How the Culture of the University Covers Up Abuse

Sara Ahmed on Harassment Claims and Silencing Tactics

My task in Complaint! is relatively simple. I listen to, and learn from, those who make complaints about abuses of power within universities. Many of the stories I share in the book are about institutional violence, that is, the violence directed by the institution toward those who complain about violence within the institution. Those who try to complain are often warned about the costs of complaint or threatened with retaliation for complaining. We might assume warning and threats are used by management as top-down bullying tactics. They are. But many complaints are stopped not by senior managers or administrators but by colleagues, sometimes acting on behalf of colleagues or in order to protect colleagues.

We need to think more about who as well as what is protected. To have each other’s backs is to give support, loyalty, to back each other up. Backing is often about defending a colleague against a complaint. This was certainly evident in door story 2: when the student attended a meeting with professors and a dean, they didn’t just speak as colleagues of the man she put in a complaint about; they spoke of being colleagues. They brought that collegiality into the room. When complaints are received by the colleagues of those whose conduct is under question, collegiality becomes cement in the wall, a binding agent.

But what about when the person who makes a complaint is also a colleague? It is no accident that one of the most used words for those who complain is uncollegial. In door story 3, the woman who made a complaint after being assaulted by her head of department was repeatedly described as uncollegial. When a complaint about an assault is understood as uncollegial, the assault itself is not. As soon as the person who is assaulted complains, as soon as she uses the word assault to describe his action, she is no longer treated as a colleague; she is no longer deemed worthy of protection.

We need to think about what is treated as collegial (and what is not), who is treated as collegial (and who is not). Collegiality can be about developing positive relations, a sense of goodwill and trust, among colleagues; it can offer a way of resisting the impulse of egoism and individualism. Collegiality might even imply the opening of a door, offered as a promise to treat incoming members of a department well. But collegiality, however open as an aspiration, or even by being open as an aspiration, can still end up being restricted to some, those with whom one shares something, whether that something is history (remember “I have known him for years”) or a set of qualities loosely defined as culture or character (what we are like, what we like).

This restriction is not simply about who is protected as a colleague; it is about who can become a colleague in the first place. I have noticed that when there is a wide departmental problem of harassment and bullying, there is often an informal or casual culture around hiring. In chapter 1, I showed how it becomes usual to suspend the usual procedures in hiring and promotion cases. An early career lecturer told me how people would talk about such and such candidate as “he’s the guy you’d want to have a pint with.” Sometimes you hire people whom you like, or who are like those who are already there. Informality matters at many to get in. Informality also matters in terms of spaces and how they are occupied (being at the pub, having a pint). You suspend a formal procedure to enable someone to be hired who could be the kind of person you would want to spend time within those spaces where you like to spend time.

Or you might hire people because they are already your friends, or friends of friends, or partners of friends. The university becomes a web of past intimacies. These intimacies can be mobilized when complaints are made. The senior lecturer who was physically assaulted by her head of department described her department thus: “So much cronyism. All friends had been employed who were not equipped to be in a university space, who couldn’t get funding and who ended up in the department . . . We had four or five friends who ended up in the department, so the culture was very tricky. They were also very defensive about getting support or starting conversations.” Hiring your friends: hiring becomes wiring; who is hired is also about what conversations happen or are allowed to happen. A culture is tricky because friends are sticky; they tend to stick together.

The university becomes a web of past intimacies.

When some colleagues are friends, they are who end up being defended. Perhaps defensiveness relates to a sense of being of the same kind, a family, a close unit, related. One lecturer said her university was organized around married couples. She creates a map: “I study all the charts; I created maps, power maps. I started to see that [the university] has an invisible map of a power structure that is shared by more than twenty married couples.” I think we learn from how married couples can be a power map, a way of distributing power across an institution. When you make a complaint, you often learn about how power is wielded. One PhD student talked to me about a complaint she made about harassment and bullying from a married couple, one of whom was her supervisor. Her supervisor had previously been the postgraduate student of the professor she then married. There is another history there, another web, another weave: students becoming partners of their professors; married now, his colleague now, his student before. She describes their behavior as a unit as “coercive intimacy.” In meetings, in common rooms, they would often share intimacies through sexual humor as well as jokes about bodily functions: “They share all these intimacies, and they bring them all into the room, giggling, even the poo jokes, imposing something intimate into a public.” I have noted how violence often happens behind closed doors; doors can be used to create a private space within a public institution. Violence something intimate into a public. It is a way of saying, “This meeting is ours.” A common room becomes a private room.

