I hear this a lot: “Bad behavior in academia comes from the guys who have been around for a long time. Times have changed, and they’re stuck in the old ways. We can’t change these guys, but they’re on their way out — and once they retire, things will get better.”
In some narrow cases — an isolated department here or there — this might be true. But as a general principle, I think it’s deeply mistaken.
Senior scientists can get away with doing the wrong thing for a variety of reasons. In some cases, they’re just so powerful and influential, that people are afraid to put their own neck on the line when something happens. Let me give a couple extreme examples.
One example is Richard Feynman. He got a free pass on oodles of hideous behavior because he was smart and famous. Closer to my own realm, I’m remembering a completely unacceptably sexist remark by Stuart Pimm from a few years ago. Among folks who know and have collaborated with him, it merely fit his reputation, so he continues to get a free pass. But it’s not just famous narcissists that get away with bad behavior. It happens around us all the time, by non-famous non-narcissists.
A few weeks ago, at a social gathering of faculty and staff, I was introducing a newly hired faculty member around. A recently retired guy from another science department greeted her with a wholly inappropriate sexist remark about her appearance. I don’t know what barn he was raised in that would lead him to think this behavior was acceptable, but, there he was, being totally comfortable with acting like a sexist jerk. How could someone be so casual about saying something so sexist? I presume it’s because they have the comfort of thinking that nobody will directly tell them that their behavior is unacceptable.
So I’m there in the faculty lounge watching this go down, and two lines of thought occur to me. First was, “Well, he’s retired, he only spends some time here on occasion, and he’s the old guard, new people would never be as sexist as that.” The second was, “if anybody is going to hold him responsible for his behavior, then it’s me, right now.” So, I told him, “That’s an unacceptable thing to say, that is not how we treat our colleagues.” He then apologized, but literally one second later, argued that his sexist quip was factually correct. I then told him, “Dude, you just un-did your apology! What you said was unacceptable. End of story.” Then he muttered another apology and wandered away. A couple other bystanders witnessed this interaction, as well as the target of his remarks.
Did I burn a bridge by doing this? Yes. But, I am hoping that it helps build more bridges in the long run. I didn’t confront him about his sexist remark to change his attitude. That ship has sailed. I did this because I don’t want other people to see that this kind of thing can happen without consequences in my university. I want folks to see that this kind of behavior is not permissible.
When we let the old guys get away with bad behavior, then this is a signal to junior colleagues that they will be able to get away with it when they gain seniority.
When junior academics see senior academics get away with hideous behavior, they feel emboldened themselves. As Alan Townsend pointed out in the tweet below, it persists generationally. We can’t let the old guys get away with it and then magically expect the young academics to do better. Read the link in the tweet below, and you’ll see how bad it is.
Let me give you an example of what happens when you let one of the misbehaving old guys get away with bad behavior. In my previous department there was (and apparently still is) a professor who is as racist and sexist as all get-out. He has literally done several things that are easily classified as firing offenses, if the people admins were more concerned about student safety than fighting unfounded lawsuits. The department compartmentalized their own problem by not letting him teach the majors, but he continued to teach large numbers of undergraduates and remained very popular with a subset of students. When I was there as untenured faculty, it was generally understood that his toxic behavior was to be overlooked and everybody just had their heads in the sand until he decides to retire. (Which appears to be never, by the way.) The whole time, this guy has been sending a clear message to future academic generations: senior academics don’t experience consequences when engaging in harmful behavior. I have no doubt that former students of his have moved on to academic positions, and behave like this guy.
Yes, the old guys die off. But their misogynist behavior replicates in new generations unless we take specific countermeasures.
If we consider an overview of the sexual misconduct incidents in universities that have caught the public eye, it’s not necessarily the old guys that are the problem: misconduct happens at every career stage.
If we just wait for the old school sexists to retire and die off, we’ll just have a new generation that is just as bad. If we are not proactive, we are perpetuating misconduct from one academic generation to the next. Change takes intentionally and consistently applied effort. Which is why, by the way, I won’t shut up about it.