Academia Is A Warzone

Image Source: CBS News

Day after day, I return to work with the notion that academia is a safe, inclusive, and supportive environment for intellectual growth.  Like many people, I recognize the pattern that greater education, particularly college, is associated with liberal and tolerant attitudes.  Academic institutions, themselves, are characterized (for better or worse, depending on one’s perspective) as bastions of liberal ideals and practices, protected from the world “out there.”

I have been drinking the academic Kool-Aide since my freshman year of college, even once I realized it is spiked with a poison that could slowly kill me.

Academia Is A Warzone

Yes, the title of this post is intentionally provocative.  The language is a bit extreme considering that many readers will think of death, blood, bombs, landmines, war rape, propaganda, and other gruesome aspects of war.  I apologize, in advance, if the analogy is offensive.

But, I would also like to broaden our definition of war beyond the extreme, yet localized and ephemeral image that comes to mind.  In my opinion, to the extent that marginalized groups face systemic discrimination and violence from birth to death, justified by propaganda, these groups represent the severely outnumbered side of a war.  Considering the many ways in which institutional and interpersonal discrimination, poverty, and physical violence impact the health and well-being of marginalized groups, the death tolls of these wars are simply immeasurable.

Academia is not exempt from those wars.  Colleges have excluded women, people of color, and people with disabilities/disabled people throughout history.  Today, discrimination against these and other marginalized groups continues in the hiring and firing of staff, faculty, and administration; tenure and promotion; admissions; wages; and, other institutional practices.  These groups are subject to harassment and violence at the extreme, to subtle, but more routine microaggressions.

And, yes, there are examples that fit the more extreme imagery of war: racial harassment; sexual violence, including sexual harassment; homophobic murder and harassment; transphobic assault; xenophobic assault and anti-Semitic harassment. While these extreme acts seem isolated and rare, they act as hate crimes — reminding other members of these communities of their inferior status and to live in constant fear.  And, they occur along with less severe, but regularly occurring bias incidents: slurs, property damage, graffiti, verbal harassment, etc.

Image Source: Huffington Post

The Academic Fairytale Is Dangerous

Why has it taken over a decade for me to finally acknowledge academia is not a safe, inclusive, liberal place?  When staff in the scholarship program I was in during the first half of college grumbled when I brought up LGBT issues, I should have caught on.  Or, having “GAY” written on the whiteboard on my dorm door.  Or, seeing graffiti about “fags” in the Chemistry building men’s bathrooms.  Or, having several of the flyers my then-boyfriend and I put up to campaign for homecoming court vandalized with “fag” this, “pole-smoker” that.  I guess I knew homophobia would be a challenge — one I came prepared to fight.

With the first racist microaggression I faced in graduate school — even before classes had officially begun — I started to catch on.  But, six years later, now as a new tenure-track professor, I am finally declaring that enough is enough.  When my partner told me he felt helpless to support me day after day, as I come home fuming about some microaggression I have faced, I teared up — well, because he named it: “oppression.”  I know it, and regularly name it myself, but tend to stay just shy of fully acknowledging the reality of my experience as an oppressed person in academia, and the world in general.  My fear is accepting “oppressed” leaves little hope, little room for change.  But, the real danger is in denying how frequent and intense the hostility really is.

I study the health consequences of discrimination — so, I can tell you via research expertise (yeah, I’m saying “expert” — deal with it!) and personal experience that the hostility that marginalized students, staff, faculty, and administrators face is harmful.  In actual “wars” in the traditional sense, it would be foolish to try to reason with one’s opponents, who are armed and out for blood.  You protect yourself and fight back.  But, in buying into the fairytale that academia is safe, humane, and socially-just, we fail to arm and protect ourselves.  We repeatedly fail to psychologically prepare ourselves for battle, leaving us vulnerable to the full effect of every assault.  When attacked, we spend the rest of the day, week, month, semester, year… however long… trying to make sense of how that could happen here, how could they do that.  Unfortunately, this kind of rumination exacerbates the wear discrimination and violence has on our health and well-being.

Image Source: Center for American Progress

Prepare For Battle

I hope that even readers who scoff at the allusion to war recognize that academic institutions are — for some — toxic, hostile, unsafe, and exclusive places.  We do ourselves (particularly marginalized people) a disservice by thinking of acts of intolerance in academic spaces as isolated incidence, rather than manifestations of larger systems of oppression.  And, we fail to make efforts to prepare ourselves.

