Science for Progress

because science is fundamental in the 21st century

32 Harassment — Speak Up in Academia — with Alice Hertzog

That sexual harassment, bullying, but also academic misconduct such as advisers plagiarizing their student’s work, happen in academia has never been a big secret. Rumors and scandals over the mistreatment of students, grad students, postdocs, and so on, have been accompanying my whole career. So called ‘whisper networks’ warn each other to stay away from certain professors.

And, where power differentials between members of a community are so large, abuse of power is probably not completely preventable.

However, many cases may indeed be preventable, and so may be many of the negative effects on everybody involved in such a scandal. A common theme in such cases across time and space appear to be that the officials at institutions are doing a really bad job at handling it. 

For this episode, my guest Alice Hertzog and I spoke about the typical mistakes made in treating cases of abuse of power on the side of the institution investigating the allegations, and what can be done to improve. And by doing so I hope we are also giving victims of harassment the chance to think through their options for handling their situation.

Alice is a PhD student at the ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, where she studies population movements in a particular region in West Africa. She is founding member of Speak Up in Academia, an independent grassroots peer-to-peer support association for victims of abuse at the ETH.

Do you have questions, comments or suggestion? Email, write us on facebook or twitter, or leave us a video message on Skype for dennis.eckmeier.


In “Speak Up”, members of ETH came together to find ways to improve the institutional culture at their institute. The main issues had been cases of sexual harassment, bullying, and scientific malpractice that the institution did not handle well.

One specific case underlying the foundation of Speak Up happened in the architecture department. There had been a crowd-funding effort to cover legal costs on behalf of the victims. But then the president of the ETH decided to cover those costs. The left over money then could go into founding Speak Up in Academia.

In addition, the founders of the Association were able to identify resources, such as psychological and legal advice from professional volunteers, during that case. So, Speak Up is now able to make these resources available to others facing similar problems.

The main problem is that there is no established procedure at the ETH to investigate allegations of abuse of power. Instead, people come up with an ad hoc procedure that is different every time. And it is often dominated by the lawyers of the accused.

This kind of unprofessional conduct is time consuming, and causes a lot of damage to everyone involved: mentally, financially and in terms of reputation of the institution. It is also deterring people from speaking up when they face or witness abuse. We discuss typical mistakes in handling abuse allegations throughout the episode.

In summary, abuse of power has been around and will be around. Speak Up in Academia is working to identify issues in how the ETH in Zurich handles allegations of misconduct within their institutions. The goal is to establish appropriate processes for the internal investigation of such cases, and how victims can get the protection they need. They seek to do this by joining the official efforts of the institution.

Speak Up further provides a peer-to-peer support network for people experiencing abuse. They have already received some financial support, and professionals such as psychologists and lawyers have stepped up volunteering their professional advice. 

Yet, they won’t tell you to raise allegation as a victim without having thought about the consequences and without appropriate support. Not, as long as reforms in the procedures haven’t been implemented.

Alice Hertzog wants all of us to be allies by speaking up when we see others being abused. And she invites everybody who has experience in handling cases of power abuse to get in contact to exchange information and experience.


Speak up in Academia website

Article in “Tagesanzeiger” on the bullying case in the ETH Astronomy Dept.

about Dennis Eckmeier

Dennis founded Science for Progress. He received a PhD in neuroscience in 2010 in Germany. Until 2018 he worked as a postdoc in the USA, and Portugal. In 2017 he co-organized the March for Science in Lisbon, Portugal. Dennis is currently a freelancer.