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Spurred by sexual misconduct, grad student ‘zine’ documents efforts to improve department culture

Between traveling to Vienna to conduct her research and having a great adviser, Kriti Sharma would say that graduate school is going well. But a few years ago, when Sharma was in the third year of her Ph.D., she was shocked to read about a former professor in her department in The New York Times (NYT). The article reported on allegations of sexual misconduct at three consecutive institutions—including the biology department at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill, where Sharma is a student.

After her initial dismay, she began to think that the publicity might offer an opportunity to address sexual misconduct in her department. It’s not that she thought her department was especially rife with harassment. But the article made clear that multiple people in the department knew about the professor’s behavior, yet he was still able to move on to another university and repeat the cycle. This was a sign of institutional failures, not an isolated problem in her department. Still, that didn’t deter her from working toward change.

A few days after the article was published, Sharma met with nine other graduate students who had responded to her emails suggesting discussions about department culture. But she found that most were generally resigned to the idea that they lacked the power to change anything.

In just over 2 years, the students proved that assumption false. In April, a group of approximately 20 graduate students published a 40-page zine—a self-published work designed to be copied and distributed—titled “Lab notes on power in academia” that documents the tools used, resources gathered, and lessons learned.

“I had a lot of preconceived ideas about what we would ‘need’ to make changes to the culture of our department and academic science,” one of the student authors writes in the zine. “As we began to take action, I realized those ideas weren’t right at all. … We needed a group of people who were willing to work hard on a difficult problem and who were willing to give their talent and time,” as well as courage, patience, and persistence. Among the “things we didn’t need” was permission.

A community conversation

The overall goal, Sharma says, was to create “cultural changes that amount to policy changes.” The focus was systemic issues rather than blaming individuals—a strategy made much easier by the fact that the professor whose behavior initiated the conversations no longer worked at UNC. “This zine isn’t about any individual villain,” the authors write, and they intentionally do not name the professor. “It isn’t about sex. It isn’t about ‘women’s issues’. It is about being aware of the system of power that we are a part of.”

To get started, Sharma and other members of the graduate student committee drew on their experience in community organizing. Rather than trying to immediately jump to developing and implementing solutions, they first focused on creating a foundation of mutual understanding and finding common ground in a sea of conflicting perspectives that echo those voiced in response to similar allegations in science and beyond.

Both Sharma and Sophia Tintori, a grad student in the department who drew on her design experience in animation and film to lead the zine creation, describe themselves as shocked after reading the NYT article. But they learned that it was old news to some students. An email reprinted in the zine recounts how graduate students warned each other about the professor’s behavior. Some shared the article over email with the subject line “Oops, I did it again,” a reference to both the Britney Spears song and the serial nature of the allegations.

There was also a gap between students’ and faculty members’ awareness. “I went to talk to my students and they knew everything that was happening and I didn’t,” recalls Mark Peifer, a faculty member in the department since 1992. “It made us realize how disconnected we could be from something that was happening 150 yards away.” And although many faculty members were similarly troubled, some others voiced concerns that a talented scientist was losing his career because of these allegations, painting him as the victim.

With such disparate viewpoints, the key at the start was open discussion, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable it might be. The graduate students invited a trained facilitator to lead conversations about department culture. Everyone in the department was invited. To ensure that as many people as possible could attend, they held sessions on three different days.

Many of the issues discussed will be familiar to those who have worked in academia and have followed the #metoo movement. Attendees pointed to the hierarchical structure of academia, which can make trainees hesitant to report advisers for fear of retaliation and because they have more to lose if the relationship goes sour. They also noted that the lack of mentorship training or oversight for faculty members opens the door to poor outcomes, even when intentions are good. But just as important as identifying the sources of the problems was the act of having the discussions out in the open so that they could be faced head-on, instead of being swept under the rug.

Once they had the foundation of community discussions, the graduate students and a faculty working group that had come together in the wake of the article identified projects to collaborate on. For example, they administered a climate survey to all trainees in the department, which served to gather more information in a way that didn’t require anyone to speak up at a public forum. This and other projects are documented in the zine.

