Archive for Bullying

Speak Out about Bullying in Academia

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc, Maynooth with tags , on April 4, 2023 by telescoper

I was interested to learn, via 9th Level Ireland, that local TD Bernard Durkan recently tabled a written question in the Dáil Éireann about harassment and bullying in Irish third-level institutions:

To ask the Minister for Education and Skills to indicate the extent to which his Department continues to monitor incidents of professional bullying throughout the higher education system; the extent to which bullying is evident in colleges throughout the country; the action taken or being taken to counter this; and if he will make a statement on the matter.


The response from the Minister Simon Harris contains the following:

The Deputy will be aware that there are a number of Programme for Government (PfG) commitments aimed at addressing bullying, including a commitment to commission surveys of staff and students in the areas of harassment, sexual harassment, and bullying in higher education.

It also contains this:

The Deputy will also be familiar with the ‘Speak Out’ tool which my Department has funded. Speak Out is an online, anonymous reporting tool for staff, students and visitors to higher education institutions that was developed by the Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland with financial support from my Department, the Department of Education and the Higher Education Authority.

I must either have missed the news about Speak Out (or forgotten it) but I see that it can be accessed via my own institution, for example, here. Other universities and colleges have their own links. The dialogue page says:

The big problem with taking a bullying complaint further than mere anonymous reporting is that the legal definition of bullying is far less clear than the others. One definition I’ve found is:

Bullying is an ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm.

Even this is problematic because “intent” is difficult to prove. Power relationships in academia are often distorted by the hierarchical management structures, so bullying is not just contained within the academic staff and students but also from senior management and to support staff. For that reason there’s a lot of this about. Reporting is good but I’m not sure what it actually achieves. Universities seem to be keen to hide bullying, conniving with those responsible shield them and avoid institutional harm, just as they do with harassment and other forms of abusive behaviour.

Guest Post: Hannelore’s Story

Posted in Harassment Bullying etc with tags , on January 30, 2023 by telescoper

In November last year I published an anonymous guest post entitled The Bullying of Hannelore by a Professor of Astronomy, recounting the bullying of a member of administrative staff (referred to pseudonymously as Hannelore) in an Astronomy Department in the UK. Among other features of the response to that post, it was remarkable how many people from different institutions contacted me to suggest that this post was about their institution, which strongly suggests that bullying of the sort described is endemic in UK universities.

This is Hannelore’s side of the story. As before, all the names have been changed and the institution is not identified. I think you should read it.

Hannelore’s Story

Hannelore has been employed by her University for over 10 years on fixed term contracts. She is also an alumna of the University.

She works with a large international astronomy collaboration, as their project manager. She supports the research of colleagues in her Department, as well as the coordination of the exams.

Four years ago, she made a mistake.

Hannelore became an active bystander to a colleague (in his absence), when she refuted allegations and insinuations the Head of Department was making about his financial mismanagement. She knew they were untrue.

Thereafter, her professional life changed.

Previously uncomplicated processes were tightened up, layers of control and approval were imposed, responsibilities removed. She was cut out of email communications, two successive applications for promotion were turned down, the locks to an office she could previously access were changed, timesheets were thrown on her office floor. Grant applications became an obstacle course, the Head of Department imposing sole approval rights and driving proposal submissions to the deadline until all of his conditions were met, with new rules and arbitrary policies emerging all the time.

Unbeknown to her, the Head of Department was also making insinuations about her work, her trustworthiness, her confidentiality and her behaviour. He was eroding her reputation, the professional relationships she had forged with others and slowly also her confidence.

Every time she reacted to the incidents, things only became worse.

A confidential report was commissioned into her behaviour. An HR professional concluded that her worries were real to her, “but imaginary”.

Within days, her Head of Department was busy leaking his ”substantial concerns” about her mental health which had been highlighted in the recent investigation, and which the Department did not have the means to address.

Seemingly exonerated, her Head of Department intensified the bullying. Within three weeks of the report, she received an end-of-contract letter. She had been put in the formal process of redundancy. This was while still supporting the Examiners in her department.

Hannelore was being dismissed from her job.

She had guaranteed funding from the European Community to support her for four years. But, it was a fixed term contract, so it still needed final approval from her Head of Department.

But, the Head of Department argued … well, anything really … so as not to sign. He said that there was no PI to support the project, that there was no space in the Department, that the project was scientifically valueless, that the grant should be transferred to another UK institution, that the Department had no “bandwidth to support a mentally unbalanced woman”.

It all became too much for her. She was very close to breaking down.

The Head of Department was also one of the Examiners.

