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#MeToo in higher education: the problem with the love of power

  • 25 July 2018
  • By Diana Beech

On Monday 16 July, I chaired my final HEPI roundtable policy discussion, in conjunction with HEPI Partner Elsevier, looking at the topic of human behaviours in higher education. The discussion (held under the Chatham House rule) took as its starting point the #MeToo movement, which has exposed the prevalence of abusive and domineering behaviours in various professions over the past year, yet has left the higher education sector seemingly unscathed.

The blog that follows is based on the main points that were raised during the evening and serves as a ‘rallying cry’ to the sector to look more seriously at the working culture in our universities and colleges to eradicate unacceptable behaviours.

 Let’s start by making one thing clear: academics are not special. Yes, we may have hard-won qualifications; many of us may have become experts in our respective fields; and we may indeed be thought of as eccentric compared to the rest of the population; but being ‘quirky’ and ‘different’ in this respect certainly does not mean we have a special status from everyone else and are free to operate above the law.

While bad practices have been gradually exposed in other sectors and industries over the past year, the ‘ivory tower’ of academia has remained largely impervious to criticism and change. A dangerous mix of cynicism and acceptance has come to dominate the working culture in higher education, to the extent that success does not necessarily come to those who are just academically excellent, but to those who are also able to withstand the added pressures particular to the academic environment.

Power play

In a sector where hierarchies hold firm, and research grants or permanent jobs are scarce, tales of questionable practice to get to the top are plentiful. The competitive nature of the profession may lead some individuals to resort to overt displays of power, which may (consciously or otherwise) undermine others in the process. Power relationships are arguably most pronounced for those in the early stages of their career – such as PhD candidates and post-docs, who are seen as dependent on their supervisors for good references, grant money and future connections. Yet, even among established academics, there is a general acceptance that he or she who gets the big grant money, holds the most power.

Man’s world?

Despite there being more female students in higher education today than males, academia is still seen as a man’s world – particularly when it comes to senior appointments. Women make up just 24.6% of academic staff on professorial contracts. Anecdotal evidence also reveals unconscious bias against women still prevails, with female researchers frequently being asked if they are in administrative or support roles, or even being mistaken for the ‘coffee lady’.

Unfortunately, there are examples of some male academics pushing their seeming positions of power too far and exploiting younger female researchers. Some female academics have reported being at the receiving end of unwanted advances from men while away at academic conferences, while others recount sexist comments that are driving them out of academia altogether. It is no by consequence that these women wish to remain anonymous. The power-play in the sector has become so entrenched that unacceptable behaviour like this often goes unchallenged – that’s just the way it is; it’s always been like that.

Wider problem

Bullying and abuse in academia goes much further than displays of power between the generations or between the sexes, however. Recent reports from staff identifying as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender (LGBT+), from staff from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds, or from those coping with disabilities or illness show they have all experienced ill-treatment at the hands of others in the academic workplace. Support staff can sometimes feel subjugated and undermined by their academic colleagues, and university managers, too, have been made to feel ‘incompetent and stupid’. Women are also not exonerated from blame, with more established women sometimes being abusive and domineering, particularly to younger women starting out in their careers.

The ‘Tesco test’

With so many varieties of abuse being reported in the sector, it is high time we ask ourselves whether we would be so accepting of such behaviour if it happened elsewhere in society, such as in offices, gyms or even in the supermarket? Higher education institutions are public spaces too and should always be subject to the ‘Tesco test’ – meaning if it would not be acceptable to behave in a certain way to another person in the middle of an aisle in Tesco, it should not be tolerated in our universities and colleges either.

Culture change

A change in culture is urgently needed. Yet, the solution is far from simple:

  • First, we need strong leaders in place, who can set an example and roll out a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to bad behaviours;
  • second, we need to create a culture in academia where victims of bullying and exploitation feel comfortable to report their abuse and call out the culprit;
  • third, we need to encourage bystander training so that staff and students know how to react if they see someone else being bullied or abused;
  • fourth, we need to devise effective policies and processes to deal with incidences of abuse; and
  • fifth, we need to celebrate good behaviour as well as call out bad behaviour, so that the solution becomes as much about reward and recognition as it is punishment.

Collecting data on cases of bullying and abuse is a good start, but statistics can only ever tell us what is happening within institutions and not, most crucially, why it is happening or what is being done about it. The reputation of our higher education institutions ultimately rests on how they deal with these issues, not on how they report them, so we need to have leaders in place who are prepared to see heads roll. Representative bodies and mission groups, like Universities UK and the Russell Group, could also be doing more to show strong leadership in this area.

Academics, too, have an important role to play in eradicating abuses of power in the sector. One of the best ways to undermine an abusive supervisor – and to make their victims feel supported to call out their behaviour – is for other academics to be willing to step in and provide support or references to those they see being mistreated. Displays of power will quickly lose their appeal for domineering supervisors if victims know their future success does not necessarily lie in their supervisor’s hands and that there is always someone more senior and supportive they can turn to instead.

Everyone ultimately needs an ally in a battle and, if we are to succeed in making our higher education sector a tolerant and respectful place to study and to work, then the whole community needs to come together in a united front against unacceptable behaviours. Now is therefore the time to send out a clear message that success in academia rests on the power of love and not the love of power.


  1. Holly Falk-Krzesinski says:

    Such an important piece and call to action, thank you. See also the recent US National Academies report on sexual harrassment in STEMM fields:

  2. Shân Wareing says:

    Excellent blog Diana, well said. Very strong challenges and call to action. Thank you.

  3. graham towl says:

    Thank you for this interesting article shedding light on power abuses in Higher Education. It is encouraging to see increased reporting levels of sexual violence at universities. However, whereas students are increasingly stepping up to the plate in this respect, many university communities appear to lag behind in service provision. One recent innovation in the sector is the shift to a civil level of evidence for investigations into sexual violence rather than the inappropriate criminal level of proof. My hope would be that most UK universities would now touch upon issues of tackling sexual violence on open days, the same with addressing hate crime – although I suspect that as a sector we still have some way to go in both of these areas.

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