Opinion guest column

MIT GSU’s proposed grievance procedure offers solution to broken advising system

The current system allows abusive advising at MIT to continue unchecked and threatens MIT’s mission

The following stories were collected from seven Master’s and/or PhD program alumni who endured severe and prolonged bullying from the same advisor at MIT. Their experiences span 14 years, from when the first of them joined the group to when the last left. All of them suffered deep injury to not only their careers and wellbeing, but also the scientific rigor of their research. By silencing dissent, shutting down inquiry, and demanding that data be massaged to fit pre-existing theories, this advisor and his unchecked abuse directly threaten MIT’s fundamental mission and its reputation for expanding the bounds of human knowledge. These alumni do not share their stories to disparage the Institute, but rather to highlight the failures of current policies in responding to cases of advisor abuse. They implore the MIT administration to listen to grad workers and accept the MIT GSU’s proposed grievance procedure for harassment, discrimination, and bullying. This change would offer grad workers suffering advisor abuse real protection and recourse, thus making MIT a better place for both researchers and research. 

In the following paragraphs, we will refer to the alumni as Alums 1-7. 

A ubiquitous theme in the alumni stories is that the professor, as Alum 5 put it,“rules by fear.” All the alumni report regularly seeing members humiliated in front of the rest of the group. Alum 1 recalled “Once, in front of a bunch of other people in the lab, he scolded me, saying ‘When someone smarter than you tells you to do something, you need to do it!’” Alum 5 remembers “watching him berate some of the research scientists in our group.” But the mistreatment wasn’t just in public — Alum 2 recalled that “My advisor quite often bad-mouthed a student behind his/her back to other students.” Some of the advisor's behavior was so perversely bad that it bordered on surreal. Upon learning Alum 4 was using mental health services to work through the stress of supporting their ailing father, the advisor was incensed and criticized them, saying “You’re sick. How can I work with you when you’re sick? This is why we are not making any progress.” 

This professor also exploited students’ desperation to graduate and leave the group in order to extract further concessions. “For students on the verge of graduation, my advisor would threaten to withhold thesis approval unless excessive additional work was completed.This tactic was applied indiscriminately; every student that I knew during my time with the group was subjected to it, with some of the highest performing students facing the most outlandish demands,” said Alum 6. Alum 3 corroborated this account, saying that the advisor “agreed that once I reached a certain result, I would be ready to graduate, but once I produced the agreed upon result he said, ‘I know I said that… but what we really want is [something else].’I was completely powerless; I had no choice but to do as I was ordered.” 

All of this mistreatment took a serious toll on the grad workers. Alum 1 stated that their “career was derailed” and that they are “years behind where I could be in life” because rather than spending time learning valuable research skills, they “wasted so much time trying to survive in and then escape a toxic lab.” Several alums reflected on the high frequency with which students who entered the lab intending to complete a PhD left with a Masters: “When I look at the ‘alumni’ of his lab, I realize that almost all of them I know intended on earning a PhD with him, but instead left the lab with a Master's (like me) or without a degree at all.” Alum 6 said the toxic environment was a “major contributor to my decision to leave the school after completing my Master’s degree, despite my original intention to pursue a doctorate” and that it was “a sad end to my relationship with MIT — the place I had called home since my undergraduate days.” 

The professor’s cruelty not only affected the grad workers in the lab but also tainted the science that they were producing. Alum 4 said, “​​When conducting research, I believe ideas should be met with skepticism and challenged based on their strengths and merit. While working with my advisor at MIT, I did not feel this was how research was conducted. Rather, I found that anything I said that may contradict my advisor… was met with swift verbal attacks on my character, competence, and way of thinking.” Alum 3 recalled that, when questioned, the advisor would often respond with insults such as “Are you going to stop talking garbage?” and that once the professor even “pounded on the glass table, shouting ‘NO!’ to make me accept that I was wrong and that the matter ended then and there.” Alum 2 noted, “If he believes an idea of his should work like a charm but you bring back negative results, rather than focusing on investigating what went wrong, he tends to feel offended, blame you for not doing things right, and lash out his frustration on you.”

Alum 7 recalled that “He was latently aggressive in his style of management… truthfully, parts of me were afraid of him – or rather, of the power he held over me. I quickly recognized that nodding my head and doing as I was told would heighten the chance of avoiding conflict.” Alum 3 recalled a time when they had discussed a research question with another professor when their advisor “would simply not accept that certain assumptions he held were erroneous.” When the advisor found out that Alum 3 had consulted another scientist who had agreed with the student’s analysis, “He threatened that since I had zero results after more than a year of working with him, he might give me a fail for my thesis.“ This stain on the scientific method often led to, as Alum 2 put it, “weak and questionable results that must be packaged by my advisor’s top marketing skills in order to be sold to sponsors.” This environment, in which scientific inquiry is systematically quashed, taints all research it hosts and has the potential to undermine MIT’s reputation as an elite academic institution.

Some alumni in this lab tried to use MIT’s existing resources to resolve the situation. Alum 1 went to the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education (ODGE — since renamed OGE) when the advisor was withholding approval for graduation, and was told that resolving such advising issues is the primary reason for the office’s existence. However, while the deans offered some emotional support, they were unable to offer real solutions and, by their own admission, had no ability to protect anyone from retaliation. Alum 6 consulted with their department’s graduate student office and “looked for other means of reporting the situation.” But ultimately, most alumni came to the same conclusion as Alum 5: “None of the resources I found gave me confidence that substantive, corrective action would have been taken, particularly without compromising my own prospects for a timely graduation. Ultimately, I resigned myself to simply tolerating the situation and getting out as soon as possible — the dismal, practical course of action that every generation of the group's students has been left to take.” 

Sadly, despite efforts to address these issues, things have not changed. “In speaking with recent members of the group, I am deeply disappointed to hear that the intervening years have seen no change to the group experience. My advisor’s abuses have continued, unchecked,” says Alum 6. While the OGE is staffed by caring and empathetic administrators who can offer emotional support, they have little power to enforce change. 

Meanwhile, MIT and IDHR have clearly stated during bargaining sessions that IDHR (Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response Office) focuses exclusively on harassment and discrimination that is targeted based on a protected identity. This notably excludes power-based harassment, meaning that MIT still has no formal process to address abuse at the hands of an advisor.

This is exactly why we need a different system — a grievance procedure — that empowers grad workers to seek recourse until a resolution is achieved.

In spite of this, MIT has argued in recent negotiations that our union should be contractually barred from filing any grievances around harassment, discrimination, and bullying, despite the fact that, by their own admission, the policies that failed these alumni have not been changed. 

Our union is demanding a revised system to address advisor abuse and other misconduct that runs rampant in the current system. We are fighting for: 

Harassment, discrimination, and bullying happen at MIT, and the current systems to address these are inadequate or nonexistent. With our proposed grievance procedure, grad workers will have the support we need to fight for the treatment we deserve. 

Adam Trebach is a 6th year PhD Candidate in the Physics Department. He has been organizing with the MITGSU since 2018.

Update 03/10/2023: A previous version of the article featured an inaccurate statement about graduate students' access to IDHR; students do have access to IDHR, though IDHR's focus excludes power-based harrassment.