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.