. I also would like to assume that even within academic twitter, there are subcomponents, no? I mean, political science is a different beast from those monsters in Economics. I mean, both are about equally monstrous but some would argue that Economics more so than others. Anyway, moving on. Where was I? Yes, Academic Twitter this past weekend.

Stories had come out about a woman, Mia Bloom (Yes we are naming names) and all she had done to colleagues and graduate students. Once, she called a junior colleague a whore (in the junior colleague's native language) and a bitch for constructive criticism of her work.  This junior colleague is, of course, a woman of color* (something about us makes them want to shit their pants even more than usual).  Another time, she called journals to bad mouth people who had submitted their works to said journals. Stories and stories. Someone my friend knows left the phd program where Mia taught at (GSU) halfway through her program because she could no longer take it and she went to start afresh at a new program. For the longest time, when asked why she left, she lied that she needed a change of scenery. In reality, she left for her wellbeing and safety.

Mia then made a ridiculous non-apology apology claiming that she had no idea hEr WoRdS hAd HuRt So MaNy PeOpLe. Anyway, so furor erupted on Twitter.

And so all weekend, people told their stories. Other [mostly white] people with all the power in academia pledged their support and promised to do better. Yawn.

Except, how did it get so bad? How did so few people get to have so much power? How did academia become such a tyrannical system of oppression and abuse?  How is it that women of color find so little support and often have to leave their programs? I don’t have all the answers. I do know that this is not an unsolvable problem.

To start with, Mia had friends, colleagues, collaborators...people she published with, bosses, deans. They must have KNOWN she was like this. Believe me when I say, people often KNOW. But as with most situations of abuse, it must have been hush hush. People would probably have turned their faces away. No one dealt with it.  Even people with power who could have stopped this and nipped this at the bud did nothing.  As is often said, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. I'm looking especially at people who already had tenure and were working with her and literally had nothing to lose but still stayed quiet. I hope this is a reminder for all of us that no matter where we find ourselves, if we have been entrusted with power, we must wield it with our highest sense of morals. We must look out for those around us with little or no power and must always, always advocate for the marginalized.  

While in academia, the "marginalized" are not always people of color, it is still true that so many people of color especially immigrants, due to cultural backgrounds and a perennial sense of gratitude, are more likely to endure abuse and harassment. If all the time, you are just grateful to have even been given such an immense opportunity; if you are from a culture where the authority/superior/older person has the final say and you dare not challenge them else you would be termed disrespectful, rude, and void of home training (cough Nigerians cough); if you're from a culture where you're told to just put your head down and work, you are more likely to stay quiet in the most oppressive system. And let me tell y'all, the oppressors milk this. You would watch them literally accord more respect to your white counterparts and treat you (the person of color) like you’re not worthy of respect. Talk down at you, put you down, and underestimate you. When you dare to dream big, they call you "too ambitious", and not as a compliment but as a "how dare you think you—of  all people—can do xyz". 

"My problem with you Ife, is that you are too ambitious." said with such irritation and exasperation. 

As if. As if. 

Now when all of this brouhaha started on Twitter, I had been particularly quiet cos ya know, ain't none of my business. I was minding my business offline. And then something caught my eye: someone who is notoriously (NOTORIOUSLY) also quite the bully started to tweet against Mia Bloom.  *blinks* I refreshed the page, nah this can't be. It was. This person was also tweeting about love, support, and the campaign to end evil once and for all in academia. I literally burst out laughing. Ladies and gentlemen, this is why Academic Twitter is a whole load of BS. 

So I tweeted,

"Hmm I think that as the conversation around abuse and harassment continues on academic twitter, if you're guilty of this (making life hell for grad students) maybe sit this one out? Except of course, to apologize?"

I was both amused and confused. On the one hand, they might have just been deliberately obtuse (or obnoxious?) and wanted to tweet for the heck of it. But on the other, I realized there was a slight (VERY slight chance) that indeed they didn't know they were part of the problem. So I asked, "is it really possible that people don't know that they are part of the problem?" Is it? Maybe that is exactly the problem then: that everyone dances around people like that and no one actually confronts the problem; “so & so is like that. just avoid them at all cost,” people often say instead of having adult conversations like “hey, treating people like that is wrong”. People could have easily said , “hey, how about we treat people with respect?” But abuse  continues as long as good people (maybe even well-meaning) remain quiet even though they have the power to stop it. Instead, they turn to Twitter to offer "support" and "love" or all the other forms of virtue signaling you can think of. Except, we don't need platitudes. We need action. We don't need platitudes. We need action. We need consequences. I said all of this as someone whose grad school experience was difficult too. Though no one called me a bitch or an ashewo (whore); certainly not to my face. If you did, well, one of us would have left that department and best believe it would not be me. 

