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Speculative Diction

Stressful Systems

How one UK professor's death has sparked a wider conversation on academic bullying, research output expectations and the mental health of faculty.


During the past couple of weeks, there had been a flurry of media coverage addressing the case of UK professor Stefan Grimm’s death. The initial details, with follow-ups, are available in a blog post from David Colquhoun and an article from Felix, but to recap: Grimm (age 51) was a professor in the department of toxicology in the faculty of medicine at the renowned Imperial College in London. His body was found in his Middlesex home on September 25, and an inquest into his death was opened in October. As I write this, there’s been no official confirmation of the cause of Grimm’s death yet, other than the Daily Mail’s tasteless offering; the UK media’s use of euphemisms (“found dead”) points to suicide.

But there’s an unusual postscript to this story. On October 21, an email titled “How Professors are treated at Imperial College” was sent from Grimm’s account to about 40 internal email addresses at the university, and it soon circulated online. In the email, Grimm describes his experience of abusive working conditions at Imperial, and in particular the pressure he received from Martin Wilkins, head of the department of medicine (in recent reports in the Times Higher Ed, two of Wilkins’ follow-up emails were made public). Grimm describes how Wilkins informed him, in front of others, that he was not meeting performance requirements and would likely lose his job. Grimm also discusses how his performance targets were changed without discussion, and the lack of adequate support for meeting the new targets. He frames this through a critique of university marketization and competitive funding, arguing that university research has been reduced to a meaningless numbers game: “This is not a university anymore but a business”.

As usual I’m not the first person to discuss this; we’ve already seen insightful posts from Kate Bowles and @PlashingVole, looking at the context of Grimm’s death in light of his email statement. They in turn connected the issue to Richard Hall’s work on the university as “anxiety machine”, and to the two posts that I wrote on the concept of “productivity” and how governance systems require us to adjust to a notion of what “counts”. So this incident resonates with an ongoing conversation about the conditions of academic work, and the ways in which we respond to (and resist) them.

Reading the details, Grimm’s story sounded to me like something from Brazil, via Kafka; maybe this reflects the irrationality of “rational” systems when we take their logic to its ultimate conclusion, when we rely on the system to provide us with answers to the same problems it creates.

One element of the system in question is the Research Excellence Framework or REF, which was begun in the mid-1980s (as the RAE). During the same period, the UK has been well-represented in the literature on managerial governance and performance-based funding in higher education (some examples here, here, here, here, and here). Marina Warner illustrated the problem in a London Review of Books article about her resignation from the University of Essex. Warner had been invited to be chair of judges for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, and to give a series of seminars at Oxford. But these prestigious opportunities did not gel with the priorities of her department, which had changed during the period since she accepted both offers. Ultimately Warner felt pressured to resign rather than set destructive precedents for other scholars in the department.

Systems like the REF don’t evaluate some objective version of the “best” knowledge; what’s assessed is knowledge that works with how that particular process evaluates and divvies out rewards. Inherent in this arrangement is that if the system excludes knowledge that is too difficult to handle or cannot be “produced” in an acceptable way, then researchers who fail to adapt must accept the consequences (and adjust accordingly). But it seems as if even this logic is strained in Grimm’s case; his work was clearly acceptable to the academic community, if his publication record (70+ papers) was anything to go by.

In fact Grimm had also been successful at winning grant funding – it just wasn’t the right kind; this was a focus in all the emails (Grimm’s included). The importance of research grants in this context is laid out in a letter by Fergus Millar to the Times, who describes a “massive shift…from direct funding to funding granted for specific research projects. The effect is that the overheads which come with research grants are fundamental to the finances of departments and whole universities.” Marnina Warner writes that “the need for external funding pits one institution against another…and young scholars waste their best energies writing grant proposals.” This isn’t just about the direct benefits of the grant funds; in @PlashingVole’s analysis, what Imperial College wanted were the “headline” grants, the ones that would bring prestige through their visibility, helping to build the university’s brand and contributing to its reputation.

The issue of workplace bullying is central to this story. What was (according to rumour) likely an existing cultural problem at Imperial was being exacerbated by policies that created increased pressure to compete for external resources. While bullying can happen in any sector and has likely been present in universities for as long as they’ve existed, the context of competitiveness contributes to how these conflicts play out.

Workplace bullying is usually the kind of thing that is kept very quiet unless something extreme happens to bring it into the public eye. It’s a notoriously difficult and time-consuming issue to deal with because it can be subtle, subjective, and hard to “pin” on a particular person or group. In academe, bullying often works through recurring attempts to undermine the professional identity of others in the workplace; for academics, because work is so closely tied to identity, this can be an especially wounding process. For example in one of Wilkins’ emails to Grimm, he states that “grant committees can become fatigued from seeing a series of unsuccessful applications from the same applicant”. This is not just about failing to keep a particular job, it is a failure to be a successful academic. Grimm wrote: “What these guys don’t know is that they destroy lives. Well, they certainly destroyed mine.”

