Thursday, February 4, 2016

You are worthy.

Dear Students,

People do bad things to other people. Sometimes this happens in academia. Sometimes this happens in our field.

If you, or a friend, has been harassed (sexually or otherwise), you are not without options. Sometimes none of those options are easy. A more important point is that you are not alone. 

I am not a chair, or a dean, or a president. I am a professor. I am your professor. I am here to do whatever is in my power to support you.

I will not tolerate your harassment. I will advocate on your behalf. In my position at the University, I am a mandatory reporter. In my position as your advisor, mentor, instructor, or collaborator, I owe you a personal responsibility to do what I can to create a safe environment for you to science in.

The thing is, science isn't a safe space. Science isn't a place where you can trust every person you meet. People will make racist and prejudiced comments to you. They will make sexist comments to you. They will treat you as inferior because of your ethnicity, gender, race, accent, age, disability, and sexual orientation. People will touch you in ways they shouldn't. They will take advantage of you. People will back you into a corner where you think there is nothing you can do, and no one you can turn to if you want to keep doing your job.

They will steal the joy you take in doing the thing you love. 

The power dynamics inherent in academia allow behavior like this to persist. The hierarchy within and across institutions, the hierarchy within departments and training programs, the hierarchy of funding agencies, they all lead to power imbalances that allow those at the top to act with impunity. Money and power affect decisions at all levels. Money and power (often? sometimes? routinely?) win out over concern for people, especially people at the bottom of the hierarchy.

I cannot change the system we live in. That will take time and many people working together. Hiring committees, department chairs, society governing bodies, grant reviewers, program officers, journal editors, peer reviewers, all have a hand to play in this.

But I am not powerless. Nor can I say that I have no influence. My influence may be small, but I will do what I can.

I will listen to you.
I will believe you.
I will report.
I will insist that harassment is not okay.

I wish that I could come in and just science. I wish we all could. But being able to just science is a rare privilege. Until we can all just science, I will be vocal about my support for you.

Thank you for your optimism. Thank you for your enthusiasm. Thank you for being willing to take a chance on this science thing, despite the hurdles you've faced, and the challenges to come.

You are important. Most of all, you are worthy.

It is my privilege to support you.

Dr. Melissa Wilson Sayres


Updated Feb 5, 2016 to add, "age" and "disability" to the list of ways you may be treated as inferior. There are many more things. We are treated as inferior for a variety of reasons. While the list cannot be exhaustive, these two I felt should be included.