Academic dissidents: be prepared for reprisals — and more

Academics who dissent from orthodoxies or who challenge powerful groups need to be prepared for the tactics used against them.

When Ivor van Heerden worked as a hurricane researcher at Louisiana State University, he was good at predicting hurricane impacts. But he may not have anticipated all the methods his detractors would use.

During and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, van Heerden presented his views forcefully to the media. In particular, he blamed the collapse of the levees on the Army Corps of Engineers. Top figures at LSU were not pleased, and tried to gag him and then to dismiss him.

Because his views were unwelcome, he was a target for reprisals. Is there any way he could have known what was likely to come next?

Ivor van Heerden

When you speak out and offend those with power, you’re at risk of adverse actions. This is true for anyone, including academics. Scholarly dissent is supposed to be protected by academic freedom, and sometimes it is, but in too many cases it is not, as shown in numerous case studies in Australia, the US and elsewhere.

Suppression of dissent

There is a regular pattern in cases of academic dissent. A scholar does something threatening to others, for example criticising scientific orthodoxy, doing research that threatens groups with vested interests, or teaching in an unconventional way. The most common trigger for suppression of dissent is challenging senior management within one’s own institution.

Then come reprisals, for example ostracism, damaging rumours, reprimands, censorship and dismissal. Sometimes the reprisals are subtle and hard to prove. Petty harassment can involve delays in processing forms, inconvenient teaching times, failure to be notified of meetings, and denial of requests for funding or leave.

The question is what to do. Sometimes it’s better to leave or to put up with the bad treatment. However, if you want to resist, what’s the best strategy? To better understand options, it’s useful to look at what happens with other sorts of injustices.

Outrage management techniques

When powerful individuals or groups do something that might be perceived as unfair, there is a risk of triggering public outrage. To reduce this outrage, powerful perpetrators regularly use five sorts of methods: (1) cover up the action; (2) devalue the target; (3) reinterpret the events by lying, minimizing, blaming, and framing; (4) use official channels that give only an appearance of justice; and (5) intimidate or reward people involved.

For a stark example, consider torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. (1) The prison guards and the US government hid the torture. (2) The tortured prisoners were called criminals or terrorists. (3) The torture was labeled “abuse.” Prison guards were blamed, with no responsibility taken by senior US officials. (4) Legal action against prison guards involved took many months, led to limited penalties, and allowed higher level officials to avoid responsibility. (5) Whistleblowers suffered reprisals.

Abu Ghraib was the exception, in that the exposure of graphic photos forced the US government to respond. In other torture centers around the world, cover-up and official denials prevent information getting out and limit public awareness and concern.

It may seem a large jump from torture to suppression of academic dissent. The commonality lies in the methods of outrage management. The same five methods of reducing outrage are found in a wide range of injustices, including sexual harassment, bullying, police beatings, massacres and genocide.

This means that when administrators take reprisals against academic dissent, with the risk of generating outrage from their actions, it is predictable that they will cover up their actions, devalue the dissident academic, provide plausible-sounding explanations for their actions, rely on formal processes to give credibility, and use threats and promises to thwart critics. In some cases, only one or a few of these techniques are used; in others, all of them are involved.

Techniques used against van Heerden

In July 2011, the AAUP issued a report on the van Heerden case. The report documents the intent of LSU officials to gag and eliminate him, because his public statements threatened their aim of gaining funds from the Army Corps of Engineers. The AAUP report provides evidence of all five types of techniques. (See also  van Heerden and Mike Bryan’s 2006 book The Storm.)

When the dean made the decision not to reappoint van Heerden, he did not give any reasons. Similarly, no reason was given for removing him as deputy director of the Hurricane Center. This was a type of cover-up. If reasons had been given, they could have been countered.

