Letter in support of Report and Support
Dear Professor Toope,
Response of the Department of Psychiatry to media coverage of Report and Support May 2021
The Department of Psychiatry wish to state our support for you, and also the Report and Support Policy in the strongest and most helpful terms possible.
We have a pervasive problem with bullying in academia; 25% report being bullied and 50% that they have witnessed bullying in any year. Coping with a work environment that feels hostile undermines mental health as well as the culture of “team science”, and therefore the quality of work. In fact, bullying is probably our most tractable public mental health issue (see Chapter 6, page 100 & 103). We should be particularly worried currently, as the reduced peer support enforced by remote working, combined with increased caring or home-schooling demands on younger academics, and operational difficulties for some research projects due to Covid-19 restrictions may well be compounding the unacceptable background level of hostile interactions.
Growing national and international concern has led to some encouraging and important initiatives to change the culture of research to become more inclusive. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion intersect with bullying, as under-represented groups are both more likely to experience it and to can find it harder to develop supportive peer networks that can mitigate the impact. For many students and staff, the university is more than just a place to work; it is also a place to live. Bullying, harassment and discrimination can be particularly distressing if those victimised have to share social spaces with the aggressor. Senior academic supervisors wield huge power over the careers of their juniors and students, and the academic career pipeline is extremely leaky for those who are not affluent, white, straight, men without disability. Many acknowledge widespread reluctance to report or challenge inappropriate behaviour as those who have tried to do so have often suffered further victimisation.
Against this background, our Department welcomed the recent consultation and introduction of the Report and Support Policy as an important step in the right direction. We were dismayed by the recent articles in the media that compared this to a restriction on senior academics’ freedom of speech and to the Spanish Inquisition, as well as “deplatforming”. The latter is a completely separate issue to the proposed strategy to manage the internal culture and interpersonal relationships between staff within the university.
The facility to report anonymously and informally was strongly argued for by staff as well as students. The aim is to provide recourse to those who fear retribution, but also to provide senior University staff with a temperature check of the culture across the organisation. It would not stifle intellectual debate. Without evidence of patterns of behaviour, senior staff cannot act, even if there are whispers or hints of problems. Multiple similar complaints may indicate a problem that a constructive conversation could solve before mental health, research output and departmental culture are undermined. Similarly, the suggestion to list examples of inappropriate behaviour was suggested by staff and students, because those accused of bullying commonly respond that they did not knowingly or intentionally cause distress. Given that unreported, unrecognised and unmanaged bullying can put early academic careers and mental health at risk, a list of examples of what may be experienced as bullying seems a sensible option.
Contrary to the media articles, the University is not in uproar and if there is a backlash it is certainly not evident in our Department or the School of Clinical Medicine. On the contrary, we are impressed with how the policy was changed to reflect feedback that we and others provided. The policy seeks to redress the huge power imbalance that encourages the growth of toxic cultures in pockets of academia; those quoted in these media articles are a handful of senior academics. Moreover, the ad hominem attacks on you as Vice-Chancellor, as if you had personally and solely engineered the process, is indicative of the types of behaviour that the policy seeks to reduce. The Department of Psychiatry is not prepared to be passive bystanders and we are calling out this personally directed attack for exactly what it is. We welcomed the Report and Support policy as a step toward the more diverse, inclusive, creative and productive university culture that we want to enjoy. That the very behaviour it was designed to reduce has resulted in the policy’s (hopefully) temporary withdrawal in relation to staff indicates just how necessary it is. We are glad that it remains in place for students and look forward to a new and improved version of Report and Support shortly. We would be happy to support its further development and implementation
Tamsin J Ford FRCPsych PhD CBE
Head of Department
Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Place2Be Research Chair