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BLOG – ‘Let’s Talk: Power and Powerlessness in Academia’ CGHR Forum

last modified Feb 06, 2018 05:21 PM
The ‘Let's Talk’ forum was an attempt to explore the dynamics between the “powerful” and the “powerless” in academia and to find practical ways to address these issues. The forum was organised by CGHR's student group and took place on 23 November 2017.

Over the past six months conversations about abuse of power in many sectors and areas of public life have moved from the private to the public. The actions and behaviours of those in positions of relative power – whether intentional or not – often negatively affect those in positions of less power, in situations ranging from seemingly minor incidents to outright assault and harassment. 

Addressing the endemic harms caused by the abuse and misuse of power in academic relationships is a complicated matter. The ‘powerless’ hesitate to come out with allegations, due to fear of blowback to their career and life in general. The power structures embedded in academia mean that one individual can hold another's entire career in their hands thus exacerbate these apprehensions. Our ‘Let's Talk’ forum was an attempt to explore the dynamics between the “powerful” and the “powerless” in academia and to find practical ways to address these issues.

The forum was open to all those studying and working at all levels within academic power structures to bring a diversity of experiences and perspective. Given the wide and sensitive nature of the topic, we decided to conduct the forum as a structured dialogue focused on participants’ feelings and frustrations, the issues invoked by real-life case studies, their personal experiences, barriers to taking action, and possible action at the institutional level.

A diverse set of attendees participated, including undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, tutors, Directors of Studies, mid-career and senior academics, and administrative staff. Following an icebreaking exercise designed to increase trust and comfort level, we discussed a wide variety of case studies based on real life abuses of power in academia. Participants identified and discussed obstacles facing those in academia ranging from a lack of empathy and concern for well-being to micro-aggressions, manipulative power structures, and psychological effects on the “powerless”. Another conversation centred on demystifying the complicated line between intentional and unintentional abuse of power by the ‘powerful’. Building upon the case studies, many participants expressed very strong feelings and revealed their personal experiences, which unfolded many new dimensions to the topic.

We then discussed the intrinsic barriers to taking action. Mental factors brought up included fears of trivialisation, social isolation, of being dismissed and misunderstood, apprehension about potential adverse academic or career consequences. External factors covered were lack of institutional support, inadequacy of existing mechanisms to cover the diverse range of issues that may arise in an academic setting, and normalisation of inappropriate behaviours. It is essential to understand internal, external, personal and systematic obstacles to come up with effective solutions.

We were very grateful to have Sarah d’Ambrumenil, Head of OSCCA (Office of Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals) kindly give her time to outline the existing procedures. She addressed the lack of knowledge surrounding existing systems such as Student Complaints, dignity@work for staff, and the ‘Breaking the Silence’ movement, etc.

Subsequently, participants discussed potential solutions, such as the necessity of publicising the existing mechanisms and raising awareness about these issues, compulsory consent/equality/diversity workshop for students as well as University staff to bring in a degree of sensitisation within academic relationships, and bystander trainings, etc. 

The participants' passion and concerns about this complex issue contributed greatly to the quality of discussion at the forum. Given the gravity of the topic and the challenges it poses, it cannot be fully understood, let alone resolved, through one single workshop or forum. Moving forward, our aim is to compile and summarise the ideas generated through this forum such that this material can be used in future department, college-level, or university-wide workshops.