Who can we trust?


A few weeks ago, I was hit by an unexpected gut punch. It was an email from a trusted colleague, obliterating trust to smithereens. It has taken me a while to recover my breath. I’ve been in the process of rethinking who and how I trust. What should it take for a person to be granted trust, and what does it take to maintain or lose that trust?

Shortly after news of the Pruitt affair broke last week, it didn’t take long for a lot of us to ask ourselves: Can we trust all of our peers to be ethical? When our professional success, and the success of our students, rides on successful collaborations, what is the pathway to building successful collaborations? As this worry has been occupying far too much of my mind for weeks now, and current events have triggered discipline-wide introspection into the same question, I don’t feel so alone.

Joan Strassmann wrote that we have two choices: to stop collaborating, or to trust our collaborators*. She’s not wrong: we do need to trust the people we are collaborating with. I think that’s essential, for reasons I hope are self-evident. However, I feel like looking at this as a dichotomy brings risk. It’s prudent to exercise wisdom in deciding who we partner with. We can’t grant trust to anybody who wants to work with us, or immediately trust someone who we’d like to work with. That’s a recipe for letting others take advantage of us.

When you’re in a position where someone can marginalize you without experiencing adverse consequences, you’re more susceptible to having others take advantage of you. The tragic implication of this dynamic is that the people who are in the greatest need of support and collaboration are also the people who need to be the most selective in choosing professional partnerships.

Collaboration is one of my favorite parts of this job. There’s nothing quite like finishing a project when you work with a team of people with different types of expertise, to create a cool product. While I started this job with research in mind, I’ve been taking the same approach to helping students succeed. When students have access to opportunity from a diverse set of people and their resources, they’ll find much greater success. Whether it’s research or developing the careers of junior scientists, collaborative arrangements have one thing is common: they require trust borne of mutual respect.

In this most recent breach of trust that happened to me, it stings so much because it hit me where I definitely should know better. Back in 2013, I started this blog to think and talk more deeply about students and faculty doing research in teaching-focused universities, because we haven’t been getting the respect that we deserve, and haven’t been treated as peers by our colleagues at research-focused institutions. After all, I think and write about this stuff a lot. If there’s anything that I hope readers have gotten from this site, I hope it’s an appreciation of faculty and students at non-R1 universities, including the realization that we are talented as researchers, we have talented students, and we deserve to be treated as peers because we are peers. I understand that this can sound whiny or self-pitying, but I routinely see our students being marginalized, and I see so many amazing researchers disregarded solely because of their institutional affiliation, so I’m going to keep talking about it.

The successes of this site have definitely reaped professional dividends for myself. While not so quantifiable, this visibility has provided opportunities that I otherwise would not have had. I feel grateful to have the opportunity to lightly steer the conversation about how we navigate our research community, and to talk about how research and teaching are compatible. I’ve heard that phone calls and letters to politicians are impactful because most people don’t bother to reach out and share their views, so that if you get a thoughtful email, that must reflect a large number of people who have similar feelings. If that’s also true in the world of science “inreach” that I’m doing here (and I’m not sure that it is), then the feedback that I’ve received leads me to imagine that this site has been more successful than I ever could have imagined. It’s heartening and humbling to think that I’ve positively impacted the perspectives, practices, or career trajectory of even a few of you.

It seems I’ve gotten overambitious, in thinking that I could leverage this platform for students who don’t have the social capital to access opportunities that they deserve. Since I feel like my standing in the research community has grown simply because I’m more visible, I hoped this would have a transitive effect on our students. What happened to me weeks ago has forced me to realize that, even though it breaks my heart, my identity here doesn’t necessarily bring any more respect or support for the students in my university or institutions similar to ours.

It doesn’t really matter if I trim the long story down to the short story, because really, these stories are all the same. I’m telling this to demonstrate my naiveté to you, and filling in the details won’t change that. Regardless, I can’t tell you the long story because of the disparity in power, as the details would just harm me and my students in the long run.

