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Friday, December 01, 2023

Letter to the Editor: Poor treatment of grad students rampant

I am writing to thank The Daily Cardinal’s editorial board for your December 5th opinion piece.

You are right — John Brady’s experience is not unique. His experience resulted from a systemic problem, not a problem limited to one professor/researcher or one department. UW-Madison (as well as other major research universities) may claim ignorance, but they can only do so because it has historically been difficult for students who are the targets of abuse to come forward without risking career annihilation. In other words, research academia has not wanted to know about, or hear from, students like John Brady.

I recently completed a PhD in Social Welfare at UW-Madison as well as a year and some months of a postdoc at UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health. I witnessed abusive dynamics in both places and no one in a position of power intervened, even when students spoke up.

A few brief examples: a social work professor once asked during a conference practice talk, attended by other graduate students and professors, if I could “get something through” my “little brain.” Another social work professor audibly laughed at me during a class presentation, and the same professor announced to a group of graduate students from multiple departments that I was “destined for failure” because I sat in the back of the room. I use these examples because they come to mind and are easy to describe, but the most damaging dynamics were less overt and more difficult to summarize.

During the first year of the PhD program, we attended a seminar where professors gave us tips for success. One tip that came up repeatedly was “don’t burn bridges.” After I heard this advice a few times, my interest piqued. Don’t burn bridges ... students? How would a student who is trying to earn a degree burn a bridge? As my time in the program went on, I began to understand. “Don’t burn bridges” really meant “don’t disobey.” 

I saw that students burned bridges by expressing differences of opinion, asserting the right to have a contract honored (e.g., hours worked under a certain appointment percentage) or — what seemed to be the cardinal sin — disagreeing in some fundamental way with something a professor declared true. In other words, a student could burn a bridge without realizing it, even in the course of an honest scholarly debate, and then a professor could use the “burned bridge” as an excuse for humiliation, reputation destruction, resource withdrawal or some other form of punishment. 

The actual message was that students should be ever-vigilant of what their superiors wanted and how they wanted it, and that students must align themselves with their superiors’ preferences ... or else. 

Well, unfortunately I stopped paying for things I want in adoration a long time ago. I learned as a child that the need for adoration in the people who demand it is endless, and that lurking behind the demand is rage. I learned that should I decline to adore, I would experience the rage. And so I did.

I saw the same thing in academia. Some professors demand obedience and adoration and they will find someone to destroy if they do not feel adequately adored. These professors experience no consequences for their behavior and the phenomenon of victim blaming reinforces it. And just like in a dysfunctional family where the non-abusive caregiver aligns with the abuser, other professors allow the abuse and sometimes replicate it. Graduate students also sometimes join in, possibly to stay out of the line of fire (also similar to what happens in a dysfunctional family) or perhaps because joining in means faster annihilation of one of their competitors. In such situations the target of abuse has little to no recourse, especially if the professor knows not to generate evidence. 

That the university allows these things to happen is wrong, and none of it is necessary or beneficial to scholarship. Graduate students do not need to be berated or humiliated to do good work, and graduate students should not have to prove the experience of their own abuse to be protected from it. 

Professors do not have an innate right to self-governance, especially if it means that some of them regularly unleash rage on students who are in a vulnerable career stage and unable to protect themselves. 

Some people seem to think that harsh/abusive mentoring has a place in an environment where only the "best" should survive. This is archaic and nonsensical. The willingness to inflict abuse has nothing to do with the quality of a professor’s work or the rigor of a professor’s standards. In fact, some of the worst offenders I experienced were minimally competent at best. 

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Similarly, the ability to withstand, overlook or even participate in abuse has nothing to do with the quality of a student's work. Instead, by failing to intervene with abusive dynamics targeted at graduate students, the university may be unknowingly selecting those most likely to perpetuate abuse into academic careers. 

Everything done in the dark will come to the light. With John Brady’s foreseeable and preventable death, research academia's reckoning is overdue. 

Andrea Larson recently completed her PhD in Social Welfare at UW. What are your thoughts on the Toxic Lab situation and the treatment of graduate students? Send all comments to 

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