How ‘broken’ is academia, and how can we fix it?

Jon Tennant just finished his PhD in paleontology. This post originally appeared on Jon’s blog, Fossils and Shit. Follow him on twitter @protohedgehog.

In every coffee break conversation, you hear murmurs of a ‘broken academic system’. Hallways whisper secret conversations about the latest case of professional abuse, the tenured professor still writing papers on a type-writer, and the grad student that mysteriously disappeared just 6 months in.

I’m going to try and outline here what I have seen in my experience and through many discussions with an enormous variety of people about what the most pressing issue in the current system is.

It’s all about power, and the abuse of it.

Academics who are embedded in a position of status or power must have successfully navigated the academic webways, played the game just right, in order to be where they are now. This must be true, based on the virtue of the fact that they are there.

These very same people are those who control almost everything – they sit on your hiring committees, they are the gatekeepers to journals, they review your grants and decide who or what receives funding. They also are the ones with the capacity to create real, systemic, and cultural changes, because they are the ones pulling all the strings.

However, by the very virtue of being successful, they can easily become blind to the faults of the system, because you can’t see them as negative when they have worked for you in a positive manner. Because they have overcome obstacles, they fail to see why others cannot in the same way, or that these obstacles impact upon different people in various ways – typically disadvantaging the already disadvantaged most. By definition, marginalised communities are invariably under-represented, but are often the very common and real victims of faulty systems. But when do we ever hear their voices?

Success in academia, or any walk of life, blinds people to the reality of failure. For whatever those reasons might be. How common do we see the attitude of “It’s not a problem because it doesn’t happen to me.” in academia? “I made it here, so others can too.”

This sort of ignorance and lack of empathy results in a system that constrains innovation, stifles cultural adaptation, and defines inertia as the norm through a system of fear. Fear because you can’t challenge this status quo, as it’s the members of it who are going to decide if your paper gets accepted, you get hired, or you get that grant. They decide if you are able to pay your rent and feed your family.

This reality is a huge problem, as those who wield this power won’t always do so. They’ll try to for as long as possible, but it is the grad students and postdocs (early career researchers, ECRs) who will inherit the system. But they aren’t having much say in what it is they will inherit.

Students of today are growing up in a very different web-powered digital world. This world is all about creation, innovation, and the freedom to share knowledge and ideas. But ECRs are penalised for speaking out and challenging and creating, because at the moment they have no power in the system. You can look at the table and watch the game, but you don’t have any chips so you can’t play.

A consequence of this is that diverse voices are not invited, welcomed, or recognised to be at the tables where the important decisions are being made. The top of the system, where all the power is, represents a culture of replicas, of clones, the same demographic who know how to play the system to win the game. It will rarely be success based on individual prowess or skill, but a process of a thousand small events with a thousand different players that were leveraged at the right time, with just the right amount of luck, that manifests itself as personal achievement and results in acquisition of power.

It’s these very same people though in power who don’t want to undermine the foundations of their own success. It makes perfect sense – that’s human nature. A researcher would have to have a serious foot-shooting fetish to point out the flaws in their own achievements. But this means that the ‘elite’ by default choose ignorance over empathy, over generational sustainability, over using their power selflessly to help others.

There are some people at the top who have gained better awareness, and who listen to others and try to induce positive change. But they remain a minority, and we as a culture and a community have to do better to increase social mobility and increase engagement that transcends academic hierarchies.

One solution to this is to have grad students and postdocs better represented in the places that are deciding the future structure of academia: every hiring panel, each grant committee, engaged in advisory roles for every policy process.

If we do not do this, we are left with the very same people who won the long game dictating the rules for future students based on their own minority experiences, rather than the unheard and unseen majority. All the time, we lose our best and brightest as they become disillusioned with the system, and are chased out for one reason or another – just another leak in a very patched-up pipeline.

What I want to see more of is senior researchers listening more to ECRs, to their experiences, their problems, their requests. I want them to embrace empathy for those who haven’t won the game, or refuse to play it. I want them to use this to build a better future for everyone that breaks down power dynamics, embraces diversity and encourages equity, and creates a better environment for innovation to flourish without fear.

Let us be brave and challenge the status quo, let us create, let us think outside the box. Isn’t this is what research is supposed to be about, after all?

Note: Parts of this discussion are chopped up on Twitter here.

Edit: I’m much less interested in responses to this about how the system has benefited people (i.e., the “It’s worked for me so what’s the problem” mentality). That’s not what this is about. I’m interested in finding out why it doesn’t work or hasn’t worked for those who are worse off. #notallacademics, right..

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One thought on “How ‘broken’ is academia, and how can we fix it?

  1. Hey, excellent piece and sums up my own view on matters. I have been going on for a while now about for the need for hiring committees to be made up of external, non-biased members, also with strong input from university HR employees who have professional qualifications in the science of hiring.

    The one aspect where I slightly disagree with you is your suggestion of a generational problem. I have seen young researchers get tenure and then change their opinion about the academic system once they have become insiders within the system. Likewise, I can imagine that the current older generation within academia were more idealistic when they were young, nontenured outsiders. However, I do think that the problems of the academic system have been brought more into focus in recent years by the sheer number of PhD graduates that are being produced, has inevitably led to an increase in the outsider:insider ratio. People complaining about the system may have been easy to dismiss as a cranky minority a couple of decades ago, but the imbalance between PhD graduates and permanent positions within system is now on course to create a cranky majority.

    I don’t think this is something that will change from within because, as you say, those who benefit from a broken system have no incentive to change that system. However, almost all universities are publicly funded, so I think our elected representatives need to be made aware of issues. They have the power to dictate changes in university hiring policies. Switzerland is the European country that hires the highest number of outside candidates (foreigners) in their research system and it is the country that consistently produces the highest quality research in Europe.

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