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How sacked whistle-blower Susanne Täuber’s career fared after she spoke out

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Portrait of Susanne Täuber in front of a university building.

A district court judge ruled on Susanne Täuber’s dismissal on International Women’s Day last year.Credit: Susanne Täuber

I began a position as a gender-equality researcher at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in 2009, achieving tenure in 2015. I was studying factors that undermine the effective implementation of policy into practice. In 2018, after being passed over for promotion, I lodged an official complaint about gender bias. The following year, I argued that the university’s gender-equity policy jarred with my actual experiences at work1.

I was dismissed on 7 October 2022. On 8 March last year — International Women’s Day — a district court judge ruled that my dismissal was justified. The ruling referred to a “permanently disturbed working relationship”, but also stated that the university “played an important, if not a decisive role” in creating it.

My Court of Appeal hearing was in November 2023, and I found out in January that I had lost. For me, the appeal was important in getting clarity, for thousands of academics in the Netherlands, as to whether or not they can safely publish their research, especially if it is critical of their institutions.

Sadly, the verdict provides no closure on the protection of academic freedom. But, because my case drew so much attention at the time — including a sit-in by students and a petition signed by more than 3,600 academics around the world calling for my reinstatement — I can now draw on a global network of colleagues who have gone through similar experiences. A fundraiser organized on my behalf by Stichting Inclusive Action North, a Groningen-based social-justice alliance, was an immense relief. I wish that every person affected by bullying had access to such a financial lifeline.

Raising awareness

I have worked with academics from around the world to conceive of ways to tackle the censorship and related problems that are increasingly faced by academics. I participated in the Academic Freedom Under Attack webinar series last September, organized by higher-education researcher Carlos Azevedo at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK, and critical-management scholar Ronald Hartz at Ilmenau University of Technology, Germany. Hartz was among a group of academics made redundant in 2021 by the University of Leicester, UK. I have also been invited by the Radboud Gender & Diversity Studies and the Radboud Women Professors Network in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, to deliver the keynote speech for International Women’s Day this year. Alongside such public events, I regularly meet with people who have been targets of discrimination, harassment and power abuse in academia, and I try to support others who are going through similar experiences.

Academia is a system that desperately clings onto preserving the power and privilege of a happy few. Since my dismissal, I have not done paid work. I doubt that moving to another European country to seek employment would do the trick. All over Europe, academics face the same problems. The factors that undermine academic freedom are present everywhere: the steep hierarchy and power differentials, the dearth of tenured positions, the structural workload being handed down to precariously employed, underpaid and undervalued academics, the intellectual and labour exploitation of the most-vulnerable academics and the push by universities to silence criticism.

Some movements over the past few years reflect the widespread nature of these problems. The German #IchBinHanna (‘I am Hanna’) movement fought against precarious-employment laws for scientists. The Danish #PleaseDontStealMyWork initiative exposed the intellectual extractivism faced by scholars, especially younger and dependent ones. And the 21 Group in the United Kingdom fights widespread bullying in academia.

The aftermath

At the time of my Court of Appeal hearing, I was recognized as an official whistle-blower by the Dutch Whistleblowers Authority, an independent administrative body based in The Hague. Questions concerning my case have already been raised by members of the Dutch House of Representatives, and I expect more to come. At the hearing, I was given a round of applause by supporters. It made me realize that I feel weirdly liberated by my experiences. What happened to me taught me more about my area of expertise than any amount of books and articles could ever have. My case was also mentioned last month when the European Parliament published its 2023 Academic Freedom Monitor of European Union Member States. The monitor notes “concerns for a potential chilling effect on academics wishing to address issues of management or other controversial issues”.

My advice for others would be to take a long hard look at the academic environment they’re in and to trust their gut feeling. I doubted my experiences and the accounts of other victims for years, always thinking, “it cannot be that bad, it cannot be that biased”. This self-doubt was more taxing than what came after — the crystal-clear realization that this is a rigged system. So, if you can: don’t waste time doubting yourself. Walk away and take your bright mind to a place where it will be valued.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing financial interests.

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