The University Needs to Change or Die…

NOTE! This is a draft version, to be discussed at the Swedish scholars of religion meeting on September 30. I will deal with issues raised here more extensively as time allows. The text is confrontational, by necessity, and may seem harsh or even insulting, but please try to keep an open mind and reflect on the issues that it raises. I’m not trying to be vindictive or confrontational for the sake of being confrontational. I’m publishing this text – which I expect can have nothing but negative repercussions for myself – due to a love of scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge in general – the ideals that the university system was supposed to be about. I’ve got to believe that there are enough of us who care to effect change if we set our minds to it, place our ideals above our security and comfort, and really make an effort.

I’ve been wanting to write this expose (if you will) for over a year now. Two things have kept me from doing it. First, even though I have felt that my time in the university system is over I’ve been afraid that revealing too much will forever bar any hopes of returning (a problem in itself). Second, as this is, or at least starts out as, a telling of my personal story I’ve been worried that it’ll simply come across as the whining of a disgruntled former academic. Well, this summer I had an experience that finally pushed me over the edge. I have a responsibility to deal with this, and I no longer care if I come across as whiny (to a certain degree I am whiny, but for a good reason). To start out, you should know that I was an active and accomplished academic. I’ve published extensively (see my list of publications), with renowned, peer-reviewed publishers, taught for about fifteen years, organized international conferences and symposia, been active on the conference circuit, etc. You name it, I’ve probably done it. I’ve been engaged, in one function or another, at universities in several different countries. Suffice to say, I have intimate knowledge of the academy.

So, my story. I got into academia due to a love for scholarship and knowledge, and a hope to increase understanding and better the world, even to some small degree. I was never particularly interested in the academic machine, not in itself at least, but as a scholar that’s where one is supposed to be, right? And I was drawn into the race, not that weird. I got my PhD at a fairly young age, and was still hopeful and blue-eyed when I finally got my first full-time position at Stockholm University in 2010. I still believed in the idealized self-image and accompanying slogans of academia. Over the coming years I was, rather painfully and reluctantly, forced to abandon my romanticised picture and see academia for what it was: A distressingly conservative system, full of corruption, that is in essence the opposite of what it claims (and often, it seems, actually believes) to be. It is difficult to “make it” without letting go of, or at least severely compromise, one’s integrity. So, let’s get to it…

 

My story…
Before getting my position as assistant professor in the history of religions at Stockholm University I had taught individual courses here and there, done a bit of administrative work, but never been a fully integrated part of a department. One of my biggest expectations when starting in Stockholm was that I would indeed be an integrated part, and thereby be able to have my say in the education, and other aspects of the day to day operation of a department. I soon learned that I wouldn’t have that opportunity. In fact, I was never to become an integrated part of the department, and I would have very little to say on how things were done. I was kept separate, and my belief is that it was partly due to me being a “foreigner” to the department (all the other applicants had earned their doctorates at the department) and partly because, as a scholar of Western esotericism, my field of research was not one held in high regard (I was also dealing with a faculty who did very little to no publishing, and seemed to dislike people who did). In any case, I was relegated to do voluntary courses and eventually a class on new religions, which was pretty much regarded as not worthwhile and something “anybody can do”. I was never engaged in the mandatory introductory, including method and theory, although I was pretty much the only one at the department who had actually written on method and theory, and had done so fairly extensively. A major issue was that when working at Stockholm University I regularly had to correct erroneous, simplified, or outdated information and advice that my students had been given. Having read up on research methods, even extensively, is very different from having actually applied them. One of the things I looked forward to the most was to be able to guide and follow students from start to finish, and that was something I never got to do. I had the same student only once or twice, if they happened to take one of my voluntary courses and if I by chance got to supervise some of their essay work. Even worse were the seriously low standards when both accepting and examining students. Blue-eyed as I was, I was expecting students who were driven by their interest in the subjects they studied. Don’t get me wrong, I had students who were both driven and able, but more common were the ones who had zero interest in anything but collecting the study points, tried to get by with the least amount of work, and worst of all, could not actually write proper Swedish (and we’re not dealing with students who had Swedish as a second language here, nor with students with learning disabilities of various sorts). More often than not these students were ones that aimed at becoming high school teachers, which is a whole other problem in itself.

