Friday, June 14, 2019

Tanya M. Smith*
Griffith University

Over the past few years the anthropological community has witnessed truly laudable efforts from untenured faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students to call attention to the professional inequities that exist in academia, most notably those leading to sexual assault and harassment. In response to social media campaigns and investigative reporting, our professional societies have been challenged to create safe environments for attendees at annual conferences. Universities have created firmer guidelines for behavior at international field schools, as well as further codifying faculty conduct towards students. These achievements are significant, yet they fail to address the more pervasive experiences of bias and bullying that handicap even greater numbers of early career researchers. Vulnerable professionals should not be expected to risk their careers to call out behavior that senior scholars are often all too aware of. Seniority comes with responsibility. Since I have recently obtained this status, I’ve decided to share my experience and opinion in this essay. 

Too good to be true

At 29 years-old and still several months away from finishing my PhD in New York state, I was offered the kind of international postdoctoral position many young academics dream of. Imagine this golden ticket: design your own lab; select any equipment you need; split your time on departmental research and your own scholarship; don’t worry about teaching or student supervision; attend academic conferences and travel for research without regard to expense. And more, receive four weeks of paid vacation each year; no tax on your salary stipend; a multi-year renewable contract; and part-time employment for your partner in the same department. As an ambitious first generation college graduate – with imminent loan repayments on student debt in excess of $40,000 USD – I couldn’t even think to ask for anything else.  

During me and my partner’s first visit in May of 2004, my future supervisor Jean-Jacques Hublin pulled out all the stops, warmly assuring me that it wasn’t an interview. He gave us a private tour of the impressive glass-walled open plan research institute and drove us around the eastern German countryside with an eminent anthropologist and his wife. We had a delightful time – even after getting the institute van stuck while taking a shortcut through a remote field. Pushing vehicles out of ditches shoulder-to-shoulder is a social glue for anthropologists of all cultures and generations – drawing us closer once we were safely on our way and could laugh about it. Jean-Jacques treated us all to a lavish meal in a centuries-old stone-walled restaurant and a performance at a world-class opera house. I was flattered to be courted for a privileged position at such an early point in my career. Even more importantly, being treated with care and consideration by a prestigious paleoanthropologist meant a great deal on a personal level. Thus began my career in one of the most renowned research centres in the world – the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

By autumn of that year, I’d gather weekly with the twelve or so members of the brand new department for a German lesson with a teacher provided by the institute. Working nonstop those first few months followed by language classes or evenings at the nearby brewery was a potent recipe for community building. Jean-Jacques seemed to be a happy and relaxed supervisor, save for right before our German lesson when he’d surreptitiously copy my homework and then tease me during class for my rudimentary (= terrible) German pronunciation. The two of us worked closely on research projects and promotional activities for the new department – studying human fossils in dusty Moroccan museums, recruiting students and hiring staff, planning an intensive research workshop, and once literally running through Beijing’s massive Forbidden City before the gates were locked for the night. 

On that memorable night in China, I recall sheepishly spilling out of the back exit of the historic metropolis in the freezing cold dusk. We decided to strike out in search of a meal of Peking duck despite not speaking a word of Mandarin or knowing where to go. Mopeds, rickshaws, and motorcycles caromed past in the Beijing rush-hour hustle, yet Jean-Jacques managed to flag down an ancient three-wheeled motorized taxi. Establishing that the driver did not speak English, and thus couldn’t understand that we wanted to dine on the local delicacy – Jean-Jacques started quacking like a duck. As I laughed in surprise, a flash of understanding seemed to dawn, and the driver ushered us into the narrow closet-like box loosely affixed to a motorcycle engine. We peered out the backwards-facing window, politely jammed together and ignoring the omnipresent diesel fumes for what seemed like an eternity. 

The taxi finally pulled up at a lavish restaurant bedecked with an enormous glowing rubber duck. Success! A touristy Peking duck house, complete with ornate chandeliers, massive round family-style tables, and some unforgettable local delicacies. The waitstaff quickly plied us with hot tea and English-language menus. Scanning the appetizers revealed a gustatory novelty – deep fried scorpion. I was happy to pass this up, having seen my fill of living scorpions while doing fieldwork. Yet Jean-Jacques not only insisted on ordering them, he talked me into eating one – threatening to tell the whole department if I chickened out. I reluctantly consented, underwhelmed by the earthy taste but deeply enjoying the playful camaraderie we shared that night. 

