to humanize higher education and reduce human suffering
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
Year 2005 has been dubbed the "year
of suffering" by Erin McClam, Associated Press writer.
Last year was dominated by natural disasters
and human tragedies - from tsunami, Katrina to Iraq war. The faces
of suffering continue to haunt us.
Across the land, away from the spotlight, a
different kind of suffering goes on unnoticed - in homes, workplaces,
schools, and universities. I am talking about intentional cruelty
against other human beings, such as physical and emotional abuse,
bullying, oppression and exploitation.
Jane Goodall (1990), well known for her research
on chimpanzees, suggested that only humans "are capable of deliberate
cruelty - acting with the intention of causing pain and suffering."
Some of these injurious acts are so brutal, monstrous and senseless
that they can only be called evil.
How can people be so cruel? All kinds of explanations
have been offered - sociological, psychological and spiritual. For
example, the theology of human depravity can be used to account
for the historical and continuous presence of evil in human societies.
Poverty and privation are frequently cited as societal causes of
violence. A host of internal and external factors, such as competition,
greed, envy, scapegoating, abuse in childhood, blind ambition provide
A more important question is: how can we create
a kinder and gentler society? Different visions of utopia have been
proposed, but none has succeeded. A society of harmony, equality,
and compassion continues to elude us.
Does higher education make us more humane?
Except for a few die-hard idealists, most have
settled for a more pragmatic, incremental solution to the problem
of human suffering. We have pinned our hope for humanity on higher
education. We believe that research and scientific knowledge can
reduce poverty, diseases, and even natural disasters.
Furthermore, we believe by promoting the values
of humanism and liberal democracy through education, we can set
people free from their intolerance, prejudice and brutality. There
is a broad consensus that higher education can help create a civil
society, which respects everyone's right to freedom, justice, dignity
and quality of life. Indeed, education maybe our best hope for a
Given the above assumptions and expectations,
it is most disturbing to see many idealistic and enthusiastic students
become disillusioned and cynical because of their negative experiences
in centers of higher learning. Some students have been intimidated
and verbally attacked by professors because of their political or
religious leanings as documented by David
Horowitz. Some have been sexually
abused. Others have been exploited and abused by their supervisors
-- some may have been tormented to the point of suicide.
Suicide on university campuses
In 1998, the suicide of a very gifted graduate
student at Harvard University brought the problem of harmful supervision
to the forefront. In his article in The
Chronicle of Higher Education. Allison Schneider made the following
Mr. Altom's death has raised questions
about graduate-student advising that other observers at Harvard
believe need to be aired. The suicide is symptomatic of the pressures
and the skewed power relationships infecting graduate studies,
they say -- problems that exist at most universities but that
loom large at elite ones like Harvard and are particularly corrosive
in competitive departments like chemistry.
Too often, some students fear, suicides
get written off as tragic flukes, but that sort of thinking is
flawed, they say. For every Ph.D. candidate who kills himself,
there are hundreds who become clinically depressed, drop out,
or grimly endure bad situations in silence because of poor relationships
with their advisers. This year, it was Mr. Altom; next year, it
could be someone else, the argument goes.
In fact, it has been. Mr. Altom, who
was about to enter his sixth year at Harvard, was not the first
chemistry student to kill himself. There have been eight graduate-student
suicides at Harvard since 1980. Four of the students were in the
chemistry department, and three of the four, including Mr. Altom,
worked for the same research adviser: Elias J. Corey.
The painful experiences of graduate education
may be more widespread than recognized. One
graduate student at Harvard wrote: "I know almost no grad student
who hasn't frequently considered dropping out of Harvard or experienced
period of extreme depression -- crying jags, loss of motivation,
eating and sleeping disorders."
Quiet desperation without adequate support makes
students vulnerable to depression and suicide. In 2002, Psychology
Today reported an increase in clinical depression in both undergraduate
and graduate students, and 30% of university counseling centers
surveyed have reported student suicides. A more recent study by
College Health Association showed that 15 percent of students
met the criteria for clinical depression and suicide was second
to accident as the leading cause of death among college students.
Is graduate education dysfunctional?
The causes of depression and suicides are many
and varied. These range from latent psychological disorders prior
to admissions, personal immaturity, inability to cope with pressure
and failure, unrealistic expectations, loneliness, meaninglessness,
broken romantic relationships and difficult student-advisor relationships.