Hannelore used the very little that was left of her resources to make sure the examinations were properly supported. In spite of prospective joblessness. In spite of belittling by the Head of Department/Examiner.

One of the other Examiners saw her distress and blew the whistle on the Head of Department’s aggressive behaviour. The redundancy process was momentarily paused.

Then, a document was written by two colleagues: a factual description for review by the academic staff of her grant’s approval process. To prevent exposure, the Head of Department gave in to matters being taken out of his hands. The funding was signed off the next day, though not by him.

Hannelore would have her job, after all.

But, the Head of Department was furious. He issued not one, not two, but three formal Grievances against each of the Professors who had helped her in her distress. He said he had not been doing any bullying — it was everyone else who had been bullying him. The three Professors all remain under investigation to this day.

Eighteen months later, Hannelore can see how the bullying has affected her.  

When bullying goes on for so long, people modify their behaviour and start to behave oddly. They lose more support. Everybody then thinks that person is odd. But it is because of the bullying.

She can see this happened to her in a mild fashion for two years, in a stronger fashion for one year and in an unacceptable fashion for the final two months, before the Head of Department was exposed.

And the University … well, they are not interested in Hannelore.

They are only concerned in avoiding a major public scandal.


Bullying at ETH Zürich leads to a dismissal

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on July 17, 2019 by telescoper

I was wondering why this old post from 2017 (which was my busiest post of the year back then) has been experiencing a resurgence in traffic over the last few days, and I’ve only just found out the reason.

According to this article, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zürich has taken formal action to dismiss a professor from the former Institute for Astronomy. This follows a scandal about bullying in the Institute of Astronomy, which led to the Institute being closed down. The Professor against whom the allegations of bullying have been made is Marcella Carollo, who is not named in the article I linked to above but is named in this more complete account (in German).

This would be the first time in the history of the ETH that a Professor has actually been dismissed.

It has taken quite a while to get this far with this very sorry case – it would have been far better had the complaints about Prof. Carollo been dealt with sooner, but if there is any good to emerge it will be that ETH puts in place better processes for the supervision of early career researchers generally, and particularly for dealing with allegations of bullying.

Unprofessional Astronomy – arXiv:1711.02090

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 8, 2017 by telescoper

It is essential to the way that science works that published results are challenged by independent scrutiny and by confrontation with rival analysis. New facts and new theoretical explanations are often established and previously existing misapprehensions eliminated through this form of critical dialogue. More often than not this process of claim and counter-claim is carried out in a collegiate spirit because all parties are mindful that this kind of debate is part and parcel of the scientific method. To behave otherwise as a scientist is unprofessional.

Regrettably, however, sometimes scientists overstep the mark and engage in behaviour which falls short of this expectation, particularly when it is by a senior scientist directed towards a junior colleague because then unnecessarily aggressive criticism can take on the mantle of bullying.

Today I saw a paper on the arXiv by Bouwens et al. that contains criticism of a previous paper by Livermore et al. (2017) (arXiv version here) which I think oversteps the mark in this way, especially because the lead author of the first paper, Rychard Bouwens, is an established (male) academic and the first author of the second, Rachael Livermore, is a (female) postdoctoral researcher.

Two footnotes from the Bouwens et al. paper suffice to give a flavour of the tone. This is footnote 8:

This is footnote 9:

There are a number of inappropriate aspects of these comments (and others made elsewhere in the paper). I’ll mention just two.

First, note the highlighted `claimed sample’ in Footnote 8. The only way I can read this phrase is as an insinuation that the Livermore et al. sample has somehow been fabricated. In other words, it is a snide allegation of research misconduct. This may not be what Bouwens et al intended to say, but that’s certainly how it reads. And the phrase `claimed sample’ appears more than once in their paper. If they don’t mean it that way then I strongly suggest they edit the paper to clarify, as it is potentially extremely defamatory.

Second, note that the Livermore et al. results are published in the Astrophysical Journal. That means that they have therefore passed peer review and are in the public domain. That does not mean that they cannot be challenged, of course, but note that in Footnote 8, Bouwens et al. refer to an article that is not public, not refereed and not even finished.  I don’t think this it is fair to include this in the current paper as the evidence to back up the criticism is simply not available. Note also the implication in Footnote 9 that the referee of this paper did not understand the issues presented in the paper, either.

