Academic Parity Newsletter May/June 2020

Racial abuse and bullying during Coronavirus outbreak

The outbreak of Coronavirus over the past months has affected communities at different socioeconomic levels, world-wide. Almost all companies and organizations are currently dealing with the negative impacts of the spread of Coronavirus and trying to adopt the new regulations including social distancing, to minimize the risk of further spread of the disease while maintaining their performance at the highest possible level. For many occupations these new measures equal remote working from home, having online meetings, and possibly taking care of children at home. While professors and lecturers in academia try to seize the chance to transfer lectures to online platforms, read and respond to the manuscripts that have been piling up on their desks, write new grant proposals, the less experienced academics and students probably need more support not to fall out of the track of their research activities.

Unfortunately, these unprecedented circumstances have triggered prejudice and discrimination against individuals of certain origins, a phenomenon also known as xenophobia. In March 2020, the New York Times reported a spike in the cases of bullying against Asians at schools in the USA east coast(ref. 1). The San Fransisco State University has found a 50% rise in the number of articles related to anti-Asian discrimination in the period of Febuary 9th and March 7th(ref. 2). In Switzerland, a Taiwanese student from University of Lucerne was mocked by seemingly educated seniors, for being Asian.

Although stigmatization and xenophobia might not be considered extreme, they can easily go too far and turn to active bullying, discrimination, and racism. Many universities have already taken this issue seriously and have provided pathways for reporting the specific cases of inappropriate bullying, or harassing behavior due to Coronavirus. Apart from the apparent discrimination against mainly Asian students, the imposed travel restrictions have created hidden obstacles for the admission of foreign students in the USA or within the European Union(ref. 3). Many students with university admission are denied student Visa and many holding their student Visa are banned from traveling, a situation which limits diversity in academia in the long run.

News coverage:

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill started a Q& A session regarding social distancing and cyber-bullying with one of the world’s leading academic authorities on bullying – Professor Dorothy Espelage. Read more about this in ref. 4.

David M. Perry, a senior academic adviser in the history department at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and formerly a professor of history at Dominican University, shared his personal experience with respect to the academic title and how that is used as a weapon for bullying in academia. Dr. Perry voiced his concerns regarding the difficult situation academics face if they want to have a future in academia. In his article, Dr. Perry challenged the outmoded hierarchy model of professors versus peons.

Akiko Iwasaki is a Professor at the Department of Immunobiology and Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at Yale University, shared some suggestions to protect students and international trainees against abusive supervisors and to deal with toxic principal investigators (ref. 5). Prof. Iwasaki identified the root of the problem in the “academic power structure” in her article(ref. 6), published in Nature Medicine, professor Iwasaki named a few items such as Visa extension for overseas students, recommendation letter, authorship in publications as tools often utilized by PIs for taking students and trainees hostage. Not caring at all was also mentioned as a sign of misconduct. Diversification of members of the thesis committee, standardization of procedures for the evaluation of PIs’ mentorship capability, as well as encouraging students and mentees to speak up in the case of mistreatment, were part of professor Iwasaki’s suggestions.







6. Iwasaki, A., Antidote to toxic principal investigators. Nature Medicine 2020, 1-1.