It is not only that a married couple can impose their intimacy upon others; that intimacy can be instrumentalized, used to stop complaints from being made. One student said, “I have been here since I was seventeen years old. I grew up with them. I can’t do anything.” Students be- come like children; to study in a department, to study under someone, is to acquire a sense of loyalty. Perhaps loyalty can be understood as the affective expression of debt: you are loyal because of what you owe; you are loyal because that’s who you know. To progress as a student becomes akin to growing up: progression, how you go, how far you go, is made dependent not only on internalizing a set of norms, duties, and priorities but on expressing them through action or inaction. By describing inaction as expression, I am referring to how not complaining becomes a positive duty not just to an institution but to another person: you don’t complain because of what you owe; you don’t complain because that’s who you know.

Not complaining can be how you receive what you need from those who can provide it. I want to return to the example of the postgraduate students who made a complaint about sexual harassment by other post-graduate students. The postgraduate men were protected; they stayed; they continued to receive support and benefits. The women who complained left. We can ask whose backs were becoming doors given the students being protected were not colleagues or not yet colleagues. The student who was harassed and the student who was the harasser shared a supervisor. In the first instance, the supervisor supports both students. But when the initial complaint became a formal complaint, the supervisor “began to advocate for [him] in the formal complaint process.” By giving support to the student who was being investigated for harassment, the supervisor withdrew support from the student who had been harassed. She experiences that withdrawal as devastating.

Collegiality can be a promise: you treat some more than others as would-be or could-be colleagues. Perhaps support was given to the students who were most promising. The story of harassment does not, then, begin with one student harassing another student. One of the students I interviewed talked to another woman from the same program who, she found out, had earlier made a complaint about harassment by the same student. That woman she spoke to describes how a “lecturer had come around and was asking people about their topics. She had said she was interested in feminist studies and the lecturer had responded, ‘Feminism is a dirty word.’ It was done publicly in that group, and [she] was like, ‘It set up the tone and gave them permission.’” It gave them permission. Note that permission can be tonal, a more performative version of a nod: yes, we can say that; yes, we can do that. The student who was later to call women “milking bitches” and who was to harass the student who was not willing to go along with it, with him, had been enabled, even encouraged, to do so. You can be rewarded for following a line or for reproducing an inheritance. And so we learn: a promise can also be a matter of reflection. The students who are protected, who are promising, are those who reflect back the image of the professors, laughing, joking, feminism is a dirty word, women are milking bitches. Harassment can be a reflection: how some say yes, see, we are like you; yes, we are on our way to becoming you.

Those who complain about harassment are treated as naughty willful children who need to be disciplined or straightened out. One of the women told me what was said during one of the grueling meetings: “The line I really remember was ‘we are not going to leave until we get this sorted’ because we were treated like four unruly girls who needed disciplining.” Another of the women who complained said, “I always felt they were treating us like siblings who were having an argument.” Harassment and bullying in universities are often explained in ways similar to how violence in the family is explained, either by being projected onto strangers who can be removed (as if to remove them would be to remove violence) or by being made familiar and thus forgivable.

Harassment can be a reflection: how some say yes, see, we are like you; yes, we are on our way to becoming you.

The institutional fatalism I have been describing throughout this book, which converts a description (this is what institutions are like) into an instruction (accept this), is also often familial. In other words, you are supposed to accept harassment and bullying because that is what families are like. One lecturer described an incident:

It was really weird. It was in the school once, and he started talking about one of my classes, and he said, “The external examiner said something,” and I said, “I don’t actually agree with the external examiner” . . . and he said, “Well fuck you, you don’t fucking know anything, the external examiner is a major professor, fuck off, who the fuck do you think you are talking about him like that in front of other people.” . . . I later found out that the external examiner was one of his closest friends. So I went to the head of school and I said this happened, and she said, “You know, [he] is like the naughty uncle of the school. That’s just how he is, you just have to let it go.”

