Bystanders enable academic bullies: The Max Planck Society as a case study

Bystanders enable academic bullies: The Max Planck Society as a case study

Summary and context

In February, Spiegel Online brought up the topic of bullying and sexual harassment at a Max Planck Institute (MPI) in Bavaria. Since then, extensive press coverage discussed the deeds of the female director at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA). Initially, the press office of the Max Planck Society (MPG) through their spokesperson – Dr. Christina Beck – stated that they heard about the problems at the MPA only in 2016. I proved otherwise: There were documents that went through Dr. Beck’s hands that showed problems at the institute since at least 2013. The president of the MPG – Martin Stratmann – admitted in an interview to FAZ that the internal complaint mechanisms are not ideal but claimed a clear responsibility structure. I agree with the first part, but I will argue that the responsibility structure is far from clear. In addition, academic bullies thrive enabled by bystanders. I describe here how “Nils” – mentioned in the first BuzzFeed coverage – went through all the complaint avenues inside the MPG. Everyone, not only the general administration (GA) of the MPG, knew about what was happening to him.

Taking “Nils” through all the possible complaint avenues in the Max Planck Society

The first time I was faced with complaints coming from the MPA was in 2013 as the Max Planck PhDnet deputy-Spokesperson and CPTS representative – chemistry-physics-technology section, the section to which the MPA belongs. The complaints were about the discriminatory practices in payment: Germans received contracts while foreigners received stipends without social benefits. Since 2013, we reported the MPA together with other institutes to the GA. We received an email stating that inquires were made at the institutes and there was no general policy of discriminatory payment in place. This is why, as soon as I became the PhDnet spokesperson in 2014, I included the MPA in our “Status Report of the Max Planck Society PhDnet Steering Group 2014” – infamously dubbed as the “PhDnet black-list” because it contained a list of more than 20 MPIs where problems were reported. We handed this report to the GA in January 2014. The MPG president at that time – Peter Gruss – supported the list with a letter addressed to the MPG directors. Did anyone doubt that discriminatory payment practices do not trickle down into other aspects of the supervisor-junior researcher relationship?

As soon as the directors at the MPA received the presidential letter, they asked for a meeting with PhD representatives and other stakeholders at the MPA. As a consequence of that meeting, Simon White – the MPA’s managing director at the time – sent an email communicating that, in order to avoid discrimination, all the incoming PhD candidates would receive stipends. Moreover, the postdocs would all receive contracts. This was experienced by the PhD candidates at the MPA as a defeat since the few doctoral contracts were abolished. Consequently, the message that complaining gets one into more trouble was heard loud and clear. Therefore, doctoral candidates did not want to pursue the issue any further. I do not wonder that nowadays the doctoral candidates at the MPA don’t reach out to PhDnet with their troubles and go instead directly to the press.

In April 2014, the annual meeting of the IMPRS – international Max Planck research schools – coordinators was held. Unlike members of the GA responsible with PhD candidates, I was not present at this meeting, but I received several corroborating reports of what was said and done there. During this meeting, Reinhard Jahn – the chair of the presidential commission tasked to prepare guidelines for PhD candidates, postdocs and junior group leaders – presented the draft for the guidelines for doctoral training. One IMPRS coordinator argued that these guidelines do little to help in some cases.

This IMPRS coordinator talked about the case of a doctoral candidate whose stipend was stopped in the middle of the PhD project because he couldn’t publish the required – by the director – one scientific article per year. Initially, Reinhard Jahn dismissed the complaint using the common victim-blaming excuse MPG officials use: Not all the PhD candidates are good enough to graduate and they shouldn’t. However, the IMPRS coordinator insisted that the case is not isolated for that department. Reinhard Jahn was taken aback but the discussion didn’t go any further.

Once I’d heard what was discussed at the IMPRS coordinators’ annual meeting, I sent emails to a few IMPRS coordinators I had a good relationship with asking for the name of the IMPRS coordinator who spoke up. This is how I found out about the IMPRS coordinator’s identity. I reached out to the IMPRS coordinator and to the local PhD and postdoc representatives both at the MPA and the neighboring MPI for Extraterrestrial Physics, both with a research profile in space physics. I found out “Nils”‘ name. “Nils” was a foreigner PhD candidate under the supervision of the female director at the MPA whose name was too often mentioned in the press over the past weeks. (Hereafter, she will be referred as the “female director at the MPA”; as I argued before, we don’t need to give voice to survivors by enriching the negative press she already got.)

