Author’s Note: This article is dedicated to all the student trainees who have experienced academic abuse and all the professors and supervisors who treated them kindly as they grew afterward.
History of Abuse in Academia and Universities
Academia has a long-standing history of allowing dangerous, and potentially unlawful, behavior to continue without significant intervention. Jobs may be ensured due to the weight a faculty’s name carries, their ability to bring in funding, or after obtaining tenure. Additionally, faculty members protect each other from missteps. For example, more than 35 Harvard University faculty members signed a letter supporting a colleague who had been accused of violating sexual misconduct guidelines (Levenson & Hartocollis, 2022). The devastating embedded hierarchy, social norms of self-sacrifice for prestige, and power differential present between student trainee and professor leave student trainees with very little ability to advocate for themselves.
Graduate programs in psychology are no different, yet the field itself aims to understand and treat survivors of the very same problem it perpetuates, and sometimes encourages or conceals. Dartmouth College agreed upon a $14 million settlement within their Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences after nine female students shared that they had been sexually harassed and assaulted by three professors (Hartocollis, 2019).
Stories from Student Trainees: Disclosing Abuse in Academia and Universities
The Revealing the Ivory Tower Podcast and Instagram sheds a vulnerable light on what happens when student trainees disclose abuse from their supervisors or mentors. “The cost was great even to me after I insulated myself. The faculty realized I would risk my entire PhD…We were failed on every level. After his arrest, the other faculty retaliated. We had an amazing Title IX, but faculty continued to punish us. Former title IX employees and leadership knew and protected him. To this day, not a single person has been fired.” The post went on to share how this was reported as an isolated incident, but the system rewards this behavior.
In 2016, the University of Wisconsin, Madison community suffered a loss of student, John Brady, by suicide after enduring chronic abuse while working in a communications and sensing laboratory. Brady had been documenting his experiences while working in the lab, describing his advisor cursing, threatening (physically and emotionally), and dehumanizing his students. The University of Wisconsin, Madison community knew of the supervisor’s reputation given the high attrition rate of students in the lab and the low number applying, yet it was not until Brady's death that action was taken. That action was a two-year suspension period where the supervisor was able to continue working on projects and was invited to return with monitoring. University of Wisconsin, Madison has made efforts to implement change and prevent future students from being abused as this mistreatment is too common across academia.
Graduate students and trainees are often faced with the decision to leave their degree they have spent years of dedication toward, or work in abusive environments. Dr. Erika Marin-Spiotta coined the term “the currency of success”. Student trainees may depend on their advisor’s funding, equipment, publications, and letter of recommendations for the trajectory of their career, essentially binding them to their current situations even if their livelihood is being compromised. The system’s neglect to acknowledge this embedded power dynamic lends to abuse going unreported and, in some cases, has grave outcomes. Dr. Marin-Spiotta stated the culture tolerates abusive behavior and disincentivizes healthy workplace environments or mentorship relationships (Flaherty, 2019).
It is frightening to consider how reports are handled when criminal behavior is not involved, or abuse is not as clearly present. Between discrediting hours worked by inaccurate authorships to withholding recommendations, an abusive power dynamic is common. Dr. A.C. Breaux wrote a twitter thread that details how the structures in academia can be even more traumatic for students of color. Dr. Breaux expresses how in an attempt to diversify psychology, students and trainees of color experience revictimization as they continue to be targeted, oppressed, and harassed. She states, “being a student/trainee is already such a vulnerable place to be in not to mention the weight of graduate school and your literal career depending on the positive evaluations”. Student trainees are gaslit into believing their negative outcomes are a product of their effort or talent, rather than microaggressions, discrimination, and racism.
How Abuse in Academia is an Act of Privilege and Power
Francesca Coin (2018) draws parallels between academia and feminist scholar Silvia Federici’s ideology of housework being a labor of love with no monetary exchange. Coin (2018) claims academia has become the “new labor of love” where the privilege of pursuing passion is at the cost of the conditions in which one works. Kumashiro (2000) explores a similar four-pillar approach that can be generalized to marginalized, oppressed identities. It is an integration of education for the oppressed, education about the oppressed, education that is pertinent to privilege and oppression, and education that changes students and society. Those in power can be a catalyst of change for the oppressed. By conceptualizing professors, supervisors, and faculty as those with privilege, these individuals in power can make changes towards creating an “anti-oppressive education” (Kumashiro, 2000). While power is one of the most argued topics in social and political theory, Avelino (2020) explores the notion of “power over” or “power to”, essentially detailing that while one may have power over another, there is a difference in having the power to evoke change. From understanding these delicate power dynamics, it is especially important to be a trauma-informed supervisor, especially in the wake of a student trainee who experienced supervisory abuse.