It’s important to remember that this behaviour is happening alongside what we already see with workplace sexism, racism, and ableism in academe. These are also forms of bullying and abuse that operate through accumulated microaggressions (or in some cases, just regular old aggression) – the repetitive behaviours that become obvious over time but which as isolated incidents can be easily dismissed.

How do you prevent this sort of destructive workplace culture from developing, particularly when it tends to build up slowly over time? How do we even know when words and actions have crossed the line into this territory? How do you address what’s often passed around as “just” hearsay, that which falls within the bounds of what may be technically “allowed” but should never be considered acceptable? Where’s the line between discipline and abuse, and do academic managers and administrators receive any training in recognizing it? These issues are notoriously hard to deal with in policy because they occur “out of sight”, and they are highly contextual (thus subject to interpretation).

Considering these difficulties, how has Imperial College handled this situation? From the available texts and commentary it seems there’s a huge difference between the informal accounts, which are highly critical of the institution and point out a culture of bullying that is long-standing and well known, and the smooth statement produced by the institution (wherein Grimm is described as “a valued member of the faculty of medicine”). Packed with passive constructions, euphemisms, and other distancing language, Imperial’s press release focuses on correcting details rather than addressing the underlying issues.

There’s some serious institutional cognitive dissonance here: somehow the university must acknowledge what happened. Yet it cannot do so without also acknowledging long-standing, deep-rooted problems that have been kept from the public eye, even while rumours circulated. To acknowledge institutional responsibility would give credence to those rumours and encourage more people to come forward, thus causing more attention to be brought to the issue. Imperial displays the communicative symptoms of a system that tries to hide its effects under cover of language, language that is jarringly out of sync with the experiences of organizational members; this in turn contributes to an ongoing lack of trust in the organization.

What happened at Imperial shows up not just how working conditions can be affected by policy changes, but also how governance changes the conditions of “discovery” and by extension, the kind of knowledge that we’ll see emerging from universities. There’s nothing much in the history of ideas to suggest that scientific insight can be generated on a production line (even Edison’s lab wasn’t quite that effective), or to a yearly timetable. There’s also no evidence (correct me if I’m wrong) that pushing researchers to the brink of collapse is going to improve their “output”, at least in terms of its quality.

Interwoven with the demands and effects of these governance systems are the bullying and harassment that too often remain “invisible” until they reach a crisis point. But how many other researchers have left quietly for these reasons, taking with them their potential contributions as scholars and teachers – and how many more will follow them? Grimm wrote that “colleagues only keep quiet out of shame about their situation.” The real shame is that, as with the related issue of mental health, they feel the need for such silence; that the cost of speaking is still felt to be higher than the damage silence does – to institutions, careers, and lives.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Jennifer Polk / December 10, 2014 at 13:29

    Thanks for writing this!

  2. Ryan Charles / December 12, 2014 at 09:44

    I’m leaving the academy after finishing my dissertation next year. At least in the humanities, I don’t think universities are good places to pursue research anymore. Rather than give up my career as an academic (but not the stressful environment of the university), I’m going to give interdependent scholarship a shot. Earning a living wage will be nice, too …

  3. karen / December 14, 2014 at 08:02

    Great article. One correction: The REF is the Research Excellence Framework, not Assessment (it’s old terminology was the RAE)

    • Melonie Fullick / December 14, 2014 at 12:53

      Thanks Karen for spotting the error! It’s been corrected.

  4. Andrew Gow / December 17, 2014 at 17:08

    An excellent comment. While the UK is the frontrunner in marketizing and ‘prioritizing’ academic work, Canadian institutions are moving swiftly in the same direction. Until ten years ago, internal funding at my university was often available for speculative and curiosity-driven research that might or might not lead anywhere — never mind to an “application for major research funding”. I received a number of such internal grants to explore topics I eventually jettisoned — because in starting that work, I came across the things that I wanted to work on even more strongly, and which became the basis of three distinct bodies of work connected only methodologically to my first book. Now, applying for small internal research grants at my university comes with a stern admonition to swear, essentially, that one will use the funding to prepare “applications for major research funding” — effectively tying all minor funding to the premise that it will lead to major grant applications (whether one needs them or not). All three bodies of work were carried out with only one SSHRC research grant, for a comparatively paltry $43,000 and a few smaller amounts (perhaps $15,000 in total). That kept me in plane tickets and a grad student in groceries for many years. One of those bodies of work (this one consisted of four major articles/chapters) sparked an entire new sub-field, I am told by European colleagues (in person and in their publications). None of that work conformed closely to the model we are now expected to follow; most of it gelled well after I wrote the initial funding requests. I could never have anticipated what I would find in time to make it sound real and impressive in a grant application, partly because in all three cases, what I found contradicted long-established points of view and orthodoxies. Applications to try to do what I eventually did probably would not have been funded. I was lucky to get any SSHRC funding (on my third try). If I were starting my career today, I would have to stick with ‘safe bets’ and work established veins of scholarship to get any funding. Indeed, I would not enter academia if I were thirty years younger. I am glad my grad students have a stronger stomach for some of the managerial nonsense now being foisted upon us than I do, because they will need it.