Posted tagged ‘bullying’

Bullying in universities

February 19, 2019

Most universities make a genuine effort to maintain a culture and atmosphere in which people – students and staff – can thrive and in which intellectual debate and challenge is encouraged in a setting of personal respect. Most students, staff and faculty also do their utmost to maintain this culture. But a few don’t, and so in some institutions there may be individual cases of bullying, and sometimes a more widespread problem. In a small number of universities there may even be a pattern of people feeling that they need to leave in order to escape from an oppressive atmosphere. Sometimes this atmosphere may be either tolerated or even promoted by people in positions of authority.

In order to get a better sense of people’s experiences with this problem, I have invited anyone affected to contact me in confidence, to allow me to analyse the problem and to see how those in authority can correct it where it is in evidence. I published the invitation on Twitter, and within hours I had received numerous messages and individual stories. I will be renewing the invitation this week in order to get as big a sample as possible.

What have I detected so far? First, institutional culture is definitely a factor. A significant number of those contacting me are attached to a small number of institutions, in which many people appear to have been victims, not of the same bully, but of several in different parts of the organisation, including some at or near the top. These are institutions that will need to look very closely at their values and how these are maintained in practice, and how the institutions are led. There are also cases of powerful individuals who, moving through different stages of their professional lives, leave a trail of bullying behind them, with others reluctant to stop them for fear of becoming targets.

This also leads me to another feature of bullying where it exists: the inactive bystander. In most cases other people in the organisation are fully aware of what a bully is doing, but do nothing (or not enough) to stop them.

Finally, external pressures on universities are clearly sometimes contributing factors to behaviours that can be classified as bullying, and higher education may need to be reviewed with a view to ascertaining whether excessive or inappropriate pressures are creating unnecessary human misery.

It is worth stressing again that this is not a problem everywhere, and that many institutions make a real effort to provide a supportive and effective framework, for students and for staff. But this makes it all the more important that the academy as a whole is seen to offer a good place to study and work.

It is my intention to write a more detailed report on what I am finding in due course, protecting the identity of those who have provided me with their stories. My intention is not to shame institutions, but to encourage much better practices where these are called for.

I can be contacted, in total confidence, at the email address you can find on this page.


The need to address academic bullying

September 4, 2018

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.

Standing up to bullies

April 25, 2011

One of the priorities for every civilised society is to prevent abuse of power in interpersonal relations. One of the most common types of abuse is bullying, which can occur in a huge variety of situations and contexts and which can have horrific consequences for the victims. Every so often the pressures created by bullying get too much. An unfortunately not unique example of this was the recent death of 13 year-old schoolboy Brendon Flynn in England, who had been the victim of serious bullying to the point where he was scared to leave the house.

All of this is only too familiar across many countries. It is a particular issue in schools. One American expert describes it like this:

‘Each day hundreds of thousands of children dread going to school and facing the taunts, jeers, and humiliation wrought by bullies. When we think of bullying, the easily identifiable physical and verbal harassment comes to mind, including teasing, taunting, threatening, and hitting. Relational bullying is more difficult for adults to observe and identify. Children who bully through relational means socially isolate their victims by intentionally excluding them or spreading rumors about them. Bullying, then, refers to physical or psychological intimidation that occurs repeatedly, is intended to inflict injury or discomfort on the victim, and creates an ongoing pattern of harassment and abuse.’

Where bullying is visible, it is something we all have a duty to confront. One of the typical features of bullying is a sense of loneliness and helplessness on the part of the victim. Nobody should be left to face this kind of anguish alone.

No more unanswered cries for help

October 3, 2010

I believe that for most people the student experience is a happy one. It is a time to develop one’s potential and make friends, and most of us leave university with good memories. But it is not like that for absolutely everyone. For a small number of people it is a lonely experience, or a frightening one, or a humiliating one. If they are able to turn to someone for support and help, all these things can be overcome; but sometimes no-one seems to be there for them.

A few days ago Tyler Clementi, a freshman (first year) student in Rutgers University, New Jersey, committed suicide after his sexual encounter with a man was unknown to him streamed live on the internet; his roommate and one other student have been charged with invasion of privacy. Clementi was a gifted musician with good prospects, but the humiliation of the webcast was apparently more than he could bear, and he could not or did not find anyone to whom he could turn for help or reassurance.

