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Threats, abuse, retaliation: UW-Madison confronts persistent problem of academic bullying

From the Read the whole series: Academic Abuse: An Overdue Reckoning series
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UW bullying

UW-Madison students gather in the lobby of Engineering Hall. The College of Engineering has received several bullying complaints in the past six years.

One professor threatened to stop funding several of his graduate students. A postdoctoral researcher saw his extensive work on a paper diminished when his adviser put her name above his own. Another budding scientist struggled to find a job after her professor offered negative references to prospective employers.

These troubling accounts of academic bullying on the UW-Madison campus show the problem extends beyond what Ph.D. candidate John Brady endured under an abusive adviser before dying by suicide in 2016. Situations like his can often be written off as awful anomalies, experts say, but that sort of thinking is misguided in a work environment where professors wield uneven power over the students they supervise. For every student like Brady, there are a number of others who suffer in silence or leave academia altogether.

The problem exists at most research universities, but takes on increased importance on a campus that consistently ranks among the top doctoral-granting institutions.

Academic bullying, a shorthand for what UW-Madison formally refers to as “hostile and intimidating behavior,” is broadly defined as unwelcome behavior so pervasive or severe that it impairs another person’s ability to carry out their work responsibilities.

It can present in different forms with repeated ridiculing, shouting and intimidation among the most obvious examples. The behavior can also include more subtle forms of misconduct, such as veiled threats, impossible workloads and undermining of career prospects. Some actions fall into a gray zone, but experts say bullying goes beyond students being unable to handle the pressures of graduate school.

A Wisconsin State Journal investigation identified nine employees, including Brady’s adviser, who were investigated in the last six years for violating the university’s policy against hostile and intimidating behavior. According to the newspaper’s review of the records:

  • In at least five of the cases, UW-Madison had received complaints or had documented previous concerns about the individuals for bullying behavior prior to the complaint that triggered the formal investigation.
  • Four of the employees left for other jobs, two of whom continue to lead labs where they supervise students.
  • Four employees remain at UW-Madison. In multiple cases, officials said specific requirements, such as additional training and lab monitoring, were put in place.
  • Some cases were clear-cut violations of UW-Madison policy. But in others, investigators struggled to make that determination. For example, a professor who encouraged a former employee working in a different lab to perform more than 350 hours of uncompensated work for him wasn’t found to have acted in a hostile and intimidating manner. But because of the power imbalance and influence he had over her career, an investigator said a reasonable person could conclude she felt pressured. The professor, who was found to have violated other UW-Madison policies, retired last fall.
  • In almost all of the cases in which responses from the accused were included in UW-Madison reports, the individuals denied the accusations, blamed others or questioned the investigative process.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank said she would like to believe bullying isn’t common on campus and that the overwhelming majority of graduate students develop positive relationships with their advisers.

Rebecca Blank


“On the one hand I’m heartened there aren’t more (complaints),” she said in an interview. “But on the other hand, I want to be sure that there aren’t more because people aren’t reporting.”

UW-Madison considers itself ahead of the curve in addressing academic bullying, with extensive policies spelled out for specific employee groups, a dedicated website bringing visibility to the problem and resources on how to address it.

Other Big Ten schools tend to lump behavioral expectations into ethics codes or general workplace policies, according to a UW-Madison policy review officials shared with the newspaper. Some institutions offer short descriptions of their standards. The University of Iowa, for instance, said faculty should “demonstrate respect” toward students and “avoid exploitation.”

An academic paper published last fall highlighted “encouraging” work underway at a handful of institutions that are “not only increasing awareness but actually cultivating policies and practices designed to curb bullying.” UW-Madison was one of three cited.

Reprehensible but not illegal

Similar to sexual assault and harassment, bullying is an enduring problem in academia that will likely persist for decades to come. Cases are often complex, open to different interpretations and the institution’s response can leave both sides feeling unsatisfied.

But bullying differs in a few key ways. The #MeToo movement brought attention and awareness to the issue of sexual violence. Bullying has had less of a national reckoning.

The topic has come up just once or twice among Big Ten leaders, Blank recalled, whereas sexual assault gets “a lot of conversation.”

Morteza Mahmoudi


That’s not surprising to Morteza Mahmoudi, a Michigan State University nanoscientist who has studied academic bullying. Universities have legal responsibilities — such as Title IX, the federal gender-equity law — to take action. Bullying isn’t illegal, leaving targets with far fewer avenues to pursue justice, he said.

Mahmoudi, who experienced bullying earlier in his career and co-founded an antibullying nonprofit called the Academic Parity Movement, said bullying is more common at highly ranked universities. That’s because professors at top-tier institutions land larger grants and students are more willing to justify enduring abuse in exchange for prestige or out of fear they can easily be replaced by another student.

International students are among the most vulnerable because they lack a nearby support system, rely on a student visa to stay in the U.S. and struggle with cultural or language barriers, he said. Students further along in their programs are also less likely to speak up, seeing little opportunity to change their circumstances without losing years of work.