Here’s the short story: A friend in a prestigious university asked if they could provide some research opportunities to students who are majoring in my department. We’ve had conversations about how hard it is for students to gain access to such opportunities, and what a difference it makes when students from low-prestige institutions gain the imprimatur from high-prestige institutions. We’ve also talked about how prestigious and primarily white institutions chronically take advantage of students from minority-serving institutions. Some of our students are tempted to make a Faustian bargain to accept a research opportunity at a prestigious institution with the understanding that they probably will be treated poorly, so it was a tremendous relief to be able to provide students with access to good research opportunities that are prestigious and also certifiably nontoxic. I was asked to write a letter of support with institutional letterhead, for a grant specifying support for a substantial number of undergraduates at my institution to receive mentored research experiences at my friend’s institution. You can guess what happened next. They had their reasons, and I have no doubt that they feel justified in shifting the funds to students at their own institution. The only clarity I have is that I was, apparently, never perceived as a peer or a partner. In the end, yet again, our institution and our students were taken advantage of by a wealthy and prestigious institution who put our names in the grant but chose to keep those resources for themselves. I abetted this exploitation by endorsing the plan without providing for any accountability. For a reality check, I’ve run this by some trusted colleagues, they agree we got screwed, and also were as surprised as I was. Though one person who is wise about these things said, more or less, that this was entirely predictable.

This one hurt me personally in two ways. First, I’m losing credibility in my own institution because I’m not delivering on opportunities that I had promised. Second — and more important — it’s a harm to our students. It’s early in the semester, but already, a few have come by to ask me when they can apply, and I have to tell them that the opportunity isn’t there any more.

I am very mad at and disappointed in myself, for opening our students and the university to this kind of exploitation. It’s a downright cliché at regional public universities that prestigious institutions are used to exploiting our identity to gain access to grant money. I am fully aware that departments like ours have a history of one-sided partnerships with better-funded institutions that take more than they give. I should have known better. In this case, I was very much like Charlie Brown, trusting that Lucy wasn’t going to pull away the football, when in all reality, this is the expected outcome of this kind of scenario. It keeps repeating itself over and over. I thought by building a relationship of trust, I could prevent them from pulling away the football. But like Charlie Brown, it was the relationship of trust that got me in trouble. My ego will recover, and I’ll use this as a lesson to exercise more wisdom in developing partnerships.

I’ve had a few weeks to think about what kinds of guidelines and signposts to use when navigating into and out of collaborations. This can’t protect anybody from walking into a score of retraction-worthy datasets, but they might help me to spend my time on more fruitful partnerships and protect the people around me from exploitation.

Henceforth, what will I do differently?

  • I’ll need to know whether my partner has positive history of working with folks when there is an unequal distribution of power. The lack of a negative history isn’t enough.
  • I’ll need to separate out friendships and a history of collegiality, because in hindsight, some of the people who have been most collegial with me also have operated downright predatory lab environments. Friends who are blinded by their privileged circumstances can take advantage of you, and not even aware of what they’ve done wrong.
  • I need to remember that reputation and public image about equity and inclusion issues are orthogonal to actual success in equity and inclusion. (And yes, I must remember that this applies to myself, too.)
  • If something appears too good to be true, is probably is.
  • If looks free, I’m the product, not the customer.
  • If my institution is allocated a nontrivial amount of resources in a grant, I’ll make sure it’s a subcontract or a subaward.
  • I need to listen more, and remember that red flags are more often about what is not said than what is said.
  • Instead of looking for relationships of trust, I’m looking for relationships of demonstrated respect. Does this partner really see me as a peer and as an equal? Do their actions show this? (To draw from the field of behavioral ecology, are they engaging in honest signaling?)

I should point out that I’m fortunate to have built many great professional relationships with people who I still trust. I do want new people to work with me! But I also don’t want people to show up and waste our time if they’re not willing to be genuine partners.

This is an existential question that plenty of scholars of sequential art have asked, so I’m not going to come up with new insights when asking: “Why does Charlie Brown keep trying to kick the football when Lucy always pulls it away?” Nevertheless, I wonder if it is possible for me to navigate partnerships with powerful people without becoming Charlie Brown. To answer that question, I think I’ll have to ask, have I ever seen Lucy playing football with anybody else?


*Here’s the passage, but of course read the whole post, because as you would expect, there’s nuance: “I think there are only two possible solutions. The first is to stop collaborating. Collect all your data yourself. Then you will be sure of its accuracy. But what would that do to science? How greatly that would slow down progress? What is the other solution? It is easy, but flawed. But it is the best option, by far.  It will not avoid any of the pain the Pruitt collaborators are currently suffering. But it is best for science. It is to simply trust your collaborators.”

12 thoughts on “Who can we trust?

