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What can we learn from Dartmouth?

We write most of our letters to “young scientists”—those early in their scientific careers. Today's letter is a slight departure from this norm, because it’s about a topic that requires all parties in the scientific ecosystem to take action.

The recent allegations brought forward against Dartmouth College and three now-former professors in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences (PBS) have rocked the psychology and neuroscience community. The lawsuit alleges a toxic culture of inappropriate behavior and sexual misconduct that persisted for years, culminating in harassment, sexual assault, and lost educational opportunities.

As a former Ph.D. student in the PBS department at Dartmouth who was mentored by these same three now-former professors, my response to these allegations has been a complicated mixture of sadness and anger. The seeds of the current allegations were already sown 15 years ago while I was there, experiencing firsthand the challenges of developing as an intellectual within a toxic environment.

Now I’m a faculty member who is responsible for setting standards of conduct for my own lab. Like me, there are scores of well-intentioned individuals who sit in relative positions of power (or will in the future) who will struggle to set the right tone. It is our responsibility to establish a healthy environment for trainees, yet there is no rule book to follow—and we might not even realize the power we have. How can we build healthy environments that nurture our trainees’ careers? How can early-career trainees prepare themselves to transition into roles that hold greater power, such as faculty positions? What can we learn from Dartmouth?

There are many urgent discussions that are needed right now to address the cultural problems in academia. We need to find ways to support trainees who have experienced misconduct, to identify malicious actors, to reconsider departmental and institutional policies, and more. Here, I would like to start a discussion aimed at the scientific community of primarily well-intentioned actors, using my own experiences as a lens to consider how we can all be more attuned to the slippery slope on which a toxic environment can be built.

Blurry boundaries. In scientific laboratories, it can be easy to blur lines between the professional and the personal. People in labs spend a lot of time together, travel together, and in some cases socialize together. Some people covet a close, “family-like” lab environment. For faculty members, what constitutes appropriate boundaries is not always obvious; after all, new faculty members are often barely older than their trainees. But whether founded on good intentions or not, close personal relationships can be a slippery slope because of the inherent power differential between trainee and mentor.

At Dartmouth, some of the faculty members in question routinely pushed trainees’ boundaries. They consistently pressured some trainees to socialize in bars. During these social events, they directed conversations toward highly personal topics that, among other things, sexually objectified women. Some trainees felt pressured to drink more alcohol than they wanted to. Some felt pressured to join in pranks that demeaned others. To make matters even worse, scientific discussions were interspersed within these interactions. This environment was filled with ambiguous messaging to trainees. Is this a social event or a scientific one? What would be the ramifications of opting out? Would these interactions have downstream consequences for one’s scientific opportunities? Were trainees valued for their scientific contributions or their social or sexual attributes?

The situation at Dartmouth may have been extreme, but the same dynamic can play out in more seemingly innocuous ways. For example, some lab members could socialize at a bar with their mentor and decide to run a new collaborative experiment. Another lab member who doesn’t feel comfortable at bars is left out of the conversation and the project progresses without them. In effect, the person’s decision not to visit the bar came at a cost to their career.

When the boundaries around what constitutes a professional mentor-mentee relationship erode, trainees suffer because they lose agency. A tacit perception builds that nonparticipation in the personal domain will spill over and have a negative impact in the professional domain. Whether true or not, when trainees perceive these types of consequences, that can be sufficient to induce pressure to engage in boundary-pushing activities. These blurry boundaries between professional and personal can be a slippery slope toward more serious breaches in boundaries.

Creeping norms. Toxic environments can grow from slow shifts in behavioral norms—the unwritten rules about the expected and permissible ways to behave in a given context. Since leaving Dartmouth, I have heard comments from visitors who were hosted by some of these PBS faculty members. They said that the norms there seemed unusual and even alarming. That’s the rub about norms—they are much more obvious to outsiders. If you are steeped in an environment with toxic norms, it is likely that you can’t even see it for yourself.