This is not to blame the students. While interest can’t be enforced, the standards are set way too low when students who cannot string together coherent sentences are not only accepted, but are accommodated by lowering the examination criteria to make sure everyone can pass (I have had an even worse experience in this regard more recently – read on). “Reward mediocrity, discourage excellence” – that would be a more fitting slogan for the university I was getting to know! It is sad but true that the extra amount of work that was required for students who should never have been admitted, particularly those that I consistently and repeatedly needed to argue with in order for them to do even the minimum amount of work (“I’m not trying to be a dick, I’m trying to help you pass”), took valuable time away from the students who could be exceptional and go on to become good scholars if given the proper amount of attention.

I supervised plenty of bachelor and lower degree essays, but wasn’t given the opportunity to work with any doctoral candidates of my own. The two Masters essays delegated to me were ones that other faculty members could no longer be bothered with (highly disrespectful to the students, to say the least). Personally, the most painful, discouraging, and even humiliating experience was when one exceptional student with a subject that intersected directly with my area of expertise, employing perspectives, methods, and approaches that I had extensive experience with from teaching and real-world application, was delegated to a doctoral student instead of me. Worth noting is that doctoral candidates weren’t supposed to be allowed to supervise MA essays without particularly compelling reasons. Adding to the record of messed up priorities at the department, the assignment was made over the head of the person who was then coordinator of education (“studierektor”) at the department and supposed to make such assignments. The coordinator, an experienced and accomplished researcher who was a real asset to the department (and my only real ally and support) – who happened to be another outsider to the department –decided to leave his position after only a year. While I can’t confirm this, I have strong suspicions that this and the multitude of other instances where he was hindered to perform his assigned function were part of the reason – though certainly not the only reason – why he decided to return to his previous position at another university.

I was also side-lined in (the few) research related activities at the department. For example, even though I was one of the only two faculty members with experience of organizing conferences and symposia – and without question the one with the more extensive experience – I wasn’t even asked to partake in the preparation of the department’s 100 year anniversary which included a mini-conference of sorts. That was a serious failure to utilize existing resources and expertise ­– to make it clear that we’re not (only) dealing with my bruised ego (though bruised it certainly was). Additionally, several invitations to special faculty happenings and important emails about things going on at the department mysteriously failed to arrive in my inbox, and did so from the start of my appointment to its end. There were many small things that by themselves didn’t seem to mean much and could very well have been coincidences, but each incidence added to my suspicions that I was being intentionally ostracised. It wasn’t until the end of my last month that it was made definitely clear to me that I had been an unwanted presence at the department all along. After years of trying to fit in, organize various get togethers, inviting faculty members to parties at my apartment, and in general actively working to help create an atmosphere of togetherness I had given up. I did most of my work from home and was rarely at my office. Still, it was my office, and when arriving there two weeks before my term ended I found my books and papers packed into boxes. They couldn’t wait to get rid of me!

In 2012 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition I had obviously been suffering from since my late teens. Even long before the diagnosis I had learnt that I couldn’t always trust that the way I experienced things was how things actually were. Bipolar type II is a very serious disability (it ranks as one of the most fatal mental disorders), with considerable effects on how one can function in daily life. It causes me to go through periods of hypomania, in which I barely sleep but can be extremely efficient and get a lot done – punctuated by frequent periods of severe depression. This repeating cycle obviously makes it impossible to conform to anything like a “normal” rhythm – even though my track record proves that I’ve been coping very well in terms of productivity. Seeing that the diagnosis was made known already in 2012 makes the above treatment of me – which decisively added to my suffering, including repeated battles with suicidal thoughts – nothing short of evil. All of this, of course, also points to the serious issue that mental disorders are not regarded as equally “real” or “serious” as more physically obvious disabilities such as blindness, deafness, or paraplegia. It took me a long while to understand how taxing that constant sense of insecurity in myself and my experiences had been, and how extensive the consequences of my treatment were – I’m only now starting to reach a modicum of stability.