How to Be a Trauma-Informed Supervisor
SAMHSA (2014) defines a trauma-informed approach by the “four R’s”; realization about trauma and how it can affect people and groups, recognizing the signs of trauma, having a system which can respond to trauma, and being resistant to re-traumatization. It continues by stating this can be facilitated by creating safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support, collaboration and mutuality, empowerment, voice, and choice, and cultural, historical, and gender issues.
Trauma-informed supervision varies from a traditional “deficit-based” supervision model that posits identifying and fixing a problem (Edwards & Chen, 1999). Trauma-informed supervision can be broken down into three areas: a) administrative, b) educational, and c) supportive supervision using both a formal (i.e., scheduled time) and informal (i.e., impromptu conversation) approaches. Administrative supervision explores if the student trainee has the space to succeed within the organization they are working in, such as access to resources or overseeing if the student trainee is practicing policies that ensure their well-being. Educational supervision aims to harness the student’s skills and knowledge as a developing professional and explore possible areas of expertise or interest. Supportive supervision provides an outlet for the student trainee to express and be validated in their concerns, while celebrating their achievements. Being a trauma-informed supervisor is not synonymous with being a supervisee’s therapist; modeling appropriate boundaries is a required practice.
Given the nature of psychotherapy, identities, experiences, stressors may impact clinical work so neglecting the needs of the supervisee would hinder the development of the trainee and the efficacy of treatment (Van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk, 2007). Setting expectations, assessing learning styles, and acknowledging past experiences are important foundations to set using a trauma-informed supervision approach. Setting expectations could be defining roles, creating a supervision agreement, or having a supervision log. Exploring ways in which the client best receives feedback and collaborating how to incorporate evaluation will encourage the trainee to feel autonomy and supported in their processes from both a professional and personal development standpoint.
Other ways to promote a trauma-informed supervision approach is assessing the trainee’s case load, ensuring the physical space where supervision is held is private, being on time and ending on time, and encouraging the student trainee to practice self-care and work-life balance. Supervisors also must be checking in on their own well-being, addressing the various reactions they might be having in supervision (SAMHSA, 2014).
Ellis et al. (2019) expertly delineates how to utilize a contextual model to provide trauma-informed supervision, a skill where information on it prior was almost entirely unavailable. The goal of a trauma-informed supervisor is to develop a “complete practitioner”, where the trainee is not just educated and informed, but passionate within the field of psychology. These goals are met by improving clinical competence through education on evidenced-based care, all while increasing the ability to monitor and reflect on their own experience in the room. Inspired by Gold (2000; 2008) Contextual Trauma Therapy, the three main underpinnings using a trauma-informed contextual approach to supervision are “promoting the establishment of a collaborative working alliance between supervisor, formulating an evolving, collaboratively arrived conceptualization of needs and goals, and teaching individualized and flexible transmission of practical professional skills in multiple domains” (Ellis et al., 2019). Through parallel processing, the skills are then transmitted to the therapy room, which in turn enriches the therapeutic experience for the trainee. If student trainees have previous experience of disinterested, invalidating, or abusive supervisors, creating a supervisory alliance may be difficult, which could impact client care and treatment as well. Trauma-informed supervision aims to see the trainee holistically, rather than just another student trainee. It encourages supervisors, and clinicians to seek to understand what happened to the person in front of them, not what is wrong with the person.
Cite This Article
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Coin, F. (2018). When love becomes self-abuse: Gendered perspectives on unpaid labor in academia. In: Taylor Y., Lahad K. (eds) Feeling Academic in the Neoliberal University. Palgrave Studies in Gender and Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-64224-6_14
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Hartocollis, A. (2019, August). Dartmouth reaches $14 million settlement in sexual abuse lawsuit. New York Times.
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Levenson, M., & Hartocollis, A. (2022, February). Colleagues who backed Harvard professor retract support amid harassment claims. New York Times.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], (2014). SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. Retrieved from https://store.samhsa.gov/system/fles/sma14- 4884.pdf
Van Dernoot Lipsky, L. & Burk, C. (2007). Trauma stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others. Las Olas Press.