To devalue van Heerden, LSU officials emphasised that he had no credentials in civil engineering (relevant to design of the levees). In 2006 and 2007, van Heerden’s supporters asked the Chancellor to endorse their nomination of van Heerden for the 2007 National Wetlands Award. The Chancellor received advice from the Vice Chancellor, who wrote, “We would not want this award to justify his potentially misguided view of science/service.” (p. 10 of the AAUP report). By preventing the nomination, they denied van Heerden the possibility of significant validation of his contribution. Meanwhile, “a concerted media campaign arose defending the Corps of Engineers and attacking its critics, notably Professor van Heerden, in the New Orleans press” (p. 11). What seemed to be letters from members of the public were traced to “government computers inside the Corps offices in New Orleans.”

Van Heerden’s ouster was enabled by a reinterpretation of his job description. He had been employed for over a decade as an associate professor–research. His supervisor insisted that, “The formal job description is 100 percent research” (p. 11). This claim helped justify dismissing him on the grounds of not publishing enough papers in scholarly journals. Actually, van Heerden’s job description did not specify 100% research.

To challenge the decisions made against him, van Heerden appealed to the Faculty Grievance Committee. However, the committee copped out of its responsibility, declining to carry out an investigation. This is an example of the failure of official channels. The Grievance Committee provided the appearance of providing justice, but in practice none was forthcoming.

Van Heerden sued the university over wrongful termination. This provided the administration a pretext not to respond to other initiatives on his behalf. After the AAUP became involved, authorising an investigation, lawyers for LSU said, “the pendency of litigation prevented the administration from cooperating with the investigation” (pp. 13–14). This is an example of how using an official channel — legal action — can stymie other types of action. The administration refused to cooperate with the AAUP’s investigation, another example of cover-up.

When senior academics in van Heerden’s department met to consider his case, the dean was present at the meeting. “His attendance was widely (and unsurprisingly) perceived as intimidating.” (p. 17) More generally, the administration’s actions against van Heerden sent a signal to other academics about the risks of running foul of the administration’s agendas generally, as well as in supporting van Heerden.

These examples give a taste of the many facets of the van Heerden case. They show that the administration used all five types of methods to reduce outrage: cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels and intimidation.

The same patterns are found repeatedly in cases of suppression of academic dissent. The more prominent the case, the more likely it is that the full range of methods will be used. It is wise to be prepared.


Each of the five methods can be countered. The counter to cover-up is exposure. Van Heerden’s supporters publicized his case; thousands of members of the local community signed a petition in his support. When wider audiences become aware of an injustice, some of them may be willing to act.

However, many academic dissidents avoid publicity, out of embarrassment, unfamiliarity with campaigning, or a trust in official channels. Anyone thinking of questioning or challenging orthodoxy should consider taking the issue to wider audiences.

The counter to devaluation is validation. Van Heerden had his impressive record of warnings concerning hurricane preparation and had allies in the university and local community willing to speak on his behalf. Dissidents can collect statements about their good performance and find people with credibility willing to vouch for them. Administrations will go through a dissident’s record, going back many years, searching for some transgression as a means to discredit them. Dissidents need to be prepared.

The counter to reinterpretation is to emphasize the unfairness involved. Van Heerden’s supporters pointed out the administrative contradictions involved in dismissing him: they cut through the false statements by those who wanted to get rid of him.

Dissidents can expect lies, blaming, and framing. Their opponents will try to explain reprisals in all sorts of ways — except as reprisals. Dissidents and their supporters need to be able to counter misleading accounts and insist on the unfairness of targeting a scholar for expressing unwelcome viewpoints.

The alternative to official channels is mobilizing support. Van Heerden’s supporters did this on his behalf. However, he put considerable trust and energy into official channels such as the Faculty Grievance Committee, which took energy away from a mobilization strategy.

Academics often assume that official processes, like grievance committees and courts, are set up to fairly adjudicate issues. Unfortunately, more often they give only an appearance of justice. Typically they are slow, focus on procedures rather than the core issues at stake, and rely on experts such as lawyers. As such, they are perfect for sapping energy from a campaign. Sometimes it is necessary to use formal processes, but relying on them is risky, and usually reduces wider concern about taking action.

