September 20, 2006

How to humanize higher education and reduce human suffering

By: Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C.Psych. Coquitlam, B.C., Canada

'Year 2005 has been dubbed the "year of suffering" by Erin McClam, Associated Press writer. Last year was dominated by natural disasters and human tragedies - from tsunami, Katrina to Iraq war. The faces of suffering continue to haunt us.

Across the land, away from the spotlight, a different kind of suffering goes on unnoticed - in homes, workplaces, schools, and universities. I am talking about intentional cruelty against other human beings, such as physical and emotional abuse, bullying, oppression and exploitation...

How can people be so cruel? All kinds of explanations have been offered - sociological, psychological and spiritual. For example, the theology of human depravity can be used to account for the historical and continuous presence of evil in human societies. Poverty and privation are frequently cited as societal causes of violence. A host of internal and external factors, such as competition, greed, envy, scapegoating, abuse in childhood, blind ambition provide psychological explanations.

A more important question is: how can we create a kinder and gentler society? Different visions of utopia have been proposed, but none has succeeded. A society of harmony, equality, and compassion continues to elude us.

Does higher education make us more humane?

...we believe by promoting the values of humanism and liberal democracy through education, we can set people free from their intolerance, prejudice and brutality. There is a broad consensus that higher education can help create a civil society, which respects everyone's right to freedom, justice, dignity and quality of life. Indeed, education maybe our best hope for a better world.

Given the above assumptions and expectations, it is most disturbing to see many idealistic and enthusiastic students become disillusioned and cynical because of their negative experiences in centers of higher learning. Some students have been intimidated and verbally attacked by professors because of their political or religious leanings as documented by David Horowitz. Some have been sexually abused. Others have been exploited and abused by their supervisors -- some may have been tormented to the point of suicide.

Suicide on university campuses

...Too often, some students fear, suicides get written off as tragic flukes, but that sort of thinking is flawed, they say. For every Ph.D. candidate who kills himself, there are hundreds who become clinically depressed, drop out, or grimly endure bad situations in silence because of poor relationships with their advisers. This year, it was Mr. Altom; next year, it could be someone else, the argument goes.

In fact, it has been. Mr. Altom, who was about to enter his sixth year at Harvard, was not the first chemistry student to kill himself. There have been eight graduate-student suicides at Harvard since 1980. Four of the students were in the chemistry department, and three of the four, including Mr. Altom, worked for the same research adviser: Elias J. Corey.

...In 2002, Psychology Today reported an increase in clinical depression in both undergraduate and graduate students, and 30% of university counseling centers surveyed have reported student suicides. A more recent study by the American College Health Association showed that 15 percent of students met the criteria for clinical depression and suicide was second to accident as the leading cause of death among college students.

Is graduate education dysfunctional?

The causes of depression and suicides are many and varied. These range from latent psychological disorders prior to admissions, personal immaturity, inability to cope with pressure and failure, unrealistic expectations, loneliness, meaninglessness, broken romantic relationships and difficult student-advisor relationships.

Almost all universities provide adequate student counseling services to support students experiencing academic or psychological problems. However, these centers typically stay away from handling academic grievances and advise students to bring their complaints to their department heads.

The problem of harmful clinical supervision has received increasing attention in recent years (Ellis, 2001), but the detrimental effects of bad dissertation advising are much less researched ...The conclusion seems self-contradictory, until one realizes that academic and professional excellence can co-exist with dysfunctional relationships. While the survey showed that most students had good relationships with their advisors, "a substantial minority felt exploit". About one quarter of the students surveyed felt that their advisors used them as a source of cheap labor to advance their own research and help fulfill advisors' teaching and research obligations...

From my own experiences and observations of elite research universities, graduate students are expected to put in as many as 80 hours per week. In some universities, graduate students are asked to teach an entire course at either the undergraduate or graduate level without any remuneration or acknowledgement, because it is considered an honor to teach the course for a famous professor. This kind of unfair treatment is unheard of in any other kind of organizations...

These illustrious professors are willing and able to make personal sacrifices to achieve eminence in their fields; are their students prepared to make the same sacrifices? Maybe there should be a warning to potential graduate students applying to elite graduate schools: "Admission to this school may be hazardous to your health and well-being. Only the toughest and brightest need to apply."

Bullying and intimidation in higher education

I can understand the need to work 80 hours a week to find a vaccine against AIDS or avian flu, but I can't appreciate the value of such all-consuming passion for fame, money and power. The allures of big science can be just as destructive as the greed of big business and big military-industrial complex. To sacrifice students for personal gains is deplorable.

James Cook University actually has a university policy against bullying and intimidation between supervisors and students, and considers such behavior as a breach of the University Code of Conduct.

...Students' inability to identify bullying makes it difficult for them to respond effectively. Here are some common characteristics of workplace bullies, which can be readily applied to university professors:

* Workplace bullies are autocratic control freaks.
* They make it known that they have the power to destroy the career of their targets.
* They constantly demand respect and consideration whilst treat their subordinates as non-persons.
* They inflict intolerable pain and suffering on others without showing any consideration for the feelings of their victims.
* In spite of their absolutist and unethical behaviors they often get promoted, because they are selfish, manipulative, dishonest and convincing.

What can you do if your supervisor is a bully or psychopath? Your options are very limited, because of the risks of filing a grievance complaint, especially when your supervisor is very influential in the field. Typically, administrators try to cover up for the offender because they don't want to offend a superstar who brings in lots of money and prestige to the university.

The reward systems of most research universities are based on academic accomplishments and financial gains without paying too much attention to students' well-being. Like a steam-roller, the graduate education machine keeps on moving forward faster and faster, without considering how many young lives it has destroyed...

The need to humanize higher education

All kinds of reform of graduate education have been proposed, but few have been implemented or enforced. This inertia can be attributed to a university culture that values ranking and revenues in a highly competitive environment...

Much progress has been made in the area of sexual harassment on campuses. In many universities, there are designated sexual harassment or human rights officers. University administrators are inclined to take sexual harassment complaints seriously because of political correctness... However, in the area of academic bullying which affects more students, little progress has been made.

Most universities have developed policies and procedures to handle difficult advisor-student relationships and grievance complaints, but these guidelines are generally not very effective because of fear of retribution on the part of students and the fear of offending valued professors on the part of the administration. Furthermore, these guidelines do not even recognize the possibility that supervisors may have the problem of bullying and psychological impairment...

Success stories of the humanistic movement

Emory university has already made fundamental changes to humanize medical education with positive results. "We're trying to abuse students less," says Dr. Jonas Schulman, the driving force behind the reform, "and we want to make sure we're sending the message that we place a premium on people skills..."

There are also serious efforts to humanize the hospital. The key to Planetree Institute's patient-centered model is to create a health care environment in which not only patients experience caring, kindness, and respect, but also their families and the hospital staff. Susan Frampton (2003) has documented that they can dramatically increase patient satisfaction level simply by adding a human touch to hospitals.

...Leadership skills are just as important as research skills, because professors often have to manage large research teams of strong individuals with different personalities, cultural backgrounds, and creative ideas. The autocratic leadership style no longer works in the corporate world; how can we expect it to work in an academic community of free thinkers?

Humanizing higher education can be beneficial to both students and society. By creating a caring and engaging environment, universities can become a positive force in reducing human suffering and improving the quality of life for all...'

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