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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Chancellor responds to recent recounts of academic bullying at UW-Madison

In a statement released Monday, Chancellor Rebecca Blank responded to investigations by The Wisconsin State Journal into hostile and intimidating behavior found at University of Wisconsin-Madison labs.

“UW-Madison strives to ensure that our learning and working environments are places where everyone feels valued and can succeed,” Blank said. “To reach this goal, we must address instances of hostile and intimidating behavior (HIB) head on, particularly in relationships where power differentials exist, such as between faculty advisers and graduate students."

The university defines hostile and intimidating behavior (HIB) as “unwelcome behavior pervasive or severe enough that a reasonable person would find it hostile and/or intimidating and that does not further the university’s academic or operational interests.”

As early as 2014, UW-Madison was one of the first universities to establish explicit HIB policies and training to prevent hostile and intimidating behavior. UW-Madison also has the strongest combination of policy, response and support resources in comparison to other Big Ten schools, the statement said. 

According to Assistant Vice Chancellor John Lucas, there have been 110 workshops put into place for 2,700 people since March 2018. The university is also developing an online version of HIB training to continuously show their support.

Academic bullying has caused many students to remain quiet, drop out of school and may bring about post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. There have been reports of professors performing verbal abuse and threats to graduate students. 

Johanne Brunet and Akbar Sayeed are two professors that have had noticeable allegations for this kind of behavior. Reports of Johanne Brunet have come to light as she agreed to resign from an unpaid university appointment in 2019 when the university made the decision to fire her.

Brunet was an entomology professor and had been reported for hostile and intimidating behavior. Her case was investigated by Professor Ann C. Palmenberg, who found 30 of Brunet’s allegations to be true. 

According to public record reports, some of these allegations include physically aggressive behavior, making it difficult for students to finish academic work, refusing to review drafts, abusive expression and a failure to perform responsibilities as a faculty member. 

None of her eight students received their PhD. Of these students, two considered suicide, three are in therapy and one has post-traumatic stress disorder, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Four said their pleas were unaddressed. Brunet is still a researcher under the federal agency in the Madison office and runs her own lab.

Sayeed is another UW-Madison professor who received backlash and allegations when one of his students, John Brady, committed suicide in 2016. 

“For every student like Brady, there are a number of others who suffer in silence or leave academia altogether,” said Kelley Meyerhofer from the Wisconsin State Journal.

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Sayeed’s charges consisted of unwelcome behavior, abuse of authority, abusive expression and engaging in conduct which adversely affects performance of responsibilities to the university, according to public records. However, his actions were not serious enough to warrant dismissal. He denied many allegations, saying that the university was the one to show hostile and intimidating behavior toward him.

The Wisconsin State Journal also reported that Sayeed was recognized for “shouting, swearing and berating” students, faculty and staff. 

“These behaviors are unacceptable and harm individuals and our mission,” Lucas said in an interview with The Daily Cardinal. 

The procedure for reporting this kind of behavior begins by going to the dean’s office. From there, the dean, some faculty members and lawyers from the Office of Legal Affairs decide if the complaint goes to the Provost's Office for investigation. 

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, international students are also more vulnerable to HIB because if they were to face hostile and intimidating behavior, they do not have a support system nearby due to cultural and language barriers. They are also most likely on a student visa to study in the U.S. 

To help with this issue, multilingual versions of the workshops were launched in 2019.

“UW-Madison is committed to preventing HIB and will take prompt and appropriate corrective action whenever we learn that it has occurred,” Lucas said. 

Those that are experiencing hostile and intimidating behavior or know someone who is are encouraged to report incidents to their respective human resources representative, supervisor, manager, department chair, director or dean. 

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