How “love what you do” went wrong in an ‘academic sweatshop’ in Siberia

Abuse is hidden in many minor details, and that is why it is so difficult to reveal it. It is not one episode or a single crisis, it is many random episodes, a myriad of small crises, numerous violations. Once my colleague mentioned that “it’s very hard to write about what’s happened at SAS in a way that doesn’t make you sound like you’re blowing trivial things out of proportion and not taking responsibility for your own role in it.” Things are not that bad, especially in comparison, and they can be worse, right? Other people earn even less and work more, and at least at SAS you can do research, you can get paid, you can teach what you want. Advocates of the institution continue saying that you work in the most promising and innovative department ever.

The school’s promotional materials – well-made videos and eulogies published in the media – show beautiful pictures of a Google-like building, inspired students, brilliant researchers, and a wise and brave director. So maybe it is your fault that even here you can’t succeed and be happy with what you have? When you try to speak about violations publicly while still being inside the institution, you are bullied: “SAS is fragile, SAS is surrounded by enemies, you don’t want everybody to know that our researchers are not that good, do you? You don’t want the university to cut your salaries, do you?”, this was the essence of the message the director repeated multiple times in emails and faculty meetings. In private, threats become more concrete: one colleague reported to me that the director once threatened to publish his part of the annual report and its critical peer review if he complained about receiving an 80% salary cut. Finally, when you have already left, you just want to let it go. A toxic combination of a desire to forget, anger and powerlessness makes you stay away from everything related to SAS.

This is how abusive institutions work: they make us doubt. At the end of the day, we are not really sure that things are that bad, or that important, or that it was not our fault. We are not sure that it will not be worse if we try to do something. We don’t want to show everybody our weakness. We are no longer sure who we are and what we should stand for. The whole world became uncertain and all distinctions – blurred. “Everything is complicated,” they say. The only thing we can be completely sure about is that we will be under attack, and we will be blamed. Because our society tolerates abuse better than its victims.

Just like love, abuse also has its “good sides”: strong emotions make us feel alive. We believe that we exist when we feel something, and what exactly it is we feel is not so important. Even if, or when, it feels really awful and destructive we still want our lives to be filled with meaning. Both love and hate, pleasure and suffering, give us that impression of living. In the vague and fugitive world, with no big ideologies and foreseeable future, our emotions give us a one and only stable ground. And giving us this ground, they provide fuel for the emergence of abusive love machines, which many contemporary enterprises, public and private, are. So love what you do, hate what you love, and continue doing it.

The old ways of reacting to dissatisfaction with organisations – exit, voice and loyalty – are history. Now you can leave, ignore or transgress – but never fight. These are the three possible ways you can deal with abusive relationships and abusive institutions. Essayist Jonathan Crary uses the metaphor of the “world without shadows” to describe the homogenising force of late capitalism which does not tolerate any differentiation: sacred-profane, carnival-workday, nature-culture, machine-organism. It is difficult to fight in this world where everything changes constantly, but nothing really happens. But maybe attacking a shadow is a good place to start.

Editor’s note: When asked to respond about the description of the School of Advanced Studies as an abusive institution, SAS Director Andrey Shcherbenok wrote via email:

“SAS is a new institution, so some contradictions and fragmentation of policy is inevitable. I think you can imagine starting an institution with 7 BA and 1 MA programs where literally everything – from the format of the course syllabus to scheduling classes procedures (severely complicated by Russian state regulations that do not provide for liberal arts formats) – have to be designed from scratch with 100% newly hired faculty most of whom had little to no experience of academic employment beyond graduate school. Things are getting considerably smoother now as we improve the services, are able to hire more experienced faculty and develop organizational traditions. When you start new processes, it is often bumpy – but it does not mean that someone is abusing someone. I do not believe we would have had so many great people from around the world working with us if such a description of our workplace were accurate.”

Regarding the Academic Council, Andrey Shcherbenok commented that “In 2018 we made an experiment of letting the Academic Council make bonus-prolongation decisions based on the external annual reviews. The AC voted by a secret ballot to have all payments extended, which I did (although I, indeed, had a different opinion).” The Academic Council “was abolished after the new regulations designed by an external commission were approved in the Spring 2019. Right now, we have 5 faculty committees to do shared governance and every SAS faculty participates in one of them.”

Regarding student welfare at SAS, Andrey Shcherbenok responded that SAS “established free psychological counseling for students as early as 2018. In Fall 2019, we hired another, more experienced and expensive psychologist, to counsel our students – free of charge to them. This said, most SAS students do quite well psychologically – you are welcome to read and listen to their impressions of studying at SAS – for example, on Instagram and SAS website.” Several SAS students recently reported that the number of appointments for therapy had been reduced to one per month. When they complained to the administration, the answer they received was: “We are not a hospital”.

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