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The Courageous Scientists Podcast is a short-term passion project by Kate Clancy, anthropology professor, trouble-maker, and host of Period Podcast. Hear interviews with inspiring scientists who stand in their values, serve as role models, and do hard things. Remember that while some of us can do work right now, others of us are having to put it down or change direction for a time, or focus on the care of others. This is all good and important work. Music selection by Janice Collins (Ambient Technology by Alexei Anisimov), and header and icon by Carrie Templeton.

Jun 5, 2020

Dr. Jennifer Freyd is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, as well as the Founder and President of a new non-profit, the Center for Institutional Courage. Dr. Freyd spoke with me about her journey from studying cognitive psychology to institutional betrayal, to institutional courage, as well as the ways she has had to show personal courage along her scholarly path. Though we don't discuss it in this episode Dr. Freyd is also fighting for pay equity at her institution via a major lawsuit.


Dr. Kate Clancy (Intro): Hello and welcome to the Courageous Scientists Podcast. My name is Kate Clancy and as you probably know from previous episodes this is a short, global pandemic passion project just to, I don’t know, shine a little light into our days and get to know some really amazing courageous people.

I am so excited by who I am getting to talk to today, one of my personal heroes, this is Dr. Jennifer Freyd. She is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, she is a visiting scholar at Stanford and Jennifer is the founder and president of Center for Institutional Courage. So that should just give you the beginnings of the idea of why I am so excited to talk to Dr. Freyd. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Dr. Jennifer Freyd: It’s my pleasure to be here.

Clancy: So, as you know, since we talked about this before I started recording, I am going to be asking you the same three questions we ask everybody. So would you mind just starting with the first one: what brought you to science?

Freyd: Well, you know I was an undergraduate in the late 1970s and I kept switching my major because I kept having new passions from fine arts to philosophy, ending up with anthropology. And near the end of my time in college I, on a lark, took an introductory psychology course and what inspired me to do that was one day walking through the library and seeing somebody’s textbook open with a diagram of the ear, explaining how hearing worked and perception and I thought it was so neat to understand perception. So I took this introductory psychology course and I fell in love with what was then called cognitive psychology: the study of thinking, memory, perception and decided that’s what I just had to do. It was really truly just falling in love.

And so I just managed to get myself into graduate school despite not having a psychology major and I went to Stanford and I pursued cognitive psychology with great enthusiasm for really about ten years.

Clancy: And since then you’ve had certainly a bit of a shift away from cognitive psychology. Do you want to say all what’s motivated that shift.

Freyd: I think it kind of relates to your second question about courage because the shift required a lot of courage. I was in my early 30s, had mad something of a good name for myself in the field of cognitive psychology. Had tenure, was doing work that truly interested me that other people were building upon as well and in the area that I called Dynamic Representations’…had to do with perception and memory and around that time, two things happened. One was that there was a public increased interest in… what had been called different things but basically memories recovered of prior trauma so, especially prior sexual trauma and there were newspaper stories about it and it was touching to me personally in various ways as well and I realized, there are also memory psychologists. I knew a lot, but I had never really learned about this kind of striking phenomenon.

And so I decided it was really important to understand and I delved into it, I learned a lot about sexual violence and hit the history of research on memory and trauma in general and for sexual violence and decided to start doing some research on this topic. And it was met with great consternation from my colleagues.

Nobody was talking about sexual violence in academic psychology and I remember giving a colloquium starting out with some data, from other people, I hadn’t at that point collected my own data and about the rates. And it was like I had gotten up on a table and did something incredibly inappropriate because people were… some people were like scratching at their faces. It was really hard to describe and this was 1991 that that happened and, it would have been easy for me to have sort of retreated at that moment realizing that people did not like what I was doing, but for whatever reason, I’m just not made that way and if anything it kind of fueled my determination to study this topic and I developed a theory that it became called ‘Betrayal Trauma Theory,’ given kind of rapidly, and presented it in the summer of 1991 at a conference at UCSF’s (University of California, San Francisco) Medical School and really, at that point, shifted to more and more research on the psychology of sexual violence and trauma.

Clancy: And so, as you said your sort of answer to that question was also starting to answer the second question of, ‘How have you shown courage in science?’

Can you share a little bit more about when you made that pivot and when you encountered obstacles… what that was like for you and how you persevered?

Freyd: Yeah, I mean I’ve thought about it since you sent those questions and, there’s probably lots of different stories I could tell, but maybe one of the important moments there was, first of all just not giving up when my colleagues reacted with such unhappiness at my shift in interest and part of the message that came to me was this wasn’t an important topic and it probably wasn’t real and the data probably weren’t real and it was like a… it was not only inappropriate but, scientifically insignificant. And I knew, because I had read a lot of papers by then, that although there wasn’t a tone of research there was tons of research to say it was real. And I couldn’t imagine how it couldn’t be important.

So, you know, I stuck with it. But within a couple of years, I found myself the target of a national organization that went after me. And this was extreme, this was a lot more than like colleagues in my department being realty bad and stuff, this was actual overt attack. And unfortunately for me, it involved my parents and they, and a lot of other people, really focused on discrediting me. And people in the media in the media like often, inadvertently I hope, broadcasted that message. It was humiliating and horrible.

It took me some years, before I could speak at all in a public way about my suggestions, but it didn’t stop me from doing research. I just kept my head down and I did the research. In 1993, some more than two or three years into this, two years into this, I did speak out about the situation and why it wasn’t okay and I did that mostly because I was realizing it was impacting a lot of other people. Looking back, I don’t know how I had the courage to do that. I really don’t I certainly had the support of people close to me. I had an incredibly supportive partner and, at that point wonderful young children and very good friends, but very little support otherwise. I think it was just understanding that this was so important and some intuitive understanding that the backlash I was experiencing was part of the phenomenon and part of why I could not succumb to that pressure.

