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Friday, September 29, 2023

Cardinal View: Toxic lab indicates a broader toxic culture, learning environment

When headlines detailing the harrowing situation resulting in grad student John Brady’s death plastered the internet, UW-Madison quaked. 

Sure, we all knew Badgers are enrolled in some of the most esteemed programs — particularly in Engineering, Brady’s area of study — in the world, and this esteem is accompanied by increased expectations and rigor, but driving a student to commit suicide? This is undoubtedly unacceptable, regardless of how many awards our scholars attain, or to really cut to the chase, how much money this cutting-edge research brings to our dear UW. 

While one may be inclined to blame vague rhetoric for varying expectations of graduate and other students, there is nothing but harm done when a professional refers to their students as “chimpanzees” and “slaves.” 

This incident — where it should be noted that the professor in question of “toxic” behavior has remained a part of UW’s faculty, to return after a mere 2-year leave — is not isolated. Mental health threats associated with academics and work culture ravage our beautiful campus, and the lives of Badgers regardless of program, year and background. 

The lack of reprehension from UW toward Sayeed enabled him to receive another job at the National Science Foundation during his leave. The light punishment continues to show how unaware and uninvolved the university is with the toxic work environments some students are under. 

#BlockSayeed was trending on Twitter. Reddit threads begged the question as to why he remains a part of the UW system. Nearly 2,000 graduate students and other UW affiliates have been circulating a petition calling for his permanent removal. 

Email statements from the high-ups and apologies from the Engineering department aren’t enough. Not only must Sayeed be held accountable, but we must work toward establishing a new academic environment rampant with support and collaboration, not manipulation and fear. 

Upon discussing Brady’s death with Badgers across disciplines who self-identified as being personally impacted mentally by their academic rigor, many shared a sentiment along the lines of  “Are you freaking kidding me?” with a dash of “To be honest, I am not even surprised.” 

For some students, this sends a signal that this type of behavior will be seen as okay or not taken seriously for the actual impact and damage it can have. 

“With the current state of the world, I’m pretty aware that abuse and toxic environments are prevalent in most all fields of work [so] it makes sense that it also has it’s grasps in academia,” said one student, who is planning on attending graduate school herself. “It’s a big f*ck you to students and basically says ‘Your health and comfort are less important than this guy’s research’.”

The lack of proper policies and services for students at the university level leave them feeling uncertain of the environment they will be entering. This is a sign that UW failed and chose to remain ignorant to the toxic environment right under their noses.

“The entire system is broken, but they [the university] are not free of guilt since there have been no actions to change the system,” said an undergraduate student studying engineering. “UW-Madison follows along the academic norm, which is the product of a horribly out-of-date education system.”

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Another student, also in the engineering department, questioned the motives of her professors when placing rigorous expectations on them academically. 

“Some classes require you to essentially give up your livelihood in order to succeed. I feel stupid in classes for not understanding material I haven’t been taught, haven’t been introduced to, yet there is an expectation of mastery,” she said. “It has taken many good and bad semesters to fully develop enough confidence in my intelligence and capabilities to not base my self-esteem on the label of a grade.”

Brady’s story is a cautionary tale, shedding light on some of the darker aspects for college students. This incident has really resonated with both undergrad and grad students who may be under similar rigorous conditions or dealing with mental health issues. 

This is not something that can be simply swept under the rug any longer.

The mental health of college students — particularly those at the graduate level  — can no longer be left off our priorities list. The cultural norm of working oneself beyond their limits, especially in tandem with potentially toxic advisor/supervisor dynamics, can no longer persist. We must nurture these bright minds of the future and encourage their growth, rather than strangling them with unfair expectations and intimidation tactics. 

There needs to be more thorough procedures for not only graduate work environments, but all college levels to have better policies and codes of conduct, especially when it comes to harassment and bullying. 

The amount of complaints and little follow-through leave students feeling helpless and alone. The system has continuously tolerated this abusive behavior as made obvious by Sayeed’s suspension despite violating a hostile behavior policy put in place in 2016. 

The current system fosters an isolating environment that places individualistic and “mind your own business” behavior over collaborative, positive workplaces. We must challenge ourselves and our university to do better.

Students shouldn’t feel the need to cheat, deprive themselves of sleep and a healthy routine, or resort to self-harm in order to feel successful academically. Already-depleted mental health resources may not seem like an option for some folx due to stigma or financial restraints, so we must set realistic expectations for our peers, TAs and especially ourselves. We must lean heavily on the resources that do exist, and hold departmental faculty accountable in their support and expectations as per university policy. 

What are your thoughts on the Toxic Lab situation and the treatment of graduate students? Send all comments to 

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