An Open Letter to ALL Graduate Programs/Departments/Universities Concerning Abuse, Discrimination, Exploitation and the Lack of Accountability

*Science in Color recently published a blog post detailing the struggles and the eventual resignation of a former Neuroscience Graduate Program student, Veronica Varela. While Veronica’s experience is lamentable on many levels, it is a familiar story in academic circles. Within Science in Color, co-founder/contributor Jonte Jones, a former graduate student in the Psychology program, has also described similar neglectful and antagonistic circumstances concerning his (Principal Investigator) PI, culminating with being forced out of his doctoral candidacy. Both of these events occurred at the University of Michigan. Responses to these accounts on social media and amongst academic colleagues show that these stories are by no means unique, and, disturbingly, are far more prevalent than should be allowed. We decided to pen the letter bellow to address this issue.

June 10, 2018

Graduate school is where the next generation of scientists are educated and trained to be critical thinkers, objective scholars, and independent investigators. Currently, this training is focused on the relationship between a mentor/principal investigator (PI) and graduate student/trainee. However, the power imbalance in that relationship leans heavily in a PI’s favor. This dynamic means that graduate students are at the whim of their mentors. 

There are PIs that are great mentors that are invested in their student’s success; however far too many mentors abuse their power, take advantage of graduate labor, mistreat and discard graduate students with no pushback at all. What’s worse, many institutions lack procedures to hold bad mentors accountable when they drive away or break down trainees. This leaves a PI free to impose their will without any accountability or checks and balances to their power and force the submission of students under their tutelage to graduate. It also no surprise that trainees across the nation suffer from a decline in quality of mental and physical health.

Those within the system know how spectacularly this system can fail a student. Years of hard work are lost as students are dismissed or forced to walk away without a degree, frequently to escape abuse, mistreatment, harassment, discrimination, and exploitation. It is notable that people underrepresented in both academia and society—people of color, women, people with disabilities (both mental and physical), etc—are at higher risk of falling victim to the inherent power imbalance. In a system as deeply hierarchical as academia, those with the least amount of power become victims and the ones with power escape responsibility.

This is wrong and represents a fundamental flaw in the graduate training system that undermines the purpose of a place of learning.

We demand those in charge revise this system that too often holds students hostage, makes their future dependent on their PI, and coerces trainees into silence about their struggles for fear of retaliation. 

We demand academic institutions prioritize student well-being and success and take responsibility for the misconduct of their faculty. It is an egregious oversight that a community that prides itself on rationality, logic, and objectivity allows such poor treatment of students.

We demand that competency in mentoring among faculty be highly prioritized and valued by academic institutions where PhDs are educated and trained. It can no longer be an afterthought. Successful mentoring needs to be a top benchmark for faculty hires and promotions.

We demand accountability when a mentor fails at their duties. We are taking a stance against this system that allows PIs/mentors/advisors leeway to discriminate, exploit, and abuse graduate students, and the ongoing culture of academic institutions that fail to hold them accountable.

We demand protections so that graduate students are not forced to work 80-hour work weeks on a regular basis. We are taking a stance against the culture of academia that encourages this type of exploitation and disregards the mental/physical health of the trainees in graduate programs.

We demand that a student’s ownership of their work be acknowledged, allowing for dissertation completion based on a student’s completed work in situations where mentor/mentee relationship breaks down.

We demand that a student dissertation committee chairperson be someone other than the student’s research mentor, to further reduce the power imbalance in the PI/student relationship.

We demand those in charge address threats of retaliation/intimidation towards faculty members (especially junior faculty) who advocate for students—safety nets and additional checks and balances should be in place to protect their voices and efforts.

We are taking a stance against PIs who believe it within their rights to control or influence when trainees choose to marry, begin families, or care for sick family members.

We are taking a stance against a culture that turns a blind eye to the exploitation of international graduate students as a result of their immigration status, effectively creating a class of students whose degrees, livelihoods, and careers are held hostage.

Bottom line: It is irresponsible to remain quiet any longer. It is no longer acceptable to continue to recruit students for doctoral programs only to subject them to PIs that do not know how to properly mentor students and we demand change.

We are students, faculty, friends, family, etc who have experienced and/or been a witness to the toxicity of academia and we demand change.

 

Signed,

The Science in Color Team

Aradhna Tripati

Anne Caridad Reynolds

CJPC

Andrea Faulkner

MT

CMD

AB

DS

Cynthia L Dinwiddie, PhD, PG

Kathryn Boyd

Javier Narváez

Alejandro Vanegas

Janelle Morano

Kaliris Y. Salas-Ramírez

JTF

KJB

JMW

JMS

Nick Silva

Stephanie Young, MSN, PhD student

Nancy m. Young

M.A.G.

