Academic decency statement

by Prof. A.W. Peet with assistance from Dr. Ian Jardine.


Background, scope, and intent

The Department of Physics at the University of Toronto is a broad community of scholars bound together by our common interest in the fundamentals of physics and their applications. As a unit, we aim to provide a world-class academic environment for all community members, including undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, instructors, faculty, staff, scientific associates and visitors, and guests.

Academic freedom in research, teaching, and service activities is predicated on a commitment to the highest standards of academic rigour and professional ethics. Building and maintaining a culture of care for other community members is essential to the productivity of our Department (and indeed of any workplace), and it is in this spirit that guidelines on fostering a welcoming and inclusive climate are offered here.

Human behaviour in the workplace is multifaceted, complex, and organic, so trying to write a prescriptive formula for academic decency would be a fool's errand. Instead, the intent of this document is to provide some living guidelines for fostering a more productive and inclusive working environment. It will be updated proactively as suggestions for improvement flow in, as well as reactively in response to events from which we learn how to to do better.

As academic researchers, we express approval of colleagues' work through peer regard. It follows that our most versatile tool for addressing poor behaviour from academic colleagues is peer disapproval. Accordingly, peer disapproval is the primary (social) mechanism of enforcement of principles discussed here. If that mechanism does not suffice to end harmful behaviour, university policies and the Department Chair should be consulted.

Canadian and Ontarian laws and UofT regulations

From Article 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms: Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. Protection for gender identity and gender expression was added to Canadian law in June 2017, after being added to the Ontario Human Rights Code in June 2012.

Prohibited grounds of discrimination of the Ontario Human Rights Code are: race, colour, ancestry, creed (religion), place of origin, ethnic origin, citizenship, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity), sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status, disability, and receipt of public assistance.

Workplace harassment is defined by UofT as: engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome. This includes intimidation, stalking, and photography or video recording without consent. Harassment becomes sexual harassment when it is done because of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression or the person making the sexual solicitation or advance is in a position to confer, grant or deny a benefit or advancement to the worker. For more details, please see the UofT Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment.

Harassment of any form is unwelcome and will not be tolerated, either in this specific research group or more generally across this university.

Academic decency

In any workplace, we are all jointly responsible for each other's safety and wellbeing. The more power we possess relative to another person, the more careful we need to be to hold ourselves to a high standard in professional interactions with them. Here are a few suggestions for ways to foster inclusiveness.

Be decent to your coworkers and your students, consistently. When in doubt, err on the side of generosity and nuance, not meanness and rigid binaries. Treat others humanely, and learn to listen better.

Share your knowledge with less experienced peers, in an open and non-condescending fashion, to help them progress faster through professional milestones. Others did the same for you in the past, and now it is your turn to pay it forward. Do the same for other colleagues if you can.

As academics, we train every day in how to critique ideas, both our own and other people's. We must also be mindful of the value of training in how to boost the confidence of others appropriately. Both skills are essential for effectively supervising others. Do not put down, belittle, or intimidate your students, peers, colleagues, or other meeting participants -- especially those with less seniority or privilege.

Teams always contain people with variegated backgrounds and skills. This can lead to frustration and impatience when skills are mismatched. Such emotions should be vented in an emotionally healthy manner, not on the other person(s). Working towards common goals constructively and helping each other better ourselves in the process is part of professionalism at work.

Making a workplace more inclusive involves doing emotional labour. Everyone is jointly responsible for fairly sharing the emotional labour of inclusion work, just as all members of a research group are jointly responsible for fostering teamwork.

Misunderstandings will occasionally arise even in the best team environments. These can sometimes be lessened or avoided with open and honest communication and use of conflict resolution principles. However, it is also our individual responsibility to be as clear as possible and not force others to guess our message or intent.

Proficiency in fostering academic decency as well as scientific productivity is taken into account when making invitations, and it is something I mention in recommendation letters.

Examples of inappropriate conduct

Physicists tend to like examples when principles are discussed. Here are a few examples of inappropriate conduct. Each is taken from a real life example in a physics department I have worked in during my career.

  1. Sustained disruption of another person's contributions, in a group meeting, research seminar, colloquium, classroom, or conference/workshop presentation. Questions or concerns should be intellectually genuine, and not self-serving or discriminatory.
  2. Devaluation of any member of the Department (including me) or our physics contributions based on aspects of our identity.
  3. Physical touch without active prior consent. For instance: before shaking someone's hand, stop, and ask May I shake your hand?. Wait for their answer, then respect their wishes. Folks with different neurologies have markedly different touch needs, and you should respect them.
  4. Jokes or comments at the expense of any identity type listed above, in verbal or visual format. e.g.:-
  5. Shark-like manoeuvring intended to exclude peers or other colleagues from professional opportunities. Have some humility, and recognize that sharking only serves to sow resentment and distrust, which disrupts collaboration and teamwork. Strive to include others whenever reasonably possible, and avoid being a selfish jerk.

What should I do if something happens?

If a violation of the above general principles arises from another person in my group, please report it to me. I prefer to receive such reports verbally and in person, because that mode offers the most confidentiality. However, I am open to receiving reports via other channels from people who cannot (for whatever reason) access the verbal in-person channel. If you believe that I am the one behaving in a harmful way and you feel uncomfortable starting a conversation about it with me, please seek assistance with the Physics Graduate Office (PhD students) or the Chair's Office (everyone).

Additional information for my PhD students and postdocs

Appendix: some terminology

There are many ways to frame discussions around the nexus between academic productivity and inclusion. Below are some of the key concepts we use in local discussions of these matters.

Academic inclusion hinges on recognizing the value of pluralism. Pluralism has three fundamental facets:-

We can imagine human identity as like a multi-dimensional space, where the axes correspond to the various aspects of our identity. Different aspects of our identities interact, generically with couplings of order one. Accordingly, trying to treat them like ideal gases or with perturbation theory fails, hard. Intersectional approaches provide better approximations to the truth.

One of the key insights of modern approaches to inclusion is the importance of listening conscientiously to folks with lived experience of discrimination. For example: is not necessary for men to try on sexism for a short period to certify that sexism exists -- it is enough that women (and people perceived as women) say that it does.

Discrimination is a multi-level beast: it happens institutionally, ideologically, and interpersonally. Do not make the unsophisticated mistake of believing that the interpersonal kind of discrimination is all there is. Structural discrimination is much more pernicious.

Privilege is the word for when your identity along a particular axis is centred in everyday life. In other words, you do not have to worry about discrimination along that axis just to get through your day. It constitutes a massive structural advantage, even before individual behaviour is taken into account.

Marginalization can occur via major aggressions of O(1). It can also occur via microaggressions, small effects of O(ε). The thing about any problem of O(ε) is that if you integrate it for a time of O(1/ε), you end up with something of O(1). This is why microaggressions routinely build up to create major drags on quality of life. In academia, many early career researchers end up forced out of the profession via this route.

Other important concepts to know about in the academic context include impostor syndrome, stereotype threat, and implicit bias.

Thank you for your conscientiousness in reading this page to the end. -- AWP