The counter to intimidation is resistance. Van Heerden did not give up and walk away quietly: he and his supporters put up a powerful resistance to the administration’s attack.

For some individuals and circumstances, acquiescence is the wisest strategy. But if administrations are to be prevented from exerting too much power, some dissidents need to resist. Those who take their case to wider audiences, expose the injustice and refuse to accept it provide an example to others.

In resisting attacks on dissent, there are no guarantees. Van Heerden and his supporters mounted a major campaign but could not save his career at LSU. Others can learn some lessons from his story, in particular not to put too much trust in official channels.

The wider lesson is to be prepared for the likely tactics taken by administrations or by outside attackers. The methods of cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels and intimidation are predictable. By being prepared to counter each of these methods, dissidents can better defend. It is wise to be prepared for hurricanes — and for reprisals against dissent.

Ivor van Heerden


In early 2013, van Heerden settled his case against LSU, receiving a payout of $435,000. Even considering that his career was destroyed, compared to other dissidents he was one of the lucky ones.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Nicola Marks and Ken Westhues for helpful comments on drafts.

Addicted to the screen?

Behavioural addictions are on the rise. It’s important to understand and be able to change them.

It’s commonplace to see people walking along with their eyes focused on their smartphones. Surveys show that many check their phones the last thing before going to sleep and the first thing when they wake up. And they have them within arm’s reach the whole night.

Some online gamers refuse to take a break, playing for days and nights on end. Playing the game becomes more important than eating or sleeping.

Is it reasonable to refer to obsessions of this sort as addictions? If so, they are addictions to behaviours, not substances.

            For insight into this rising problem, check out Adam Alter’s new book Irresistible. The subtitle explains the topic: Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching. The book is highly readable, though not quite as irresistible as the activities Alter describes.

            To provide a context for understanding behavioural addictions, Alter examines the more familiar sort of addiction, to drugs. The usual idea is that the physical processes involved are the key, including wanting the drug and having withdrawal symptoms. In relation to pain medication, Alter says something more is involved: a psychological component, in particular emotional pain. Alter says addiction “isn’t the body falling in unrequited love with a dangerous drug, but rather the mind learning to associate any substance or behavior with relief from psychological pain.” (p. 89) For example, people who were sexually abused as children may cover up the emotional pain by using drugs.

So what’s involved?

“Behavioral addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections.” (p. 9)

Alter devotes a chapter to each of these six ingredients. One of the fascinating insights is the way designers try to make activities enticing.

Consider poker machines, in which players put in their money in the hope of winning a prize, especially a jackpot. Research shows that near misses provide an incentive to keep playing. Even so, there are fallow periods with no wins during which players are inclined to quit. In the US, gambling establishments are prohibited from manipulating the odds. So instead of the machine giving a little payout just when a player was thinking of quitting, an employee, watching the proceedings, will provide a small gift, such as chocolates. Even this process can be automated, with the machine providing information to the proprietors as to when to offer a gift to a player.

            Gambling addictions involve unpredictable positive feedback, but there is not incremental progress and improvement. For greater behavioural addiction, skill is involved, and skills improve.

Video games are the most common type of behavioural addiction. The most engaging games are very easy to learn, provide pathways for gradual improvement but make it impossible to achieve total mastery: there is always another level of difficulty. Alter interviewed video game designers. Some of them became addicted to their own games, and so did everyone else around them.

            Television producers try to induce viewers to keep watching a serial by using the technique of “unresolved tensions that demand resolution”, more commonly called cliffhangers. Near the end of an episode, some new development – an unexpected phone call, illness or assault – will be provided so viewers will want to tune in to the following episode to find out what happened next, namely to resolve the tension. This technique helps explain the popularity of soap operas and quite a few TV series. However, watching a show once a week is not a big problem. The addictive qualities of cliffhangers become more obvious when entire series are available on demand. Some viewers watch two or more episodes at once, or even binge for several days.

Knowing about the cliffhanger technique, a bit of planning can overcome bingeing on multiple episodes. The key is to end the viewing session after resolution of the tension, maybe 5 or 10 minutes into the next episode, and then start there the next time.