Almost all universities provide adequate student
counseling services to support students experiencing academic or
psychological problems. However, these centers typically stay away
from handling academic grievances and advise students to bring their
complaints to their department heads.
The problem of harmful clinical supervision
has received increasing attention in recent years (Ellis, 2001),
but the detrimental effects of bad dissertation advising are much
Immediately following the suicide death of Mr.
online survey of graduate students was conducted. The conclusion:
"US graduate education is desperate in need of reforms, many of
which were initially proposed 30 years ago. According to graduate
students in the sciences, graduate schools are dysfunctional institutions
full of excellent individuals: professors, students, and administrators."
The conclusion seems self-contradictory, until
one realizes that academic and professional excellence can co-exist
with dysfunctional relationships. While the survey showed that most
students had good relationships with their advisors, "a substantial
minority felt exploit". About one quarter of the students surveyed
felt that their advisors used them as a source of cheap labor to
advance their own research and help fulfill advisors' teaching and
research obligations; these students had to put in so many hours
that they did not have a life outside of school.
From my own experiences and observations of
elite research universities, graduate students are expected to put
in as many as 80 hours per week. In some universities, graduate
students are asked to teach an entire course at either the undergraduate
or graduate level without any remuneration or acknowledgement, because
it is considered an honor to teach the course for a famous professor.
This kind of unfair treatment is unheard of in any other kind of
Perhaps working long hours under intense pressure
is to be expected in elite graduate schools, where professors are
driven by their ambition to win a Nobel prize or bring in large
grants to keep up their expanding and expensive operations.
These illustrious professors are willing and
able to make personal sacrifices to achieve eminence in their fields;
are their students prepared to make the same sacrifices? Maybe there
should be a warning to potential graduate students applying to elite
graduate schools: "Admission to this school may be hazardous to
your health and well-being. Only the toughest and brightest need
Bullying and intimidation in higher education
I can understand the need to work 80 hours a
week to find a vaccine against AIDS or avian flu, but I can't appreciate
the value of such all-consuming passion for fame, money and power.
The allures of big science can be just as destructive as the greed
of big business and big military-industrial complex. To sacrifice
students for personal gains is deplorable.
Cook University actually has a university policy against bullying
and intimidation between supervisors and students, and considers
such behavior as a breach of the University Code of Conduct.
Here are examples of the types of behavior that
might constitute bullying and intimidation;
- Belittling opinions or constant criticism
- Yelling or screaming or offensive language
- Derogatory, demeaning or inappropriate comments
- Overwork, unnecessary pressure and unreasonable
- An unacceptably aggressive style from a superior
- Failure to give credit where credit is due
Here are additional examples of workplace
- Constant nit-picking, fault-finding and criticism
of a trivial nature
- A constant refusal to acknowledge you and
your contributions and achievements
- Constant attempts to undermine you and your
position, status, worth, value and potential
- Belittling, demeaning and patronizing you,
especially in front of others
- Humiliating, shouting at and threatening
you, often in front of others
- Stealing the credit of your work · Setting
unrealistic goals and frequently changing goals
- Twisting, distorting and misrepresenting
what you say or do
If you have experienced any combination of the
above examples, you have been a victim of bullying and intimidation
by your advisors. You need to call it what it is - bullying. No
one, no matter how famous and powerful, has the right to bully another
human being. There is an ethical, if not legal, requirement that
professors are supposed to educate their students rather than bully
Students' inability to identify bullying makes
it difficult for them to respond effectively. Here are some common
characteristics of workplace
bullies, which can be readily applied to university professors:
- Workplace bullies are autocratic control
- They make it known that they have the power
to destroy the career of their targets.
- They constantly demand respect and consideration
whilst treat their subordinates as non-persons.
- They inflict intolerable pain and suffering
on others without showing any consideration for the feelings of
- In spite of their absolutist and unethical
behaviors they often get promoted, because they are selfish, manipulative,
dishonest and convincing.
What can you do if your supervisor is a bully
or psychopath? Your options are very limited, because of the risks
of filing a grievance complaint, especially when your supervisor
is very influential in the field. Typically, administrators try
to cover up for the offender because they don't want to offend a
superstar who brings in lots of money and prestige to the university.
