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Editorial: Harassment in academia past the point of doing nothing

  • February 23, 2022
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 5:45 p.m.
  • English Press

Harassment in the world of academia, “akahara” for short in Japanese, is becoming a grave issue.


The term denotes abuse of power by university professors and those in positions of authority over students and junior researchers that puts their victims at a disadvantage and causes emotional distress.


Such actions are unconscionable, as is any kind of harassment, and this includes behavior of a sexual nature. In academia, unwarranted conduct can result in a drain of promising young talent and even lead to gross errors in the way research is carried out. This, in turn, has the potential to shake the development of government-promoted endeavors in science, technology and culture to their core.


The proliferation of academic harassment owes partly to certain peculiarities found in the academic community.


The decentralized nature of this largely closed off world allows each research lab or team to function as an independent hub that disdains external interference. While this should be respected for the sake of academic freedom, it also poses the risk of internal problems going unnoticed.


Professors and other heads of labs or teams have the final say on the procurement and distribution of research funds and staff postings, and they can influence decisions on whether to award degrees and credits. Inevitably, this structure renders it difficult for victims as well as those who witness academic harassment to raise the alarm.


In recent years, the government’s “selection and concentration” policy has resulted in the scientific academic community’s increased reliance on competitive research funding distributed to selected research areas under the policy and magnified the importance of endowments from external sources.


Securing a steady flow of funding requires quick results.


Another factor concerns the growing number of researchers hired for limited periods due to temporary funding, that leaves their status unprotected.


This, along with all the other problems, has aggravated the plight of helpless victims of academic harassment.


When emotionally distressed students and young or female researchers see their future as a dead-end and quit, academia loses valuable talent. And in some cases, pressure from superiors to produce quick results can tempt some individuals into falsifying data or committing other types of research fraud.


Almost all universities are trying to eliminate academic harassment and provide support, but the efficacy of their programs are increasingly being questioned.


It is vital that they strive to prevent bullying by improving the transparency of goings-on in individual labs and teams, thoroughly enforcing preventive measures and dealing with offenders in an appropriate and timely manner. But at the same time, every consideration must be made to protect the independence of each entity.


The education ministry conducts harassment surveys every other year. However, they have been limited to date to only examining the status of consultation desks set up for victims, and have not delved into tallying cases or ascertaining details of each incident.


The ministry, in our view, must consider sharing data in academia while ensuring that the privacy of those concerned is protected.


At many companies and organizations, it has become “standard” to have multiple experts of both sexes providing in-house counseling to victims, or to set up external consultation desks in the offices of law firms.


We urge the government and every university to take bullying in academia seriously and secure the necessary personnel and funding to remedy the situation.


–The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 21

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