From the local junior researchers, I found out that the female director at the MPA was a known academic bully with a history of people leaving her group before finishing their projects. I learned how she demanded that her PhD candidates publish a research article every year. I asked whether this is the standard in the field; the PhD representatives at the neighboring MPI said that only the best among themselves publish two articles in four years. I asked the IMPRS coordinator whether there is any such formal requirement from the university or from the IMPRS. The IMPRS coordinator couldn’t provide any official document from the university in charge of “Nils’” PhD thesis justifying such requirements. Moreover, when looking into the thesis advisory committees (TACs) – a supposedly independent group of two advisors, beside the official supervisor, with the duty of following individual PhD theses evolution and intervening when conflicts arise – I discovered that, in the case of the female director at the MPA, her husband is an usual member of her PhD candidates’ TACs. This fact excluded TACs as a direct complaint avenue for the doctoral candidates who might have conflicts with their supervisor. After talking to all these people in the Garching campus – the area where the two MPIs were located – I was assured that the case will be discussed locally. Later, I found out that it was decided for no intervention and no transfer of “Nils’” supervision under another professor on campus due to fear of repercussion from the two married directors at the MPA, both of them being big names in the field of space physics.

Finally, I talked to “Nils” and I can confirm everything said in the BuzzFeed coverage as what I was told by “Nils” in our conversations back then. Moreover, I observed the same blaming of oneself for being in trouble as I’ve seen on many other victims of academic bullying. Can we wonder that victims feel this way when the knee-jerk reaction of the MPG officials such as Reinhard Jahn is to blame the victim as not being good enough to graduate? “Nils” and I agreed that we will take the complaints outside the Garching campus to other more independent complaint avenues inside the MPG. I recommended the CPTS mediators recommended by the legally binding MPG statutes. I also asked for names of former victims of the female directors at the MPA to corroborate the statements I got from the people on campus that she is a long-time bully.

Since I couldn’t find the names of the CPTS mediators on the intranet nor the webpage of the MPG, I contacted the GA and asked for the contact to address problems through the internal complaint mechanisms. Since April 2014 until I finished my time as a PhDnet Spokesperson in December 2014, I never got those contacts though I asked for them repeatedly. It appeared that the GA was not as interested as me to mediate conflicts internally. However, a few months later, I received leaks of a brief for the MPG president prepared by the same person who never gave me the contacts. Instead of helping me with dealing with the complaints internally, the GA seemed eager to restructure the PhDnet such that another Status Report doesn’t happen in 2015.

But I moved on without any help from the GA. I tracked down an alleged victim of bullying that, according to their online CV, spent one year at the MPA between their master studies and their PhD thesis. This year seemed more like an interrupted PhD than an internship, as claimed. In the early summer of 2014, this person was a postdoc at another space physics MPI after finishing their PhD outside the MPG. They replied to me arguing at length that they don’t want to be rumored as a victim from the MPA. To me, it sounded more like someone afraid to speak up from the inside of the MPG rather than the truth. But I can do only that much with my gut feeling when I needed proof of similar past behavior at the MPA.

In June 2014, during the presidential commission meeting discussing the finalization of the PhD training guidelines, I approached the CPTS head and discussed “Nils’” case. The CPTS head replied that, before I even named the female director at the MPA, he knew that it was her. As I said before: Every academic bully has their specific brand of bullying. The CPTS head and others listening to our conversation made some comments about the female director at the MPA as a long time academic bully. The CPTS head gave me the names of the three CPTS mediators that the GA missed to give.

While asking around in the MPG about the female director at the MPA, one of the comments made by male directors and others I talked to was that the female director was appointed in her position because of her husband. Apparently, not even when a woman is one of the most cited researchers in the world, she is not taken seriously as a professional. However, being a victim of academic sexism is no excuse for being a bully. But, what amazed me was that nobody bat an eye to the fact that she was nominated a MPG director in 2013 while being known as a long time bully. Apparently, the way one treats their junior researchers is not a factor taken into account by the numerous committees going through the nomination, evaluation and appointment of MPG directors.

Next, I gave to “Nils” the contacts of the three CPTS mediators and encouraged him to bring his case further because his supervisor is known as a bully by other MPG directors. “Nils” wrote to these three directors; they soon politely replied that they discussed the case and they do not see any broken rule nor law. The short time it took them to reply made me wonder about how conflicts are really investigated by the people whose job is to do so. However, they were right: According to the MPG payment guidelines for doctoral candidates at the time:

The grant may be withdrawn before the end of the period for which it was awarded if the grantee fails to demonstrate the requisite and reasonable commitment to the purpose of the grant.

