Chapter 17 Harassment and Abuse of Power from a Global Perspective

Or the Importance of a Conversation

In: Critical Storytelling: Experiences of Power Abuse in Academia
Open Access

This essay tells highly personal stories, which nevertheless convey uncomfortable recurring motifs, as well as possible blind spots—things we did not know yet. As we do know, however, many people in worldwide academia—students, scholars and administrative staff of all genders—fall victim to abuse of power or harassment at some point in their academic journey. Most of the problems can ultimately be traced back to a basic pattern, in which those with power abuse those who are “weaker”—who lack resources and backing by peers, institutional power or stable employment. But this pattern comes in many guises. Some people face verbal or physical harassment. Others have to watch their work being plagiarized or are forced to do things they do not want to do. There is no single, unified narrative.

While working in an academic institution in a country where I was not born or educated, I gradually became aware that the problems of abuse of power and intimidation are often culturally determined, at least to some extent. Sometimes it was even explained to me: It’s just part of the culture and you just have to adapt. It convinced me that awareness of cultural aspects is crucial for a better understanding of the nature and scope of harassment and abuse of power. In this essay, I do not just reflect on my own experiences, but also on those of others, with the aim of learning from the experiences and considerations of people from different cultures than mine.1 What can we learn from each other by telling our personal and often painful stories, and how could an awareness of the cultural dimension of abuse in the academic world help us process our own experiences? What is the cultural dimension of our particular experiences, and what is more general? And what does the global nature of abuse and harassment imply for the responsibility of academics towards the worldwide academic community?

1 Consolation and New Insights

It was not easy to find the right form for this essay. I started over at least three times, if not more. Every time I tried to write down the events that upset me as a PhD student, they seemed so trivial that I wondered exactly what had happened, and if my experiences actually qualified as forms of intimidation and abuse of power. At the same time, these memories evoked strong emotions, which were difficult to put into words.

The breakthrough came when a colleague shared her experiences with me from the time she worked at a university in Northwestern Europe.2 Just like me, she was a foreigner and educated in a country that, although it was “Western,” was very different from her new homeland. One of the things she noticed was a different attitude towards hierarchy. She told me,

I felt that hierarchies of rank were more closely adhered to in comparison with the bulk of my experience in my home country [the US], which places great emphasis on independence and individual choice. In many cases, it is considered bullying to pull rank on someone or to force or intimidate a person into doing something they have the option of not doing. It took me some time to realize this aspect of my new culture, which I would consider falling under more serious abuse of power when faculty make unreasonable demands in caustic and insulting ways of those with lower rank—whether administrative staff, grad students or post-docs.

My colleague’s words helped me to formulate my own experiences. I realized that what she described was exactly what had upset me early on in my academic career. I found it very difficult to process these events back then, not least because they were sometimes covered up by “higher”-ranked people such as my supervisors, or colleagues who should have protected me, such as confidential advisors, and ombudsmen. It was immensely comforting to hear my colleague say years later that she had faced similar problems. “This is not an aspect of the culture prominently displayed or vocalized, even though it is a major source of anxiety and depression among employees which continually leads to massive burnout and high turnover rates.” Apparently, my experiences were not as trivial as they had seemed. They had been experienced by more people than just me.

My colleague also confirmed what I already sensed, namely that the culture of my new homeland was more hierarchical than that of other countries. I had grown up and gone to school in a country where there was little distance between teacher and student. They could communicate and work together on an equal footing more easily than in my new home country. In the latter, however, it was more acceptable that people with a “higher” position would delegate certain tasks to lower-ranked people, often without much possibility to refuse the request. My native colleagues had fewer difficulties than I did in accepting these requests, as they considered them part of the culture in which they were raised. It made me aware of the fact that the ways in which power relations are constructed and perceived by people are culturally determined. I also realized that there must be a strong cultural dimension to the problems of abuse of power and intimidation in academia.

