President's Column

How to Humanize Higher Education and Reduce Human Suffering

Paul T. P. Wong
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
Trent University

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 psychological explanations.

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 better world.

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 observation:

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 the American 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 less researched.

Immediately following the suicide death of Mr. Altom, an 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 organizations.

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 to apply.”

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.

James 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
  • Insults
  • Overwork, unnecessary pressure and unreasonable deadlines
  • An unacceptably aggressive style from a superior
  • Failure to give credit where credit is due

Here are additional examples of workplace bullying:

  • 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 them.

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 freaks.
  • 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 their victims.
  • 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 tolerated.

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 been made.

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 impairment.

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

Emory 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, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Goodall, J. (1990). Through a window: Thirty years with the chimpanzees of Gnome. Harmondsworth: Penguin.