Academic workers in the department of plant and microbial biology protested against alleged bullying in the department July 28 and hand-delivered a letter to David Ackerly, dean of the Rausser College of Natural Resources, demanding immediate action.
The letter — written by protest organizers — was delivered by 24 workers, including UAW-represented postdoctorates, academic researchers, student researchers, teaching assistants and scientific research associates represented by the University Professional and Technical Employees Union, or UPTE. UAW academic workers, who are currently involved in ongoing collective bargaining with the university, have also demanded contractually enforceable protection against bullying.
“I currently work for a supervisor who has really fostered a culture of toxicity and abuse,” lab manager Kenna Fowler alleged. “I have been putting up with it for a while, but we ultimately decided it was time to take action.”
Fowler cited examples of the alleged bullying including public humiliation, intimidation and being overworked.
Fowler said concerns were voiced to the supervisor about their leadership in March after alleging she witnessed her colleague being bullied as well.
“I did not think to do anything about it until I started venting with my colleague and we realized we were all unhappy,” Fowler said. “We started speaking to more people, including people who had been in the lab previously, and a lot of them were also unhappy.”
Although Fowler said the supervisor took the meeting well when she brought up her concerns, she alleged that she did not see much change in his behavior. As a result, she notified Ackerly over email in April.
She said concerns were acknowledged but alleged no immediate action was taken, noting that it became mentally taxing to be in her current work environment.
Ackerly acknowledged that the situation took longer than it should have to be addressed. He said when a complaint is received, different people need to get involved to resolve it.
He added that his office is working on improving their processes to ensure that these issues get resolved in a timely manner.
“Everyone at the university is very committed to doing everything we can to create an environment where staff, students, faculty, researchers all thrive,” Ackerly said.
After Fowler and a colleague filed a formal grievance with UPTE on July 12, she said an investigation was launched shortly after. Fowler added that they gathered 200 signatures from members of the department.
Following the letter delivery, a meeting was conducted that day with Ackerly. Monika Fischer, a postdoctoral researcher in the plant and microbial biology department, said Ackerly described himself as a “traffic cop” because he said he does not have the authority to enforce contractual protection against bullying.
“But traffic cops have an important role,” Fischer said. “They direct the traffic where it needs to go and he can tell the university that workers are unhappy.”
Ackerly clarified his “traffic cop” analogy in that his role as a dean is to facilitate communication between different parties who can solve the issue. He added that his office does not launch or conduct investigations.
He added that while he does not make policy, but he contributes to those discussions.
“We want to strengthen procedures where we need to, especially to make sure that we have a timely response when situations arise,” Ackerly said.
According to the letter, an investigation is ongoing surrounding allegations of bullying by the supervisor and Fowler and her colleague will be provided with a new supervisor. However, contractual protections against bullying remain unmet.
Fischer, a UAW member, noted they are currently waiting on the university to respond to their bargaining proposals.
“I really hope that we will see some actual changes because bullying is a major issue across departments and environments and campuses and it needs to be addressed,” Fischer alleged.