Sunday, 8 November 2015

Professor Stefan Grimm is not our martyr

I’m a member of the somewhat infamous “crit-geog” JISC academic mailing list. I remain a member primarily for comedy value. It's infamous because over a year it basically does this:
  • Endless CFPs for AAG and RGS-IBG panels, endlessly repeated because “the panel is so popular” with numerous apologies for cross-posting.
  • People asking for journal articles.
  • The responding endless debate about whether this is an abuse of the list, the rights and wrongs of open access publication and the nature of the academic publishing industry.
  • Then a swarm of people asking to be removed from the list (not realising you have to do this yourself as it has no admins).
  • And a good dose of “death of academia”/”woe is me” moaning.

Now, regular readers will know how much I enjoy the latter.

In the latest batch of such navel-gazing someone brought up the horrible case of Professor Stefan Grimm – a lecturer at Imperial College who committed suicide. The email said something like “And it’s literally publish or perish” and then a link to an article about his death.

This is not the first time I’ve seen the tragic death of Prof. Grimm used in this way and as someone who has experienced mental illness I find it deeply troubling. Effectively, this tragic incident is used to argue that some management and audit exercises in modern universities are driving people to their deaths. Effectively, Prof. Grimm is being used as a martyr for attacks by academics on "management" or "administration".

I find it deeply troubling for two reasons. Firstly, using Prof. Grimm's suicide in this way – and indeed most of the reporting (including details of the email he sent to colleagues) – is contrary to advice provided by The Samaritans on how to publicly discuss suicide. I would advise readers to note point 3 of this guidance – avoid “over-simplification”:
“Over-simplification of the causes or perceived ‘triggers’ for a suicide can be misleading and is unlikely to reflect accurately the complexity of suicide.”
[emphasis in the original guidance online]

We cannot ever know what was going on in Prof. Grimm’s head when he tragically took his own life and we should not pretend we do.

Secondly, there is a touch of hypocrisy too this. Many of the people who make use of Prof. Grimm’s suicide in this way will happily vilify Britain First at the drop of a hat when they use the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby to stir up racial hatred. Now, I am in no way justifying what Britain First do. But if we are going to criticise them for using this death as a martyrdom to the emotional hurt of his family, then we should be much more careful what we do ourselves.

So, I implore you. Think of poor Prof. Grimm’s family, friends and colleagues who will still be dealing with grief the next time you use his tragic death to vilify the fact you failed to get a grant, or you’re irked you have to publish four journal articles for the REF. And, please note why The Samaritans have their guidelines – it is to prevent further suicides:
“Remember that there is a risk of copycat behaviour due to ‘over-identification’.”
[emphasis in original]

We should not be even contemplating suicide as a way to escape the pressures of a working environment.


  1. A spot on blog post. I heard the case quoted in a (otherwise excellent) debate on gender in academia the other day & thought 'but that's not the issue here'. Suicide is always a complex, multifaceted decision and to make Prof. Grimm almost a 'poster boy' for the rebellion against poor academic working conditions does a disservice to every element.

  2. Dr Matthews - Thank you for making such important points about suicide. So many of us have way too much experience of mental health issues.
    I found your post after I attended a seminar yesterday by @lizmorrish (of ). I had not even heard of Prof Grimm and his name was only mentioned once, certainly no-one 'made use of' his case. Thus I got to googling.
    Sadly there is, it seems to me, much other evidence to draw upon, without needing to refer to Prof Grimm, relating to the effects of what I will call for shorthand, the problems inherent in the neo-liberal university system.
    May I further observe that while you are concerned with 'oversimplification' I fear you have also oversimplified your own argument by conflating the 'many' who 'make use of' Prof Grimm AND those who 'vilify Britain First' for similar, but not the same, discourses. I wonder if a decent bit of qualitative work would show that the object, ethics and motives of the two groups are generally different. I doubt it would get funded.
    Finally, I note that there is a wikipedia page that you may wish to help with?