Around Trinity hall College , Cambridge at dusk. 17/1/20.Photo Tom Pilston.

Men, behaving badly

Around Trinity hall College , Cambridge at dusk. 17/1/20.Photo Tom Pilston.

Academia is built on centuries of tradition and male-dominated hierarchy – and that’s the problem

From the outside, academia appears to be a liberal, progressive space. We’re used to reading about ‘snowflake’ students being brainwashed by ‘woke’ academics. We think of universities as deeply, sincerely, sometimes embarrassingly right-on spaces.

But in fact, as anyone who has spent time working in academia can attest, it’s actually deeply hierarchical, built on decades, sometimes centuries, of tradition. Within this hierarchy, it’s easy for powerful people to get away with behaving badly. In fact, bad behaviour is normalised as part of academia.

The euphemism, ‘bad behaviour’, hides the problem. Academia has its fair share of people who bully their subordinates, drink too much, are lazy, confrontational, prejudiced, or any number of other unpleasant attributes. But the poor behaviour I am referring to is sexual: harassment, assault, abuse. The intimacy, close collaboration and inter-personal nature of academic work, both teaching and research, make this behaviour both easy to perpetrate, and easy to hide.

This threatens the safety of staff and students. Students are not safe from each other if their institutions will not take action to punish students who bully, harass or assault their peers. Academics are not safe from their colleagues, if powerful people can get away with the same behaviour with their careers intact. And undergraduates and postgraduates are not even safe from their lecturers, if the ‘grey areas’ of academic life serve to blur the boundaries of acceptable behaviour between teachers and their students.

In my experience, as a women working in academia, this bad behaviour is overwhelmingly – but not entirely – committed by men, against both male and female victims, both students and more junior academics, often in their own institutions, sometimes at other universities.

It might take place in institutional settings – in an office, in the library, or a college bar – or at conferences or workshops at other universities or in other spaces, in homes, on planes, in restaurants. Increasingly, there is an online component – harassment via emails, or Whatsapp messages, or Twitter DMs. This bad behaviour is one of the great open secrets of academic life.

Academia is built on power – and the attempt to hide that power. Staff have power over their students, but really all students at their institution or even beyond. Across many subjects, teaching is collaborative, seminars are a social experience, and so having a staff member turn against you might be embarrassing or bewildering and might even actively endanger your learning.

Almost all undergraduates are over 18 when they arrive at university, but that doesn’t mean that they should be treated uncomplicatedly as adults. If you spend a lot of time with 18, 19, and 20-year olds, like I do, you realise how brilliant they can be – how sparky and clever and funny and intense – but also how vulnerable they are.

The fact that students don’t believe themselves to be vulnerable, in fact often believe themselves to be invincible, makes them more vulnerable still: to each other, to institutions and to their lecturers.

Students often believe that lecturers, especially when marking exams or dissertations, have a god-like power over them, and this makes them anxious about speaking up, or saying no. In the sciences, for example, lecturers might control huge grants, and have the power to make or break budding scientific careers by favouring or shunning students who are compliant or who refuse to play along.

But power also works more subtly and implicitly. It is not only students who are vulnerable, but more junior academics, too. Seniority brings rewards, and with them, power: over articles being published, grants being awarded.

It is hard as a junior academic to resist, or call out, bad behaviour by someone more senior. It is especially hard when that bad behaviour is normalised, or even glamourised, and when victims are expected to play along and not make a fuss. The way that individuals can be labelled geniuses, obtaining an almost cult-like following, explains too how this behaviour goes unchallenged.

There is an understandable desire to defend academic freedom. But academic freedom does not include the freedom for academics to have sex with their students or to abuse their peers.

Even when people stand up to this behaviour, badly behaving academics are rarely punished in a way that we might understand as actual punishment. Rather than having their career ended, many will often simply be moved to a new department, or a new university, where their reputation may or may not precede them. Sometimes they will merely be asked to keep their office door open.

Sara Ahmed resigned from her position as Professor of Race and Cultural Studies Goldsmiths, University of London when she discovered that a sexual offender was being protected by the institution. She has described the fact that “when you expose a problem, you pose a problem”; the institutional response is often to critique your perception, rather than change what is happening.

The people who raise complaints are too often sidelined or silenced. And, of course, there are a seemingly inexhaustible number of second chances, or allowances, or accommodations, which are available to certain powerful figures, not only prestigious academics, but also ‘promising’ students, or ‘brilliant’ PhD researchers. There is little thought given to the promise or the brilliance of the people whose lives they have ruined.

My experience of being a woman in academia is that it requires a network of alliances to hold the powerful to account. Being told who you can trust, but more frequently who you should not trust, who you should not have a drink with, who you should not get in a lift with, who you should not ride in a car with, who you should keep your students away from, who you should not answer your hotel door to, who you should not tell which hotel you are staying in. And this might lead into a whole other list, a personal list: who you will not work with under any circumstances, whose keynote you will refuse to attend, whose references you will refuse to write, whose papers you will never cite. Maintaining these lists is a form of self-protection, but it never feels like doing enough.

Academia is a system of unspoken rules – a white patriarchal space built on elites and elitism. People who feel outsiders in this system – women and LBGTQ people and working class people and people of colour, and especially people who share two or more of these identities – are made vulnerable because the rules often are not written down, certainly not anywhere that is easy to find, or the rules don’t matter.

That queasy feeling of something being ‘off’ and somebody taking advantage might just be the feeling of being in one of these exclusionary and hierarchical spaces as a vulnerable outsider. And this makes it even harder to protect yourself, when you most need to. Academia should be built on a duty of care: to our students, to each other, to the values that we are supposed to hold dear. But the fact that a space of such transformative potential can so fail the most vulnerable among is a betrayal of those values.

Photographs Tom Pilston for Tortoise, Getty Images


Lecturer in Twentieth-Century British History at the University of Southampton.

Next in this file

Taking action

Taking action

Our coverage of a Cambridge University college’s handling of sexual assault allegations has led to calls for widespread change

5 of 5