The resignation of Dominic Raab in the latest Government bullying scandal, and the manner of it, demonstrates many of the challenges surrounding accusations of bullying in any sphere. Bullying is hard to define precisely; one person’s robust retort is another’s unacceptable hostility. This fact applies to science and academia as much as anywhere. I suspect many senior scientists will be well aware of others in their institution about whom rumours of bullying swirl. Yet it is hard to pin down, not least because the recipient(s) of the bullying may be too frightened to make a formal complaint. Administrators will only too easily hide behind – as was initially tried in the Raab case – the fact that nothing formal has ever been put on paper.
Whatever the case in Whitehall, in universities there are, I believe, actions that can be taken short of depriving someone of their job, which might make an enormous difference both morally and practically. I can immediately think of two professors in different departments in my University (neither my own) about whom rumours of inappropriate domineering behaviour abound. Of one of these I was told by a former researcher in their team, that he was ‘neither a misogynist nor a racist, he just bullies everyone’. I believe investigations had been initiated about this particular person – of course one never knows the detail – but nothing apparently transpired as a result. That word ‘apparently’ is important. Maybe the investigations found nothing, maybe they couldn’t go anywhere in the absence of a formal complaint, or maybe something was done but, because of the need for confidentiality, the actions taken were entirely below the radar. It’s impossible to know, although many may attempt to guess which applies.
The trouble with confidentiality (without any need for anything as formal as a non-disclosure agreement being required) is that it is hard for colleagues to have any confidence the matter has not been swept under the carpet, whitewashed, airbrushed out of the picture or simply a denial of wrong-doing has been accepted, if there is no visible sign of action. For that reason, I feel there is a lot to be said for visible action of limited scope being taken for what, to use the terminology of Scottish law, might be termed ‘not proven’ bad behaviour. This verdict in a criminal case implies that a jury believed the accused to be guilty but did not think the prosecution made their case beyond reasonable doubt. One can imagine many situations of bullying in the lab which could usefully be described in this way, and for which – since an HR process does not need to reach a criminal standard of proof – some lesser sanction could be applied.
For a professor in the sciences, one obvious response I’ve heard discussed, but never known be put into action, would be the refusal to let the individual supervise research students for some years, perhaps coupled with some requirement of attending certain courses. I did once hear of someone who was sent on an anger awareness course (though they were indeed someone who got very angry very easily, rather than someone who bullied, which was something I don’t think they were accused of). An academic who was no longer able to supervise students might well have cause to think harder about their actions and behaviour. Certainly, the department could then have a clear(er) conscience they were not sending a fresh graduate into a lion’s den to be humiliated and reduced to tears, or have their dreams of a research career shattered in front of their eyes.
I believe, far from civil servants – or researchers – being snowflakes, we have over the decades created a system where bullies thrive. This I suspect is as true in academia as in Whitehall, but specifically in the former we have a world where (s)he who shouts largest, hogs the equipment and departmental money and terrorises their students so that they are too frightened to do anything but obey their supervisor’s every whim, gets furthest. There are exceptions, of course there are, but far from winnowing out the bullies at an early stage in their career, we instead allow incipient bullies to thrive under their bully bosses, and then to be tapped on the shoulder to move on to higher things, while other more meek but brilliant researchers get pushed aside.
So, can academia collectively think of a range of actions that are readily within departmental control that might drive better behaviour amongst domineering academics? The positive aspect of removing students from a bully’s direction is that it not only acts as a penalty, but also protects the individual students. It would also be a very public statement of the fact that the behaviour in question has been judged to fall short. Of course, said academic would still be expected to teach, to examine and to serve on departmental committees ie do the rest of the bread and butter of academic life.
Should such a person be allowed to apply for grants? The reality is the bullies are often extremely successful at pulling in the cash, but a department might like to think it was more important to nurture future generations than solely acquire more research funding this year or next. Simply putting the brakes on an academic for a year (with a threat of a longer interregnum if their behaviour did not improve) might focus their minds without being utterly disruptive. After all, time was when the EPSRC introduced a system of ‘three strikes and you’re out’, whereby academics who submitted three successive grants that were judged of too low a standard were barred from further submissions for some period. It was an extremely unpopular policy which did not last long, but why shouldn’t a department introduce a different policy of barring applications?
I would like to think institutions would collectively examine their consciences about what they permit to go on within their buildings merely because it is more convenient to look the other way. This very public defenestration of Raab might just be a pivotal moment for academia to stop pretending it doesn’t have a problem. But I’m not holding my breath.