In January 2016, a couple of early career scientists from Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry (MPI-bpc) wrote an anonymous letter to the Max Planck Society (MPG) president, Martin Stratmann. A copy was sent to the German Minister of Education and Research, Johanna Wanka. Some people were upset with the letter while others called their authors “heroes”. I received an arguably insulting email accusing me that I was the author of the anonymous letter. This made me think about the bullying culture in academia, especially in strongly hierarchical and competitive organizations such as the MPG. This is the second out of a series of blog entries analysing the current events at MPI for Biophysical Chemistry (MPI-bpc). Read part 1.
To an ugly girl in puberty
Disappointed with an external evaluation at MPI-bpc, a couple of early career scientists sent a letter of dissent to the MPG president and to the minister of Education and Research. Upon receiving the letter, Martin Stratmann shared it with the MPI-bpc management. They contacted the PhD and postdoc representatives and the letter was distributed among PhD and postdoc fellows. This happened on a Friday afternoon. A few hours after the letter was published, I received the following email from somebody claiming to be Peter Gruss, the former MPG president, as per sender’s name in the email header. The email address was firstname.lastname@example.org while its subject line was “to an ugly girl in puberty“.
Dear Andreea,if you write an anonymous letter in the name of “young scientists of our institute”, be aware that this is utterly wrong for the following reasons:(1) you are not part of the “MPI BPC” anymore – fortunately. But you include yourself.(2) we would have used a spelling program to at least remove the many typos, because they are embarrassing for an academic(3) we would have asked one of our natives to correct your terrible English, because it is not adequate for an educated person at our place(4) we would not have asked for more positions for people because your letter so clearly demonstrates at best midiocrity. Why should such people hold a position to educate people as you request?(5) we are not pathologically frustrated as you seem to be, and so you should not speak up in our name, only in yours(6) you should not have asked in your letter for mentoring postdocs, but for psychological/psychiatric treatment if the desired recognition is denied (you could have referred to yourself as a living example of that)(7) your letter is discusting and shameful in both form and content suggesting the writer is a proletarian (not to say an idiot) rather than an academic.In other words: We – at least I – don´t want to be represented by you, i.e. by somebody who obviously is utterly frustrated and salivates for recognition to a degree which appears to be most likely pathological. One way to get better may be to continue writing such anonimous letters which you think may harm your “enemies”. Alternatively, you may ask your doctor for help, because you need it – seriously! You don´t want to change the system, you want recognition no matter how you get it (see also your beautiful video presentation at Soko Tierschutz).On behalf of your friends at the institute (the non-frustrated ones) who wish never ever to be represented by you without being asked.Anonymous letters is your style, we adjust and do it your style
To make things clear: I did not write the letter and I was not involved in its preparation.
When I received this email, I was at a party, one of the many graduation parties happening in Göttingen that night. Most of the MPI-bpc researchers were partying, except the author of the email above. Within eleven minutes, I replied:
Look: I don’t know who you are but surely the police will find out when I make a complaint per section 185 of the criminal code, i.e. insult. IP addresses are easy to track. I don’t think you are Peter Gruss but I definitely think he will be interested in finding out that people are using his name because they have no courage to show their faces.
I was not the one sending the letter and if I would have done it, I would have used my name, not like you who do exactly the same thing you are accusing me of. You have something to tell me? Then have the courage to face me. Anyhow we will soon meet once the police tracks you down.
Have a nice life,
I do not want to spend time analysing the email I received beyond the mention that I do not consider any MPG employee, nor management my “enemy”. I do not hate the MPG. I criticize because I believe that the MPG’s best version of itself is yet to come.
I identified the sender’s IP as coming from a Telekom connection and contacted the company. They were empathetic and told me that the authorities can get the sender’s identity if I make a complaint. So I made a complaint on the following Monday since, in Germany, a parking lot quarrel can end up in a fine. The police are working on it.
However, considering that the email came a few hours after the letter was made available to a limited number of people at MPI-bpc, it can be suggested that its author is a person affiliated to the MPG.
I do not believe that the email sender is Peter Gruss because he would not take the risk of such a public embarrassment: If an MPG director behaves in a way that hurts MPG’s image, they would be dismissed as per article 9.4 of the MPG statutes. If embarrassment was the feeling claimed in the wake of the anonymous letter, the email I received should provoke the same reaction. Or at least, it should start an internal investigation to identify who used the name of an MPG director to cover their acts. A step towards this would be that Peter Gruss joins my police complaint in order to defend his name. Otherwise, one may assume he sent this email.
Is this instance of insult the only one in the MPG?
I do not think that the author of the email is Peter Gruss because my perception was that we had a good relationship. I publicly showed my gratitude for his work when he left office. Voices inside the MPG administrative headquarters said that the management was surprised by my profile on Peter Gruss as it contained the nicest words somebody wrote about him without being tasked by the MPG.
However, people reminded me that Peter Gruss is far from the image I have of him.
He found it unacceptable that employees or PhD representatives address external stakeholders. In 2012, press criticized the MPG stipend system in doctoral candidates’ name. As a consequence, Peter Gruss called PhD candidates “apprentices” and “half-researchers” causing the 2012 Fair-Pay petition. The blunder was not forgiven even 1.5 years later when, during the annual meeting of PhD representatives from all MPIs, a delegate asked for an apology from Peter Gruss. As a second example, Peter Gruss openly disapproved that the Joint Works Council – the legal representatives of all MPG employees – addresses external stakeholders. In a meeting in July 2012, the former MPG president demanded that the Joint Works Council makes efforts towards restoring the trustful relationship. Upon expressing his opinion, he left the room without waiting for a reply, as described in circular 67/2012. Similarly, when the discussion did not go in the desired direction, Peter Gruss left the room when meeting the GEW (the German Union for Education and Research) representatives. Apparently, these arguably emotional outbursts are not characteristic only for situations in which employees externally discuss MPG matters, but also when the MPG is publicly criticized.
