Power and Responsibility

I have to admit I’m a superhero movie junkie. In particular, we watch the Avengers movie a lot in our household. I mean… a lot. Sometimes I really wish I was Natasha Romanoff (aka the Black Widow) from the Avengers. That would be rad. I could use my tricky spy interrogation skills to get program officers to tell me how to alter my proposal to get funded. I could use my wicked fighting skills to take down anyone acting inappropriately towards my students. Yeah, it would be awesome.

Except that every superhero story has the following message: with great power comes great responsibility.

We don’t think about that duality much in the professoriate. I think because typically we spend so many years with so little power as graduate students and postdocs. Even as an untenured faculty member, we often focus on being at the mercy of senior faculty and administrators upon whom our job prospects depend. Even once we’re tenured, we often don’t think in terms of ‘power’ beyond the interfaculty dynamics within a department because faculty increasingly have less say in the governance of universities.

But the truth is, even though we don’t think we have power, we do. We have a lot of it. Over the undergrads in our courses whose futures depend on what they learn (and the grades they earn) in our classes. Over the graduate students and postdocs in our labs whose futures and everyday experiences depend directly on how we treat them. On the graduate students in our graduate programs who need us on their committees or need to take a specific course from us to be successful in their research or career path. Over the students and postdocs who are networking at meetings to connect with potential collaborators, mentors, etc. Over anyone whose papers and grants we are reviewing. We have a lot of power over the fates of a lot of people. And with great power comes great responsibility.

If you read a lot of blogs or participate in Twitter, you will have seen the growing number of posts on gender discrimination and sexual harassment that people (including people in ecology & evolution) have experienced**. Some of those experiences are sheer predatory behavior by people purposefully abusing their power. Some of it seems like people who don’t recognize that they have power that can be abused. And sometimes these incidents arise because someone is having a bad day – at home, at work, whatever – and in that unhappy space people put down others thoughtlessly or even purposefully to feel better about themselves. But the truth, so eloquently stated by one of my favorite bloggers Odyssey is that “Power doesn’t give a shit about your personal life”. It also doesn’t care if you don’t realize you have that power. Just because you don’t realize you have power over others doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. You still have the responsibility that goes with it. These horrifying stories of gender discrimination and sexual harassment are clear abuses of power and it is important as a community that we deal with this. We also need to remember that they are not the only way to abuse power. Stories about abuses of power should serve as an important moment for all of us, men and women, junior and senior, to reflect on the power we do have and ponder using it wisely. I promise you someone out there will be grateful you did.

**If you don’t know what I’m referring to, I would strongly recommend going to read these key posts/articles: DNLee a postdoc, and prominent blogger, called a whore for saying no to a guest blog request, A writer approached a prominent scientific blogger about work and received a creepifying interaction for her troubles, a scientist from the ecology/evolution neck of the woods talks poignantly about her experiences with sexual harrassment, and the twitter outpouring of women expressing how sexual harassment has made them doubt themselves and their abilities.

About Morgan Ernest

I am an associate professor at Utah State University studying ecology.

Posted on October 18, 2013, in science. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Well put!

  2. You nailed it on the head Morgan.

    Academics love to put on this “we’re all colleagues, we don’t need those hierarchies other people use” attitude. But having worked in industry, consulted for government, and had a wife who has spent most of her life in non-profits and K-12 education, I firmly believe that academia is the most hierarchical domain out there short of the military. And it is made much worse because we pretend it doesn’t exist.

    Its a truism (not sure if there is a specific person or quote to attribute it to) that if you really want to know somebody’s character, watch how they treat people below them when nobody is watching. And yes, academics all have people below them (even grad students have undergrads they teach). And we actually think about the consequences of this a lot less than, say, people in business.

  3. Thanks, Brian and Odyssey!

    Brian – I agree completely. How people treat junior people, and how safe those junior people feel with someone in power, are the best indicators of character. I also agree w/ your comment about the ‘we’re all colleagues’ attitude. In some regards we need this so that people under us feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and ideas and pointing out mistakes when they see them. On the flip side, pretending there is no hierarchy doesn’t make it true. Trying to promote an environment where junior people feel comfortable expressing themselves to people higher in the hierarchy and where feedback from senior to juniors is constructive yet critical, all while acknowledging that there is indeed a power hierarchy can be a delicate balance. Maybe it’s easier for some, but we spend a lot of time thinking about how to accomplish that.