“There’s nothing actually radical in there,” Tintori says. “We’re not trying to overthrow the whole system. We’re just trying to make room for a conversation.”

According to Peifer, all this work “made a huge positive change in [the] department.” When asked to identify the specifics of that change, Peifer points to a power dynamics workshop as a particularly successful event. Of the 83 participants, 44 were faculty members— accounting for half of the professors in the department and demonstrating strong faculty support. But the real triumph, Pfeifer emphasizes, was engaging department members across all power levels. Conversations about power dynamics now occur in faculty meetings, which helps remind faculty members that “your graduate students aren’t your friends. … That power differential is always there, and pretending it’s not there doesn’t make it go away.”

Kriti Sharma (second from right) and other grad students working with input collected during a power dynamics workshop as part of the efforts described in their zine.

courtesy of Alissa Brown

Tintori—who received her Ph.D. last December and is currently working as a nonfiction filmmaker for a year, after which she plans to return to academia—has also seen some positive changes. “I’ve definitely gotten a lot of feedback that people are thinking about these ideas that they’ve never thought about before—not because they are stupid or mean, but because it’s just not part of our training,” she says.

When asked about the impact of their work, the students are hesitant to make claims about reducing misconduct or power abuse because they do not have enough data. However, the results of the first climate survey from October 2016 now serve as a benchmark that will enable the department to track progress.

Heather Metcalf, who has conducted research on departmental culture since she was a graduate student in computer science and is now the director of research and analysis at the Association for Women in Science in Washington, D.C., praises the group’s approach. She partly attributes their success to “the way that they approached it from a collective benefit kind of way rather than just making demands. … There was a lot of compassion in the way that they were trying to handle the situation.”

Moving forward, the faculty will need to ensure that the momentum continues, notes Sabrina Burmeister, an associate professor in the department and member of the faculty working group that collaborated with the students. “Whatever problems we might have as a department, they’re part of a broader societal context. And it’s not something that we can change with a set of policies. … It has to be an ongoing cultural shift, and that requires persistent effort.”

That cultural shift also needs to extend beyond gender dynamics. As the authors of the zine write, “the conditions that lead to sexual harassment also lead to hostility towards ethnic and religious minorities, differently abled people, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups.” Yet, notes Sharma—a South Asian woman—when working with a group of mostly white women in a predominantly white department, issues related to gender get the most traction.

Burmeister, who was also the department’s associate chair for diversity until she became the director of faculty diversity initiatives for the College of Arts and Sciences, sees her work trying to improve the diversity of incoming faculty members as parallel to the climate work being doing within her department. “We want to hire people who bring different perspectives, but then we also need to make them feel empowered to share those different perspectives once they’re here,” she says.

Personal impact

On the other side of the coin from the effects on department culture are the personal repercussions for the individuals involved in this type of work. There is no shortage of horror stories about people from underrepresented groups who encounter retaliation or indifference when they speak up about abuse or inequality. However, Sharma, Tintori, and other members of the graduate student committee spoke of remarkably positive experiences.

Being part of a group of students working together to improve the culture around them made Tintori “proud to be part of this community in a way that I’ve rarely felt otherwise.” Learning about power dynamics—and resources and tools to help her be a good mentor—also made her more interested in becoming a principal investigator than ever before and increased her confidence that she could do the job well.

The experience similarly helped Sharma feel like she belonged in the department where she had previously felt like an outsider with impostor syndrome. Despite having a supportive adviser, she wonders whether she would have stayed to complete her Ph.D. had she not found these colleagues who she trusted and cared about. “This was the best thing I did in graduate school in a certain sense,” Sharma says.

Even so, Sharma noted how stressful and scary the initial weeks of organizing were. It reminded her of negative experiences in academia when she had felt like she did not belong or had been treated condescendingly. She also experienced a certain level of ostracism from members of the department who were not interested in tackling these issues.

Metcalf notes that the worst backlash happens when the majority of people in a department are unsupportive, but that productive discussions can still happen without “100% buy-in.” As the zine’s list of “Things we didn’t need” highlights, “unanimous support” is not required.

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