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Public statement on bullying, harassment, and misconduct by Professor James E.M. Watson of the University of Queensland and Wildlife Conservation Society

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  • The University of Amsterdam
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
Dear Sir/Madam,
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 UQs
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 Watsons 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 UQs 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 UQs 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 UQs 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
UQs internal processes are.
According to UQs 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 UQs 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 UQs 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 UQs 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 forwardto 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.
Sincerely,
Dr James Allan
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