Guest Post: The Bullying of Hannelore

I am publishing this guest post from someone who works in Astronomy in a UK University. The author is anonymous (though I know who it is), the Department is not identified (though I know what it is) and all the names have been changed (for the reason that there is an ongoing legal case). Despite these restrictions, in the wake of the Tim de Zeeuw scandal, and others, I think these stories should be told.

The Bullying of Hannelore

I am an Astronomy Professor at a UK University. In June last year, I witnessed acts of bullying by my Head of Department against a junior administrative assistant on a fixed-term contract.

The administrative assistant — her name is Hannelore — was assigned to help me with the Examinations, in the time of COVID.  She was in a visibly wretched condition, weeping uncontrollably on zoom calls. I am sure Hannelore hated appearing in such a dejected and tearful state on zoom with someone she barely knew. She was a proud woman once, but it had all gone. 

She told me a harrowing story of sustained bullying by my Head of Department, culminating in an (illegal) dismissal notice from my University at the end of the academic year.

By the end of the Examinations, Hannelore was not sleeping. I remember going to bed after zooming one evening, and wondering what to do, who to contact, whether Hannelore would be alive the next day. I remember being relieved on checking email the next morning that there were messages from her through the night. She may not have slept, but at least Hannelore was still alive. 

What to do? Till then, I had been very friendly with my Head of Department, a (superficially) genial and charming man. We had written research papers together. By contrast, I hardly knew Hannelore. 

My University regularly pumps out tweets about breaking the silence around bullying and harassment. It has compulsory ‘active by-standing’ online courses for us all to attend. My University has ‘Dignity at Work’ representatives and ‘Well-being Advocates’ in every department. It has multiple Equality, Diversity & Inclusion committees to protect, amongst other things, the interests of women. It trumpets its ‘people strategy’ and ‘people action plan’. 

But, when I told others about the bullying of Hannelore, they were not interested. The Departmental ‘Well-being Advocate’ thought it was someone else’s problem. The Chair of the Departmental EDI Committee declined to intervene and repeatedly acted to protect the abuser. No-one wanted to believe that bullying on this scale was actually taking place, right under their noses, in my University.

So, I blew the whistle. I covertly recorded what was going on and made a witness statement to my University. By now, news of this distressing scandal had begun to reach the top. Senior managers were taking the decisions.

My University was aghast at what had happened.

Not at the bullying. At the covert recording.

And then my genial and charming Head of Department wielded his knife. I had always known that there was a streak of cunning and malice beneath the jokey bluster. My Head of Department said that it was all the other way round.  I had been harassing him. I had been deliberately causing stress and anxiety to Hannelore, so as to trap him and smear him as a bully.

At first, I thought this was some kind of sick joke. Surely no-one would believe such a far-fetched and improbable story. It was like Boris Johnson saying he was the victim and complaining that other people were bullying him by going on and on about lockdown parties.

I was wrong.  My University thought the allegations against me were so serious that they warranted an immediate investigation. It has an excellent, detailed and well-constructed grievance policy, which it proudly publishes on the web. The first step is that the accuser produces some evidence in support of any allegation. But, senior managers decided that my Head of Department’s allegations were too grave to warrant asking for any evidence. There was no need to be hampered by a well-constructed grievance policy. An investigation into my activities by an external and highly-paid barrister was commissioned to probe the extent of my wrong-doing.

My University’s investigation into me continues to this day, 15 months later. I have been forced to hire lawyers to defend myself (at my expense).

Hannelore did not kill herself. Some inner core of doggedness somehow pulled her through the darkness. The bullying has abated, though not stopped. Her insecure job was reluctantly returned to her. Hannelore was withdrawn and almost catatonic for many months afterwards. She still cannot talk easily about what happened to her. She is too frightened to complain formally to my University. She has been receiving counselling (at her expense).

The genial and charming Head of Department continues to hold sway with the top-level managers who run my University. He still enjoys exercising power over people, especially ones he dislikes. 

And I … I have learnt some very ugly things about my University. Things I would rather not have discovered. 

I have learnt that the current power and methods of my University’s management directly contradict the values my University purports to have. They are abusive of basic trust, integrity and decency. I have learnt that many of my departmental colleagues are ready to look the other way, if it involves challenging a powerful man who controls promotion or resources.

I have learnt that my University prefers sloganizing to action, prefers tweeting about ‘people strategies’ to safeguarding.  I have learnt what it is like to be a female member of staff on an insecure contract. As a male Professor with a good salary and tenure, I had the resources to hire lawyers to defend myself against my University. The Hannelores stand no chance.

7 Responses to “Guest Post: The Bullying of Hannelore”

  1. Leiden University has taken some criticism. But, I do wonder if Tim de Zeeuw had been in a UK university whether anything would ever have happened to him.

    The decision to suspend De Zeeuw was taken by the Executive Board of Leiden University, which is appointed by the Board of Governors. The Board of Governors has an independent position at Leiden University and is accountable to the Minister.

    UK Universities are organised very differently, and the scope for decisive, independent action is very much more limited.

    Arthur Loureiro makes a similar point in his tweet about matters at UCL

    “Unfortunately, the University continues to hide under constantly changing staff, bureaucratic procedures and policies that have only had the effect of protecting the perpetrator.”

    All UK Universities badly need an Ombudsman-like figure, who is genuinely independent of the University’s departments and faculties, and can examine serious wrongdoing.

    (Just to be clear, I am not suggesting UCL is the University in Peter’s guest post.)

  2. Émile Jetzer Says:

    Hi; I’m a technician in a Quebec university, where I can imagine similar situations happening, the bullying, and then the inaction despite policies. I am curious to know about how unionized university staff is in the uk, because from my experience here a situation like that would quickly become litigated by the union.

    • Wyn Evans Says:

      Probably not enough people do belong to the trade unions in the UK.

      You are correct that bullying of professional support staff (as in Peter’s guest post) could be tackled in this way.

      The other group who are often bullied in a astronomy — graduate students — are not unionised.

      What has proved effective in some cases is when astronomers themselves take action.

      Most large astronomy collaborations now have anti-bullying & harassment policies (e.g., LSST, Euclid, 4MOST).

      The exclusion of bullies and harassers from such collaborations is a powerful weapon.

      We should not be afraid to use it.

      In fact, in the ETH Zurich harassment case, I believe that is how matters first came to light.

      • Knud Jahnke Says:

        In Euclid we have already used the code of conduct at least once to remove a person’s consortium membership. For behaviour that even took place outside the consortium context.

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t know whether union representation is involved in this case or not. I suspect the latter as union membership is not strong in most universities in the UK, either for academics or staff in professional services.

      Here in Ireland, most staff in my Department (including myself) are union members.

      Trade Unions are obliged to represent their members in any disciplinary or other process related to their employment. That goes for whether they are the victim or the alleged perpetrator. If you are not a union member you will have to pay for independent advice and representation which can be expensive. Among other things, union membership can be thought of as an insurance policy.

      • Yes, the local union would normally be the place to go for support, and they can raise issues at high levels in the university. For students, it is important to have a backup supervisor in case of problems with the main supervisor. That is not a solution for bullying(!) but it can provide an escape route. Few people are strong enough to cope with the stress of a bullying complaint without a lot of support

  3. […] to do with bullying and harassment in astronomy. A number of people have contacted me about the anonymous guest post that appeared here recently, all from different universities, and all convinced that the unidentified Department referred to in […]

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