2 No Single Narratives

One of my most formative and positive experiences as a PhD student was when I was invited to participate in a summer school for PhD students, on a topic that was very close to that of my dissertation. Apart from the fact that I gained a lot of substantial knowledge on which I am still building in my current research, it was an unforgettable experience on a human level.

Normally, at academic events branded as “international,” you will mostly meet scholars from the rich, privileged (and therefore highly-ranked) universities of the “West.” However, the organizers had deliberately chosen to invite a mix of students from different cultural backgrounds. I remember students from Venezuela, Georgia, Sweden, Poland, Belgium, France, Cuba and Syria (the latter two making jokes about having fled from there by boat, a joke few others would be in the position to make). The summer school was free of charge, in contrast with other international academic events, which are usually quite expensive and therefore out of reach for many scholars—especially the younger ones from less-privileged institutions. Most summer school students had only minimal financial scholarships—if any—and probably would not have been able to afford the summer school had it not been free. Extra scholarships were awarded to those who could not pay the travel expenses.

This experience reminded me of the fact that there is much financial inequality in the academic world, depending on the wealth of one’s institution and/or home country. I also learned that if you are in the privileged position to have sufficient financial resources, you can actively do something to reduce that inequality, for example, by selecting and paying for people who normally do not have the resources to participate in international events. Scholars can make a difference in global academia by using their funds intentionally.

I also became aware of certain blind spots in my own thinking about the academic world. Because we often know only our own story and do not get in touch with academics from other cultures, we do not realize—or do not realize enough—that there are other stories as well, especially when it comes to power relations within the academy. If I had not attended this summer school and talked to scholars from other cultures, I might have believed that abuse of power was mainly something between a professor and student, or at least between academics that are not on the same rung of the academic ladder. I would not have realized that abuse of power can also result from the unequal division of resources and asymmetrical relationships between wealthy and less-wealthy academic institutions in different parts of the world.

3 Intercultural Conversations

While wrestling with this essay, I stumbled upon Hans-Georg Gadamer’s idea of the fusion of horizons. According to Gadamer’s Truth and Method, “Understanding is always the process of a fusion of these horizons supposedly existing for themselves” (2004, p. 306). I was familiar with Gadamer’s idea from my philosophy classes as an undergraduate, in which it was discussed as part of the question of how to obtain knowledge. I did not know that this model also deals with intercultural communication. According to Gadamer, in order to understand the other, we have to demonstrate a willingness to listen to what the other has to say. One has to learn to “look beyond what is close at hand—not in order to look away from it but to see it better, within in a larger whole and in truer proportion” (p. 305). In this conversation with the other, one’s earlier expectations are fused with the new experiences and simultaneously superseded by a new horizon of understanding.

It occurred to me that Gadamer’s detached way of looking at things, beyond the matter close at hand, might be a good way to give place to my personal and painful experiences of harassment and abuse of power, and to gain more insight into the nature of these problems in academia. What was general, and what was culturally specific? I also realized that Gadamer’s call to open up and listen to the other was probably the only way to detect blind spots in my own thinking and to better know what my responsibilities are towards my colleagues in the academic world.

Over the past few months, I have spoken with academics from different parts of the world whom I’ve met during my, at this point, relatively short journey through the academy. I spoke with D., a lecturer from the United States, with R., an assistant professor from Mexico, and with G., a lecturer from India. I deeply admire their courage and willingness to share their stories with me and am grateful for all the things I learned from them. Here I would like to share some of the recurring elements I discerned in the stories of my international conversation partners, as well as some of the blind spots I had, as a scholar trained and later employed at one of the many wealthy, privileged universities in Northwestern Europe.

4 Blind Spots

One of my blind spots was due simply to the fact that the form of power abuse did not originate in my own culture. This is the problem of caste discrimination in India, pointed out by my colleague G. from India. Caste discrimination is a serious obstacle to attaining a PhD position, she says. “Candidates are selected based on their caste affiliations, which are clearly identifiable through their surnames. The practice continues in the process of appointment of supervisors.” It also affects the evaluation of the research of PhD students. “Often a high caste professor is appointed as the supervisor for the student from a similar background and a professor from a lower caste background is appointed to advise a student from lower castes. This creates much inequality, especially since students from the lower castes are evaluated by teachers from higher castes on their research presentations, oral exams and thesis defenses.”

Before my conversation with G., I had never thought about the implications of the caste system for academic life in India. If you would have asked me, I would have supposed that it would not have affected academic life that much, trusting that humanities scholars in India would be more sensitive to such issues of discrimination. Some undoubtedly are, and are perhaps fighting these problems. Others may have blind spots, just like me.

Other blind spots had to do with problems of which I was vaguely aware, but which I had not given much further thought. An example is the abuse of power arising from institutional discrimination, something which is certainly present in Europe, too, although it is not talked about much. My Mexican colleague R. works at an institution she defines as “outside the core of the academic world defined by the big universities and international rankings,” a “renowned but low-resourced institution compared to others in and beyond Mexico.” The institution is seen as peripheral to other universities in the Spanish-speaking realm.

The perceived “lower” status of R.’s university has a direct impact on her access to the academic world. “Alterity is a critical issue in this context,” she observes. “Decisions such as acceptance of an abstract for a conference, or invited lectures, are many times guided by tacit prejudices about the other.” It leaves her in a “vulnerable position,” she says, not least because she does not have the institutional resources to fight back, but only her own personal ones. As R. seems to suggest by “tacit prejudices,” the discrimination is at least partly the result of the fact that scholars—especially those from wealthier and higher-ranked institutions, who are in charge of most of the international academic events and communication channels—are guided by certain presuppositions about which they may not even be aware, and about which they never really talk to another.

R.’s story makes it clear that such asymmetric inter-institutional power relations also reinforce forms of abuse in academia. She herself became the victim of plagiarism and sloppy source referencing. R. discovered that parts of her research—both central ideas and previous publications, and newly presented sources—had been used by scholars from higher-ranked universities in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries who even copied parts of her writings, most often without reference to her work. Having discovered this, she wrote to the editors of the publication and pointed out to them the similarities between the texts in question. The editors expressed concern, but evaded the issue. R.’s complaint was essentially dismissed.

R. felt that her concerns and complaints were not taken seriously, and that her case had suffered from the fact that she did not have the affiliation and contacts that the other scholar could have had. Instances of plagiarism and sloppy citation, seemingly informed by asymmetric power relations, are usually kept under the radar. However, they invoke the question of to what extent they are part of a much bigger problem in which scholars use their position at the expense of scholars in more vulnerable positions.

I discovered more easily-overlooked examples of intimidation and abuse of power in academia. G. tells about how it was made impossible for her to get a PhD position because she had the “wrong” political views. “Soon after I completed my master’s degree, there was an opening for a temporary teaching position for which I applied. The interviewer mentioned that although I was the most qualified candidate, they would not offer me the position. The underlying reason was well-known to all the candidates—a difference of political opinion. The faculty were strong supporters of the right wing and I wasn’t.” G. learned “to maintain a safe distance between professors of a different opinion, religion or caste, and not to openly state her opinion.”

Such occurrences, in which academics are put in a vulnerable position or abused because of their personal views or beliefs, also occur at European universities. I remember how a colleague once asked me not to tell anyone that he was a Christian, because he was afraid that he would be taken less seriously and bullied. There seems to be a tendency among scholars not to be open about their personal convictions, especially when they are different from what is considered mainstream at a certain faculty or university. This situation is widely accepted and often remains unquestioned. It is one of the blind spots in the discourse about abuse of power and intimidation at Western European universities.

5 Recurring Elements and Trends

From my conversations it also became clear that in addition to blind spots—which sometimes have to do with culture-specific dimensions of harassment and abuse of power—there are general elements that keep recurring in different cultures. Some are at the root of abuse of power and intimidation; others rather aggravate the problems.

One of these recurring elements is what D. calls a “bottom-line approach to higher education” in the US. She means that universities are expected to make money from their academic activities, “to turn a profit, turning students into customers, and faculty into disposable cogs in a machine.” Many of these detrimental developments are also threatening the European academic world, D. feels, where “output is greatly emphasized, as if research institutions are factories, sacrificing quality in favor of quantity.” The bottom-line approach leads to inequality and discrimination, D. says. “Hiring committees tend to select internally favored candidates or only seek graduates of elite institutions or male, white candidates of European descent. Tenure committees demand more of women and women of color than they do of their white male counterparts of European descent. And temporary (adjunct) positions are steadily replacing full-time positions.”

One of the most striking recurring elements is the difficulty victims experience in raising issues of abuse in academia and fighting against it. “Being a woman in academia,” R. says, “I have experienced and witnessed the difficulties of fighting against plagiarism when you appeal to male committees at more powerful institutions that have to resolve your case but seem more interested in defending their journals, colleagues or institutions. No fair play at all and nearly no institutional resources to help you.” D. suggests that this is an institutionalized problem. “Sexual harassment and intimidation of faculty of lower rank and students are often kept secret, with the abuser—sometimes serial abusers—with prominent standing in the scholarly community protected.”

The fear of speaking out can be reinforced by the cultural context. In India, G. notes, “Most often incidences [of abuse] do not come to light for fear that the student will lose all that he/she has worked for. The common reason for all these instances in India is caste, religious or political difference, sense of hierarchy and seniority, and sometimes personal enmity or disagreement. These cases are not only local, as the instances mentioned above come from across the country. The abuse of power based on religion or caste is mostly seen as a part of culture, rarely do people speak or raise a voice against it.” I had the same experience in my own country, where I heard from both undergraduate and postgraduate students that they did not dare report certain abusive behaviors of their professors (verbal intimidation, the making of unreasonable requests). On the one hand, this was out of fear that it would harm their careers, on the other hand, out of the conviction that a complaint would not matter anyway, because the abuse was part of the culture.

6 Broadened Horizon

What did I gain from these conversations with colleagues around the world? They helped me come to terms with my own experiences, find words for them and realize that they were not trivial but did matter, because others had similar experiences. I learned that there is no single story but many, even if the basic pattern is usually the same, involving the abuse of the more vulnerable by a more powerful person. I also broadened my own horizon of understanding, detecting blind spots in my own thinking, especially when it comes to expectations, habits and social structures at the base of abuse of power and harassment in particular cultures—India’s caste system, for instance, or the unequal power relations between institutions within a country, or among countries. Such elements, which are usually culturally specific, easily escape the attention of people who do not belong to the given culture. Sometimes they contribute to keeping asymmetrical power relations and all their consecutive problems of abuse and intimidation intact.

It also confirmed for me that there are elements and trends recurring in stories of abuse around the globe. Such recurring patterns may help to make this essay relevant to people from areas that go unmentioned here, such as Eurasia, Africa and Oceania. The idea that we share a story is a relief—I’m not the only one who had to deal with verbal intimidation by supervisors, who felt forced by higher-ranked colleagues into uncomfortable situations and was confronted with the grey zone of plagiarism by a close colleague. But the fact that there is something like a shared story is also hugely alarming. For if we are aware that there is a problem with abuse in academia which is even global, why does the problem continue? Another essay is probably needed to answer this question, even if it is clear that unequal power relationships within and between institutions and countries play a crucial role.

The conversations with my international colleagues made me realize that abuse in academia is indeed a global problem that requires a global approach. There are many ways to raise awareness and contribute to a solution: expanding our networks with colleagues in more vulnerable situations or from disadvantaged institutions and countries; inviting them to join our academic events, give lectures or submit papers to our books and journals; and financially supporting colleagues who lack the means to participate in international academic events. I think scholars working in more privileged and wealthy environments have a particular responsibility to use their resources and influence in ways that reduce the problem of inequality, which is often at the root of harassment and abuse of power.

