Is the conversation on academic bullies over now? We are just getting started

Is the conversation on academic bullies over now? We are just getting started

In February, a report in Der Spiegel spoke about bullying and sexual harassment at a Max Planck Institute in Bavaria. The moment I read it, I knew who the academic bully was because each bully has their own brand of bullying. I knew of a case from 2014 that I took through all the mediation levels mentioned in the statutes of the Max Planck Society (MPG). The mediation failed in 2014; the case was reported in BuzzFeed in 2018 as “Nils”. The press office of the MPG was quick to convince Nature News that the issues are going to a head, before actually seeing the results of the survey conducted at the institute. The lack of remorse and failure in taking responsibility disappointed the people at the institute: The MPG continuously stated that the first time they heard about these cases was 2016. As a consequence, the survey results were leaked to BuzzFeed.

At the same time, I showed how the press office of the MPG had, since 2013, at least two documents showing problems at the institute, including a culture of discrimination and abuse of power, e.g., PhD projects too difficult to be tackled over the normal duration of a PhD, people working while not being paid. I also mentioned that I took “Nils” over the internal MPG complaint mechanisms. I wasn’t descriptive on purpose. I needed his consent to tell his story. (Now I have it.) I also showed that instead of dealing with the many complaints brought to them, the general administration of the MPG puts a lot of effort in dismissing those complaints and ensuring that the PhD representatives never bring such complaints.

I have sent my blog post together with the leaked survey to Nature News. As a response, they wrote an article about the survey at the institute describing how  the junior researchers were not satisfied with the institute’s response to the article by Der Spiegel. The survey also showed that some junior researchers feel that the MPG and their institute react only after press coverage of issues. Moreover, an editorial in Nature strongly criticized the MPG:

In Nature’s opinion, young researchers there have been let down over the years. These researchers say the institute and its parent body, the Max Planck Society — also one of the world’s leading research organizations — failed to control the situation in a timely manner. It is hard to disagree.

Next, Academia Leaks was spoken about in Der Spiegel Online.

Finally, in an interview in FAZ, the president of the MPG, Martin Stratmann, took responsibility and publicly admitted that the internal complaint structure is not optimal and needs improvement (summarized in Forschung und Lehre) He also stated that the system needs to be made clear to all employees, especially foreigners. Though Martin Stratmann acknowledged PhDnet as a professional doctoral representation, he dismissed their entire agenda. In doing so, Martin Stratmann said that, over the last years, there were new rules for the doctoral training.

But how are these rules implemented? First of all, only the payment reform is a rule, i.e., replacing stipends with contracts for all doctoral candidates. Secondly, the rest are just guidelines on training doctoral candidates. Guidelines are not enforceable. These guidelines were oftentimes brought up as a good practice example, especially during the Bundestag debate on the Science Employment Act (WissZeitVG). The reformed Science Employment Act ties the qualification goal, described in such guidelines (or “Code of Conducts”, as named during the debates) to the time limitation. During this debate, the former General Secretary of the MPG mentioned that the new guidelines lead to the implementation of thesis advisory committees (TACs). However, the number of first year PhD candidates who have a TAC marginally increased from 45% in 2009 to 47% in 2017. Moreover, in 2009, there was an increasing tendency in having TACs among the new generations, while in 2017, we can see a decreasing tendency. I don’t see an implementation of new guidelines. Are these guidelines just a PR tool to influence laws that would be inconvenient for the MPG, dismiss the PhDnet’s agenda and use during moments of intense public criticism such as this one?

Though the issues with the MPG director too often named over the last days are being addressed in a way – maybe not optimal, maybe not pleasing everyone involved – we should not forget that the culture of academic bullies is not isolated to one MPG director. (Though there are amazing role models among the MPG directors). Let’s not forget that the name of the male MPG director who allegedly sexually harassed female junior researchers for years was not leaked. Let’s not forget that his name search doesn’t yield dozens of press articles. While talking to journalists, I asked them to avoid using the name of the female director; what happened is not her responsibility alone but the responsibility of a research organization that failed generations of junior researchers by having improper complaint mechanisms. The only ones who are set to chastise this MPG director as an isolated case are the MPG officials who continuously use her name. In turn, she is being reduced to what is said during these weeks and we forget that once she was among the most cited Clarvariate researchers or a Leibniz prize receiver. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give a voice to the survivors; their voice can be heard without her name attached to it, but with the name of the research organization who failed to protect them.

Finally, since information helps people who find themselves in situations of academic bullying, I would recommend everyone to read the legal background of discrimination and the MPG’s Code of Conduct: Protection against sexualized discrimination, harassment and violence. Feel free to contact me for a confidential talk, questions or having your story told towards a better future (Twitter and Facebook) There is a sense of healing by talking about your stories and finding solidarity. Many already did it under #academicbullies. Many did it through private talks. I hope the discussion continues. Together we can change the system run by academic bullies.

One thought on “Is the conversation on academic bullies over now? We are just getting started

  1. It is pretty normal in Germany. There is a professor at TUM that asks his PhD/postdocs/administrative assistants to fetch his food and things like this. I wonder if he was doing the same while he was at MIT.


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