With my term coming to an end, and it being clear that I would not have a future at the department, I looked to get some research funding from the Swedish Research Council. Well, the problem there is that any project funded needs to be situated at a university, and that university and department needs to accept you before you can even apply. It turned out that it was difficult to find a university that dared to “take the risk” of housing a research project, as they might need to employ the researcher on their own funds for a while after the end of the project. This puts a young unattached researcher in a very, very difficult position, particularly as faculty positions are regularly assigned with a hefty dose of (often blatantly obvious, to anyone not turning a blind eye) favouritism and even outright nepotism.

Well, turns out my Alma Mater, Åbo Akademi University in Finland had an opening as a university researcher in Comparative Religion. A research position, one was led to believe, with little teaching. Having spent my formative years at Åbo Akademi University I knew how things worked there: pure unadulterated special treatment for the “favourite sons and daughters” of the department (nepotism, pure and straight), but I decided to apply anyway. I never expected to get the position (nor should I have, more on that later), but when I got a decision letter stating that I had lost to a far less competent candidate – more of an insider than me – who was employed “on the background of his scientific and educational qualifications, work experience and in the background of his proven ability in the formulated tasks in the job description” I was furious (the assessment etc. are public documents so I am planning to translate parts of them and make them available later). I more or less knew that the candidate who got the job was the one who would get the job, but the degradation of my skills and experience was too much for me to swallow. Having such an insulting and demeaning official evaluation issued, and made public (which certainly doesn’t increase one’s chances of getting appointments in future), was particularly hurtful when it was issued by colleagues who had seen me “in action” and with some of whom I had even, on a non-professional, friend-to-friend level, discussed my painful experiences and their serious impact on my emotional and mental state. What really crushed me was that the committee included the very person – and close friend, I thought – who gave me the most important impetus to become a scholar in the first place, and he didn’t have the decency to send me even a small “I’m sorry. Are you ok?” note. I was hurt and angry and felt the need for some clarification. I sent a series of emails to the committee members demanding an explanation of how and why a less qualified candidate had been hired when the documented merits and even the assessment itself, authored by the committee, clearly placed me at the top of the list. I got nothing but vague repetitions of the nonsense motivations in the original assessment (which, in point of fact, itself clearly made me out to be the most competent candidate by a considerable margin). Complicating matters slightly, while I feel that the evaluation was technically correct, the ranking wasn’t. In fact, it is my vocal opinion – and has been all along – that the applicant rated behind me should have been hired. I’m personally enraged that that particular applicant, who, even though he had fewer publications than me at the time, is a better scholar than I could ever hope to be and has been such a major asset to the department of Comparative Religion at Åbo Akademi University that not holding on to him with any means possible is outright stupidity (the department’s good international reputation, as well as the considerable external financing the department has received, is largely due to him), was kicked in the teeth and glaringly obviously shown that he has no future as a permanent faculty member at the department.