Jean-Jacques Hublin in Beijing

Staying close to the sun

Jean-Jacques Hublin never sexually harassed nor assaulted me. I’m not skilled enough to convey the complexity of human behavior in my story of victimization, especially for relationships in the “professional realm.” Thoughts and feelings are supposed to be as partitioned as our job titles, and our regard for each other as professionals is meant to begin and end at the door to the office or laboratory. In casual conversation we might say, “I love my job,” but rarely do we give ourselves permission to articulate genuine feelings of care or affection for our colleagues. In my case, even after being warned by a colleague and seeing signs of his aggressive behavior, I came to love Jean-Jacques. Mentor, father-figure, boss, advocate, friend. There are few people I’ve worked with over the past 15 years for whom I’ve cared more, and fewer still who would ultimately have such a destructive impact on my career. 

The trouble began, as it usually does in paleoanthropology, with a fossil and a prestigious journal. I feel that the seeds of ongoing bullying sprouted nearly five years after I ceased being on the Max Planck payroll. During my time in Leipzig I collaborated with scholars across Europe and worked on exceptional fossils. Jean-Jacques played a significant role in this, and he made it clear how he expected me to work with him – even diagramming this during a discussion of a grant I was applying for (see below). He explained that he didn’t want me to be independent of him (represented by the sun) and the department (the box around the sun), rather he insisted that I stay connected even as I took on new roles. That seemed reasonable at the time, as an employee under his direction, but I didn’t fully realize he was signaling that he saw employees as his intellectual property. Forevermore.

Drawing by Jean-Jacques Hublin

I didn’t get the grant, but I remained a privileged and loyal Max Planck foot soldier for several more years, overseeing a prolific Dental Tissues Research Group and co-authoring numerous papers. When I finally secured a job as an Assistant Professor at Harvard University in 2008, Jean-Jacques explained that while he was really disappointed that I was leaving the department, he was comforted by the fact that he was “losing me to Harvard.” We agreed that I’d maintain a departmental affiliation to continue working on several projects that were underway, and that I’d return to the institute from time to time. That summer the department gathered in the kitchen to fete me with the customary farewell cake and coffee. I felt conflicted by the lavish praise Jean-Jacques offered for me. It was embarrassing being extolled as his most productive and loyal employee in front of other hardworking peers, while being acknowledged by someone who knew me well created a sense of warmth and belonging. 

All this affection evaporated in dramatic fashion in 2013. After five years as a productive “departmental affiliate,” Jean-Jacques ordered that my name be deleted from the staff and alumni list on the Max Planck website, retaining only the citations of my publications, including more than 20 papers he had been included on as a co-author. I was blocked from my email account and access to the thousands of microCT scans of teeth my research group and I had created from all over the world. 

What was my offense? I broke the cardinal rule. By publishing a Nature paper without including him, I had moved my box too far away from the sun.  

Nothing is natural about publishing in Nature

The first volley came while I was sitting on stage at a graduation ceremony in Cambridge, Massachusetts, running quiet commentary on the Harvard pomp and circumstance with my newest faculty colleague, also a co-author on the offending paper published eight days earlier. Using my iPhone, I opened an email attachment from Jean-Jacques’ research assistant that addressed me as “Dear Colleague” and detailed a supposed offense in continuing to study a thin section of a fossil tooth that I had prepared years earlier in Leipzig. During my Max Planck employment I published a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper detailing its development. At that time Jean-Jacques had aggressively insisted on being in the prestigious last author position on the paper, despite the objections of the person who had proposed the study, brought me the fossil, visited my lab in Leipzig several times at his own expense, and spent hours in discussion with me. 

After the initial paper, I pitched an elemental analysis of the fossil thin section to the Leipzig archaeological sciences group, but was advised against this due to their concerns about the validity of the method. While they were not interested in this new line of research, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more on my own. I consulted with the colleague who had provided the intact fossil tooth, which I restored after cutting a slice from it and had returned to him, and he agreed that I could continue work on the remaining thin section. In line with how I had studied most fossils under Jean-Jacques’ direction, this was a “gentleman’s agreement” rather than a formal written contract, as is often the case in paleoanthropology. Soon after I moved to the US, bringing the thin section to Harvard, where I eventually had the chance to undertake a trace element analysis with a new collaborator at the Harvard School of Public Health.

This is when the die was cast that would impact me for years to come. While writing up the results, I assumed that it wasn’t necessary to include Jean-Jacques as a co-author, nor provide my secondary affiliation, as the work I did in Leipzig was already published and the department wasn’t equipped for nor interested in this type of study. I was na├»ve in not anticipating how the high-stakes world of academic publishing and consequential media attention would challenge these assumptions. Had the paper quietly ended up in a specialist journal instead of Nature things might have turned out much differently.  

