Mobbing and Hierarchies in Academia

Ethics in Science Lecture 2021

  • Date: Sep 27, 2021
  • Time: 16:00 - 17:30
  • Speaker: Kenneth Westhues
  • Prof. Emeritus, Waterloo University, Canada
  • Location: Online Lecture
  • Host: Erin Schuman
Humans unfortunately sometimes behave in disappointing ways. Scientists are no exception. Westhues’s lecture will focus on scientists’ mistreatment of one of their own: the harassment, punishment and humiliation of a fellow scientist, toward elimination of him or her from the scientific community, metaphorical or actual death. This unethical practice is called workplace mobbing. This lecture will highlight research over the past 20 years on workplace mobbing in universities, commonly called academic mobbing.

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The most common questions about ethics in science have to do with mistreatment of laypeople by scientists. Paul Weindling’s inaugural lecture in this series in 2015, focussed on an horrific example, research on brain specimens taken from children murdered in this country by state authority in the Nazi era. Mistreatment of research subjects in whatever form deservedly has first priority in scholarship on ethics in science.

The present lecture, however, concerns scientists’ mistreatment of one of their own: the harassment, punishment and humiliation of a fellow scientist, toward elimination of him or her from the scientific community, metaphorical or actual death. This unethical practice is called workplace mobbing. The English word mobbing gained currency in German and other European languages in the 1970s, mainly through studies of collective aggression in birds and other nonhuman species by Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz, whose academic home was a Max Planck Institute. Later researchers, especially the German-Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann, applied Lorenz’s label to humans ganging up unfairly on a co-worker.

This lecture reports results of research over the past 20 years on workplace mobbing in universities, commonly called academic mobbing. Among examples analyzed is that of Justine Sergent, a professor in the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University. She died in 1994. The Sergent case is instructive for how admirable concern for the safety of research subjects was twisted into a deplorable, ultimately lethal attack on a scientist. Attention is given also to the case of Marcella Carollo, the astrophysics professor formally dismissed from ETH Zurich in 2019, in which kindness toward students became an excuse for extreme collective unkindness toward a professor.

The lecture concludes with a summary presentation of a new, more detailed and precise checklist of mobbing indicators, a revision of my original checklist of 2004, which has been widely used.   

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