November 28, 2012

Another story of the power of a university versus a victim...

Once upon a time there was, in fact there still is, a high-achieving student in South Australia who wanted to be a clinical psychologist. A mature age student, a mother, someone who wasn't afraid to speak up if necessary. She loved her study and did very well at it. She had switched careers to pursue a subject and career path that fascinated her. She juggled her commitments with two pre-school children at home. Her daughter still anxiously remembers when mum was locked away every weekend working feverishly at her study.

This student was excited about taking her study towards a future career, and about completing her first ever research project in a supervisor relationship. That year, however, became hell. Her supervisor constantly told her her thesis wasn't working, that she needed to rethink and rewrite, which she did about 14 times. Other staff members scowled at her and ignored her. Finally, after months and months of rewrites, of missing many invaluable family and friend moments as the stress and the extra work took its toll, of a steadily declining grade point average, they told her, probably one of the highest achieving students in the year, that her research project was not viable and she would have to return the following year and repeat.

She was shocked, she spiralled into depression and anxiety, yet her motivation and love of the topic (not to mention stunning ignorance about what was really going on: a bullying campaign designed to eliminate her and get her away from a very dodgy department) drove her to return with fresh determination and a desire to make the most of another opportunity to learn how to do a research project. Her new supervisor was competent and efficient, the work got done swiftly and the student eventually achieved a first-class honours. That year, however, was also hell. She knew staff members were watching and testing her, she knew that a lot of her research project participants were fake and had been briefed instead of being genuine. She knew that her study and project were being negatively impacted by staff, for example by asking participants not to turn up to test sessions, while her fellow students were bolstered by support. (And in fact the student's project partner went on to win a University prize. The price of silence?) The student lost 20 kilograms in the course of a year. She hated going to campus, she shook like a leaf every time, she was scared of running into the staff from the psychology department. She got through her thesis, quit her job in a different sector of the university, and turned down a scholarship and two interviews for postgraduate study because she could no longer stand the stress of being in an environment were everyone seemed determined to test and undermine her.

Two years later and well away from the university, and she has been victimised and harassed by staff members of this department on an almost daily basis. Only, they do it indirectly; they get others to do their dirty work so that she can't prove anything. Her house and car are repeatedly sabotaged, and almost every time she goes out there is someone throwing something negative about her into her face, only subtly for example through passersby conversations. The police told her to go to the university, the university told her to go to the police. People with a great deal of power use it to abuse her covertly. She has filed complaints in all the relevant places, yet the power of these people in a small city means that she has constantly been hitting her head against a brick wall. All she wants to do is postgrad study in her beloved topic at a different university and to be left alone, yet these goals are undermined by academics from the first university. Her ex-supervisor refuses to answer the student's emails and phone calls requesting a reference (which the supervisor gave happily two years ago, and which had obviously been good as it got the student to interview stage). There has ostensibly been no contact between the supervisor and the student since the student left the university two years ago. The student emails other staff members, asking for a statement of duties that would at least outline some of the activities she undertook during her study, following the advice from literature about dealing with bullies. There is no response.

Consequently, the student applies for post-grad studies at two other universities, using an ex-employer reference and a friend reference. She gets (hallelujah) an interview at one university, but the other one does not take her through to interview stage. When she asks for feedback as to why, they send her a general response. She, however, suspects that the glaring omission of not having her Honours supervisor provide an academic reference may be to blame.

The day of her interview, which she gets through only by using anti-anxiety medication, she gets an email from the Dean of the Faculty of the first university. The Dean says she will provide a statement in response to the student's requests for a reference from staff memberes. Her statement says only that the student got a first-class Honours, and stated her GPA. She said that was all she could provide (rightly so, the student had never met her). The student wrote back, asking if she could please explain why her ex-supervisor was ignoring her and negatively affecting her chances for future study by failing to give her a reference. The Dean wrote back, saying that the reason was that two years had elapsed, and that the university could not help the student further. The student knows that there is in fact no time limit on reference giving. She rings the student association, but as usual no one can help one little old student with a target on her head to fight the might and abusive power of academic staff at a university.

The student waits to discover the outcome of her interview. But years of damage have been done.

This is a true story.

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