Dr Emma Chapman @DrEOChapman
24th August 2020
A friend of mine is leaving academia. I’ve been affected by her decision in a way I didn’t expect: I am relieved. She’s a good friend. The same unpleasant characters and unexpected injustices altered our lives, and because of that we will always be friends whether or not we have similar jobs. I am relieved because I feel that she has come to the end of a labyrinthine path to closure.
Running from the past
It will soon be five years since we walked into unfamiliar offices and made complaints of sexual misconduct against a senior male academic. The rest, they say, is history. The (naïve) expectation of due process, the stab of institutional betrayal, the dreaded reprisal, and finally the protracted march to acceptance. Speaking for myself, that last part ended only recently, after what I might call a mental disintegration. Having spent years running on adrenaline, by last Summer I was running on fumes. I had spoken to any press that would listen. There was the legal case to prevent the routine silencing of victims and demands of change to a government SELECT committee (https://dr-emma-chapman.com/diversity-work/). I explored any path to achieve something positive from a traumatic time… and make what I experienced worth it.
I had hoped that by moving forward at the speed of light I would just leave Him in the dust. Boy did I get hit hard by the demons in pursuit, as I came to a halt. It surprised me to discover that none of it had made it worth it, not even close. It wasn’t enough, yet I felt I could do no more. How to proceed? I felt like I was walking through the ruins of my life. A tad melodramatic considering my comfortable home, stable job and loving family, I know, but that’s depression for you. After a lot of therapy I realised, of course, that nothing would ever make what I experienced worth it. Nor should it, as that would suggest the violation that is sexual misconduct comes with a quantifiable emotional cost. In our research within the 1752 Group we see over and over that experiencing sexual misconduct has a lasting effect on mental health, and also on the career choices made (see e.g. Silencing Students and Power in the Academy https://atomic-temporary-114044684.wpcomstaging.com/research/). Victims avoid lectures, campuses and even leave their careers, either because of what happened to them in the first place, or the subsequent mishandling of complaints.
The freedom to decide
It is not uncommon for any researcher to question their career choice, living as we do in a triangular ecosystem with little room at the top, and an impatience with those who linger too long below. Most postdocs know what a life of precarity they are signing up for, even on their first day. That first decade of academia, where you are an “early career researcher” is one which requires quite a lot of tenacity. ECRs have to continuously apply jobs, grants and fellowships. There are many difficult things about academia, even more so as a member of a marginalised group. Making a career decision based on the “usual factors” (publish or perish, job competition, the reward of science, a love of teaching and research, incompatibility of short-term contracts with financial security etc…) is hard. Many get to navigate this, arguably broken, academic system without the added complexity of weighing up the reputation damage of speaking out vs. staying quiet about What Happened. Is it better that everyone know why you don’t have a reference at all… or risk a reference written only with malice and retaliation in mind? How do you explain the gap in your publication list or hold your head up high at conferences when you know the rumours being shared? Victims of sexual misconduct fight for their academic careers on a different battleground altogether.
My friend admitted to me she felt bad about her decision to resign because it felt like she was ‘abandoning’ me. We worked so hard to win the right to remain in our careers. We yelled, and cried, and campaigned and tweeted, all to prevent our careers being poisoned by bad references and defamation and to stop it happening to someone else. When you tried that hard to stay where you are, leaving academia can’t help but feel like the perpetrator has won. To leave now, five years on, still felt a little the same, I think. It’s just another freedom taken away from us. We had to fight to even make the decision to stay based on the same set of variables as everyone else. We had to work for years such that there was only the barest suggestion of trauma tarnishing a decision that should be fundamentally free.
Should I stay or should I go?
My friend has excelled in her career, and her campaigning. She has every reason to stay, nobody and nothing is pushing her out anymore. She is free to go. And how relieved I am that she is leaving on her terms! In contrast, I think I resigned from academia on three separate occasions. Maybe four? I don’t know, all the personal crises of confidence blur after a while. They were resignations written in various states of misery, terror or, indeed, resignation. Never autonomy, though. And though I was miserable dealing with the legacy of it all, something kept pulling me back in. I felt the same insecurity about staying as my friend does going now. Was I only staying to prove a point, to be “the poster girl for retribution” as one unforgettable tweet from a fellow survivor put it years ago? How could I know my own mind when the shadow of a long-banished perpetrator still had a grasp on my career path?
I am still an academic, and plan to be for some time. I should really have a sign above my computer that states the number of days since my last resignation. I stayed in academia then because of the kindness and support shown to me both by individuals and institutions. They gave me time to think and recover and showed compassion and understanding. I stay now because, thanks to that intervention, I am free to remember how much I adore science, despite all that has happened. I have finally finished that trudge to accept what that love of science cost me. I had to drag myself the last few yards, but I got there. What I did following my experience was all that I could do. It was never going to be enough to make up for what happened, but it is enough to move out of a long shadow and begin making untainted decisions. And more than that, both my friend and I are so much more confident in those decisions. We have fought battles and won, debated and persuaded powerful people, and we like to think we have changed our community for the better just a little. And now we can take our next career steps, deliberating on the same well-trodden issues faced by all academics. We feel empowered and free. I decided to stay. My friend has decided to go. And that’s okay.