According to the requirements set by the female director at the MPA, no matter how unreasonable they might appear to some, to others, “Nils” didn’t show a reasonable commitment to the purpose of the stipend: He failed to produce a second scientific article within two years and instead he needed two-and-a-half years.

However, “Nils” moved on. He applied to another institute and moved away from Germany. From time to time, I checked on “Nils”’ whereabouts and research output. I was happy to see that he was able to flourish at other institutes. I was happy when he graduated with a PhD title. I was amazed at the dozen of research articles he published since them. And now I am floored at the fact that he stood up for the ones that now face troubles and he spoke up when nobody did for him.

I had hoped that out of the three mediators contacted would have reported the case to the president of the MPG as required by the ”MPG Mediation Guidelines” adopted in 1974 and never changed since then. It seems that internal mediation was not something that the MPG considered important to be addressed in the last half a century. But also it was either forgotten by the mediators themselves or the MPG president ignored their report in 2014.

In the autumn of 2014, due to the low number of PhD recruits, the MPA abandoned their ”stipends only” policy set earlier that year.

Later, I found out from a report dated May 2013, that the MPA was anonymously reported for discriminatory payment practices and bad supervision with PhD projects that cannot be finalized within four years, instead junior researchers finalized these projects while on unemployment benefits or self-financed. This was in a comment in a survey the GA commissioned HIS to study the career tracks of Max Planck alumni and PhD candidates at the end of their PhD studies. The comment was ignored by the head of the press office of the MPG, Christina Beck who compiled a summary of the survey for the president of the MPG. This might be a consequence of the culture of needing details of the cases, or as the current General Secretary of the MPG – Rüdiger Willems – stated in 2014:

It should be indicated, whether the complaint is based on just a feeling of the PhD-Net [sic], a “on dit”, an isolated case, a certain number of cases or a general problem of all institutes.

However, reporting such details to the GA endangered the confidentiality of those coming to us with issues. Some agreed that their cases are taken to the GA, but others chose to remain anonymous because it was known that, sometimes, the GA doesn’t have the ideal intervention style for mediating conflicts.

What changed since 2014?

In 2015, the MPG gave up on awarding stipends. Hence, the discriminatory awarding of stipends mainly to foreigners was abolished. However, the mindset creating the discrimination sometimes permeates though derogatory statements, as in the case at the MPA. Contracts award protection through labour laws; job security is ensured also by having the initial contract awarded for three years. However, though, two extensions of six months each are allowed, these extensions are still used to put pressure on doctoral candidates, as stated by the current PhDnet spokesperson Jana Lasser. When the MPG director is not legally bound to offer an extension, no external lawyer can help. The same is valid for recommendation letters; a lawyer can only ensure that a work certificate (Arbeitszeugnis) is given. An Arbeitszeugnis, though better than nothing, can hardly cover the academic career needs of a junior researcher.

What can help – as Jana Lasser pointed out – are thesis advisory committees (TACs) that are independent of the main supervisor and supervise the progress of the thesis. However, in “Nils”’ case, the TAC was not independent since a married couple cannot be considered independent by a junior researcher who would feel intimidated to address their problems in front of the spouse of their main supervisor. Furthermore, only half of all PhD candidates have TACs; among the first year PhD candidates little has changed since 2009 when only 45% of first years had TACs compared to 47% of first years in 2017. Little has changed though in 2015, the presidential commission of the MPG recommended TACs as a good practice example in their guidelines for doctoral training. This was expected, since even the “MPG Rules of Good Scientific Practice” recommend TACs for decades, and this didn’t lead to TACs being implemented since then. Why would new guidelines saying the same thing change anything? Nevertheless, Martin Stratmann still uses these guidelines in his talks to the press while, in 2015, the former Secretary General talked about them as a done deal to members the Bundestag influencing the outcome of the German Employment Act (WissZeitVG) reform.

In terms of internal mediation, the names of each section ombudspeople are finally available online, but not those of the mediators. However, I was intrigued to discover that the MPG director who sent me the N-word email asking me about the survey I sent on a private mailing list, is one of these ombudspeople: Gregor Eichele. Moreover, the person inside the GA who didn’t give me the contacts for the mediators mandated by the MPG statutes, instead recommended to the president that the PhDnet is restructured to avoid complaints, was now promoted to lead the gender and diversity efforts inside the MPG. Alas, gender and diversity were the issues at the MPA. In addition, when looking at how the MPG statutes are respected, in terms of conflict management, let’s look at how the “infamous letter” was handled in 2016. When a group of junior researchers took their right to write a letter to the MPG president explaining how the issues at their MPI are not addressed by the local management, the president sent the letter back to the managing director who chose to sent it to the entire institute. In fact, every employee at an institute is allowed to attach their dissenting opinion to the institute’s annual report to the president, as stated under article 28.7 of the MPG statutes. Since the junior researchers were not offered this opportunity, they sent their own dissenting opinion. How this was handled, showed that maybe not everyone is familiar with this right everyone employed at the MPG has.