Departments are not oblivious to the problems either. They know who the problematic people are and the transgressions these people commit. They even, in so many ways, allow it to thrive; they create hostile environments for this to occur. So as you see apologies and pledges to be better, either take it with a grain of salt or realize that they are only sorry because they got caught. 

I am no longer afraid because frankly I’m not embedded in all of this mess anymore. And I waited till I could not suffer from retaliation to speak out too (yes, I did!) and sometimes I worry if that makes me a coward. I worry that I did not and/or I have not warned enough people. So now maybe people (with no power to stand up to abusers) need to be more frank. Maybe people need to say directly [especially to women of color]: so and so made my life hell. Or at the very least, let them know to watch out because things can get very complex.  

The point is I am sick of  Ph.D. students getting hurt. I am sick of them becoming suicidal. I am sick of people popping anxiety pills because...grad school. It's a devastating mental health crisis among grad students.

Till this moment, new emails on my work email terrify me a little (used to be much worse). My chest beats very fast at every new work email because it was via email someone told me—nay, threatened me that—I would never have a career without them on my side. They thought they had that much power. And frankly, maybe they do. The point being, my brain has been programmed to see official emails as a sign of some form of impending doom. 

There are parts of my confidence and self-esteem that have been chipped off and if God doesn’t do a miracle, I may never get them back. 

That’s not a system that can (or even should) survive.

So many others still can’t share their trauma not even because of retaliation but because it’s just so fresh, so raw.

It would be remiss of me if I did not mention that there is support too in grad school.  There is. You will find friends you can vent to. You may even find faculty in your corner to advocate for you. I know that I did. 

At the same time, in addition to being kind, I am imploring people [with power] to not be neutral and to take action wherever necessary. 

I’m also inclined to  say that I don't know if this is a general academia problem or if it's just specific disciplines. No matter the case, if you're considering grad school, make sure you try to do your homework. Speak with current students. Do they feel seen, valued, supported?** Do faculty invest in them and work with them? That professor you are dying to work with, do they even care about grad students much less want to work with them? Or are they too self-absorbed to even think about collaborating with a Ph.D. student? When they do work with students, how do they behave? I hope you are lucky enough that people are honest with you.

But even if you aren't and you get in and it's hell, then do all you can to survive. Document everything and seek help. Almost every campus will have some form of psychological and counseling services and it's usually free, use it. Build a network and a community outside of your work. Have friends, nurture your family, find hobbies (hi blogging! haha). There is so so much to life than a degree, literally. It's not that deep. If it's so much that you can't bear it, then it's okay to leave too or take a break. You will be fine. If all else fails and you need someone to vent to, then message me. I'm getting good at listening to people vent. 

I don't know what happens to Mia; I don't care, frankly. There are so many Mias...so many that what we need is both systemic change and more active allies. Till then, no amount of fury on Twitter will solve the problem. 



P:S: I tweeted this and I will reiterate: except you are a grad student, non-academic, my friend, or my acquaintance, please please don't message me privately to offer "support" or "love". I don't want to "share my story".

*Although I quite dislike the term "woman of color" or "person/people of color" because it's (quite frankly) a lazy way of just lumping non-white people together, I still use it in this post. I use it to mean non-white people, to be honest. I am sorry about that and I acknowledge that our experiences are wildly diverse in so many ways. We are not a monolith. But I am lazy and wanted a smoother flow for your reading pleasure. See, am I not kind?

**Fun fact: once I was in a department event that Ph.D. students were meant to attend and I think I was literally the only Ph.D. student to show up (I know!). So of course, faculty members were furious. One of them (WHO KNEW ME) started screaming "why is there no Ph.D. student here? Where is X? Where is Y? I can't believe they didn't come" all the while looking over me. Basically this person refused to acknowledge my existence; as far as they were concerned, I wasn't even a Ph.D. student. I didn't exist. It's how they try to erase you. I think it might have been in the middle of other crap going on involving this person so this was how this person chose to fight me that moment.  Or maybe not? Maybe they just chose violence for no darn reason. I had never felt so small. Actually, I had lmao. Oh well, I still finished

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