For example, while I was there it was common for certain faculty members to joke about details of trainees’ sex lives in the lab and public settings. At first, this made me very uncomfortable. But as those types of exchanges happened regularly and became more egregious, they seemed less and less scandalous. Right under my nose, social norms shifted. As a wider array of behaviors are deemed acceptable, other inappropriate conversations and actions risk becoming normalized as well.

Shame and isolation. It is harder to appreciate the sheer dysfunctionality of an environment if you believe you are experiencing it alone. Yet even if multiple individuals have similar experiences, they may hesitate to share them out of fear and shame or a sense of pluralistic ignorance. The result? Toxic environments can remain shrouded in secrecy, allowing them to perpetuate and intensify over time. For example, a friend of mine from this era did not tell me until years later that she was the recipient of an unwanted sexual advance. This event and its aftermath had an excruciating impact on her experience as a graduate student, yet she suffered through this turmoil in silence.

It is crucial that people in positions of power appreciate the shame and isolation that can accompany being a recipient of inappropriate behavior and the great personal cost of coming forward. Silence should not be interpreted as a signal that the events were not serious and damaging. Moreover, students need to perceive that clear channels of support and communication are available to them.

Shining light on the slippery slope

I am heartbroken for students like those at Dartmouth whose allegations detail horrific treatment during their Ph.D. studies. Based on my own experiences, I couldn't have predicted the eventual intensity of dysfunction and abuse that has been reported in recent years. Yet I am not entirely surprised either. Boundaries were blurry, norms were skewed, and shrouds of secrecy were already in place 15 or more years ago. We have heard some of the stories this week; there are many others that remain private but are no less painful and damaging. It is especially important not to forget the many trainees whose negative experiences in these labs have resulted in them quietly leaving the field. Each and every one of these people deserved better.

We cannot rewrite history, but we can vow to do everything we can to expose these dark corners of academic culture moving forward. We can use these events as fuel to motivate a clear-eyed examination of our own daily practices, our department’s and university’s practices, and practices field-wide.

This responsibility primarily falls on the shoulders of those in positions of power—especially faculty members. For individuals new to this role, it can be daunting to set these types of unwritten rules of engagement. Even those with the best of intentions can fail to promote healthy academic environments. But when people in power ignore or excuse bad behavior, it signals to others that this is acceptable and can have a chilling effect on other victims or survivors. We need to talk about the subtle ways toxic environments emerge so that those of us who set the tone can make more conscious decisions about norms, boundaries, and channels of communication. Please join me in taking a stark look at your corner of the academic system. We can all do better.   

What can faculty members do in their home labs, departments, and societies?

  • Take an honest look at your own behavior. Do you see the potential for “slippery slopes” to form?
  • Have open discussions with colleagues about what constitute healthy boundaries in academic relationships.
  • Check your local norms. Ask outside colleagues visiting your institution to comment on the social norms they observe. Be open to having these exchanges even if they could provoke debate, disagreement, or self-scrutiny.
  • If you bear witness to norm-violating behavior, speak up. Consider the advice of Aja Hammerly on straightforward ways to call out norm violations, such as simply stating, “We don’t do that here.” If you are not comfortable doing so, call upon someone more senior than you are.
  • Have open discussions within labs, departments, and universities about the available channels for reporting misconduct. Be sure to include channels that do not flow through you. Post this information openly and disseminate it widely.
  • Communicate with your trainees that you will support them if they come forward with a report. Trainees should not have to choose between coming forward and maintaining good relations with their mentor.

I would like to acknowledge Lauren Atlas, Sasha Brietzke, Mina Cikara, Caroline Davis, Jon Freeman, Katie McLaughlin, Joseph Moran, and Kristina Rapuano, as well as co-columnists Wil Cunningham, June Gruber, Neil Lewis, Jr., and Jay Van Bavel for their constructive input.

Send your thoughts, questions, and suggestions for future column topics to letterstoyoungscientists@aaas.org and engage with us on Twitter.

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