In the meantime, I get approached more often than I would like to with the current deeds of those academic bullies that got away. What are the odds that I have so much material on the MPA alone? Is it possible that in fact I have the same amount of material on each of those academic bullies among the MPG directors? Last year, I was contacted by two different journalists investigating a case of alleged sexual harassment. Another familiar to me academic bully was the center of it. I remembered that he had a red leather couch in his office and that he calls himself the pharaoh of the department. I also remembered problems reported from his department. In another instance, another person approached me with a 20-years old case. When they told me about their story, I froze: It was the same bullying style reported in FAZ in October 2014. The respective MPG director has done the exact thing before and the GA intervened to help him before. Everything was legal as lawyers were involved; somehow, the doctoral candidates always were at a disadvantage.

Finally, the current SG recognizes that:

we receive many similar complaints, often anonymous, often heartbreaking. A common thread in each and every one of them is, that people are afraid to disclose their identity and make problems public out of fear for their careers.

It appears that the MPG did not change their culture since I was a PhDnet spokesperson in 2014 and no new guidelines changed much, as it was the case with the old guidelines.

Food for thought

To conclude:

  • an unclear responsibility structure
  • a culture of bystanders aware of who the academic bullies are but none going through the efforts to do something about it leading to similar issues occurring again and again over decades
  • promotion despite of known bullying behavior
  • disrespected procedures, regulations and guidelines
  • internal mediation procedures half of century old without online available contact points

No amount of new measures and guidelines will bring any change if we don’t change mindsets. Words are nice when given in an interview, but unless they are fortified with concrete proof, I can only see guidelines used as a PR tool and an unclear responsibility structure that create a culture in which academic bullies thrive.

The truth is that so many people knew about the female director at the MPA when I investigated the case back in 2014. Anyone could have done what I did: investigate. The MPG cannot claim that they didn’t know when I can produce from the top of my head a list of 100 people who knew. These people chose to look away and just gossip with someone who was in fact investigating academic bullies inside the MPG.

Don’t get me wrong: Not all the MPG directors are academic bullies. I’m sure that there are a lot of directors who stand up for junior researchers. There are directors who have the strength of character to stand up for progress. I’m sure that there are MPG directors asking themselves “What kind of person do you have to be to discriminate against foreigners in a research organization where more than half of the junior researchers responsible for the excellent research output are foreigners?” I’m sure these people are there. I’m sure that they are many. But none of them were among those asked for help. They let “Nils” stand alone. Leaders do not do that. Excellent academics do not do that. Bullies and harassers do it all the time. The only excellent researcher and human being in this situation is “Nils”. “Nils” produced a dozen scientific articles since 2014. Then he came back to stand by the current victims when nobody stood up for him.

8 thoughts on “Bystanders enable academic bullies: The Max Planck Society as a case study

  1. Bystanders are the bigger problem of two: The bullying person sees no reaction to his/her behaviour and is allowed to continue. I work at a university and could add a story like the one above.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. More information about academic mobbing, a serious problem worldwide:
    A fish rots from the head down: This currently affects many academic organizations
    including the Max Planck Society and Universities in Graz and Zurich. Note:
    Passive bystanders of a bullied colleague actually support the bullying such as
    inactive bystanders of the injured person neglect their duty to assist in first-aid care!


    1. The problem is that, in the case of inactive bystanders in the case of an injury, there are laws against it. However, as you know, there are very few laws that protect workplace bullying, and those laws cover only some special cases, such as harassment of protected classes.


      1. In many European countries including Germany, there are clear-cut labor laws against workplace bullying.
        However, criminal laws are missing, beyond sexual harassment and physical violence. To make it clear again:
        Workplace bullying is prohibited and violence. It has severe medical sequela with physical and mental damages.


    2. What Germany has is not preventing workplace bullying. You can go to court only AFTER you get your health damaged. In Sweden you can go to (criminal) court because the employer didn’t take action when bullying happened and this MIGHT endanger the health of a person. Moreover, there is a huge difference between bullying and harassment. In Germany, there is protection only against harassment – hence most of the mobbing cases are under AGG. But harassment is covering protected classes. I know that this will sound funny but: white German males also need legal coverage.

      Click to access no.12_germany.pdf

      Liked by 1 person

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