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Postdocs within the University of California system allege bullying

Postdoctoral fellows from the University of California, San Diego share stories of bullying and abuse from their top researchers.

A high-profile case involves a pathology postdoc who says her PI did not renew her contract after raising concerns about data manipulation within the lab. Post-docs and students have shown their support for post-doctoral fellow Li Jiang, including through a protest on campus last week. Jiang’s supporters are particularly concerned that she is pregnant and international: Jiang, who is from China, is in the United States on a work visa, and losing her job jeopardizes her legal status in the United States. and her health care while she is seven months pregnant.

Another complaint filed by five postdocs accuses a second professor, of neurobiology, of retaliating against one of them for taking maternity leave, frequently threatening to fire them, publicly belittled and professionally punished in various ways, etc. Most of these post-docs have since left not only the lab but also academia, citing climate concerns.

One of these five post-docs, Matthias Deutsch, who left UCSD last month after two years as a non-academic post-doc (and who is the partner of the post-doc against whom the PI allegedly exercised retaliation for taking maternity leave), said Inside Higher Education that the NP did not speak to her for three months after filing the still outstanding grievance, creating an even more uncomfortable work environment.

“It touched us a lot,” Deutsch said of his experience and that of his colleagues in the lab. “Especially because we lost two years of our early career, and it diminished our professional opportunities in academia.” (Deutsch, who is German, is, like Jiang, an international scholar whose professional status is tied to his legal status in the United States)

Deutsch said he did not want to publicly name the PI, to avoid possible legal ramifications, but shared the professor’s name with Inside higher education. This professor has sent a request for comments to the university.

UCSD said in a statement that it could not comment on specific cases or incidents, but that “the health, well-being and safety of community members on our campus is our top priority.” All allegations of harassment “are taken very seriously,” the university said, and anyone experiencing harassment and discrimination is encouraged to contact UCSD’s Office for Harassment and Discrimination Prevention.

The United Auto Workers-affiliated University of California Postdoctoral and Academic Workers Union is currently negotiating a new contract with administrators. The union filed a lawsuit with the California Public Employment Relations Board last fall to force the university to negotiate bullying protections that can be grieved and otherwise enforced, arguing that a university anti-bullying policy is insufficient protection. Contract negotiations on this issue are ongoing.

Adam Caparco, a UCSD chemical engineering postdoc and a member of the union’s executive council, said: “There is an extreme power imbalance between postdocs and their supervisors at UC, especially when a supervisor can exercise a control over a postdoc’s visa status. And it’s all too common for supervisors to exploit that power.”

Although there are “many supportive supervisors across UC, unfortunately we have heard many instances of supervisors bullying postdocs into working harder or in ways they are not comfortable with. comfortable,” Caparco also said. “About 60% of post-docs are international, and UC recruits them to come and work here, but fails to protect them from abusive behavior when it happens. UC or leave academia altogether.”

Bullying at UCSD and beyond

While UCSD is currently in the spotlight, bullying of postdocs and other academic staff is not just an apparent problem on this campus. Some 65% of postdocs who responded to NatureThe 2020 inaugural international survey of postdocs said they had experienced direct bullying, more than the 40% of postdocs who said they had experienced gender discrimination and the 24% who said they had been victims of racial discrimination and harassment. In just one instance of bullying allegations that came to light on UC campuses beyond San Diego this year, scholars from the Berkeley campus’ Department of Plant and Microbial Biology delivered a letter to David Ackerly , dean of the Rausser College of Natural Resources, last month, demanding action.

The letter, written by three academics and described as representative of the testimony of 24 current and former members of the lab, accuses a faculty member of frequent harassment and violation of Berkeley’s honor code of “honesty, integrity and respect for others”. More recently, the letter says, the professor forced an international scholar to take a 30% pay cut, allegedly telling her that her chances of becoming “adequate at her job” were the same as her own chances of “becoming a Olympic swimmer overnight. .”;

The professor, Steven Brenner, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Ackerly, the dean, said in a brief interview that “we – myself and also the university – are very committed to maintaining an environment of mutual respect among all who work in our research laboratories, as well as in a teaching framework. And when situations arise, the responses differ depending on the people involved. In this particular case, in fact, there were quite a few different offices that had to coordinate, so we were a little slower to start the engagement and response. But that is now happening. … We want to resolve this situation.

Ackerly declined to share more details, citing employee confidentiality.

Ryan King, spokesman for the office of the president of the university system, said in a statement that the University of California “takes allegations of inappropriate conduct and harassment seriously and has a number of policies in place governing conduct. students, staff, and faculty who specify designated reporting processes for community members to address their concerns.”

The President’s Office also recently proposed a Presidential Policy on Abusive Conduct in the Workplace, King said, “which would cover abusive conduct and retaliation in the workplace. The proposed policy includes examples of abusive conduct, prohibits retaliation for reporting abusive conduct and describes options for resolution.” The office is currently considering feedback on the draft policy and hopes to adopt it early next year.

Jiang, who agreed to answer questions about her case via email, said she did not want to name her PI or share details of her data manipulation allegations (either publicly or in the background). as she has pending complaints with the Office of Compliance and Research Integrity at UCSD. and with its union of university workers. But she said she had worked at UCSD for more than four years and expected her postdoctoral contract to be renewed until she raised concerns about the integrity of research methodology within from the laboratory in January. After that, Jiang said, her supervisor’s behavior towards her “changed significantly” and “she told me that she wouldn’t reappoint me for a year, but she would give me a few months’ extension if I was producing some data in a short period of time. I worked very hard to produce this data, and I tried to overcome all the obstacles that come with scientific research, especially during pregnancy, but it was not possible in the shortest possible time.”

In the end, Jiang was not renewed and was told that her last day at the lab would be this week. She said the reason given for her non-renewal was that the PI didn’t have the money to continue funding her, but that was contradicted by the PI’s advertisement for a new postdoc.

“The non-renewal was very unexpected, and I believe it was retaliation,” Jiang said. “I believe my contract was not renewed because my supervisor did not want to work with me anymore after I asked her about the data. After that she got mad at me and ignored me as much as possible. I could feel the big difference in the way she treated me compared to the other members of the lab.”

Jiang’s department director (not his PI), Steven Gonias, said he could not comment publicly on the labor issues.

The union is actively negotiating a resolution of Jiang’s grievance with the university, Caparco said, “to ensure she has more time to use her health benefits, recover from childbirth and move on.” next step in his career without losing his visa status. “

Jiang said that “traveling around the world would be a very high risk for me and my baby at this late stage of pregnancy, especially under the Covid pandemic. I deeply hope that I can continue with my life. here long enough to have a healthy baby rather than have my life turned upside down.”