The ties that bind

I have a few thoughts on the recent case from the United States, involving doctoral student Nimrod Reitman of New York University who filed a complaint against his former advisor there, Avital Ronell, for sexual harassment, stalking, and retaliation. After a university investigation found that Ronell had indeed harassed Reitman, she was suspended for one year. Reitman is now suing Ronell and NYU. An op-ed was published in the New York Times, authored by Ronell’s esteemed colleagues, who defended her in part by invoking her status in the profession. I wrote a tweet thread about this, but because my tweets aren’t publicly available right now, I thought I might put those thoughts into a post here.

I know there is a lot going on with this case, and that there has been a lot of commentary on it already; hopefully I won’t be repeating too much. But one thing that stands out to me – and this is why I wanted to add my 0.02 – is the way it’s causing some people to say, finally, that supervisors should not have so much power over their doctoral students (in the U.S. and Canadian model at least). I agree with this wholeheartedly and have believed it for some time now.

I wrote a couple of blog posts where I talked about the professionalisation aspect of this issue, for example the fact that supervisors aren’t always equipped to help a student get ready for finding work outside academia, or even within it; help from others is necessary. Not only is it the case that supervisors can’t provide everything, it puts too much of a burden on them to expect it. We need to normalise the idea that supervisors should be helping their students actively cultivate professional relationships with other scholars and with people working in sectors other than higher education. While that might sound like common sense, it’s still counterintuitive in departments or fields where the supervisor is assumed to be a student’s primary guide career-wise (which may or may not be the case in reality).

In the the Ronell and Reitman case, what can be seen is another major problem with the current model of supervision: the abusive and exploitative dynamic that can occur because of the student’s dependence on their supervisor’s support and goodwill both during and after the PhD. Based on what other students (and former students) have said, it sounds like this case exposes a larger pattern of emotional abuse that the prof can continue to engage in not only because of the power dynamic usually present in supervision, but also because of her prominent position in the field.

It’s easy to suggest that a student in this situation should simply switch to a different supervisor. But even if students take the initiative to try to work with someone else, making this change, especially within the same program or department, can be a politically fraught process that damages the student’s reputation (but usually not the supervisor’s). Even a student whose supervisor is merely neglectful has little recourse unless they can find other faculty allies. Not only is the student potentially trapped in this relationship with one person who can heavily influence their career; in the Canadian system at least, supervisors also participate in the assessment of the doctoral defence. So your experience in the program, the quality of your work, and the assessment of your work, are all heavily dependent upon one person. The same person also has the power to prevent you getting hired afterwards, or at least to significantly affect the outcomes of an academic job search, through their letters of recommendation and professional connections at other institutions.

And while this is only one case, and a particularly visible one involving “superstar” academics, it’s crucial to remember that the same dynamic has been keeping PhD graduates (and non-completers) silent for a very long time. They need those reference letters to continue in an academic career. How many abusive profs have been enabled by that need to not “stir things up” if you want a chance on the job market? Who wants to be the troublemaker who doesn’t get an interview? Who’s going to burn all those bridges? No wonder it persists. To be clear, the fault is not with ECRs who are put in this position because of how these dynamics work. The fault lies with profs who continue to engage in abusive behaviour, knowing that it will be enabled.

And this goes for issues beyond harassment. When I wrote about PhDs and mental health way back in 2011, that wasn’t something you said in public. If you say something critical about your experience as a student, you implicate your institution, your department, your supervisor. Even now that there are hundreds of blog posts on that topic, there is still a big difference between talking about the issues in the abstract, which is considered acceptable, and talking about specific instances, which is…not. Especially if your story doesn’t have a positive outcome. Even now, the point I made about “silence” still echoes through the other accounts I read: the same silence is still there, in spite of there being so much “talk” about mental health. When I think about why, I think again of this “troublemaker” dynamic (which Sara Ahmed has articulated brilliantly in her work).

If your future position in the system rests partly on your perceived ability to keep quiet about abuses within that system, how long do you wait before speaking up?