After this I was ready to give up, and I really wanted to write an expose. But I refrained. Worried that I might, at some point, still want to continue in academia and afraid to burn bridges. Still, more than a year later I was offered, on very short notice, to teach an online summer course on Western esotericism at Mittuniversitetet (I want to point out that Western esotericism is my field of specialization. I am – or rather was – one of the more prominent researchers in the field in the Nordic countries, and I am one of the foremost experts on contemporary esotericism internationally. I co-organized the first conference on contemporary esotericism and I co-edited the first edited volume on the subject as well). I was struggling with whether I should accept the job or not, but having been unemployed for more than a year the prospect of having a salary for three months won me over. I’ve done plenty of online courses in the past, but it had been a while. And even if it had been more recently, the available teaching tools tend to be a bit different in each case and some time is needed to learn how to use them. Then there’s the time needed to properly plan a course. I would’ve needed about two weeks to do all this properly, quickly but properly. Instead, I was given access to the course platform two days after the course had started(!). Suffice to say that I really had to think on my feet here, plan the course as I was teaching it (not as easy with an online course as a “live” one). I had certain students making trouble from the start. One sent me a rude email with the “constructive critique” that everything with the course was bad, ending with a capitalized and multiple-exclamation marked “get it together” (SKÄRPNING!!!). When my sharp but pertinent private email-response was published online by the student in question, without my consent or even prior knowledge, I had no right to even chastise the student. Another student was engaged in blatant plagiarism, but I was advised to simply “ask her if she might rewrite the text in question”, and only if that didn’t work consider taking harsher action. It got worse though. When I published the final exam questions on the course website a number of students apparently contacted the “higher ups” with complaints about them being “too difficult”. They promptly complied, and, above my head, published a ridiculously simple “alternative essay” (“choose two topics dealt with in the course and write 2-3 pages each” – that in a course requiring ten weeks of fulltime work). Apparently I had been contacted less than a day before, but on an email account opened for me when I took the job, which I didn’t even know existed. How I was expected to answer I don’t know. When complaining that this eroded any authority I had and completely disregarded my expertise and all the work I had done, I was fired. Yes, fired (well “dismissed” actually)! Note that the people making the decision that my exam was too difficult have zero expertise in the subject of the course, meaning that they are also examining on subjects in which they have no qualifications and know nothing about. In terms of lowered standards this was the absolute low point. This was also the most recent in an impressive number of crushing events I had been experiencing in a month, and I had definitely had enough.

That is why I’m writing this text. I feel that it is my responsibility to let people know my experience of how the university works today. By keeping my mouth shut I have been part of the problem. There is a lot of complaint from within the university about how political and economic forces are wreaking havoc in the academy, but if you ask me that’s nowhere near the main problem. The problem is within the university itself, with those employed in it. If we accept corruption, nepotism and favouritism, misogyny, and lowered standards, what is our function? If we aren’t part of the solution we are part of the problem. I consider myself more or less forced out of the system so the decision was easy for me, but I implore scholars with any integrity left to do something, to not be part of the problem.

 

Some of the main problems, as I see them…
Corruption within the system: This includes the rampant nepotism and favouritism in the university structure. It’s not unusual that jobs go to candidates who “know the right people” rather than candidates who are the most competent. You might even need a “sponsor” to have any chance of getting a particular job. Not to mention that graduates of the departments they apply to – at least in the ones I have direct and indirect experience with – are prioritized before outsiders, when the latter might not only be more merited but also bring with them new perspectives and practices that would be an asset to the department. In some cases this is done by narrowing the search criteria to the degree that only a specific candidate can qualify, in other cases it’s done by choosing external reviewers known to favour certain candidates or expected to value certain approaches or fields of specialization above others. I have even witnessed shameless instances where zero to very little effort is made to mask what’s going on. In many cases a rejected candidate has the right to contest the decision, but that rarely has any effect. If it has, it’ll make life very difficult for the applicant in question. A new employee who has “forced” the issue in this way is unlikely to encounter a good work atmosphere, and there’s the very real risk of getting labelled a “difficult person” and therefore ostracized by the academic community (which is, after all, a small world). Confronting committee members and external reviewers in this way means challenging their integrity and competence, and that is not taken kindly. There’s simply very little to win by contesting and very much to lose. While it is true that many hiring committees use a peer-review system where candidates are evaluated by external experts (not in itself a bad idea), there are too many examples that it simply does not work (unfortunately I have no realistic suggestion for a preferable alternative, at least at the moment). All this should be obvious to anyone with even a modicum of experience at the university. Don’t deny it, be honest with yourselves! You’ve seen it happen. If you accept the way things are done you are a part of the problem. By accepting corruption you are yourself in point of fact corrupt.

Lowered standards: I actually care for my students, and I sincerely believe that I have managed to inspire more than a few of them. Even after the crushingly demoralising experiences I’ve had I find myself being inspired, invigorated, and even euphorically elated when engaging students – both within, but increasingly outside of the university – who have a pure, honest, and pertinacious thirst for knowledge. I want them to learn and I consider it both a point of pride and an inviolable responsibility to challenge myself to provide the best education possible. That’s difficult when, as in the above examples, I’m forced to lower my standards to such a low level that almost anyone is expected to pass a course, even students who seem to make an active effort to not learn anything. Particularly in the humanities where language is our main tool, should we really accept students who don’t master their own language? I’m not talking about students with dyslexia or other impediments – having a serious handicap myself I’m more than sympathetic and ready to do all I can to accommodate the needs of such students. I’ve found that it’s a rule with almost no exceptions that students who have the courage, drive, and pure inspirational stubbornness to overcome their disadvantage perform exceptionally well, particularly when given the proper encouragement and help. I’m not expecting anything exceptionable (I’m certainly no poetic genius, obviously), but students who don’t have the necessary skills to express themselves coherently in writing, and show no willingness to improve, simply don’t belong at the university. Worst still, these students require the most amount of time in supervision etc. and take resources from students who are both interested and competent, and who could be truly exceptional if given the right nurturing. With the system being like it is, mediocrity is rewarded while excellence is almost discouraged (I’ve even met university teachers who make active efforts to tear down promising students, due to apparently feeling threatened by their potential!). In point of fact, many promising students are demoralized to the degree that they never become the great scholars they could be, and the world is all the poorer as a result. It’s not even about failing more students, it’s about not admitting people who don’t possess the necessary basic skills in the first place. Admitting such students is actually doing them a disservice, and we need to actively work to dispel the idea that a university degree is in any way “better” than other educational alternatives. Sure, there are harsh economic realities and hostile political opponents, but we need to stand our ground nonetheless. We need to say no! If we don’t, we’re perpetuating a system that is broken, and we are in fact actively engaged in making the university system, and the world as a whole, worse. We can’t blame that on anyone else really.

Conservatism and corruption in research funding: This goes hand in hand with corruption in job appointments. While a more or less natural consequence of experience increasing with age, a system built on “old timers” making decisions about funding means that unorthodox approaches and the most novel ideas don’t get the necessary support. Using myself as an example – and in no way claiming, or even suggesting, that I should have funding – my focus on contemporary esotericism and popular culture means that it’s nigh impossible for me to get projects approved. The majority of research funding goes to projects that are moderately innovative and don’t stray too far from what has come before. That means that researchers who are willing to choose their topics strategically are rewarded whereas those who are driven by an uncompromising love of scholarship and who want to create something truly new are seldom even considered valid candidates. This is clearly not good for innovation. On a more basic level, in a system such as the Swedish where approved funding is required in order to be allowed to do a PhD, many interesting projects are suffocated in the cradle. Very few risks are taken, which is infuriating when you have permanent faculty members – who could do risky research fairly safely –who do next to no research. The scholars I respect most of all are the ones that don’t have full time positions and still dare to focus – at least part time – on projects that they fully realize has a high likelihood of being a detriment to their future prospects (a shout-out to you, metal scholars \m/). Those are the true scholars, the ones engaged in scholarship for the love of scholarship! THEY are the ones who should be rewarded.

Misogyny, intolerance for that-which-is-different, and kicking those who are down: Misogyny is a subject that I can’t, on a personal level, competently talk about. I have, however, talked to enough early-career female scholars to know that the situation is dire. My favourite simple definition of feminism springs to mind: Feminism is the radical notion that women are people too. And clearly that is not the standard notion in today’s “enlightened” academia. Women definitely have to do double the work of men, and more, and all the problems that affect young scholars go double (and more) for them. And it’s probably a lot worse than I think it is. I can, however, talk about the experiences of people who simply don’t fit in in other ways. Scholars who don’t look or act the way an academic “should”. I myself had naively imagined the university was the place where people who don’t fit in elsewhere, but do a good job, can fit in. In point of fact, the opposite is true. The self-righteous, and outright arrogant, self-image that so many academics have of themselves as being enlightened is totally illusionary. It’s the worst kind of elitism, a prideful overconfidence in oneself as better than others – which means that one is nothing but. Those who can soon learn to do whatever is necessary to fit in, and those who can’t are forced out. This has a real impact on scholarship as well. Career-academics in the humanities tend to focus on “high culture” and other “culturally elevated” societal phenomena (and not in a critical way, which would be worthwhile), and the “low culture” that has an actual societal impact and significance is looked down upon – both in itself and as a subject for study. This is, naturally, a simplification. There are disciplines dedicated to the study of the latter (Cultural Studies, for example, springs to mind), and perhaps that’s a place where misfits can find a home. As I believe is made clear in the account of my experiences earlier, I experienced a level of bullying that was quite frankly impressive. I don’t think that anything more needs to be said on the subject. It is clearly not acceptable, and people engaged in such behaviour should be disciplined.

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Comments
  1. When commenting, try to stick to the subject as closely as you can, no “hate the university just because” posts. I simply want to avoid sidetracking the discussion. Comments will be moderated, but don’t feel afronted if your post is deleted. That doesn’t mean that the post itself is “unacceptable”. A plethora of topics will need to be discussed, and I’m interested in all perspectives, but I’m working on figuring out the best ways to do that.

  2. Amanda DiGioia says:

    Kennet, I read your piece, and I wanted to tell you how much it resonated with me. I have mental health challenges as well; I’ve attempted suicide, have depression, anxiety, and PTSD (as a result of what my therapist calls “severe past trauma”), as well as ADD. How your department treated you was horrible. The modern University is also horrible, I too have never been a “beloved cosset” (the term I use for department favorites) and have stood festering along the sideline. While this only occurred in my undergraduate years (my MA program was great, perhaps because it was a Woman’s Studies program) it still resonates with me.

    I have a gendered perspective to misogyny as well. During my undergrad years, I had a much older English professor “confess” to me that I was “the only student he was ever sexually attracted to.” While I doubt that, (as I have suspicions that he said the same thing to other young women), in hindsight, the most horrifying thing is that he knew who to target. I was in a mental health crisis, and was very vulnerable that semester. I still told him no, but I never went to class after that. I ended the semester with a C+ in that course. I was too scared to report him. I felt like the administration would have believed him, a respected professor, over me, an 18 year old who was just trying to keep it together. The fact that academia fosters that kind of environment needs to be addressed and changed.

    I too see the corruption in academia, it’s often an “old boys club,” and the boys in that club are white and male. The quality of students is also declining. Nobody wants to be challenged intellectually, there’s a culture of apathy everywhere. Everyone wants to be handed things, nobody wants to fight for it, or earn it. I find myself struggling to connect with students because of that; I have had to fight my whole life. The “gentleman’s B” (interesting how this term is gendered) is now an A because of grade inflation. A former work colleague of mine (who an undergraduate at an Ivy League institution in the United States) skip all of their finals because they were on a cocaine binge with their friends (which is admittedly a mental health issue), and still obtain all A’s. They also slept with their TA, which, in my opinion, is a huge boundary issue on the TA’s part..

    I too got into academia because I love scholarship and knowledge, and to increase understanding in the world. While I believe that academia and knowledge should be inclusive, instead of exclusive, I think that students should be hold to standards just like their professors and instructors are: the plagiarism you described was unacceptable. Students in the United States also have an opportunity for “constructive criticism” at the end of their course: the course evaluations. This is a double-edged sword, however, as many organizations are now valuing these more than more. Instead of an obligation to educate, many universities in my country are now becoming customer-service oriented businesses: they focus on creating new but largely unnecessary amenities for students, or pump money into their athletic programs, in lieu of supporting the scholarly community or addressing the alarming number of sexual assaults, misogyny, and racism that can also occur on campus.

    As I start my PhD, I know I want to change the system, and I don’t care who I alienate because of it.

    I value your work, I value your friendship, and I want to thank you for your post.

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