That went on for years in the 90s and it started to subside near the end of the 90s and now I can, this is interesting to me, now students don’t know anything about that. My name was in so much popular media for a while there everybody knew about it but it just, sort of, shows how, with time, that certain things get forgotten and, to my relief, people don’t necessarily know about that but I think it’s important to, you know to say that scientists can get under a lot of personal attack for their work they’re doing and, in my case, intellectual work was put in personal terms, which I think was part of the point in discrediting me.

So that was an extreme experience. Flash forward twenty years to 2014-ish, there was another, sort of, experience I had. I was doing research, by then my lab had been really going strong for twenty years. Developed Betrayal Trauma Theory where we were starting to study what we call ‘Institutional Betrayal’ and we had tons of data and by that time the country had really come around in talking about sexual violence in a big way. College Sexual Assault was now a topic. I was getting called from the press and the college really had turned around in a lot of ways. A big scandal hit my school involving an alleged gang rape involving athletes and there were protests, I was involved in various ways and the university administration asked me what they should do to handle the campus crisis and I said they should do what some people sometimes call a campus climate study, a survey of victimization rates which had not been done really in a big way at the school. At first they seemed to really want to support that but the when they looked at the survey, they really decided that no they were not going to support that and I think part of the thing that was going on too is I was openly critical in some ways of the university’s response and had even filed a report with the Department of Education on a suspected Clery Act violation. So you know I stuck my neck at them but I was proposing for really sound research that would really help the university and when they said no, they wouldn’t support or help this campus wide survey, I, somehow with my lab, figured out how to do it anyway. We got alternative funding and within a couple month’s we had done a big survey and it ended up being a really big contributor, in a good way, to the university but it took a lot of courage to do that when the administration seemed so clearly to be unhappy and had even said to the local press demeaning things about me as a researcher.

Currently, I have put a huge amount of energy into creating a new non-profit, it’s called the Center for Institutional Courage. This has taken courage for me because of just who I am. I am an introverted person. I’m very comfortable in a laboratory, being a professor and I had to get out of that comfort zone to do this because founding a running a nonprofit involves all sorts of different skills. It really is probably a better thing for an extrovert than an introvert but I feel really strongly that the world needs exactly what I’m trying to create which is a research and dissemination organization to look at institutional courage which is kind of the antidote of institutional betrayal.

Clancy: You know as a… as someone who does some work in this area and has been following in your footsteps for a very long time, it has been wonderful to see the center taking shape and I’m really excited about what it continues to do.

Freyd: Thank you.

Clancy: You’re welcome. I do have one last question: what do you want other people to know about what it means to be a courageous scientist?

Freyd: A big part of this is being honest with yourself and what your values are and living your values. And each person’s values are going to be different so it’s going to look different for different people but I think we tend to be not courageous when we’re not living true to our own values. So for me, it’s really taking the time to think about what I really care the most about and prioritize and then say, ‘Is my living consistent with those values?’ and if I’m not, then adjusting what I am doing. And I think courage gets involved because, often, it’s easier to go along with what everybody else expects and go along with the status quo and when you detect that your own values are at odds with what you’re doing, it takes courage to change. People will resist it most likely. To me that’s what it takes whether it’s science or life.

Clancy: I could not agree more. Any last thoughts or final words for our listeners?

Freyd: I guess, you know, I can’t help but see in the response to the current pandemic all the themes that I’ve been looking at over the past 30 years showing up in various dramatic ways to the extent that the pandemic may impact people’s vulnerability to sexual violence and then you need to show institutional courage to protect people, for instance, who are ordered to be at home with abusers, to the response to the pandemic itself coming from various leaders whether those leaders create institutional betrayal through their inaction and dishonesty or whether they show institutional courage through their honesty and courageous moves. I just think it’s so right in front of our eyes right now and it just brings me back to why I think it’s so important to have a research center focusing on issues of institutional betrayal and institutional courage.

Clancy: I was just having a conversation recently with folks about the fact that a lot of the university’s did at least some communicating in the early weeks of the pandemic and a lot have fallen silent now as we’re are all reckoning with how long term this is going to be and I know a lot of universities are reckoning with the fact that they are losing tens, if not, hundreds of millions of dollars because of what’s happening, but they aren’t necessarily talking to their people about it. But they’re not necessarily talking to their people about it. 

Freyd: I agree with you.

Clancy: That’s concerning.

Freyd: Yeah the lack of transparency is a hallmark of institutional betrayal and when I say, for instance, if the university is asking faculty to agree to pay-cuts without telling the faculty what the budget situation is… that seems very problematic to me because you don’t, where’s the accountability? What is being funded and what is not being funded? So I agree with you completely. It’s really important that universities stay open with their information right now to make sure that we really come out of this in a healthy way.

Clancy: Right, especially in times like this right? Times of crisis or when we have to double down on, like you said thinking through our values and staying true to them rather than acting in fear.

Freyd: Right.

Clancy: Well I guess, fingers crossed that our various universities figure that out. (Laughs)

Freyd: Yes.

Clancy: Well thank you so much for joining me. This was just wonderful, as it always is when I get to talk to you so thank you so much.

Freyd: Thank you Kate, so great to talk to you.

Clancy (Outro): Yeah and thank you everyone for joining me for the courageous scientist podcast. If you want to learn more and visit the show notes to learn more about Dr. Freyd’s work, it’s at, you do not need to visit a Patreon or help fund this podcast in any way. All you have to do is try to give some money to your foodbank so thank you so much and have a great day.