Abuse of Power - a structural problem

The specifics of universities and their inherent hierarchies are conducive to abuse of power.

Dear colleagues from the academic staff,

There have been various articles in the press recently on the subject of abuse of power in academia. The discussion has gained particular momentum as a result of the solidarity rally "Professors against abuse of power at universities". The article, which was signed by individual professors from all over Germany, including two professors from the University of Bonn, and it points out, for example, that the structures of the German academic system are an invitation to abuse power.

© Colourbox 54342772
Eine Wissenschaftlerin und ein Wissenschaftler arbeiten hinter einer Glasfassade und mischen Chemikalien mit Großgeräten.
© H. Röhrig

Examples of abuse of power cited there include the "...unjustified transfer of tasks that are actually professorial tasks to employees, their systematic overloading with work, the arbitrary exercise of professorial decision-making power (e.g. over travel and project funds), the appropriation of employees' intellectual property, sexual harassment, coercion and the like. Very few incidents are reported and only in exceptional cases can those affected be helped" (translated from the original text in German, see: Professor*innen gegen Machtmissbrauch an Universitäten, in: Zeitgeschichte-online, April 26, 2023).

We as the Academic Staff Council (PRwiss) can only confirm this assessment, and we could certainly add other forms of misconduct by professorial supervisors to this list. We are also regularly confronted with abuse of power at the University of Bonn and Bonn University Hospital. Unfortunately, however, we have to realise that only in a few cases has it been possible to help the employees concerned beyond extensive counselling. The reasons for this helplessness on the part of staff representatives very often lie in the overpowering position of professors (cult of personality, a position that is difficult to challenge under civil service law and a frequently incorrect understanding of the right to freedom in research and teaching). Other favourable structural factors at universities are the precarious employment conditions of academic staff, often coupled with a dependency on professors with regard to one's academic career (theses, doctorates). To make matters worse, professors are often well networked in their subject area, which makes it possible to exert far-reaching and possibly destructive influence on the further career development of academic staff beyond the university boundaries.

However, the issue of abuse of power in academia has now reached the public eye and universities have responded, including the University of Bonn. In a declaration of commitment issued by North Rhine-Westphalia's universities in September 2023 on dealing with abuse of power, the state's university managements emphasise their duty of care as employers and providers of education, and to face up to the challenge of countering abuse of power.

In the future, the PRwiss will measure the University of Bonn and the University Hospital against this declaration of commitment and report cases of abuse of power to the university management in order to counter the abuse of power through joint efforts.

For you as an academic employee, this means that you can contact us at any time and seek a confidential consultation with us if you are a victim of abuse of power or have knowledge of such misconduct by supervisors.

For initial contact, you can approach our office, the staff council members under "Consultation, Help, and Contact", or any other member of the PRwiss.

Your colleagues from the
PRwiss team

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