The story is a tragic one, but unfortunately not unique. And what it tells us is that it is vital for all of us who are in higher education (and I am sure in other walks of life) to keep an eye out for those who may be depressed or uncomfortable or in despair, or who may be victims of bullying or abuse. And it is important for universities and colleges to offer support to all who may need it in this way. In this context, it is also worth mentioning again the ‘Please Talk‘ campaign that is run in Irish higher education.

And for those who feel pressure or anguish of any kind, it is important to say that they need not be alone, and that there are many out there willing to talk and help. Including this writer.

How not to handle harassment cases

June 3, 2010

Recent news stories have highlighted the issue of harassment in an academic setting. On the whole, harassment cases are quite rare in universities, but when they arise they can be very complex. Academic discourse is robust, as lecturers learn early to defend their position aggressively, and what might appear to be vibrant debate to some can quickly turn into something perceived as harassment by others. In addition, while academic institutions tend to have very strong hierarchies, faculty still work with significant personal autonomy, and this makes interpersonal conduct hard to control or monitor.

Universities will these days invariably have formal procedures for dealing with such cases, allowing complaints to be made and then handled sensitively in order to establish the facts and then consider solutions and remedies. However, according to a report in the Sunday Tribune newspaper last weekend, one person who has himself been in the news in this context, Dr Gerald Morgan of Trinity College Dublin, has argued that harassment claims ‘should be handled by gardaí [police] and not college authorities’. He is reported as explaing this further as follows:

‘These things are too serious to be dealt with by university machinery because it gets out of hand. It’s very hard to see how you can set up an independent panel in these matters because of the inter-relations of the staff.’

Just in case anyone should be minded to follow this suggestion, it is worth emphasising that it is bad advice. The role of a police force is to investigate and establish whether a criminal offence has been committed and, if it has, to arrange for appropriate procedures possibly including a prosecution. For such a prosecution to succeed it must be established ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the offence was committed.

An harassment procedure in a university, or any other place of employment, has a different focus. It needs to determine whether the actions of one employee may have caused distress to another, and whether actions are needed to address the issue and where possible restore a good working relationship. In such a process a finding of harassment may well be made even where the conduct would not amount to a criminal offence. Furthermore, a key focus is not to establish ‘guilt’, but to restore confidence.

Universities need to get this right, as the maintenance of a secure workplace in which employees can be confident that they will not be bullied or harassed should be a priority. Dr Morgan’s proposal is wholly misguided, not least because it suggests that responsibility for dealing with harassment can be passed on to the police. It should not be seriously considered.

The problem of bullying

April 20, 2009

According to the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line (‘Bully Online‘), 20 per cent of calls an enquiries they receive about bullying are from higher education. The same website also draws attention to a survey which found that 40 per cent of academics believe they have been the victims of bullying. A more recent survey had even more dramatic results, with half of the nearly 10,000 respondents (all academics) reporting that they had been ‘subjected to some form of bullying or personal harassment during their career’.

Findings of this kind are not new, and moreover there is no evidence that anything is getting better, despite the growth of anti-bullying (or workplace dignity) policies that have been put in place in many institutions. There is reason to believe also that findings in Ireland would be similar.

So what is it that makes university workplaces apparently so prone to bullying behaviour? Part of it is, I think, connected with the rather robust culture of academic discourse, in which sharp exchanges are the norm. It is notable that a majority of those who say they have been bullied state that this is by another member of staff, rather than a person to whom they report or who is in some sort of position of authority over them. This kind of ‘robust’ behaviour is also now common on email and other online communications, where the harshness of what is said often appears even more aggressive than it does when said face to face.

There are some important lessons to be drawn. First, bullying is unacceptable. Academics have no less an entitlement to respect and courtesy than do people in other professions. Secondly, people working in universities should consider carefully how they communicate with others, particularly when they disagree with them, and should ask themselves whether they use hurtful or insulting language unnecessarily; this does not mean that people need to compromise on their professional opinions or views, just that they need to express themselves in a way that avoids aggression. And thirdly, we need to look at whether anti-bullying or related policies are really doing the job they are supposed to do, and indeed whether they might themselves occasionally (though probably rarely) become weapons in the hands of bullies.

DCU is currently working on a new policy with new procedural aspects, and I hope that this will make a positive contribution to creating a better and more supportive atmosphere in which people can work with confidence.