Part of why addressing this behavior is so vexing, Mahmoudi said, is many cases lack clear documentation. Bullies are clever, don’t put threats in writing and tend to taunt individuals behind closed doors. Sometimes bullies can recruit individuals to their side, making investigative conclusions more difficult to draw.

All members of the scientific community — from university administrators to funding agencies to journal editors to colleagues of the accused — need to involve themselves in confronting the problem, he said.

UW-Madison engineering school protest

UW-Madison graduate students protested in 2019 after learning about the suicide of Ph.D. candidate John Brady, who worked under an abusive adviser, according to a university report.

No mandatory training

In the wake of Brady’s suicide becoming public, UW-Madison pledged to track reports of hostile and intimidating behavior at the central administration level so they “do not simply remain hidden inside a department or unit,” Blank said in 2019.

All complaints now go to dean’s offices at the school or college level, she said this month. Deans are the “right place” for reports to be housed because they are the “frontline troops” in documenting allegations, investigating complaints, recommending actions and monitoring behavior.

If the behavior appears egregious enough to warrant discipline or dismissal, the case is referred to the Provost’s Office. In the last five school years, eight cases have been investigated and substantiated at that level, according to UW-Madison data.

Bullying cases graphic

Tackling the problem from an institutional perspective is less an issue of resources and more about creating the right culture, Blank said.

“This is not a one-way power street,” she said. “This is a relationship that should have respect on both sides. Making sure that all faculty understand that after they arrive, regardless of where they’ve come from, regardless of how they might have been treated as a graduate student, is an issue of expectations and culture and training.”

Training, however, isn’t required. UW-Madison “strongly encourages” employees who work with graduate students to complete the training, Blank said, but the university stops short of a campuswide mandate because some staff don’t interact with students.

In-person training launched in 2018 and has been offered to nearly 2,700 people. An online training is under development.

How common on campus?

Surveys sent to all UW-Madison faculty in 2016 and 2019 offer a snapshot of how prevalent bullying may be on campus, at least from professors’ perspectives. Response rates ranged between 53% and 59%.

More than a third of faculty who responded to the 2016 survey reported personally experiencing hostile and intimidating behavior within the past three years and more than 40% witnessed such behavior.

Rates increased when the survey was sent out again in 2019. Almost 40% of faculty said they experienced bullying and nearly 50% witnessed it within the past three years.

#11084_031322_UW_bullying survey copy

The increase may, in part, be because more faculty were familiar with hostile and intimidating behavior as a concept in 2019. They were also more likely to say the behavior is treated seriously on campus and report knowing how to respond when someone brings a bullying complaint to them.

UW-Madison officials attribute the increased understanding to a variety of efforts in recent years, such as updated handbooks, more staff supporting graduate students and periodic program reviews.

COVID-19 gave colleges somewhat of a reprieve, with fewer in-person interactions taking place and labs constrained by capacity limits. The unique circumstances led to fewer bullying complaints reported last school year to UW-Madison’s Ombuds Office, a place for employees to confidentially seek guidance on workplace concerns.

A global academic study backs up that observation, concluding that bullying was less frequent during the pandemic but with a higher level of severity.

As the pandemic moves into a more manageable stage, Ombud Rick Nordheim told the Faculty Senate in December that the office is starting to see cases pick up again.

'Toxic' lab: Read all coverage of the aftermath from a UW-Madison student's suicide

A UW-Madison graduate student's suicide in October 2016 sparked a university investigation into the faculty member at the center of the lab where the student worked. University records describe College of Engineering professor Akbar Sayeed’s lab as "toxic" and his behavior as "abusive." State Journal reporter Kelly Meyerhofer writes about the university's report and fallout from the initial story, including Sayeed's reassignment and UW-Madison's plans to start centrally tracking bullying complaints.

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John Brady faced a stressful work environment under an engineering professor before taking his own life.

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National Science Foundation fired engineering professor Akbar Sayeed after receiving a detailed report on the toxic lab environment he oversaw.

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The change will ensure reports of hostile and intimidating behavior "do not simply remain hidden inside a department or unit," Chancellor Rebecca Blank said.

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College of Engineering Dean Ian Robertson reassigned professor Akbar Sayeed to administrative duties in the Dean's Office.

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Firing of faculty members is rare. The UW Board of Regents dismissed six professors in the past decade. 

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Nearly 200 students and others gathered on the Engineering Mall on campus Thursday to demand the university hold abusers accountable and to protest the possible return of professor Akbar Sayeed.

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Listen to the inaugural episode of Front Page, the State Journal’s new weekly podcast that takes a look back at some of the paper’s most interesting stories.

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Students said the policy doesn't go far enough to protect them from potential exploitation.

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The most recent investigation of tenured professor Akbar Sayeed is "currently underway regarding additional information that surfaced in fall 2019."

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The professor's resignation comes more than four years after the suicide of one of his students.

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Engineering professor Akbar Sayeed left behind a "career-long string of victims," according to a recently released report. 

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