|James E. M. Watson|
Public statement on bullying, harassment, and misconduct by Professor James E.M. Watson of the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society
14th December 2020
I am writing this letter in the interests of staff and student safety at the University of Queensland (UQ), and any other institution where Professor James E.M. Watson might work in the future.
This letter will also demonstrate my concern over the deeply entrenched bullying culture in academia. One quarter of young academics have directly experienced bullying/harassment according to a recent Nature article. Many do not feel that their institutions are doing enough to deal with this. University processes lack transparency, and create a culture of secrecy and fear, where people are afraid to speak up when they experience, or witness bullying. People are led to believe that silence is their safest bet. Unfortunately, silence supports the status quo, which is an environment conducive to bullying; silence is therefore not a neutral position, it is complicit. We need to change the system, and the only way to do this is to speak out when you experience, or witness misconduct.
Bullying can take many forms. It is not a one-off incident; it is defined as repeated unreasonable behaviour towards an individual, which poses a risk to their health and safety. This includes behaviours that might offend, intimidate, or humiliate. Single incidents can sometimes be downplayed, or shrugged off with “I had a bad day”, or “sorry I overreacted”, but repeated incidents of this sort constitute bullying. And it is this repetition that is so damaging. The impact is cumulative and takes its toll on victims’ wellbeing over time.
I view going public with my story as an absolute last resort and I genuinely wish it had never come to this. However, for the last year, I have been unable to make progress through UQ’s internal formal complaint channels. I remain concerned for the safety of former, current, and future staff and students, and feel I have been left no choice but to speak out in their interests.
This is not a statement of revenge. In the last week I have been informed by colleagues at UQ that issues are still ongoing with current students. I am genuinely concerned that UQ has not done enough to protect people.
On that note, here is my personal story of bullying in academia, and the equally distressing complaint process at UQ:
I directly experienced, and witnessed bullying and harassment by Professor Watson at UQ while working on my PhD and on projects for The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) that Professor Watson was supervising. I was a member of Professor Watson’s Green Fire Science Lab within The School of Earth and Environmental Sciences (SEES), and Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science (CBCS) at UQ.
Professor Watson is a great scientist and a passionate conservationist. He wrote excellent papers in our field, and helped me write many papers during my PhD. I genuinely enjoyed a lot of the work we did together, and am grateful for the opportunities he created for me. Unfortunately, Professor Watson’s supervision and management style regularly crossed the line into bullying, and was harmful to the wellbeing of my peers and I. I’m sure there are students of Professor Watson’s who were lucky enough not to be harassed and had good experiences. It is important to note however, that if you treat nine out of ten people well but bully one, you are a bully.
Professor Watson most frequently bullied in verbal form via phone calls, face to face conversation, and e-mails. It occurred regularly between 2017 and 2020.
Many of my peers experienced similar incidents, which I witnessed. The first incident I saw occurred in 2016. UQ was aware of this. At my PhD confirmation seminar in early 2016 I was asked if I had had any unpleasant experiences because Professor Watson had a reputation. At that time, I had not, and told them so. What is important here is that UQ has known about Professor Watson’s behaviour for a long time.
The bullying tended to follow a pattern:
When I made a minor mistake Professor Watson would overreact and crush me for it. He would take advantage of me feeling bad about the smallest error. His reactions were disproportionately severe for the situations, and often involved blaming the mistake on my character, humiliating me, crushing my confidence, and then building dependence upon himself by saying or implying I was no good, and would go nowhere without him. There was no logic to these episodes and the smallest thing could trigger them.
In the days and weeks after an incident, Professor Watson would build up the idea that he was generous and looking out for my interests. For example, he would do this by offering to pay for conferences, and by saying he just pushed me hard because he thought I could take it, and that he wanted the best for me. Just when I thought things were good again - possibly two or three months later - the cycle would inevitably repeat itself.