Now I don’t know who (if anyone) is right about the luminosity function results in these papers. Luminosity function determinations are difficult, being prone to all kinds of selection biases and other problems. I am not going to side with either set of authors on the technicalities. I just think it’s extremely regrettable that Bouwens have adopted this tone towards another group of authors whom they should regard as colleagues. It is perfectly reasonable to criticise the work of another group in the literature, but in my experience this usually only happens after the two teams have discussed the issues in private and failed to reconcile their differences. That can and does happen, but here there does not seem to have been any attempt to sort this out amicably before going on the offensive. I find that deeply regrettable.

By the way, this is the AAS Policy on Professional and Ethical Standards for its journals (including the Astrophysical Journal, to which the Bouwens et al. paper has been submitted):





The Zurich Letters

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 31, 2017 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post following up my previous piece on the Bullying Scandal at ETH Zurich.

As pointed out in a comment on that post, a letter of support for one of the named Professors (Marcella Carollo) has been signed by a number of astronomers, including some prominent senior professors. That letter can be found here (PDF).

A version of that letter which has been annotated by Chris Lintott to draw attention to some of its shortcomings can be found here. I won’t add much to Chris’s comments, but will mention that a dropout rate of 30% of students funded by the UK  Science and Technology Facilities Council would lead to financial penalties on the institution responsible. Moreover, ETH Zurich is a prestigious institution with a highly selective admissions policy for postgraduate students and a high level of funding. It is not unreasonable to expect a high completion rate under these circumstances.

Other than that, the two main messages of the first letter seem to be (a) `some people did well so it must all be OK’ and (b) `the ends justify the means’. I can’t agree with either of these points. Reaction I have seen on social media to the letter have been overwhelmingly negative, to the extent that Prof. Bryan Gaensler has drafted an alternative letter, in support of the ETH Researchers, and is collecting signatures. You can find that letter here, where you can also find a list of more than 300 nearly 700 signatories across all walks of astronomical life. You can add your name to this letter at any time until 2359 UTC on Wednesday November 1st, after which the letter and list of signatories will then be delivered to the researchers affected by this sorry affair.

P.S. I’ll just mention that as well as attracting a very large number of visitors (hopefully not all of them lawyers), my original post on this matter is the first I have written to generate over a hundred comments. The previous record was 98.

UPDATE: There’s an item about the second letter here.

The Bullying Scandal in Zurich

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 23, 2017 by telescoper

Yesterday I came across a story about bullying in the Institute of Astronomy at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich in Switzerland (known universally as ETH Zürich). You can find details here (in German) or here (in English, as produced by Google translate).

The allegations contained in this piece are so serious that they have resulted in the closure of the Institute of Astronomy. Two senior members of the faculty are currently on sabbatical and have had their positions transferred to the Department of Physics. You can read the substance of this case in the link I’ve provided so I won’t elaborate further here and will restrict myself to making a couple of points.

First, while this is not the type of case of sexual harassment with which we are becoming regrettably familiar in Astronomy and elsewhere, it does seem to be a product of the same systemic problem: an excessively hierarchical management structure that places far too much power in the hands of prominent individuals at the expense of junior colleagues. Moreover, as in so many other cases, the institutional response seems to be to protect the senior staff rather than to deal with the underlying issues. The institution has allegedly taken over a decade to respond to the accusations of bullying. What compensation or other redress is being offered to those who have been bullied in the Institute of Astronomy during this time? I suspect the ETH just wants to keep the lid on this scandal and hopes it goes away by the time the individuals involved return from `gardening leave’. That is not an adequate response to a situation so serious that it necessitated the closure of an entire Institute. Ironically, just a month ago, ETH Zürich hosted a meeting on `Equal Opportunity at Work’.

That brings me to my second point. The article describing this case changes the names of the principal protagonists, perhaps for legal reasons. The allegations are directed at `Gabriella M.’ who arrived at the Institute at the same time (2002) as her British husband `Paul F.’. This information is sufficient to allow anyone working in Astronomy to identify the two immediately. Anyone not familiar with the Astronomy world could arrive at the same conclusion in a few minutes with a little bit of googling (as a non-astronomy friend of mine proved on Facebook last night). I don’t know why the report I’ve linked to felt the need to disguise the identities of these people, but I see no reason to play along with the attempted anonymity even if it were not so badly botched.

The (female) Professor against whom the allegations of bullying have been made is Marcella Carollo and her husband is Simon Lilly. You will see if you look at the Wikipedia page for Marcella Carollo that it has been edited a number of times to include the news presented in the report I linked to, but the editors have been undoing the changes on the grounds that they represent `vandalism’ of a biographical page. Nowadays telling the truth is `vandalism’, apparently.

I might get into trouble for posting this information, but I feel I’m acting in the public interest and anyway I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble…