The Sciences

Why Indian Academia's Harassment Woes Need Radical Rethink of Its Structure

For a profession that boasts a longstanding commitment to individual liberty and free thought, academia seems to be designed to hamstring any attempts at dislodging widely-held beliefs that younger academics deem regressive.

The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves.

– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Aswin Sekhar’s recent article in The Wire points to something rotten in the state of Indian academia, and I wholeheartedly agree. The issue of sexual harassment, he observes, “has been met with cold silence in Indian academic circles.” He also notes that as in the case of the media and film industries, there are “there are plenty of private conversations happening among professional scientists and professors.”

Like us, he too is likely privy to these conversations, and graduate students too have informal networks where stories of harassment are shared, sometimes by individuals looking to vent their frustrations, and at other times in the hope that they might find empathy, understanding, and counsel. Sekhar has done a fine job of outlining the challenges a #MeToo movement in Indian academia will face, and among the shortcomings he has discussed I agree emphatically that it is important for academics to be trained in responding to and investigating allegations of sexual harassment. Surely, in this enlightened age, we can agree that a doctoral degree and 50-something papers in organic chemistry do not qualify someone to sit on an internal complaints committee that is worth its name?

What is disappointing, however, is the conservative nature of the suggestions Sekhar makes. He proposes that a solution to these problems might take the form of:

… an ombudsman body composed of respected female scientists and academics from different parts of the country who can recommend possible ways in which to tackle this silent yet corrosive issue.

Other suggestions offered range from the obvious – “male scientists with a record of sexual misconduct of any kind should not be allowed to guide or supervise” subordinates – to the truly curious – characterising a proposal that Indian science academies require a “self-declaration from members that they have never been involved or convicted of sexual harassment” as a “good step in the right direction.” I disagree here. Conservative attempts to rid academia of its sexual harassment problem are bound to fail as long as its participants are committed to preserving its hierarchical structure. That is, there are systemic flaws in academia — specifically, the manner in which power is distributed and leveraged — that need to be addressed not apart from but concurrently with the issue of sexual harassment.

Also read: A Lot Still Needs to Be Done to Address the Gender Gap in Academia

For a profession that boasts a centuries-old commitment to ideals of the Enlightenment, in particular individual liberty and free thought, academia appears to be designed to hamstring any attempts at dislodging widely-held beliefs and/or practices that younger academics deem regressive.

Consider the process by which one becomes a member of academia. It starts with an apprenticeship – the doctoral degree – a period of around half a decade spent working under the supervision of a single individual, often a more experienced senior academic. The advisor-student relationship, by virtue of its lopsided distribution of power, can easily turn unhealthy. There can be no doubt that the modes of oppression in academia – thinly-veiled insults, public derision, insisting on meetings outside office hours, gaslighting, withholding letters of recommendation, threats of professional ruination, lewd and inappropriate behaviour, sexual assault, etc. – would, in an ordinary workplace, constitute harassment and grounds for punitive action. The less severe of these behaviours are spoken of among students as if they were a normal part of the doctoral degree, a foregone conclusion, a fate to which one resigns oneself with the admission to graduate school. The more severe are often hushed up or ignored.

Unfortunately, the doctoral program isn’t the end of it; with the award of a doctoral degree comes a tight leash as well. Subsequent hires (for postdoctoral fellowships and junior faculty positions) require letters of recommendation, and it is commonly understood that if the average scientist has failed to curry favour with their (doctoral or postdoctoral) advisor, it is nearly impossible to secure a permanent position. This is textbook selection for obedience: you get ahead, even be rewarded, in exchange for keeping your mouth shut. In an insightful article about the sexual harassment allegations levied against Avital Ronell, Andrea Long Chu expressed this very clearly:

The institution has two choices when faced with political radicals: Ax them, especially if they are graduate students, or promote them. Make them successful, give them awards, power, enormous salaries. That way, when the next scandal comes along – and it will – they will have a vested interest in playing defence.

Avital Ronell. Source: Facebook

Avital Ronell. Source: Facebook

Indeed, this has a striking similarity to what we are seeing in #MeToo, namely allegations being kept secret for years – in some cases, even decades — because of (among many, many other things) fear of professional retribution.

By the time a scientist applies for a faculty position, thereby completing the prerequisites for full membership to academia, they have spent around 10 years in their field, at each stage being ‘selected’ to advance to the next round. What effect might long-term selection for passivity and servility have on the psyche of a young, promising academic? We are fortunate in that we needn’t look far for an answer: Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) tells us:

… the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors… The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped. Their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity.

And so the cycle renews itself over and over, ad nauseum, with old and new blood commingling, unwitting co-conspirators engaged in perpetual tyranny. This structure, with all its contradictions, paternalism and its uneven relations of power, must be undone. When considered as a mode of pedagogy, the structure of doctoral and postdoctoral training exacerbates not just the opportunity for sexual harassment, but more broadly any form of interaction that, to use Freire’s terminology, dehumanises the oppressed: its intended recipients.

Also read: When ‘Feminists’ Tolerate Sexual Harassment in Academia

For academia, the way doctoral and postdoctoral training is organised requires critical rethinking and modification, in particular to dilute the power and long-term influence that an advisor has on their students’ careers while retaining those aspects of an apprenticeship that are rewarding both personally and professionally. Sexual harassment should be understood as symptomatic of uneven distributions of power, and our attempts must be directed at addressing its underlying causes.

All of this, our more sympathetic senior colleagues will tell us, takes time. Until then, it is important for us to keep in mind that collective, coordinated student action continues to be an effective strategy against a lethargic academy, and should be deployed without hesitation in case of attempts to ignore or treat lightly the issue of sexual harassment.

For #MeToo, this shift in perspective – going from talking about individual instances of sexual harassment to structures of power and dominance that form a substrate conducive to sexual violence – has the advantage of bringing many more people into the fold. A popular movement cannot effectively be fought on isolated turfs like the media, the entertainment industry or academia, as this compromises its strength in numbers by large degrees, in addition to being largely centred around urban upper caste/class women. The underlying pathology is widespread, as are its victims: tribal women, Dalit women, the women of Kashmir, women from the working classes and the peasantry. Their fight is just as much ours.

Madhusudhan Raman is a postdoctoral fellow at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. The views expressed here are personal.