I want to add that my comments are based on my background in this area in which I’ve been doing research and writing of various kinds, for over 10 years now; including the research I did for my MA and PhD, which were both focussed on PSE policies, organisations, and change; and almost nothing about this case surprises me given what I’ve learned in that time. Alongside the sexual harassment, workplace bullying of various kinds is also common in universities. It happens in a lot of different ways (including faculty-faculty bullying and mobbing), but the situation with doctoral students and supervisors seems so clearly open to that kind of exploitation. The consequences are even worse for students from marginalised groups who find themselves either enduring abuse and exploitation, or locked out entirely; and who may find their mentors are not as “radical” as they seemed at a distance.

Taking that into account, and to return to the “silence” I mentioned earlier, there is a second thing I want to discuss: what we’re seeing right now is a “closing of ranks” among faculty who are defending a colleague who has been harassing students. Why is this happening? I can’t comment on the specific individuals involved and their personal and professional histories (though Judith Butler has now written a letter of apology), but what I can say – again based on what I have researched – is that for some academics, critique of “the university” is still a lot easier than critique of their own practices, their personal actions and the actions of colleagues. As so many others have pointed out, scholars whose object of study is power still fail to see how they are enacting what they critique. Joshua Clover framed this problem in a tweet: “Power is magically only in institutions and not in individuals or their relations. Some defenders of Ronell think that this revelation is what it means to think structurally, as if “structure” and “institution” were the same thing: an analytical error of the first water.”

There is a growing body of research literature on the ways in which workplace harassment of various kinds takes place in academic institutions (here is a short biblio). What Reitman is describing is absolutely an experience of harassment in a professional environment. This is exacerbated by the supervisor-student power dynamic, by academic “superstar” system, and by a culture that places the “genius” above reproach or complaint, no matter what inappropriate behaviours they may engage in. Genius (associated primarily with men) is then used as a means of dismissing complaints and allegations: we cannot risk losing this crucial talent, even if it is destroying other people’s careers and therefore depriving us of their talent. This important point has been made repeatedly by activists involved with #MeToo. And it is a point relevant not only to sexual harassment but also to the myriad other forms of abuse that lead to a “toxic workplace”; these receive less media attention but are equally pervasive.

Lastly, I want to emphasise the connection between hyper-competition in the job market, and the immense pressure for doctoral students to conform and to be silent. All the dynamics that I described above are exacerbated by this. In a situation where there are fewer and fewer tenure-stream faculty jobs available, students are still reliant on their supervisors to help them prepare for this market; and they will be judged by their supervisor’s peers. The importance of access to professional networks, as well as cultivation of a positive reputation within them, cannot be overstated; in Reitman’s example, the rigid prestige hierarchy of U.S. institutions also plays a strong part. We can also see how academic peers can rally to support each other when some aspect of this system is threatened. Jobs are a scarce resource, gatekeepers have a lot of power, and students quickly learn what happens if they don’t play their part appropriately.

Is there a way to change this? The question obviously applies not just to academia but to every field in which power and abuse can go hand in hand; in other words, every field. For anything to change in academia, those with some degree of security must be willing to look at problems not merely in the abstract, but within 100 feet of their office door. It’s disturbing to find out that colleagues you respect and admire are engaging in unprofessional practices. It’s a hard thing to have to look at yourself in the mirror and see all those cracks. But without real self-reflection, without perspective, there can’t be a fundamental change in how academic relationships are imagined and created and sustained. More than self-reflection, this will take explicit intention. Band-aid policies that patch small holes but produce further workarounds in practice, will not contribute to the kind of change required.

I see the doctorate as important partly because of the role that it plays in reproducing the norms and values of academe. Perhaps the increased visibility and ongoing discussion of cases like this one will start a longer process that leads to a re-examination and re-articulation of the goals and practices of academic training. It’s equally (or more) possible that the old loops of power will merely  be re-inscribed in new terms. But for the sake of the university’s mission of creating and sharing knowledge, and for the effect it has on the lives of so many – I hope for better things.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *