Content Warning: This article contains discussion of suicide.
Sebastian J. Rowe almost didn’t apply to Harvard.
As an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, he had heard about a string of four graduate student suicides in the 1980s and 1990s in Harvard’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology department.
“It’s an open secret that CCB has long had issues with graduate students being overworked or [feeling] like they’re taken advantage of,” he said.
Rowe only decided to come to Harvard after discovering a program that allowed him to have other avenues of support beyond CCB.
In 1998, the suicide of fifth-year graduate student Jason D. Altom rocked the department. In one of his suicide notes, he attributed his stress to the imbalance of power between professors and students in the department.
“Professors here have too much power over the lives of their grad students,” Altom wrote in a note to then-department chair James G. Anderson.
To give students more avenues of support, Altom requested in his note that the department require students to have multiple advisors simultaneously. One month later, Anderson announced that the department would implement committees for second-year graduate students, providing students with three advisors instead of one.
Today, the CCB department still requires multiple simultaneous advisors for students.
To help students find a suitable research group, CCB also requires incoming students to sample multiple labs during their first semester. CCB graduate students keep an Excel spreadsheet that lists students who have done lab rotations with different faculty members in the department.
Rowe said he has been able to avoid bad advising relationships by consulting other graduate students about their experiences with faculty members through this “formalized” database.
Thanks to this system, Rowe said he was also able to create a thesis committee he’s happy with.
But this is not the case for everyone. In interviews this month, nearly 30 Harvard graduate students reported a culture in which senior faculty wield power over their students with little accountability. Graduate students reported harassment, intimidation, unreasonable expectations, and negligence. Many also reported difficulty in seeking recourse for complaints of harassment, faced with a fear of retaliation by faculty and opaque and inadequate reporting mechanisms. Some students spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
Financial, academic, and physical vulnerability have characterized the experience of some graduate students for decades. Earlier this year, Harvard found itself embroiled in a new sexual harassment controversy, turning national scrutiny once again to the livelihoods of graduate students.
After a pair of investigations found professor John L. Comaroff in violation of Harvard’s sexual harassment and professional conduct policies, nearly 40 professors — including some of Harvard’s most renowned faculty — signed a letter questioning the results of Harvard’s investigations, sparking national backlash.
Following widespread public indignation and a lawsuit filed against the University by three graduate students, all but three of the signatories of the letter questioning Harvard’s investigations retracted their signatures.
Sexual harassment is among the more egregious forms of power-based abuse in academia. But other, sometimes more subtle, manifestations of this power imbalance are often more pervasive, affiliates said.
Following departmental town hall discussions in the wake of the Comaroff controversy, History professor Andrew D. Gordon ’74 said he heard these subtle abuses take two main forms: harassment and negligence.
“What came forward in those meetings were concerns about not only too much of the wrong kind of attention, but not enough of the right kind,” he said.
In interviews this month, two graduate students in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences reported facing insults and yelling from an advisor and recounted being asked to work unreasonable hours — including days on end without rest. One of the students said the advisor was always looming overhead, checking in the lab every 15 minutes and expecting responses to phone calls and emails late at night and on the weekends.
Ege Yumusak ’16, a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy, said she often heard grievances about graduate students asked to do chores without pay when she worked as a bargaining committee member for the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers.
These chores included writing recommendation letters for undergraduates, cleaning offices or apartments, and taking care of their advisor’s child or dog — all requested with little notice and no pay, according to Yumusak, a former Crimson editorial editor.
Students reported that professors “often resort to harassment” when these tasks are not completed, responding late to emails, making snide remarks, or talking behind the student’s back, Yumusak added.
“There’s often a culture of treating graduate students like servants,” said a graduate student in History.
Other students said they felt neglected by their advisors, citing few and far between check-ins, sparse feedback, and a lack of communication about recommendation letters.
Dana C. Mirsalis, a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Languages and Civilizations who worked as part of the department’s graduate liaison committee, said several students told her their advisors claimed they did not have time to provide feedback.
In History, Ph.D. candidate Emma C. Friedlander said graduate students and faculty began to discuss unequal advising dynamics in the wake of the controversy surrounding Comaroff earlier this semester.
“Although obviously, that was a case of really heinous sexual harassment and discrimination, it is an issue that is even more pervasive than that and led to this reckoning of even more issues of if students are being advised well,” she said.
The power imbalance in the graduate student-advisor relationship is further perpetuated by some graduate students’ financial dependence on their advisor, students said.
After their first year, SEAS Ph.D. candidates take on research assistant positions, making them financially reliant on their advisors unless they are able to secure external fellowships or additional teaching assignments. For students at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the school guarantees financial support for five years through stipends and tuition grants, along with teaching fellowships or research assistantships for the third and fourth years of the program.
This dependence means that when an issue arises between a graduate student and their advisor, students can have a hard time saying no to tasks or deadlines, let alone transitioning out of a poor advising relationship, according to Zhiying Xu, a Ph.D. candidate in Computer Science.
John A. Girash, Director of Graduate Education at SEAS, said school-based funding is available for up to a semester for students who may have a gap in their advising.
“The goal is always to get the student into a productive advising relationship so that they can continue to make progress towards their degree, which for the Ph.D. largely involves doing research under the guidance of a faculty advisor,” he wrote.
One graduate student in SEAS who wished to transition out of her lab due to a negative relationship with her advisor said they were told they had only one semester to find a different faculty member willing to accept them — a task the student deemed “impossible.”
Not every faculty member will always have enough funding to support an additional student, she noted, and the onus of finding a new lab is placed on the student.
Computer Science graduate student Yaniv Yacoby ’15 and other SEAS students in a peer support group called InTouch have been working with the SEAS Graduate Student Council to design a program that would allow graduate students to be guaranteed transitional funding from the school for 12 months.
A graduate student in Applied Mathematics said students often feel “alone” in their transition, adding that they wish “there was more structure around transitioning” to a new advisor “so that students don’t feel so insecure about their position.”
The tight job market in academia also means students’ careers often depend on their advisor’s prominence.
Mirsalis said within her field of Japanese studies, an advisor could introduce the student to their colleagues in Japan or help the student get access to a religious institution, government office, or archive.
“The downside is that the field is really, really small,” she said. “If your advisor decides to blackball you, that’s the end of your career a lot of the time.”
For many graduate students, the primary resource within the department is their advisor. But for those who experience workplace issues with their advisor, students said, resources for support are particularly difficult to identify and use.
In the Arts and Humanities 2021 divisional climate survey, more than half of graduate student respondents reported that they would fear retaliation for a complaint or grievance about “discourteous or offensive behavior,” outpacing faculty, staff, and undergraduate respondents.
Graduate students were also the least likely to agree that clear recourse mechanisms exist within the division. Only 38 percent of graduate student respondents said there are clear reporting channels, and 24 percent said there is a clear conflict-resolution process.
In the Sciences division 2020 climate survey, only 50.9 percent of graduate students felt comfortable reporting “discourteous or offensive behavior,” the lowest percentage among faculty, staff, undergraduates, and postdocs.
The SEAS 2018 climate survey indicated that affiliates acknowledge the existence of a hierarchical culture that discourages people from coming forward with complaints about “offensive behaviors.” This hierarchy also negatively impacts the school’s handling of reports of harassment and discrimination, per the survey.
Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the University’s Title IX and harassment resolution policies.
Should graduate students have an issue with their advisor, they can usually consult faculty or administrators. But reporting processes vary by department.
Jeffrey A. Miron, the director of graduate studies in Economics, said though there is “no formal process” for reporting inappropriate or negligent behavior from faculty not covered under Title IX, students can speak to any faculty member in the department they feel comfortable with.
“The bigger concern is that students simply don’t always reach out when they have a concern,” he said. “And it’s harder to do something if you’re not aware that there’s a problem.”
Sean R. Eddy, the department chair of Molecular and Cellular Biology, said when students come to him with complaints, he typically seeks to understand both the student’s and professor’s perspectives, if he has the student’s permission to talk to the faculty in question. Around once a week, students bring complaints that are easily resolved by clarifying instances of miscommunication, Eddy said.
But for instances of faculty-student conflict that extend beyond miscommunication, students said existing resources are opaque and difficult to navigate.
Jessica L. McNeil, a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology who said she had issues with an advisor, said she was referred from her department to GSAS Student Services and back again — “ping-ponging” between her department and the school over the course of six months before she could get the problem resolved.
“I had to trace my way through all of these people and be able to plot, like, ‘I have complained here, I’ve complained here, I’ve complained here,’ to dead end and dead end, and only then I was able to get anywhere,” she said.
GSAS spokesperson Ann Hall and FAS spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on this story and on individual cases.
Computer Science professor Finale Doshi-Velez, the faculty advisor for InTouch, said faculty face minimal repercussions for fostering poor advising relationships because there exists “no real feeling of accountability.”
Rowe, the graduate student in CCB, said having an abusive or controlling advisor makes it difficult to seek help in the first place, even when program administrators do their best to make sure to set expectations for faculty conduct and make avenues of help accessible.
“Oftentimes the very first thing that people will do when they’re trying to abuse you with their power is isolate you from your resources,” he said. “Even if on paper, you know that you have these rights and you know that you can access any of these people — like your program advisor, your admin, your safety officer, whoever — you feel like you can’t, because you’ve been isolated.”
Throughout the spring, the graduate student union’s Feminist Working Group has been holding teach-ins about the union’s longstanding demand for “real recourse,” or third-party grievance arbitration of cases of sexual harassment and sex-based discrimination. Freidlander, one of four co-chairs of the group, said the working group, as well as many FAS departments, are currently working to address bullying and power-based harassment.
Jason Bryan Silverstein, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, said more faculty need to listen to the union’s demands.
“I also do hope students know that there are faculty members who are willing to put it all on the line to stand behind them,” he said. “Unfortunately, we may not be the most decorated of the professors, but we’re not a small number either.”
At the University level, Harvard administrators have taken first steps toward addressing the results of this power imbalance between graduate students and faculty. Harvard released drafts of the University’s first anti-bullying and non-harassment policies this April.
The University opened the draft policies to affiliates for feedback until September.
Within departments, faculty members and students are also looking for ways to address the issue.
In 2019, GSAS Dean Emma Dench launched an initiative called the Advising Project that seeks to reform advising for Master’s and Ph.D. students at the school. The project seeks to gather feedback and data from affiliates involved in the advising process.
Like CCB, many departments across GSAS have formally or informally adopted multi-advisor models. Some departments are establishing codes of conduct for advising relationships.
Gordon, the History professor, suggested that “clarifying expectations” — including about how quickly feedback should be provided on a paper or how much notice faculty should get before being expected to produce a recommendation letter — could improve the consistency of the graduate student-advisor dynamic.
“None of us really are thrilled with the idea that everything is becoming more and more rule-based and bureaucratic with checkboxes, and yet, here we are, and maybe, to some extent, that’s necessary,” he added.
When graduate students in EALC advocated for advising guidelines last year, many faculty in the department pushed back, according to Mirsalis. She said students wanted to codify these standards so they could have legitimate recourse options when faced with harassment.
For substantive change to occur, students agree that there should exist a better way for their voices to be heard by faculty and administrators.
Yumusak said her department, Philosophy, pays graduate student representatives to sit in on faculty meetings and funds an affinity group of minority graduate students to influence hiring decisions. She added that departmental union representatives can accompany students to meetings with faculty.
But it is up to the faculty to recognize the “reality of the power differential” in their everyday interactions, she said.
Academia often perpetuates a cycle of mistreatment, Yumusak argued, as faculty reproduce the expectations and conditions they experienced as students.
“We are operating in an industry that mistreats the people at the top and gives them a nice salary to suck it up,” she said. “I think it’s important to acknowledge the stresses that are placed on the people at the top and the silencing mechanism that their individually negotiated high salaries serve, which keeps this status quo from changing.”
—Staff writer Mayesha R. Soshi contributed reporting.
—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.