Swedish professor lifted from course: gave psychologists to-be “panic anxiety”

Bringing up sensitive themes in order to challenge inherent notions and values in preparation for work as a psychologist seems no longer possible at Lund University. Dr. Johan Grant learned this when he was removed from teaching a course as a result of complaints from several female students who felt offended by the tuition, some reacting with depression and anxiety. In an unusual move, Grant has reported himself for “harrassment or discrimination against students” in order to spark an investigation into the leadership’s handling of the case.

Being a psychologist is a responsible task, which quite naturally assumes that the psychologist him- or herself does not suffer from psychological disorders and trauma, which can negatively affect the treatment of future patients who may be in an acute psychological crisis. Therefore, it has been considered obvious that future psychologists should, as part of their education, challenge their own prejudices and values.

Not so any more, it seems.

One course module, the so-called Externatet, of the program for future psychologists at Lund University, Sweden, centered around the theme “Where is dad?,” which turned out to be more problematic than one might have thought. Several female students perceived the theme as sexist, and a lesbian student viewed it as excluding and “homophobic.” Some even reacted with depression and anxiety attacks, which in one case reportedly “lasted several months.”

After five students protested to the director of undergraduate studies, Dr. Jonas Bjärehed, he concluded that the module “is in conflict with ethical norms and guidelines that apply to activities at Lund University” and that the complaining students could be exempted from the module and receive a supplementary written assignment instead. Regarding which aspects that were supposedly in conflict with the university’s ethical norms and guidelines, Bjärehed told Grant that “it probably had to do with discrimination and harassment.” Bjärehed also emphasized that “kindness is a principle that is important at work.”

Later, Johan Grant was informed by the head of department, Dr. Robert Holmberg, that he was prohibited from teaching the course. Grant has successfully been teaching at the Department of Psychology for eight years but it is now highly unlikely that his contract will be extended.

Johan Grant has commented on the matter in a student magazine. According to him, the course is about challenging three notions that he believes to contradict science: 1) being exposed to difficulties harms people rather than strengthens them, 2) emotions are more rational than reason, and 3) life is a struggle between good people and evil people.

Judging by students’ evaluations, the course is quite popular, but almost every semester someone accuses this particular module of various forms of violations, for triggering or exacerbating mental disorders etc.

–The allegations are almost always based on the fact that the students cannot or do not want to distinguish between their personal experiences and a more objective reality, says Grant.

Grant and his colleagues have therefore considered to make the module voluntary, but made the decision to keep it compulsory module, given the nature of the psychologist profession.

–My assessment is that the course requirements are not too high. On the contrary, I, other teachers and many students, think that the requirements for exposure and self-reflection are too low, Grant states.

He also believes that the rule in Sweden that students may require a new examiner, for instance after having failed an exam, to ensure equal treatment, in practice is used to lower requirements:

–When, on some occasions, I have failed students who show serious shortcomings, in all but one case they have demanded a new examiner. In all these cases, the student has been given an easier assignment and/or a lesser-qualified examiner, Johan Grant explains.

Grant notes that the management’s actions are a violation of freedom of teaching, an essential part of academic freedom. This freedom teaching means, among other things, that a teacher has the right to teach without disruptive intervention. This freedom, unlike freedom of research, is unfortunately not protected by Swedish law, as is the case in many other European countries. It is also protected in international agreements, of which UNESCO’s Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel (1997) is one of most important (see e.g., Article 28). According to this document, Sweden is obliged to do everything to ensure that the principles are fulfilled. Apparently, the Department of Psychology is not aware of this document or, alternatively, its leadership does not care.

–In my case, my employment at Lund University was abruptly terminated without any comprehensible motivation after eight years of serving as an adjunct lecturer, Grant says.

Yet Grant believes that he has found a way to hold the leadership accountable:

– Transparency and open discussion are best for everyone. That is why I have reported myself for abusive discrimination or discrimination against students, Grant maintains.

However, in reporting himself, Johan Grant may have overestimated the management’s ability and willingness to carry out an impartial investigation – but that is for the future to tell.