HNB

Ph

JB

Anna Pancoast

Tammy Phrakonkham

MJ

Tina Harris

K M Lang

MN

Vanessa Burrowes

LMM

Mehrgol Tiv

Irene Aghahowa

Julie Libarkin

BG

GEB

Alex ahmed

Rezvan Sherkati

Timothy LaRock

Gary S McDowell

NCJ

JT

Jason Ball

SB

Adrian David

LMS

Sébastien Lapointe

NM

Marissa Borrego

MM

PC

Alin Gonzalez Barnes

AP

Angelica Riojas

Emily E. Wilson

Natalie Nevárez

Dr. Anjali M. Fernandes

Pamelia L. Angerhofer

GMD

Cheryl Stork

nancy strong

HABT

Veronica Varela

Alexander E. Thornton

Marcia L.E. MacDonald

Kathleen Treseder

Deyanira Nevarez Martínez

SBS

PA

Jeremy Brunger

Gregor Robinson

Michael MacFerrin, PhD

Nancy strong

Adriana Eliane Ojeda

SJH

Clare Flynn

Michael Brito

Alex Varela

Jaclyn Marie Durkin

Irene Park

Ellen Wixted

Jessica Chen

Surojit Sural

Elizabeth Ronan

Lexi Faulkner

Kaitlin Weskamp

Mirella Hernandez

Britton Daley

Alexandra Cara

Sophia Macarewich

Samantha Nicole Devenport

Natalie Rose Warsinger-Pepe

EAA

JLC

Jaclyn Fingerhut

Robert Doherty

Nicole Bedera

PC

Oleta Johnson

PH

C.A.G.

Thomas Rice

Aaron Y. Kurz

Tony Larkin

BC

SD

Fiona Chamness

Jayne Wozniak

Veronica Varela

Zuleirys Santana-Rodriguez

Brooks Gross

Elizabeth Rodríguez

SER

AK

BF Singer

Janel Ochoa

TS

Risa Seidman

Erica Watson, School of Social Work

Immar palomera

David Burke

Jonté Jones

Akilah Wise

Spencer Garrison

Caroline A.G.

ASM

Robert Doherty

Anhdao Tran

RK

GG

JoEllen McBride

Daniel Dillow

S.D.S.

S.D.S.

Suzanne Ishaq Pellegrini

Rachel Coombs

Devon Duron Ehnes

Dr Amanda Heiderman, PhD

BEP

McKenzie Carlisle

Maria Ali

BAM

Stephanie Roe

Catalina Vallejo

Darius Carter

Devrick Thomas

EP

BAM

Alexis Miller

Irene Aghahowa

CW

Phillip Webster

JRY

TJ

D. C.

Mark Oram

Stevie Mathre

Logan Morrison

Cassandra Avila

Katherine Wozniak

Megan Cotrell

Jessica Blount-Pacheco

Lindy Jensen

Carillon Skrzynski

Alex Chen

Shannon Wright

Lucas Huffman

James Delorme

K. Phillips

ES

KE

AK

Omari W. Keeles

Robert Campbell

Larisa Sheloukhova

Dominique A. Bouavichith

Jenna Persons

 

RES

Emily Rauscher

Scott Barolo

Steven D. Allison

ACL

ERH

W.M. Behr

Arnold Gutierrez

Olga Kozanian

Emily Riley

Lauren Burgeno

Choya Yoon

Dr. Rosalie McGurk

Angela Fowler

KEL

ESF

Isabella Rauch

Joseph kruempel

Hailey Jori Levi

Jackie McCrary

Alysha Gallop

Patrick Joyce

R.L.E.

JJ

Laura Cowie

Rebekah Stein

Anamika Agrawal

Patrice Wright

Sherif Abdelkarim

Karina A. Baptista

MOT

Zollie White III

Sandra Mayer

A.M.

SF

Marilyn Buford

A.R.M.

CO

Clm

AA

Susan Evans

Ron Stokes

Ernie Ochoa

Habiba Sallam

Monica Fadanelli

CColeman

AMB

KH

Tanya Dapkey

Karen Yook

Joanna Sutton

Amy Kimball

SNR

Ali Althaus

Henry S. Gibbons

Diana Di Leonardo

LMD

TD

NKP

Tom Mast

Robin J. Bond

Yukiko Yamashita

Pie chart of Population who signed

 

Institutions Specifically Named by Signers:

  • Baylor College of Medicine

  • CSU, Sacramento

  • Clemson University

  • Colorado State University

  • Columbia University

  • Cornell University

  • CUNY

  • Drexel University

  • Duke University

  • George Washington University

  • Georgia Institute of Technology

  • Georgia State University

  • Harvard University

  • UC Santa Barbara

  • Humboldt State University

  • Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

  • Indiana University

  • Iowa State University

  • Johns Hopkins University

  • Lehigh University

  • McGill

  • Michigan State University

  • Mississippi State University

  • MIT

  • Northeastern University

  • Northwestern University

  • NYU

  • Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology

  • Purdue University

  • Rutgers University

  • State College of Florida

 

  • Texas A&M

  • Texas State University

  • The Ohio State University

  • University of Michigan - Multiple Departments

  • Tulane University

  • UC Davis

  • UC Riverside

  • UF

  • University of Alaska Fairbanks

  • University of British Columbia 

  • UC Irvine

  • University of Chicago

  • University of Florida

  • University of Maryland, College Park

  • University of Nevada, Reno

  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

  • University of North Texas

  • University of Oregon 

  • Montana State University

  • University of Pittsburgh

  • University of Southern California 

  • University of Texas, El Paso

  • University of Utah

  • University of Virgina

  • Uppsala University

  • UT Heath Science Center, San Antonio

  • Virgina Tech

  • Wayne State University

  • Western Michigan University

 

Brittany Kuhn

Benedict Abdon

AW

BC

Nicolas Suarez

Mercedez Dunn

Kaylynn Gunter

Chelle Jones

Patricia Garay

Camille Akemann

Gourav Khullar

Ishtiaq Mawla

CR

SMP

Stephanie King

DT

Dalia Murra

EM

Roxana Coreas

CC

ERR

Saif ul Malook