Postdoctoral fellows at the University of California, San Diego, are sharing stories of bullying and mistreatment by their principal investigators.
One high-profile case involves a postdoc in pathology who says that her PI did not renew her contract after she raised concerns about data manipulation within the lab. Postdocs and students have shown support for the postdoc, Li Jiang, including via an on-campus protest last week. Of particular concern to Jiang’s supporters is that she is pregnant and international: Jiang, who is from China, is in the U.S. on a work visa, and losing her position risks her legal standing in the U.S. and her healthcare while she’s seven months pregnant.
Another complaint filed by five postdocs accuses a second professor, of neurobiology, of retaliating against one of them for taking maternity leave, of frequently threatening to fire them, of publicly belittling and professionally punishing them in various ways, and more. Most of these postdocs have since left not only the lab but academe altogether, citing climate concerns.
One of those five postdocs, Matthias Deutsch, who quit UCSD last month after two years as a nonacademic postdoc (and who is the partner of the postdoc against whom the PI allegedly retaliated for taking maternity leave), told Inside Higher Ed that the PI didn’t speak to him for three months after he filed the still-pending grievance, creating an even more awkward work environment.
“It impacted us a lot,” Deutsch said of his and his colleagues’ experience in the lab. “Especially because we wasted two years of our early career, and this diminished our professional opportunities in academia.” (Deutsch, who is German, is, like Jiang, an international scholar whose employment status is linked to his legal standing in the U.S.)
Deutsch said he didn’t want to name the PI publicly, to avoid possible legal ramifications, but shared the professor’s name with Inside Higher Ed. That professor referred a request for comment to the university.
UCSD said in a statement that it couldn’t comment on specific cases or incidents, but that the “health, well-being and safety of our campus community members is our top priority.” All allegations of harassment “are taken very seriously,” the university said, and anyone experiencing harassment and discrimination is encouraged to reach out to UCSD’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination.
The University of California’s system-wide postdoc and academic workers union, which is affiliated with the United Auto Workers, is currently negotiating a new contract with administrators. The union filed a complaint with the California Public Employment Relations Board last fall to force the university to bargain over anti-bullying protections that are grievable and can be otherwise enforced, arguing that a university policy against bullying is insufficient protection. Contract negotiations over this issue are now under way.
Adam Caparco, a UCSD postdoc in chemical engineering and union executive board member, said, “There is an extreme imbalance of power between postdocs and their supervisors at UC, especially when a supervisor can exert control over a postdoc’s visa status. And it’s all too common for supervisors to exploit that power.”
While there are “many supportive supervisors across the UC, we’ve unfortunately heard many cases of supervisors bullying postdocs to work harder or in ways they aren’t comfortable with,” Caparco also said. “About 60 percent of postdocs are international, and UC recruits them to come work here but then fails to protect them from abusive conduct when it occurs. This can lead to really talented scholars being forced to leave UC or leave academia altogether.”
Bullying at UCSD and Beyond
While UCSD is currently in the spotlight, bullying of postdocs and other academic staff isn’t just an apparent problem on that campus. Some 65 percent of postdocs who responded to Nature‘s inaugural international survey of postdocs in 2020 said they’d experienced bullying directly, more than the 40 percent of postdocs who said they’d experienced gender-based discrimination and the 24 percent who said they’d experienced racial discrimination and harassment. In just one example of allegations of bullying that have come to light at UC campuses beyond San Diego this year, academic workers in the Berkeley campus’s plant and microbial biology department delivered a letter to David Ackerly, dean of the Rausser College of Natural Resources, last month, demanding action.
The letter, written by three academic workers and described as representative of testimonials from 24 current and former lab members, accuses one faculty member of frequent harassment and of violating Berkeley’s Honor Code on “honesty, integrity and respect for others.” Most recently, the letter says, the professor forced an international scholar into accepting a 30 percent pay cut, by allegedly telling her that her chances of becoming “adequate in her job” were the same as his own chances of “becoming an Olympic swimmer overnight.”;
The professor, Steven Brenner, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Ackerly, the dean, said in a brief interview that “we are — myself and also the university — are very committed to maintaining an environment of mutual respect among all those who work in our research labs, as well as in a teaching setting. And when situations arise, the responses differ depending on who’s involved. In this particular case, actually, there were quite a few different offices that had to coordinate, so we were we were a little slower getting started on engagement and response. But that is now underway. … We want to resolve this situation.”
Ackerly declined to share any more details, citing employee privacy.
Ryan King, spokesperson for the university system’s Office of the President, said in a statement that the University of California “takes allegations of inappropriate conduct and harassment seriously and has a number of policies in place governing student, staff and faculty conduct that specify designated reporting processes for community members to address their concerns.”
The Office of the President also recently proposed a Presidential Policy on Abusive Conduct in the Workplace, King said, “which would cover abusive conduct and retaliation in the workplace. The proposed policy includes examples of abusive conduct, prohibits retaliation for reporting abusive conduct and outlines resolution options.” The office is now reviewing comments on the draft policy and hopes to adopt it by early next year.
Jiang, who agreed to answer questions about her case via email, said she did not want to name her PI or share details about her data manipulation allegations (either publicly or on background) because she has complaints pending with UCSD’s Office of Research Compliance and Integrity and with her academic workers union. But she said she’s been working at UCSD for more than four years and expected her postdoc contract to be renewed until she expressed her concerns about research methodology integrity within the lab, in January. After that, Jiang said, her supervisor’s behavior toward her “changed significantly,” and “she told me she would not reappoint me for another year, but would give me a few months extension if I produced certain data on a short timeline. I worked very hard to produce this data, and tried to overcome all the obstacles that come with scientific research, especially while pregnant, but it was not possible within the short timeline.”
Ultimately, Jiang was not reappointed, and was told her final day in the lab would be this week. She said the stated reason for her non-reappointment was that the PI didn’t have money to continue funding her, but that this was contradicted by the PI advertising for a new postdoc.
“The non-reappointment was very unexpected, and I believe it was retaliation,” Jiang said. “I believe my contract was not renewed because my supervisor no longer wanted to work with me after I questioned her about the data. After that, she became angry with me and ignored me as much as possible. I could feel the strong difference in how she treated me in comparison to other members in the lab.”
Jiang’s department chair (who is not her PI), Steven Gonias, said he couldn’t comment publicly on labor issues.
The union is actively negotiating a resolution to Jiang’s grievance with the university, Caparco said, “to make sure she has more time to use her health benefits, recover after childbirth, and transition to the next step in her career without losing her visa status.”
Jiang said that “moving across the world would be very high risk for me and my baby in this late stage of pregnancy, especially under the Covid pandemic. I deeply hope I am able to continue my life here long enough to have a healthy baby rather than have my life turned upside down.”