The reward systems of most research universities
are based on academic accomplishments and financial gains without
paying too much attention to students' well-being. Like a steam-roller,
the graduate education machine keeps on moving forward faster and
faster, without considering how many young lives it has destroyed.
Contrary to common beliefs, victims of bullying
are not necessarily weak individuals. All types of graduate students
can be abused because of power-differential and the lack of support
and due process of appeal. Often, their only option is to endure
and suffer until they suffer a mental breakdown.
If workplace bullying is unacceptable, how can
universities accept academic bullying and intimation? We need to
create awareness that bullying in a democratic society cannot be
The need to humanize higher education
All kinds of reform of graduate education have
been proposed, but few have been implemented or enforced. This inertia
can be attributed to a university culture that values ranking and
revenues in a highly competitive environment.
Isolated, fearful and helpless, individual students
cannot change the culture or reward system of their universities.
However, a network of hundreds and thousands of graduate students
bring about real changes.
Much progress has been made in the area of sexual
harassment on campuses. In many universities, there are designated
sexual harassment or human rights officers. University administrators
are inclined to take sexual harassment complaints seriously because
of political correctness. American
Association of University Professors has established the procedure
of handling sexual harassment complaints. However, in the area of
academic bullying which affects more students, little progress has
Most universities have developed policies and
procedures to handle difficult advisor-student relationships and
grievance complaints, but these guidelines are generally not very
effective because of fear of retribution on the part of students
and the fear of offending valued professors on the part of the administration.
Furthermore, these guidelines do not even recognize the possibility
that supervisors may have the problem of bullying and psychological
There needs to be a grassroots movement, initiated
by like-minded students, professors and administrators to create
a humane environment that is conducive to the academic, psychological,
social, and spiritual well-beings of the university community. Students
become engaged, creative, and productive, when they study and work
in a positive, caring and meaningful environment. When professors
and students practice the value of caring for other people and treating
each one with dignity and respect, they can also uplift the character
and increase the harmony of the society which supports higher education.
Success stories of the humanistic movement
university has already made fundamental changes to humanize
medical education with positive results. "We're trying to abuse
students less," says Dr. Jonas Schulman, the driving force behind
the reform, "and we want to make sure we're sending the message
that we place a premium on people skills. We also want our students
to graduate even more excited about medicine than they were when
they entered medical school."
There are also serious efforts to humanize
the hospital. The key to Planetree Institute's patient-centered
model is to create a health care environment in which not only patients
experience caring, kindness, and respect, but also their families
and the hospital staff. Susan Frampton (2003) has documented that
they can dramatically increase patient satisfaction level simply
by adding a human touch to hospitals.
Graham Spanier, as President of Penn State University,
has tried to humanize
the university. He recognizes that research universities have
two types of faculties: those who believe it is their responsibility
to engage fully with students and those who do not see this as their
primary responsibility. He wants to re-orient the reward structure
to encourage all faculty to get more involved with the lives of
their students, because he believes that "an allegiance to one's
university, pride in our shared mission and stature, commitment
to our students, and loyalty to our colleagues can be entirely compatible
with standards of academic excellence, prominence as a scholar,
and national recognition as a department."
These initiatives should provide some impetus
to humanize higher education. To bring about real transformation,
we need to change the reward structures, practice humanistic values,
and equip professors with the skills for empathy, team work, and
creative conflict resolutions.
Leadership skills are just as important as research
skills, because professors often have to manage large research teams
of strong individuals with different personalities, cultural backgrounds,
and creative ideas. The autocratic leadership style no longer works
in the corporate world; how can we expect it to work in an academic
community of free thinkers?
Humanizing higher education can be beneficial
to both students and society. By creating a caring and engaging
environment, universities can become a positive force in reducing
human suffering and improving the quality of life for all.
Ellis, M. V. (2001). Harmful supervision, a
cause for alarm: Commentary on Nelson & Friedlander (2001) and Gray
et al. (2001). Journal of Counseling Psychology, 48, 401-406.
Frampton, S. (2003). Putting Patients First:
Designing and Practicing Patient-Centered Care. San Francisco,
Goodall, J. (1990). Through a window: Thirty
years with the chimpanzees of Gnome. Harmondsworth: Penguin.