Archive for October 13, 2020

Against Hierarchies

Posted in Education, Politics, Television with tags , , , , on October 13, 2020 by telescoper

Being too tired to do anything else, last night I had a rare look at the television and found an interesting programme on RTÉ One called The Confessors which I watched to the end. The theme of the show was the tradition of the confession box in the Irish Catholic Church. As someone brought up in the Anglican tradition, the confessional has always been a bit of a mystery to me, which is one reason I found it interesting. It also touched on a number of wider issues (including the possible role of the seminary at Maynooth in establishing Ireland as an outpost of Jansenism. Some of the priests contributing to the programme also talked very frankly about the systematic sexual abuse of children by priests and the way it was covered up by the Church.

I was very interested to hear several of the contributors complaining that this problem was exacerbated by the power structure of the Catholic Church which made it easy for complaints to be stifled.

That discussion reminded me of thoughts I’ve had previously about harassment and abuse in other contexts (not of children) and the way they are suppressed by official hierarchies. This problem extends to universities, whose management structures often resemble those of church hierarchies, even down to the terminology (e.g. Deans) they have inherited from their origins as theological institutions.

This sort of structure creates a problem that is extremely deeply rooted in the culture of many science departments and research teams across the world. These tend to be very hierarchical, with power and influence concentrated in the hands of relatively few, usually male, individuals. A complaint about (especially sexual) harassment generally has to go up through the management structure and therefore risks being blocked at a number of stages for a number of reasons. This sort of structure reinforces the idea that students and postdocs are at the bottom of the heap and discourages them from even attempting to pursue a case against someone at the top.

These unhealthy power structures will not be easy to dismantle entirely, but there are simple things that can be done to make a start. “Flatter”, more democratic, structures not only mitigate this problem but are also probably more efficient by, for example, eliminating the single-point failures that plague hierarchical organisational arrangements. Having more roles filled on a rotating basis by members of academic staff rather than professional managers would help. On the other hand, the existing arrangements clearly suit those who benefit from them. If things are to change at all, however, we’ll have to start by recognizing that there is a structural problem.