I observed this same pattern happen to colleagues of mine. Sometimes I was present. On other occasions, colleagues told me about incidents as they were unfolding, and showed me the email evidence. It was painful seeing close friends go through this.
Professor Watson would use authorship on papers as a weapon, threatening to remove his students from publications if they did, or said something he did not agree with. He would even pressure students to remove other students from papers putting them in difficult positions. I witnessed all this, and believe Professor Watson broke UQ’s guidelines for authorship on papers. I provided evidence of this to UQ but do not know if they investigated or substantiated it.
The repeated bullying took a toll on my mental health and that of others. Many people in our lab spoke about how the notification of an email from Professor Watson arriving in their inbox would be enough to make their hearts race. I experienced this feeling regularly. We were always walking on eggshells just waiting for the next bullying incident. Sending Professor Watson a draft of a paper to read was a particularly nerve wracking moment since this often triggered a bullying event if he was unhappy with it.
My mental health deteriorated enough that I saw a psychologist who diagnosed me with anxiety as a result of repeated workplace bullying. I have a letter signed by this independent health professional confirming this diagnosis. I was also diagnosed by a Benestar psychologist (the free mental health service that UQ provides) with complex trauma as a result of workplace bullying. This is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder and the same diagnosis is often given to people who suffer long term domestic abuse. PhD students are susceptible to this because they feel they need to weather the bullying storm to finish their projects. This was the case with me. I put up with Professor Watson’s misconduct for years longer than I should have to get my degree.
Sadly, I am not alone in this, I know other victims of Professor Watson’s who have suffered similar diagnoses.
I am lucky enough to have a strong support network around me and managed to overcome these mental health challenges. I am concerned that if a more vulnerable person was subjected to what I was, then the situation could be more serious, potentially with worse long-term consequences. This is one of the reasons I am writing to you so candidly. I have warned UQ and Professor Melissa Brown, the Dean of Science, about this risk to their staff and students so it is officially on record.
I left the University of Queensland in October 2019 and started a new job in the Netherlands. By January 2020, after moving halfway around the world and completely separating myself from Professor Watson, I finally felt safe enough and strong enough to lodge a complaint.
This was the start of the UQ complaint process which has been a harrowing and disappointing experience.
I wrote to the Dean of Science, Professor Melissa Brown, on the 13th of January 2020 to officially complain about Professor Watson and ask them to investigate. I wanted to give UQ and the system the opportunity to do right. I suggested that UQ hire an independent consulting body to investigate impartially and to ensure there was no conflict of interest. I shared a detailed account of the incidents I was subjected to and gave UQ a list of over 20 names of people who I believed had been bullied or witnessed it. UQ refused to tell me how many of these people they contacted during their investigation.
UQ told me that in the interests of procedural fairness, they would only handle my complaint if I allowed my identity and complaints to be made known to Watson so that he could respond. I found it hard to believe that a victim of bullying and harassment would not be protected by anonymity, and that my identity would be given to the person who had traumatised me. I did take this step though along with two other brave former students of Professor Watson’s.
Four others (one former student, three former staff members) also complained to UQ and Professor Melissa Brown about misconduct by Professor Watson but did not allow their names to be given to Professor Watson. They were genuinely afraid for their jobs and themselves. UQ has heard these individuals' concerns, but chose not to consider their complaints because they did not tick the procedural box of allowing their names to be made known to Professor Watson. This is an example of how UQ’s procedures protect the bully.
On the 6th of March 2020 UQ informed me that they would launch a formal investigation into Professor Watson’s misconduct run by their Integrity and Investigations Unit (UQ IIU).
This investigation involved an interview in April, where I described the incidents I suffered and witnessed. I also provided this information in writing with all the evidence I could to back it up. In August, I was informed by the IIU that the investigation had been completed and a final report was sent to Professor Brown (Dean of the Faculty of Science), who is the decision maker. I did not hear anything from UQ from then on until I followed up much later.