Following the “Dear Colleague” letter, the person who originally lent me the fossil thin section asked for its return, and I did so immediately. Jean-Jacques then recalled the Max Planck resources I had borrowed, ordered me to destroy all digital data generated within his department, ended my departmental affiliation, and threatened legal action if I published any additional results from departmental resources. He insisted that my contract stated that all research results produced at the institute legally belong to the Max Planck Society. Ironically, he had mistranslated the German clause that actually said that the Max Planck Society could use my data but not control my use of it. I was deeply hurt and confused by this escalating situation, which Jean-Jacques refused to speak to me about outside of formal written directives. I was also scared, as I was facing a potential lawsuit if I continued to publish – yet my Harvard tenure materials were due the following year, making it imperative that I not stop or slow my research efforts. 

I wrote to the President of the Max Planck Society for clarification on how to proceed with manuscripts in progress, who forwarded the matter to his Vice President and their legal department. In retrospect I feel that this was like asking the foxes who guard the henhouse for help; the Max Planck Society is extremely hierarchical and the men at the top at that time were unsympathetic. Jean-Jacques then filed a formal complaint with Harvard alleging ethical misconduct, including the theft of fossil material. This searing allegation of the ultimate violation in my field was patently untrue; I had been given permission to continue studying the section, reminded the person I had it in my possession once I settled at Harvard, and returned it promptly when requested. 

False accusations carry real weight

Jean-Jacques’ complaint initiated a formal investigation by the Harvard University Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC), a group of tenured professors who quietly worked to determine whether I had engaged in research misconduct or acted in a manner that was “unbecoming (of) the professional standards that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences expects of its faculty.” My pre-tenure fall sabbatical, intended for peak productivity, was instead largely spent combing through years of emails, drafting formal letters to the CPC and Max Planck Society, meeting Harvard’s Research Integrity Officer and the Chair of the CPC, and postponing the publication of multiple manuscripts – including one that would ultimately become another Nature paper – out of concern that my colleagues or I would be sued. After several tense months of investigation and deliberation, the CPC cleared me of research misconduct and found no fault in my judgement – a formal decision reviewed by the Dean of the Faculty of Arts of Sciences and the Office of the General Counsel. I doubt that Harvard was simply “protecting its own” as the administration raised no apparent objection when my six departmental colleagues voted to not tenure me the following spring. It was a bitter and heartbreaking climax to the most trying two years of my professional life. 

Not content with me losing my job, ending my Max Planck affiliation, and threatening legal action – Jean-Jacques has since continued to slander me, including telling a university search committee that I stole a fossil and lobbying them to not hire me. Thankfully, not everyone is swayed by this bullying, and I’ve continued to have a productive research career. To be clear, I do not feel that this behavior is about a fossil nor a secondary affiliation – it is capital punishment for insubordination. 

Why should I have been held to a different standard of research conduct than leaders in my field? At worst I may have been ungenerous but I was not unethical. 

Seniority comes with responsibility and accountability

I recently met with an enthusiastic woman who is graduating from my undergraduate Alma Mater and plans to pursue a PhD in paleoanthropology. Conversations with aspiring academics are fraught for me. I genuinely want to support the next generation, yet competitive academic fields are filled with stories like mine, and worse. It seems difficult to me – if not downright impossible – to strike a balance between encouragement and honesty. My motivation in writing this essay is not to extract revenge or gain personal attention. I feel that prospective students shouldn’t be sheltered from the political realities, potential sacrifices, and moral dilemmas they may face in order to succeed. Moreover, early career researchers – particularly those who are undertaking serious risks to call attention to bullying, harassment, and unethical conduct – deserve to be supported and believed. Those of us with the privilege of job security can do more than make anonymous complaints.

Gross abuses of power are driving countless people to walk away from careers in academia, and this is especially evident and tacitly tolerated in paleoanthropology. I feel that I am only one of several early career researchers and senior scholars that Jean-Jacques has bullied around issues of intellectual property and co-authorship. Culture change isn’t going to happen from codifying conduct or increasing diversity when power is unchecked. Untenured academics should not have to do the heavy lifting when they are at risk of losing their careers for speaking out while others in secure positions continue to give in to pressure or simply fail to act. As political and religious institutions cede moral ground across the globe, we desperately need our professional societies and academic institutions to act with the integrity they demand from their less privileged members. Let’s start by holding everyone to the same standard of ethical conduct and stop sheltering those who disregard it.  

* This essay is my honest opinion based on my experiences and the facts known to me. It does not reflect the views of Griffith University.