  4. While I agree with much of what you have to say Morgan, there is one point which I really don’t agree with. You write: “Just because you don’t realize you have power over others doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. You still have the responsibility that goes with it.” I disagree with your second statement there. How can we hold people responsible for things that they don’t know or understand? As a society we don’t allow this. Consider the 2002 supreme court decision Atkins V. Virginia. In that case Atkins, a “mentally retarded” (the court’s language, not mine) man robbed and murdered a man. He was sentenced to death. In this case we have two important factors. 1). There was a power differential between Atkins and his victim, and 2. Atkins didn’t fully understand that power differential (due to reduced intellectual capacity. In this case we have a true power differential, and lack of understanding of that. Do we as a society believe that Atkins should be treated the same way as a non-retarded person? Allow me to quote from the Supreme court decision:

    “(mentally retarded people)…by definition, they have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand others’ reactions. Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but diminish their personal culpability.”

    Now, let’s consider the inverse situation. A good example for this might be the famous Milgram experiment of 1974. In that study people were told they had the power to shock ‘learners’, but the learners were just faking being shocked. Here we have an example where there was no real power, but there was an understanding of power. Which one of these events is the more morally reprehensible and whom should we hold more responsible? The scenario where an individual has power, but does doesn’t know it, or the inverse where someone thinks they have power and acts irresponsibly (despite having no true power)?

    I just don’t think we can so blithely say that people who have power are responsible if they don’t know they have it. To further complicate matters, the scenarios you cite (DNLee and Bora) are quite a grey area when it comes to power. While both situations are clear examples of sexism and reprehensible behavior, I don’t see the power dynamic clearly. So while power and responsibility might seem obvious in certain codified environments (workplaces, etc…) It’s far less clear in other relationships. You might believe that (as Odyssey does in his post) that there is simply a white male hegemony, but many people don’t see that, and don’t believe they should be held responsible.

    In work environments power dynamics are clear, but you give an example of what I might think of as “soft power”: “Over the students and postdocs who are networking at meetings to connect with potential collaborators…” So with whom does the determination of power lie? You’re more senior than I am, and can introduce me to collaborators, does that mean you have power over me? What if I think: “Morgan really needs to introduce me to person X to help me get a job she has lot’s of power over me.” You would say: “Uhhh… I don’t even really know this Ted guy at all except on twitter..” The inverse case might be with me saying: “Well, I have a job I’m happy with” and you thinking: “I can really sway the hiring committee at USU for this job, I could help hire anyone”. In the former case I ascribe power to you over me, and in the latter you ascribe power over me to yourself. My point is in some cases it’s hard enough to determine what the power structure is, is that power structure valid (do both parties need to understand it?) let alone with whom responsibility lies.

  5. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Ted. These are very complicated issues (both factually and emotionally) in large part because the circumstances involved can often be interpreted from the outside from a variety of perspectives. To start with, I agree with you the DN Lee situation does not fit into the power and responsibility paradigm I was focusing on here. I included it in the links as part of the overarching story of what has been happening on Twitter this week and it was the trigger for much of what came after. In that particular case, my interpretation is of someone using aggressive and offensive language to assert power over another person. This is probably a different type of power dynamic.

    As for the Supreme Court case and discussion, there is a difference (as you noted is codified under the law) between someone who is incapable of understanding something and someone who is simply ignorant of it. I certainly agree that the former case can be an exception; I was talking about the latter case.

    I maintain that the Boraz case is power abuse. In the Boraz case, he was a powerful person within the blogging community who used his various positions to provide opportunities to new people breaking into the field. Many of these incidences seem to have occurred when young women approached him in a professional setting about professional opportunities. I see that situation as akin to a director who hits on a young actress while talking about the next movie he’s going to be casting soon: a manipulation of someone with the power to help or harm someone else’s career.

    You are completely correct to point out that it’s the soft power structure that is the most difficult to wrap our heads around and the one most fraught with the potential for misunderstandings. I can think of few professions where being in a position to create opportunities or purposefully denying them is not power. A senior colleague can take you under their wing, introduce you to people who might not have time to meet you otherwise, invite you to give talks at conferences/dept seminars, strongly recommend you as/for a reviewer/panelist/speaker/postdoc/faculty job/tenure. Conversely, they can act to deny you these opportunities. In my view of things, the power comes from the position.

    I think conferences in particular, a setting for many of the BoraZ stories, are challenging. Where does being a professional stop and ‘off the clock’ socializing begin? The perspective that Ethan and I take is that if we’re at a professional conference, the power differential is still there regardless of whether I’m sitting in a talk or out socializing in the evening. It is our responsibility to keep that in mind while interacting with others and act accordingly.

    I hope this helps clarify my post and thoughts for you.

  6. I agree with Morgan.

    Willful ignorance in an otherwise intelligent and successful person who manages to figure out so many other more complicated things is not an excuse.

    The good old role reversal rule is always useful. Can anybody envision a grad student doing these kind of behaviors to their supervisor? or a person doing this while on a job interview? Of course not. That means we all know it crosses a line and that means if we don’t do it when we have power and then we do do it when we have power, we are abusing that power. Pretty simple.

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