Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Academia as an abusive system

I am an academic, and I am a grateful survivor of childhood abuse. I know I am not the only one who carries both cards. There are other academics, perhaps thousands, who survived their own childhood abuse. I have to guess, based on the nature of the current academic system, that there are plenty of us out there. Perhaps we feel at home.

Interestingly, it's difficult to find out how many there are. Good luck trying to look it up -- what you get is a lot of academic papers about other people's abuse. Maybe someone has done work on abuse survivors in the academy that I can't find, but it seems to me that on this topic, there is a deafening silence.

Why the silence? Some of us have decided our abusive childhoods weren't abusive. Others of us know we were abused but don't want to acknowledge it -- it's over, it's not the point, and it feels somewhat shameful to admit. Maybe we've learned from the academy itself that mostly lower-class, uneducated families perpetuate abuse. Maybe we fear our colleagues will think we are less capable, since everyone knows that survivors of childhood abuse are damaged goods. Of course jobs are scarce, so maybe we fear we won't get a job offer or tenure or a full professorship if others know we are "broken."

I certainly had all these feelings before I made the decision to speak up about my childhood. But ever since I started to tell my colleagues that I am a survivor, I have come to recognize the incredible power of becoming whole and speaking without shame about my experiences.

Childhood abuse shaped me, without a doubt. My super-functionality, my obsession with keeping all possibilities in mind as I think about a problem, my desire to train young people to think with passion, insight, and bravery -- I came by all of these at least partially as a response to my abuse. These are intimate parts of who I am.

It seems strange, now, to think that I was afraid that moving forward as a more integrated, honest, and whole person would make me somehow less competent. I think of all the effort it took to stay disintegrated and unaware -- how much that was draining my productivity. Now that is truly shameful.

As I have woken up to my own abuse and how it has shaped me, I have also woken up to the abuse that is prevalent in academia. For an expert such as myself, it's not too difficult to unearth the clues to knowing you're living within an abusive system. I'll describe two blindingly obvious ones.

First, people who desire to be respected and treated reasonably well in compensation for their contributions are not tolerated in an abusive system. They are instead shamed for wanting respect and compensation. In a healthy system, in case you didn't know, such a person is given reasonable compensation and is well respected for their contributions.

Which kind of system is academia? Well, exhibit A has to be the recent story that originally carried the title How dare you try to negotiate, tenure-track peon? It describes how a college rescinded an academic job offer in response to straightforward negotiation requests made by the woman whom the college presumably hand-picked for the job. Worse, comments on the article shame this woman for her greediness. Of course Exhibit B is every starting salary and the accompanying work demands for every Assistant Professor job everywhere except -- and this is important -- at the more respected institutions.

Why is it important for some Assistant Professor jobs to have decent salaries? This is the second clue that you're living in an abusive system. It is essential, when attempting to maintain an abusive system, to ensure that some members of that system have compensation, status, and power that others don't have. And there must be the promise that the ones who don't have the compensation, status, and power can eventually get it, as long as they're kind enough to those who abuse them. This is the key to maintaining the system. If no one has what others want, there is no power for the abusers to lord over the abused.

I am not proposing that academia set out to be abusive. Nor that there is a conspiracy of abuse. Nor that my advisers have been abusive -- in fact, it is their support that leads me to recognize abuse elsewhere in the system.

I am pointing out that academia has evolved into an abusive system, and we need to look at it as such. In a healthy system, power, status and compensation are shared by the contributors to the system, and those who contribute less are nurtured and developed to help them find new ways to contribute. This is the way myself and most academics would like academia to be.

The horror to me is that the cycle has stopped in my own family, but in academia, I am still perpetuating it. Professors are more and more often poorly paid, part-time adjuncts or graduate students who are trying to be nice to the right people and do the work that gets us the sacred Assistant Professor job. We do this even as we encourage our students to follow our career paths. I am starting to see that upholding this structure is a way of acting out our own abuse on our students.

I love academia. Academics are my people. I love the awakening of minds and the pursuit of truth. I thrill at the ideal of academia -- a system that celebrates truth and beauty and the discoveries of the mind.

I love academia, but it's not worth perpetuating abuse. So here's what I pledge. I will be an outspoken proponent of transparency, functionality, and self-respect in academia. As a result of this conviction, there will be no power for anyone to lord over me. I will respect myself and I will respect my students. This comes first. And I will gladly leave academia if I am pushed out as a result of any activity related to this pledge.

I am not alone in this movement. More and more parents are ending their family's abuse cycles, which means a larger group of healthier people will pour into every discipline. I may not survive academia, but academia will eventually have to change to survive as healthier, self-respecting people everywhere demand it.

Several folks have mentioned to me that they understand the spirit of this post, but that, in fact, academia might be a lot better than some other alternatives. They may be right -- I've worked in corporate America, and depending on the company, corporate abuse is rampant as well. However, a problem being all over the place does not mean it's not a problem in our own backyards. So I'm starting here, in my backyard.


  1. Thank you for your honesty, Julia. You are brave to share your story. You're not alone. I'm also a survivor of childhood abuse.

  2. I don't remember who wrote it, but one of the quotes about academia that has stuck with me is the observation that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.

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