Chancellor Rebecca Blank issued a statement regarding hostile and intimidating behavior on campus in March addressing the university’s efforts to prevent this behavior following a Wisconsin State Journal investigation that uncovered cases of academic bullying and the university’s shortcomings to proactively prevent abuse.

In 2016, a University of Wisconsin PhD candidate died by suicide after working under graduate adviser Akbar Sayeed, who resigned from his position after two conduct investigations. But the State Journal investigation shows the academic abuse case that sparked protests across campus is not an isolated experience in academia at UW.

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The investigation, led by higher education reporter Kelly Meyerhofer, discovered UW had nine employees investigated for violations of the university’s policy on hostile and intimidating behavior in the last six years, including Sayeed, then-professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. 

UW defines hostile and intimidating behavior 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,” which the university refers to as HIB in its policy. HIB is more causally called academic bullying or academic abuse.

The policy protects anyone who was employed by, or affiliated by contract or agreement with UW, including faculty, staff in training, students, volunteers, contractors and guests, according to UW’s research knowledge base.

“The behavior described is unacceptable and it harms individuals and our missions,” Blank said in a statement. “I am grateful to those who brought their experiences forward. Graduate students deserve a research and learning environment in which they – and other colleagues – can succeed.”

Since 2017, eight individuals have been investigated by the Office of the Provost for violating HIB, according to UW spokesperson John Lucas. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, four employees left the university for other jobs, with two continuing to oversee students.

Tyler, a UW graduate student who agreed to speak to The Badger Herald on the condition of anonymity due to fears of retaliation, said there is a noticeable difference in the atmosphere of the UW graduate school compared to doing research as an undergraduate.

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“In graduate school, there is a lot more toxicity and a lot more gets tolerated,” Tyler said.

Graduate students are faced with the challenge of balancing their classes, research and teaching assistant responsibilities all at the same time, Tyler said, making the extra pressure difficult to handle. Tyler recalled having to work on their lab in class, stay up late grading and studying just to wake up early to head to the lab.

“It is so weird it feels like it has the professional atmosphere in the sense that you work for [UW] and you are expected to work since this is your job, but at the same time you’re not afforded the same rights that an employee would have, so it sometimes feels like the worst of both worlds,” Tyler said.

Graduate student Jack Phillips — a member of the graduate worker union Teaching Assistants Association and student government body Associated Students of Madison — expressed frustration with the university for encouraging students to take informal measures rather than reporting the harassment.  

While I do believe in the power of people talking to each other to solve problems, one could cynically view these informal resolutions as a way to minimize the extent of the problem, or to treat cases of repeated bullying as something new each time,” Phillips wrote in a statement to The Badger Herald, that was not endorsed by ASM or the TAA.

According to a 2019 survey, nearly 40% of UW faculty reported at least one personal experience with HIB within the last three years. But, in the last six years, only nine cases of HIB were investigated, according to Lucas.

“It’s not just these individuals,” Tyler said. “Bad people … somehow sneak through if the system protects people like that, and it will continue to protect people like that unless we really fight for systematic change.” 

Between 2016 and 2019, there was a significant increase in those who said HIB would be treated seriously on campus and know the steps to take if needed, according to the survey.

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The university has taken several steps to address academic bullying, according to Lucas. The university began holding workshops in 2018 regarding how to prevent HIB, Lucas said. Nearly 2,700 individuals have participated in 110 offered workshops.

The university has also improved the processes for responding to HIB reports by requiring substantiated cases to go directly to deans and directors at the school or college level, according to Blank’s statement.

But many graduate students hesitate to report incidents because of possible pushback, Tyler said. Tyler recalled supervisors being informed of which students reported them for HBI, making students uncomfortable in their position. 

The College of Engineering, where Sayeed was a tenured faculty member, has taken multiple steps of its own to address the issue of academic bullying in classrooms and labs, College of Engineering Dean Ian Robertson in a statement to The Badger Herald. 

Since 2016, the College of Engineering has created a graduate student advisory group and met regularly with graduate students to hear their concerns and address issues promptly, Robertson said. 

The College of Engineering began recommending research mentor training for all faculty and students in fall 2021, Robertson said. As of now, 10% of faculty members have participated with more sessions coming this year. 

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Graduate students, such as Tyler, can still feel intimidated speaking with professors because of the power differential that leaves students vulnerable. Giving students opportunities to process their feelings with a fellow student would have been incredibly beneficial, Tyler said.

Graduate students may reach out to support from the Teachers Assistant Association, Phillips said.

“The TAA, your grad worker’s union, is also here to support you through difficult times, whether or not you are a member,” Phillips said.

Phillips encouraged students who may not want to formally report cases of HIB to send as many details as they feel comfortable with to [email protected]. From there, Phillips said a fellow grad can help determine different options and next steps forward. 

Since teaching assistants are considered employees of the university, they are also eligible for services from the employee assistance office, according to UW Director of the Employee Assistance Office Joshua Schiffman. Students can also utilize services at University Health Services. 

Despite multiple avenues of response, Phillips said the university still falls short in preventing HIB behavior by dealing with reports on a case-by-case basis. 

“Treating each case as separate also ignores that these trends clearly point to a larger underlying problem,” Phillips said. “That academia is a hierarchical system where each rung on the ladder — undergrad, graduate school, postdoctoral fellowship, pre-tenure professorship, tenure and eventual moves to administrative duties — incentivizes people at each step to extract as much as possible from those below them while upholding the authority of those applying pressure from above in order to hold onto their position.”

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According to the university, informal, less legalistic and confrontational approaches have yielded the best results in regards to addressing workplace problems.

But for Phillips and other graduate students, these problems require a larger look at the culture of academia.

“As long as everyone’s working conditions are dictated by a central administration, these problems will continue, but if we work to give everyone a democratic voice in all aspects of their workplace, we can begin to heal long-standing traumas and end the cycle of academic bullying,” said Phillips. 

If you have observed or you suspect research misconduct, please report directly to the Research Integrity Office (RIO) at [email protected]. More options of how to address HIB are available here. To consult with other graduate students about a case involving HIB, reach out to the Teaching Assistant Association at [email protected]