Alter provides numerous tips for overcoming or avoiding addictive behaviours. Email is a common problem: as soon as there’s a notification of an incoming message, it has to be checked or willpower is needed to resist checking it. One solution is to disable notifications. An even stronger technique is to shut down email altogether for most of the day, only opening it for a limited time. Alter counsels against the aspiration of an empty inbox, because this goal encourages obsessive checking of emails.

It’s now possible to buy all sorts of monitors, for example to record your pulse and the number of steps you’ve taken. Setting goals is fine, but Alter warns about making them too precise. When setting yourself the goal of 12,000 steps in a day, there’s a risk of injury by over-exercising. The target goal can overshadow messages from the body about exhaustion or pain. Self-monitoring runs the risk of encouraging addiction.

Who is susceptible?

It used to be thought that drug addicts had weak personalities and that to break an addiction, all that is needed is the assertion of willpower. These views are thrown into question by evidence that the environment makes a huge difference in addictions. Alter refers to the heroin users among US troops in Vietnam during the war. On returning to their home communities in the US, very few maintained their habits. The implication is that changing an addict’s environment is central to change. This includes being around different people and avoiding the triggers for the habit.

With behavioural addictions, environments are changing in ways that make more people susceptible. Video game addiction occurred from the earliest days of gaming. It was often thought that young males were especially vulnerable. But the reason they were more commonly addicted was opportunity. Not having jobs or other responsibilities, and having access to game consoles, they could devote hours to gaming every day.

            Therapists who treat gaming addicts have noticed an explosion in addiction in the US since the arrival of the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010. Suddenly many more women and older men began developing addictions. The reason: access to games has gone mobile. No longer anchored to a console, you carry your device with you. It’s like having drugs on demand, with no cost.

For substance addictions, one treatment option is abstinence. It’s possible to totally avoid alcohol or heroin, and this is the basis of twelve-step programmes, most famously Alcoholics Anonymous. However, treating Internet addictions through abstinence is not feasible, because jobs and other activities so commonly involve operating online. Alter canvasses various ways to deal with Internet addiction. Many of these draw on insights about how to change habits.

The difficulty of changing habits points to a strange discrepancy. Powerful groups seek to promote behaviours, like checking Facebook, that serve their interests, but that can become addictive. There are relatively few groups dedicated to countering these potentially addictive behaviours. Furthermore, there is even less effort put into helping people break damaging habits.

It’s worth thinking broadly about damaging habits and challenges to them. Smoking is the classic example. Tobacco companies benefited from hooking people on smoking and it has taken extraordinary efforts by campaigners to bring tobacco addictions under control. A key part of the change has been to make ever more spaces non-smoking. Another part has been to stigmatise smoking.

Alcoholism remains a scourge on many people’s lives. Alcohol producers so far seem to have avoided many of the controls applied to smoking.

Then there are illegal drugs such as marijuana, heroin and ice. The prohibitionist impulse is a manifest failure, enabling the rise of organised crime with disastrous consequences for users and their families.

With the vast expansion of behavioural addictions, what are the choices? Internet companies benefit from behaviours, like checking phones regularly, that easily become addictive. Because there is relatively little harm to others, there is unlikely to be a movement analogous to the anti-smoking movement. So what are the prospects?

            One source of hope is the availability of apps and devices to control Internet use, for example apps to shut down access after a specified time. But even to use such apps requires a degree of self-awareness. Ultimately, the culture of Internet use needs to change. If checking a phone while talking face-to-face with a friend were seen as extremely discourteous, there is some hope, but only if talking face-to-face remains common. Perhaps things will have to become much worse before major efforts are made to change social expectations.

Imagine that all children learn, at home and in school, the characteristics of addictive behaviour and how to change habits. Imagine people becoming more self-aware of their own damaging or time-wasting habits. Imagine companies becoming more responsible. If you’ve come this far, you have a good imagination and maybe you’re just dreaming.

Adam Alter

Brian Martin