The need to address academic bullying

In my 38 years of management in higher education – in roles from Department Head and Faculty Dean to President/Principal – one of the most difficult tasks has been to confront those few people who were bullies and who were targeting more vulnerable or less powerful colleagues. Bullying is of course not unique to universities, but it can be particularly difficult to address in the academy, because it can appear to be tied up with academic freedom and intellectual autonomy.

It could be argued that this is connected with a wider problem in universities, in that academic discourse is occasionally conducted in an aggressive tone, because it is thought appropriate to defend intellectual positions in a robust manner. It is not too difficult for robust argument to morph into personal aggression. When this is experienced by someone in a more junior or vulnerable position than that enjoyed by an aggressor it quickly turns into bullying, and moreover can become a pattern rather than an incident.

The journal Nature recently published a commentary by an American professor in which she suggested that personal bullying can be an issue in science laboratories in particular, where postgraduates, postdocs and junior academics can be dependent career-wise on lab supervisors, and thus may not only be subjected to aggressive behaviour but may also find it hard or even impossible to resist or escape from the situation. And of course one would have to ask why they should be expected in the first place to escape in order to experience appropriate working conditions.

It is right to call time on academic cultures that subject people to personal distress. And it is right to emphasise that no amount of academic freedom can justify the mistreatment of colleagues. Each university should have not only a policy on this but also mechanisms to protect the vulnerable, and evidence to show that these mechanisms are taken seriously and work.

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8 Comments on “The need to address academic bullying”

  1. Vince Says:

    The worst I see was the woman-Lindsay Shepherd- in the Canadian uni who was exploring gender fluidity and was brought in to a tribunal and was outright lied to by her superiors and the university.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    Academic bullying is not about a particular space (the lab, or the art studio) it is about power, more specifically about the power dynamics at play in the ‘space’ of academia, also it is not the prerogative of a single gender (see the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_bee_syndrome), although the vast majority of offenders are (white) males. The last paragraph in the quoted Nature journal suggests some useful correctives, what I would add is that bullying thrives in those kind of environments where inequality thrives and academia is not immune from the race/class and gender inequalities which circulate in the culture it is an expression of. However, since universities are first and foremost ‘institutions of learning’ they have a moral duty to set an example especially when it comes to (dis)honorable behaviour among their communities, they need to re-discover that valuing individuals is not exclusively about the amount of grant money generated (a factor which bullies masterly exploit) but about the sound principles which should guide our academic practice.

    • jeffollerton Says:

      The suggestion that “the vast majority of offenders are (white) males” is a very Western-centric statement. It implies that bullying does not go on at universities in China, India, Africa, and other parts of the world where the majority of staff are not “white”. Bullying is a global issue, not restricted to academia, as already said, but also certainly not restricted to the West.

    • Wendy Says:

      Agreed – that power dynamic is present everywhere in academia, not just in laboratories. Managers in academic and academic-related units have a considerable amount of power and autonomy, and in my direct experience (which ended in 2004) senior university managements are extremely reluctant to intervene in any way. In my role as a union representative, I was part of a team which represented six people who had overwhelming evidence of bullying leading to, in some cases, ill-health or a decision to quit their employment without a job to go to – and the grievance was dismissed as merely a “robust management style”.

      In my own case, what made it seem impossible for me to challenge my bully was (apart from the gaslighting which ultmately made me doubt my own competence) was both the refusal of my male colleagues to admit to what they were seeing – for example, after one meeting where the bully shouted at me for close to ten minutes and not one of them had tried to stop him, not a single one even asked if I was all right, and all denied later that they had not seen any bullying; and the almost complete autonomy this professor had to run his department as he saw fit with no interference from the centre.

      When I finally told the head of HR, a year before I resigned, that I had been bullied for the entire period of my employment, she said absolutely nothing, continuing the main conversation as if I hadn’t spoken. Once I did resign, I asked for an exit interview with the VC and told her exactly what had been going on. While she appeared to be appalled at the incidents I detailed (and I provided some written evidence), the only circumstance under which she was actually prepared to take action would have been if I was willing to go on the record. Quite apart from my outright terror of the bully at that point, I hadn’t then decided on my future career path, and academia being such a small world I wasn’t willing to risk my future employment potential.

      It’s going to take a lot more than high-minded intentions to find a solution to academic bullying – and any solution has to include support for the targets of bullying. The psychological impact cannot be over-estimated, as most of the personal accounts as well as wider studies have shown.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        Thanks a lot Wendy for sharing this, you expressed what lies behind the ‘power dynamic’ I alluded to better than everyone who has not experienced it ever could. x


        • Thank you, Wendy and Anna. I am actually considering turning this into a project or campaign, first gathering evidence.

          • Wendy Says:

            I am very glad indeed to hear this. My own experience is very much out of date at this point, but if my input is helpful I am happy to provide it. While this behaviour is not unique to universities, the nature of university structure and the autonomy (leading to unchecked power) of departments and units within that structure – with ‘service’ departments such as HR being viewed as unimportant by many academic managers – means that it’s far harder to achieve any kind of resolution.

            And just a further note on the long-term psychological damage: although I now work in a very supportive environment with an empowering work culture, it took me three or so years to stop the instinctive response of ‘what have I done wrong?’ whenever my manager wanted to talk to me, and much longer to throw off the self-doubt finally – and that only after therapeutic intervention. And I have every reason to believe that I’m far from being unique.

            (Take a look at the Workplace Bullying Institute website. There are stories of academics and recovering academics there also, and the site has helped many – myself included – to recognise that we were not the problem).


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