So, here are some suggestions:

  • Purge the idyllic, utopian vision of academia from your mind.  No place on earth is free from prejudice, discrimination, and violence.  Even if we disagree about how bad things are in academia, I ask that you at least acknowledge that there is room for improvement.
  • Acknowledge the high, pervasive levels of discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence within academic institutions.  Since it may be easy to discount the extreme stories that capture the media’s attention as isolated incidents, look for a source that keeps a record of these events — and then inflate the numbers, as these incidence are severely unreported (and mishandled).
  • Develop a plan-of-action to cope on a regular basis and for less frequent, but more extreme incidents.  I keep learning the hard way that I cannot go to events and meetings on campus as though I am privileged, freed from exposure to bias.  For new, unknown terrain, as well as spaces I already know to be hostile, I should 1) never go alone, nor sit alone, 2) have already established a team-effort to handle bias, and 3) have a prearranged time to debrief afterward.  This could prevent being blind-sided by offensive comments or actions, being shut-down and thus unable to speak up or out, and having the rest of my day emotionally derailed.  I should be meditating when I get home, but I at least try to journal to get toxic thoughts and emotions out so I can enjoy the evening with my partner.
  • Seek out allies, and not just in the predictable places.  I have found a great deal of support inside and outside of my department, including members of the university staff.  I have more in common in experience and values with people of color, queer people, and other social justice-oriented people than sociologists, or even academics in general.  Also, these outside perspectives can offer a new way of looking at a problem, or even entail “dirt” you would not get from insiders.  Here, I emphasize quantity (i.e., have at least a few allies in different places) and quality (i.e., meaningful connections with trusted friends and colleagues).
  • Consider ways to support others as they go to battle.  Check the academic fairytale in your colleagues and students.  I do not mean to force your perspective or to burst their bubbles; rather, do not let others deny or discount their own exposure to discrimination and harassment.  Affirm others’ experiences are real and unjust — at least to the extent that they have the right to feel what they feel without explanation.  If you can, offer other forms of support.
  • Teach marginalized students how to survive in academia.  A friend and colleague in student affairs has twice asked me what I am doing to teach my students survival skills.  Wow.  What a thought, right?  I still do not have an answer; my focus has been on affirming marginalized students’ existence and experiences, but never at the level of teaching survival skills.  As I develop syllabi for next semester, I will have to think about this, though it may take years to do so effectively.  By design, the content of college-level and graduate-level education barely reflects the lives and perspectives of oppressed people.  When reflected, we often get as far as highlighting that they are, indeed, oppressed, but fail to talk about how they are surviving, thriving, remaining resilient, and fighting back against oppressive structures.  So, this is an ideal, at best, for now.
  • If necessary, keep a personal record of acts of intolerance, particularly if there is a repeated source or perpetrator.  If things become severe enough that you have to seek justice or protection through some institution or external party (e.g., EEO, human resources, the police, Office for Civil Rights, an attorney), it may be useful to have a record.  And, you may need one or more witnesses to confirm your reports — maybe bring a colleague or friend along, or speak with someone else privately, hopefully to get them to start taking note in the future.
  • Consider speaking openly about your experiences.  This may help to affirm others’ experiences, and remind them that they are not alone in facing systemic, pervasive discrimination and harassment.  It lets potential allies know that these kinds of events do occur, hopefully, encouraging them to take note and act.  And, it can dismantle the cloak of silence; it can shift victims’ silent suffering to the public shaming of perpetrators of discrimination and violence.
  • Fight back.  At a minimum, be involved in your academic community to 1) be visible as a marginalized person, ensuring that your voice is heard and 2) create change.
  • Stay healthy and well, in general.  And, if a particular environment is too toxic to stay healthy and productive, you may need to seriously consider leaving, moving elsewhere, or taking temporary leave (if possible).  As I have said elsewhere, try to avoid going to places that are obviously toxic or hostile.  Unfortunately, self-care is a deeply political act for marginalized people within environments dead-set on destroying them.

What strategies have worked for you to survive in academia?

6 thoughts on “Academia Is A Warzone

  1. Thanks, Eric. I just did 8 straight days of yoga heading into finals and papers. I think it really stabilized me for this final push. (Yep, sometimes I still say, that was 16 hours I could have spent studying — but mostly, I’ve wrapped my head around the importance of self care.)

    I agree with: “1) never go alone, nor sit alone, 2) have already established a team-effort to handle bias, and 3) have a prearranged time to debrief afterward.” But it just isn’t always feasible as a student. As a phd student in a small cohort, I am often very “alone” in meetings and classes. I have great supports but they aren’t always available. I think great self care and even online communities can be super helpful when you are really, for the most part, alone and isolated from your political community.

    Keep blogging. It’s great.


    • Thanks for commenting, Michelle. It sounds like you are taking care of yourself in important ways. But, of course, we can never fully prepare for everything, in part, because we cannot anticipate every single challenge we will face. Hopefully, we build up these strategies for survival with experience and wisdom.


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