I had numerous issues with UQ’s investigation, many of which I raised with them, and which I will briefly describe here.
UQ was slow to respond to my emails throughout the investigation. It was common for them to take a week to reply and I often had to send them follow up emails to elicit a response. At one point I even told them the bullying was ongoing but this did not seem to speed things up. UQ says that the length of time of the investigation is a reflection of how seriously they took it. I disagree. When you are warned that bullying is ongoing and people are at risk, the urgency of the investigation is a reflection of how seriously you are taking it.
I was told by the IIU that once an investigation report was prepared it would be given to several decision makers who would decide if Professor Watson’s behaviour constituted misconduct and how they should act. They told me that one of the decision makers would likely be the head of the school Professor Watson works in (SEES). I pointed out that the head of SEES directly benefits from Professor Watson’s money and publications so had a clear conflict of interest. I suggested someone in an equivalent position from an unconnected school such as medicine or engineering make the decision instead. I have asked UQ who the decision makers were but they refused to tell me. I have no evidence that it was someone without conflicts of interest.
During the investigation I was concerned that UQ was not doing enough to protect people from victimisation. I decided to write to the leadership team of the Centre for Conservation and Biodiversity Science to inform them that there was an investigation in the hope that they would take measures to protect those involved and help promote a transparent process. UQ decided this was a breach of procedural confidentiality and could compromise the investigation. In retrospect, I am still glad I wrote to the CBCS leadership team because they did help create a safer environment that UQ was otherwise failing to do.
Because of my email, UQ started to monitor any emails I sent to UQ email addresses. They did not tell me this, I found out because my emails to UQ colleagues were being delayed in reaching their inboxes by 24 hours or in some cases longer. At first, I couldn’t believe UQ would do something like this, but when I finally thought to ask, they confirmed that yes, they were inspecting every email I sent to a UQ address. I do not know how long this went on for.
This email monitoring is a good example of how UQ made me feel like the villain during this process.
At one point in the investigation several people mentioned that they had been contacted by Professor Watson for what seemed like genuine work meetings. They said during the meetings he brought up the fact that a journalist was looking into him and asked them if they were speaking to the journalist or providing information. This effectively intimidated those people into not contributing to any investigation, including UQ’s.
I told UQ I was worried this behaviour was compromising the investigation and asked them to do something. They said they needed proof, which I did not have. I asked them if they chose to monitor Professor Watson’s emails in light of this information but they refused to answer.
As mentioned above, UQ did not correspond with me after the investigation report was given to Professor Brown. After sending numerous emails requesting details on the outcome and steps UQ was taking to make people safe, I finally received an outcome letter from Professor Brown stating that UQ had taken this seriously and an outcome had been reached. UQ’s investigation found that some of the allegations were substantiated, and some sort of action taken, but that due to a confidentiality clause embedded in the UQ Enterprise Agreement, I would not be given any information regarding what allegations were substantiated or unsubstantiated, and how the concerns were acted upon.
Importantly, Professor Brown did state that she takes responsibility for Professor Watson’s actions in future.
I requested a copy of the investigation report through the Right to Information (RTI) Act on August 11 2020. UQ refused to give this to me, despite having told me at the beginning of the investigation that I would be able to access all the material (and so would Professor Watson). The knowledge that everything we said could be shared was daunting and made it harder for people to come forward and complain or speak as witnesses openly. I did not know at the time that UQ’s misconduct proceedings under the Staff Enterprise Agreement required confidentiality so UQ would never be able to share this information anyway.
UQ processed my RTI request slowly and asked for extensions, eventually they rejected my application stating they didn’t have time and resources to process the request. I asked Professor Brown to personally make sure resources were available since UQ was taking this complaint so seriously. Nothing came of this.