It seems that the MPG does not accept criticism. For example, MPG officials stated during the 2012 Max Planck PhDnet annual meeting – where PhD delegates from all MPIs gather – that both GEW and Die Linke party have as a goal ruining MPG’s reputation. Delegates believed it and for two years were reluctant in maintaining the existing relationship with these external stakeholders. Similarly, during 2014, one governing coalition politician was uninvited from an MPG ceremony after being critical of MPG. Furthermore, MPG officials advised me, the 2014 PhDnet spokesperson, against talking to Sven Grünewald, a journalist interested in raising public awareness about the doctoral paying conditions inside the MPG. He was described as wanting to ruin MPG’s name. This was not my impression after talking to Sven Grünewald. Moreover, after his October FAZ article, sources close to the MPG management mentioned a failed trial for an MPG op-ed in the FAZ. The MPG did not stop here and sent a complaint letter about Sven Grünewald’s professionalism to the FAZ’s editor. The letter was ignored because, if they would have had grounds for suing, the MPG wouldn’t have hesitated as they did with Report Mainz a few months before. Interestingly, when Sven Grünewald approached Peter Gruss at a public event in December 2014, Sven Grünewald was continuously shouted at, in public, for several minutes by the former MPG president. The gist of the aggressive monologue was the reckless behaviour towards MPG’s name. These examples show how external criticism is strongly not desired by the MPG and that they would go to great lengths to prevent it.
Peter Gruss is far from being the only MPG director displaying emotional behaviour. For example, during the 2012 Max Planck PhDnet annual meeting, Herbert Jäckle – the then vice-president of the MPG – shouted “Bullshit!” when one PhD representative asked an uncomfortable question. Similarly, his input at the 2013 PhDnet annual meeting led several PhD representatives calling for a stipend holders’ strike. Moreover, when the MPG announced the new policy of contracts for all PhD candidates, it was reported that some directors were verbally abusive towards the MPG president, Martin Stratmann, because they saw the payment reform as a limitation to their academic freedom. Further, these directors discharged their anger onto their PhD candidates, especially those who were involved in Max Planck PhDnet – the organization responsible for this change. Some of the statements were accusatory “you wanted this!” or angry “I cannot work within these constraints”. Hence, Peter Gruss is not exceptional in his behaviour.
What is exceptional is how easy we accept this type of behaviour when it supports our beliefs. How many people lauded Reinhard Jahn – the chair of the presidential commission for Junior Scientists in the MPG – for calling directors and professors “medieval feudal lords”? Very few know that this comment stemmed from a conflict inside the presidential commission. The other side of the conflict said about Reinhard Jahn that he gets arrogant when contradicted. What if the director making this statement would have generalized it in Die Zeit and said that some MPG directors and professors become arrogant when contradicted? Which side of the unknown conflict would have been chosen by the junior scientists? Would they be on the side insulting their superiors irrespective of the reason?
Personally, I do not believe that professors or directors displaying feudal lord characteristics is the frightening fact. What frightens me is the fact that the new generations of scientists are accepting this culture of reciprocal insults, bullying and, mobbing. This can be the reason why researchers who idolize Peter Gruss and/or MPG write insulting anonymous emails on his behalf.
Food for thought
A couple of scientists at MPI-bpc wrote a complaint letter to the MPG president and sent a copy to BMBF. One of the controversial features of the letter was its emotional style and the way the MPG directors and university professors were presented. Assuming that I was the author of the letter, somebody sent me an email which attacked me. Here, I summarized some instances in which the MPG directors reacted emotionally. The examples given show a culture in which criticism is prevented and those addressing external parties are reprimanded. These beg some questions.
Firstly, why are we so critical when junior scientists act emotionally, but we do not criticize the same behaviour when it comes from the senior researchers? Does Martin Stratmann have the right to be embarrassed towards Johanna Wanka for the behaviour of a few out of the more than 22000 MPG employees, when the former president had instances of emotional outbursts with press and politicians? Should we question the respective postdocs or the MPG culture which encouraged this behaviour?
Secondly, do the junior scientists dissent from the letter because they disapprove of its style or because they unconsciously accept the imposed MPG culture of not raising public dissent against the management? Why don’t they condemn the same behaviour when used to agree with them, as when Reinhard Jahn is insulting his colleagues? How many people will condemn the anonymous authors of the email I received? Or do we have double standards according to who emits the insult and who receives it?
A personal view
I do not want to dismiss the allegedly insulting email I received as insignificant. I do not want to promote a culture of strength displayed through hiding emotion. No matter how strong you are, you will be affected by such an email. Even if it is for a minute, an hour, or more. It is normal to be affected because we are human; as one of my mentors once put it: “I would worry about your humanity if you were unaffected”.
For me, the email was a wake-up call. It was not the first time in the last year when I was insulted and bullied by MPG employees and management because I am the one who led around 200 people in actions that changed the MPG stipends use. With the email I received, I had a choice: Either I stay away from the public eye, as I did in the last year, or I stand up telling the MPG story. Since I am still bullied, I chose the latter. Unfortunately for the emotional person sending the email, they achieved the contrary to their intention.