Why the harassed don’t complain

Why the harassed don’t complain

Romit Chowdury

The ‘me too’ moment in academia has provoked a wide range of responses from those involved in university life. Among those who have reacted with suspicion, a concern that has frequently been voiced is the matter of complaint. Even within academia – which is often assumed to be a more progressive space – accusatory questions have been raised about why she did not complain sooner and counter-complaints made that women complain too much about too little.

I am writing this piece as an invitation to readers to remember all the times we faced unfair situations at our workplace and made a reasoned decision to not complain because our voices would not be credible. It was recently reported that universities in the UK have spent as much as £87m as payoffs to staff to remain silent about misconduct. It is crucial to recognise that in addition to such explicit ‘gagging orders’, the university as a social institution has protocols, which implicitly discourage holding the establishment and powerful people in it accountable for their actions. Seemingly benign customs that are a part of the everyday life of universities conceal grave injustices. They do so by creating a professional culture that implicitly forbids workers from raising a murmur of protest against what is unfair. Because the issue of sexual harassment in university life is especially lacerating for graduate students and early career scholars, let me take as an example the apparently innocuous convention of the dissertation acknowledgements.

Every dissertation – or so convention demands – ought to be prefaced by an ‘acknowledgements’ page. It is assumed that in the years that go into writing a thesis, one gathers pressing debts that must be publicly announced. In this script, a familiar cast of actors routinely find roles – supervisors, faculty members, colleagues, institutions, friends and family. By including them in this customary gesture of appreciation, the dissertation writer – a student, of course – extends a token of gratitude. The linguist Ken Hyland, who has researched the rhetorical moves and strategic use of the dissertation acknowledgement by students, characterizes it as an exercise in academic gift giving. Students use this convention to indicate affiliation to important people and institutions in the hope that it facilitates a measure of professional acceptance. Gifts, when offered under obligation, however, are often a heavy imposition.

What if my years as a graduate student have been a constant struggle with an absent supervisor? Perhaps the institution that was meant to support me has repeatedly let me down? What if I wish to extol – much more than my influential principal supervisor – the contribution of a junior committee member, who went far beyond his/her remit to informally mentor me? In such circumstances – all too familiar and oft repeated – the expectation that every dissertation bears an acknowledgement page inflicts a quiet violence. It forces students to express gratitude where it is not due. It obliges them to stifle disappointments, which they have had to repeatedly contend with. It bullies them into finding words of appreciation to describe a situation or relationship that has caused considerable distress. It compels students to lie.

What then are the options available to those students who find themselves in such trying situations? The bureaucratic structures of the university compel students and adjunct faculty into circumstances in which they can do little besides appeasing their aggressors. The endless paperwork of academic life means that graduate students are beholden to their supervisors and other important post-holders in the university not just for recommendation letters but also simply for signatures without which they cannot move ahead in their study programmes and careers. Recent discussions of sexual harassment in universities in India have considered the value of following due institutional processes for redressing complaints. The great victory of institutions over individuals is that every step of the due process is stacked with odds against the complainant. A steady stream of anonymously written articles in The Guardian has, in recent years, drawn attention to a pervasive culture of bullying in academia. Who do you complain to when you are dealing with members of an academic gang? The fear that complaining about injustice will merely lead to further, worse injustices, makes silence seem a better choice.

Academia is full of such rituals that insist that we express gratitude for our senior colleagues with customary fanfare but record our dismay at their indifference and hostility only in private complaints, if at all. Those who dare to voice their discomfort are swiftly cast as rabble-rousers, as people with difficult personalities, lacking in collegiality. Indeed, for all our radical promises, social science academia is just another profession, which values workers who quietly go along with things as they are. You do not hire someone who frequently tires of pretending that all is well with the university; you just don’t; it is poor administrative decision-making. In academia, as elsewhere, the dissenter is swiftly psychologized: she has a personality problem; no one likes her; she has ‘issues’; she is an attention-seeker.

Thus, while social science academics are adept at playing social critic to society at large, when it comes to our own profession we easily settle into thinking like a shrewd administrator. Why brandish a cudgel on a colleague one will have to encounter for many more years than a graduate student who is merely passing through the institution? This form of practical reasoning is often at work when key actors in a department refuse to discipline an errant colleague, be it for sexual harassment or other misdemeanours. Thus, silence is rewarded and complainants punished and university life goes on. If survivors of sexual harassment in the university find it difficult to complain as soon as they have been harmed, one major reason for this is evident in professional protocols that make it daunting to do so.

The ‘me too’ moment in academia is a hopeful one for anyone seriously committed to social change in universities. It presents an opportunity to act on the many institutional conventions that make universities a hostile work environment for all marginalised social groups, without diluting the focus on gender-based violence. This cannot be done through legal reform alone. In a profession that is heavily reliant on personal references, apparently harmless routines of academia play a powerful role in stalling progressive social change within universities. Some of the answer to the question why survivors of harassment do not complain lies in these everyday conventions of academic life.


Romit Chowdhury is a postdoctoral research associate in Geography at Durham University. He is co-editor of Men and Feminism in India published by Routledge in 2018.