The naughty uncle appears here as a figure, as familiar, but also as an instruction to her: to let it go, not to complain, to accept the shouting and abusing behavior; this is how he is, how we are, what will be. Perhaps then complaints are stopped by being turned into a family secret.

The family can also be used to stop complaints by being positioned as that which would be damaged by them. A woman academic I communicated with informally had her work plagiarized by a colleague. She found out later that he had also plagiarized the work of another woman academic. The chair of the department gave them both “the same line,” which was “to keep quiet about it because [he had] a family.” She files a complaint. The first stage of the complaints process is an inquiry to decide whether “the case warrants investigation.” In the inquiry, the mediator “kept reminding me, a lesbian, that [he] has a wife and child.” She could hear what she was being told, that by complaining she would damage not just him but his family. Perhaps that reminder is being addressed to her as somebody assumed not to have a family in need of protection. In the end, her complaint is not investigated. I suspect much academic misconduct is not investigated, and is thus enabled or reproduced, in the name of the protection of the family.

Complaints can be stopped to sustain a bond, whether familial or collegial. Bonds can be binds. I want to return to the experience of the woman of color academic who made a complaint about racism and sexism in her department. She was told by the head of Human Resources that she had “a chip on her shoulder” (chapter 3). She had heard this before. In another instance, after she presents a paper on the emotional labor of diversity work (presenting papers on emotional labor is emotional labor), a white woman professor in the audience responds in a hostile manner, accusing her of having “a chip on her shoulder.” If making complaints can take you into meetings with Human Resources, what you encounter there can be what you have already encountered in academic settings.

She has allies in the audience, two white women who did critical work on race. She says that although they had heard what had been said they “could not recognize it.” They defend their white colleague: “She got wrong-footed,” “She didn’t understand,” “We like her.” Wrong-footed is used to imply that the white woman colleague made a muddle of her words. Racism is often heard as an error message, as inexpressive: not what a person is like, not what an institution is like. She tells me what she would have liked to say to them: “You’ve just witnessed somebody abuse somebody because they have expressed their experience of racism.” The racism they cannot hear is then treated as if it is not there: “They probably deleted it from their memory.” This deletion is what enables them to stay loyal to a white colleague; when they have her back, they turn their backs on a woman of color who is also their colleague. In chapter 2, I explored how institutions can delete complaints through blanking: complaints are deleted from institutional memory. Deletion can be personal as well as institutional. Racism is deleted by white people when its acknowledgment would compromise their sense of collegiality with other white people.

You don’t notice what would get in the way; whiteness as a way of viewing the world can put racism behind closed doors. In another instance a Black woman had been racially harassed over a long period of time by her white head of department. You will hear more details about that harassment in chapter 6. She has a meeting with a white colleague who has just become her new head of department. This colleague refers to the “history” between this Black woman and the former head of department, another white woman: “I want you to reconcile with her because, after all, she is my friend and colleague and all she ever did is write you some long emails.” Note how the former head of department is evoked possessively (“my friend and colleague”). It is important that the appeal was being made by a white woman on behalf of a friend and colleague, her white friend. The white friend enters the scenario as a figure, loaded with value and significance; she is appealing. The problem is not simply that the white woman is saying what she wants (“I want you to”). The expression of desire is also a management tactic: she is giving an instruction, telling a Black woman, who is also a colleague but is not addressed as a colleague, what to do, what to say.

The restriction of collegiality to those of a certain kind, our kind, the same kind, is how collegiality can function as a means to protect some and not others or even some from others. She continues, “What I learned from the complaint process was that white organizations always seem to protect white people because in protecting the one white person they are protecting the whole institution from any claim that there is any racism happening at all. There is always this massive exercise.” When we talk about protecting the institution, we are also talking about protecting some colleagues more than others, or even some colleagues against others. We are talking about how protecting one person can be the same thing as protecting the whole institution. There is a history to who becomes that person. There is a history to who does not become that.

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Excerpted from COMPLAINT! Copyright (c) 2021 Sara Ahmed. Used with permission of the publisher, Duke University Press. All rights reserved.

Sara Ahmed
Sara Ahmed
Sara Ahmed is an independent scholar and author of What's the Use?, Living a Feminist Life, and other books also published by Duke University Press.





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