  1. This is so wrong, sorry for you and the students. And unfortunately this stuff does happen more than it should. I don’t know how US grants work, so this is probably a silly question, but can’t you speak to the funding body about this? If you have written evidence that the grant was intended for specific opportunities, how can they justify not meeting that obligation?

    • That’s an interesting point. There’s a lot I could say about many aspects of this situation, but in doing so, there’s nothing to gain and plenty to lose. I’ve pretty much revealed everything I’m going to say. I want to focus on my own decisions and not those of the other party, and I’ve written this to reflect on the consequences of my own poor decision. Because I obviously am only telling this from my perspective, and I’ve veiled their identity, I don’t want this to be gossip or vindictive. So in short, it’s a reasonable and fair question, I just don’t want to take the conversation in that direction.

      • There might not be anything to gain by seeking justice in this particular situation, but I wonder what could be done more generally to get funding agencies to hold grantees accountable for their diversity plans. One legitimate criticism of inclusing some sort of diversity statement in an application process is that it encourages people to talk the talk without any real intention of walking the walk.

        • Some good is that relatively recently, NSF has specified that “results from prior support” need to address broader impacts from the prior support, and strengths and weaknesses in this realm are definitely part of the review process.

  2. I’m so sorry you had to go through this, Terry, and I really appreciate you sharing the experience. This is a powerful post with some really important lessons for all of us. Thank you.

  3. This makes me soooo mad!!! I’ve been a mentor in the Stanford summer research program (SSRP). It’s fantastic and specifically for non-Stanford undergrads who come from less-research intensive colleges.

    • You might want to be aware that students of color in SSRP have had mixed experiences.

  4. I am very new to grant writing. You mention making sure that your portion of the project is covered by a subcontract or subaward to ensure that in the future, the funds go towards their planned purpose. Can you elaborate a little on how that works in the budgeting of the grant? Do you just agree on the amount that is needed and put that into the budget as a line that is awarded to your institution?

    • The lead institution submits the proposal, and if you are collaborating on a piece, you decide on the budget amount and the lead institution can list this as a subcontract, where you are provided the funds to carry out your part of the project. In this case — and is typical — the PI had control over the budget for CSUDH students. They handle the expenditure of funds. Which means they have the power to cut us out. I think having students join as an REU under a subcontract is unconventional, and the host institution wouldn’t like it because they probably would have to pay overhead on those funds, whereas participant support costs are not subject to overhead. So this would have to be a conversation with the PO before submitting. In this case, I thought that kind of step would not have been necessary because I trusted them.

      I am probably going to write a post about the pragmatic budgetary aspects of this issue, about how we can properly enfranchise partners in student training. I honestly don’t even know if it could work with NSF to do it this way without making it a “collaborative” proposal, which is a lot more institutional paperwork.

  5. Really sorry to hear this has been done to you and your students, Terry. Thank you for sharing what must be a painful topic to revisit repeatedly. It is a deeply valuable lesson for me to read about/learn second hand as I am contributing to Diversify STEM efforts as they intersect with SciComm/Public Engagement in a number of forums.

  6. That’s really frustrating to hear. And now you’ll (rightly!) be that much more reluctant to consider similar collaborations in the future. Their shady behavior is a long term loss for a short term gain.

    We’re reaching out to some departments at other schools in the region about starting up some joint activities and having trouble getting traction. We’ll have to earn their trust through actions, not just words, and that’ll take a while.

    Your blog has been invaluable in giving me perspective and empathy for their point of view. It’s been a huge help in making me and my colleagues more thoughtful about our interactions with our neighboring PUIs. Much thanks!

  7. I’d make two points. First, the greatest privilege is to take one’s privilege for granted to such an extent that one can be entirely oblivious and ignorant of it. Second, the problems of privilege are most pronounced in an extremely high inequality society like the United States.

    The two feed into each other. Disparity of wealth, power, opportunity and resources creates social disconnection and psychological dissociation. This then hides the reality and results of those disparities.

    This leads to dysfunction and conflict (as argued by Keith Payne, Kate Pickett, and Richard Wilkinson and this eventually leads to a ‘levelling’ (according to Walter Scheidel). But in the meantime it causes a lot of misery and society is driven insane.

    That is to say your incident is far from isolated. Imagine what it’s like for those on the bottom of society. Three-quarters of the US population, much of it the permanent underclass, never makes it to college and are barely making ends meet.

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