Moreover, as I learned while writing this essay, it helps to intentionally engage in conversations with scholars from around the globe in order to become more aware of the scope of the problems of power abuse and harassment in academia. We can detect our shared stories, our own blind spots and our tacit assumptions only if we open up to the other person, engage in real and honest conversation, and listen to their experiences.

7 My Struggle

If a conversation is so important to understand the other person, should we talk to our abusers? The answer will be different for everyone. Some people will never want to see their abuser again, because the offense was too grave or the memory too raw. Others have the courage to expose wrongdoings, which is a very tough thing to do. Still others like me do not dare to enter into a conversation or name wrongdoers for fear of further damage.

Exposure is crucial to break the silence surrounding the abuse and disclose the truth. One of the things I struggled with while writing this essay was whether I should put my own name on it. I did not have the courage, being afraid that it would affect my career, which I have worked so hard for. At the same time, it seemed unfair to me to present my side of the story without giving my colleagues the possibility of responding. By this I do not mean that I would like to cover things up or defend my offenders. But we all have our own stories of what happened, and they are inevitably impacted by the fact that we originate from different cultures. I think the truth only comes to light if we open up to another in a real and honest conversation, in which we explain how we experienced things, and, if possible, try to bring each other’s horizons somewhat closer.

But what if, like me, you do not dare have such a conversation, or if it is simply impossible? I learned a lot from the book Free of Charge (2005), by the Croatian-American theologian Miroslav Volf, whose thinking about dialogue, exposure and forgiveness was directly informed by the fact that he grew up in a family belonging to the Protestant-Christian minority in former Yugoslavia, at a time when the country was torn by deep ethnic and religious tensions. Volf suggests that exposure is not necessarily about disclosing the culprit, but the deeds. He refers to William Shakespeare’s play “Measure for Measure,” which tells about Claudio, who is sentenced to death for getting his beloved pregnant. Claudio’s sister Isabella asks the judge to show mercy and to spare her brother’s life. She says,

I have a brother is condemn’d to die.
I do beseech you let it be his fault,
And not my brother.
(Shakespeare, quoted in Volf, 2005, p. 141)

Volf notes the following about the passage: “To be just is to condemn the fault, and, because of the fault, to condemn the doer as well. To forgive is to condemn the fault but to spare the doer” (p. 141). Elsewhere, Volf states that forgiveness entails two things: first, “to name the wrongdoing and to condemn it” (p. 129); and second, “to give the wrongdoers the gift of not counting the wrongdoing against them” (p. 130). One can see why exposure and forgiveness should go together. On the one hand, mere forgiveness of the offender without identifying the wrongdoing can easily result in a situation in which the wrong is covered up and the potentially abusive situation perpetuated (something that happens all too often in academia). On the other hand, mere exposure of the fault without forgiveness can lead to bitterness and resentment (something that is often seen in academia, too).

Volf helped me to come to terms with my own story of intimidation and abuse in academia, suggesting that it is also okay to expose faults without naming the wrongdoer. With this in mind, I have tried to keep a distance, leaving the culprits for what they are, while exposing some general trends in abuse and harassment in academia and blind spots in mine (and possibly others’) thinking about the problems. Sometimes it is enough just to trace the contours of what went wrong without publicly condemning individual perpetrators and counting wrongdoings against them, in the hope that it opens up the space for a real conversation in which we can better find each other.



My leading questions were inspired by Regulska (2018). Many of the problems exposed by the #MeToo movement as underlying causes of sexual harassment are similar to those underlying abuse and intimidation in academia in general.


I have tried to give as faithful a representation as possible of what colleagues wanted to share with me verbally and on paper, quoting their words verbatim. Moreover, I have submitted this essay to them for approval. Still, it is ultimately mainly the expression of my own position on the problem of harassment and abuse of power in academia.


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