I then complained about the RTI process to the Queensland Government who asked UQ to review it. After another wait, on the 11 of December UQ told me that they realised they have a legal problem, and that the UQ Staff Enterprise Agreement trumped the RTI act, so they would have to keep the report confidential. I figured this would be the case from quite early on but was surprised it took UQ four months to work this out and tell me. The cynic in me might think this delay was purposeful, but if not, it shows how inefficient and inadequate UQ’s internal processes are.
According to UQ’s HR team, the only clause in the Enterprise Agreement that demands this confidentiality is the misconduct clause. If UQ decided to pursue the complaints as a staff performance issue (which it could be viewed as), then they could circumvent the need for confidentiality. It seems to me UQ is not short of options and if they want to keep it quiet, they can, and equally if they wanted to share the report with me, they could.
Professor Melissa Brown did go as far as telling me in writing that some of the allegations against professor Watson, but not all, were substantiated. She assured me that she has taken steps to stop Professor Watson bullying again, but did not disclose what they were, so I cannot be certain they are sufficient. Professor Brown said she was confident there would be no repeat of the bullying. I therefore hold Professor Brown accountable for any further incidents involving Professor Watson.
My final correspondence with Professor Brown at UQ was in late November/ early December 2020 where I said that all I needed to step away from the complaint was:
1. Evidence that UQ’s investigation was comprehensive, free of conflicts of interest, and of the highest integrity. This could be done by sharing the investigation report and letting me know who the decision makers were.
2. A guarantee that current and future staff and students at UQ are safe. This could be done by making a public statement about the outcome of the investigation and what actions UQ has taken to improve safety.
3. A guarantee that complainants and their reputations are safe. This could be done by letting us know which allegations were substantiated, if any were disproved (this is important), or if there just wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate every allegation.
UQ provided me with none of this so I believe the outcome is unsatisfactory. It is not in line with the QLD government recommendations on complaint handling, or with natural justice, which UQ’s complaint procedures are meant to follow. I am not convinced UQ investigated properly or did enough to ensure no one is subjected to bullying like I was again.
UQ replied with a letter from the PROVOST, Professor Aiden Byrne, which essentially said that UQ was happy with their investigation and that is all that matters. They did not need to satisfy my concern that staff and students were unsafe or convince me the investigation was sound. This was their last word on the matter.
One complainant who is still a staff member at UQ followed up and informed Professor Brown and the PROVOST that they still felt personally unsafe despite UQ’s investigation and actions. This demonstrates the problem with the system. When the powers that be believe they have acted sufficiently but their staff still feel unsafe then there is clearly an issue with the procedures that UQ needs to address.
I am disappointed with how UQ handled this complaint, which is why I am going public to set the record straight. This is where we currently stand.
I must express my respect for the other people who complained. Many are in more vulnerable positions than I am. Some risk seeing Professor Watson day-to-day, some have jobs that still directly depend on him so risked their careers. For them to come forward and air concerns either anonymously or on the record is incredibly brave. It demonstrates just how seriously they viewed his misconduct and value a safer bullying free academia. Thank you.
I must also express my thanks and gratitude to everyone who supported me during the complaint process and the bullying. You know who you were and how much your actions mean to me. I will never forget that. This whole process has shown me the best and worst in humanity.
I must finish by encouraging anyone else who has been bullied in academia to come forward. It is daunting, but you have more support than you think. Bullies give a perception of power but no individual is as powerful as we think either. I encourage you to report further or past incidents – it is never too late to come forward – to the authorities at your institution immediately and to make your complaint public so it is not swept under the rug. Until universities improve their procedures this is a sad necessity.
My story is emblematic of Academia’s bigger bullying issue. Institutions refuse to release information on their investigations and withhold the findings. This secrecy demonstrates the hurdles scientists face in combatting bullying. Academic institutions need to review and overhaul their complaints procedures. I urge UQ to formally look into this.
It fills me with incredible sadness to have had to write such a letter and I must reiterate that I have done so only in the interests of former, current, and future staff and student safety. I hope that this is my last involvement in this issue.
I hope some good comes out of it.
Dr James Allan