Bullying in Higher Education

Bullying in Higher Education

Workplace bullying can occur at any workplace, including a university. Any employee can be a target, including college and university faculty. If you are a target of workplace bullying, you may not even recognize the behaviors at first (see below). Furthermore, employees who are bullied are not often targeted because of some failure or fault. If you are criticized, misrepresented, threatened, undermined, excluded, or just passed over for recognition, you were as likely targeted for your pluses as for any minuses.

According to Bully Online, the web site of the former UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line, the top six reasons for being bullied are

  • being in the wrong place at the wrong time
  • being good at your job
  • being popular
  • unwittingly drawing attention to another person’s incompetence by being competent
  • blowing the whistle on malpractice, fraud, illegality, breaches of rules, regulations and procedures, or raising health or safety issues
  • having a high level of integrity and emotional maturity.


Worn down in the U.K.

From Tim Field, founder of a bullying hotline in the United Kingdom:

“These reasons are derived from over 10,000 cases from my UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line and cases reported through Bully OnLine. Jealousy and envy are motivators of bullying. Employees who are bullied have often unwittingly blown the whistle, usually on someone else’s shortcomings, failures, breaches of procedures, etc. After the bullying starts, the moment a bullied employee asserts their right not to be bullied, they are effectively blowing the whistle, and the bullying intensifies. Specious (plausibly deceptive) allegations, misrepresentation, fabrication and unwarranted use of disciplinary procedures follow, culminating in the inevitable unfair dismissal or ill-health retirement.”


TIME Magazine's whistleblowers of the year

Whistle-blowing, for obvious reasons, is right up there in the list of top factors. From Field again:

“You discover by accident that your boss is fiddling the books. You realise that customers are being mis-sold investment products. Your professional colleague is guilty of malpractice. You’re asked to endorse an activity which you know to be in breach of health and safety regulations. What do you do? Comply? Look the other way? Or do you report it?

In many cases, if you report what you’ve found, you’ll be bullied out of your job.”

Field points out that “The UK Public Interest Disclosure Act now offers some legal protection for concerned employees who blow the whistle. However, the consensus amongst those involved in whistleblowing cases over the last ten years is that the Act has too many get-out clauses to be effective.” A law with loopholes is better than no law, since it signals a shift in society’s attitudes–but the law was passed for a reason.


Fear and loathing on campus

Most people do not recognize bullying at first. Forget about over-aggressive dodgeball or being crammed into the gymnasium locker. In the white-collar world, including academia, bullying is less often one dramatic incident than “an accumulation of many small incidents, each of which, when taken in isolation and out of context, seems trivial.”

What is bullying? The following list of examples is condensed for convenience. 

People who are bullied in the workplace find that they are

  • constantly criticized and subjected to destructive criticism. Explanations and proof of achievement are ridiculed, overruled, dismissed or ignored.
  • subject to frequent nit-picking and trivial fault-finding
  • undermined; false concerns are raised, or doubts are expressed over performance or standard of work, doubts expressed for control rather than for performance enhancement.
  • overruled, ignored, sidelined, marginalized
  • isolated and excluded from what’s happening
  • singled out and/or treated differently. Nit-picked for minor mistakes when major infractions (such as absenteeism, or alcohol impairment in the workplace) are permitted for selected  others.
  • belittled, degraded, demeaned, ridiculed, patronized, subject to disparaging remarks
  • threatened, shouted at, and/or humiliated
  • set unrealistic goals and deadlines, either unachievable, changed without notice or reason, or changed when they near achievement
  • denied information or knowledge necessary for undertaking work and achieving objectives
  • starved of resources
  • denied support by their manager and thus find themselves working in a management vacuum
  • either overloaded with work or have their work taken away, sometimes replaced with jobs less appropriate to training and experience
  • subject to excessive monitoring, supervision, micro-management, recording, snooping, etc.
  • forced to work long hours, without remuneration and/or under threat of dismissal
  • receive negative or intimidating calls or memos, notes or emails, immediately prior to or during weekends and/or holidays
  • invited to ad hoc meetings that turn out to be disciplinary
  • facing unjustified disciplinary action on trivial or specious or false charges
  • coerced into reluctant resignation or early retirement

Since academia tends to like to keep things quiet–look at the statistics, if you can find them, on sexual assaults on campus, and student suicides–entrenched bullying can find a comfortable home there. The problem is exacerbated by factors such as budget constraints, which enable a bullying manager to contain or to get rid of employees in the guise of cost-cutting, and a large contingent workforce. Our colleges and university administrations also tend to keep expanding, while faculty shrinks in proportion to the whole, and an ongoing proliferation of faculty ranks divides the instructional workforce. Furthermore, our educational system is everybody’s favorite whipping boy in the first place, so frequent reorganizations are the name of the game. Reorganizations, in academia as in other workplaces, provide smokescreens for institutional bullies. Careerism, in short, is the bully’s best friend, as it is the rapist’s best friend.


Policy counts

Thus the person being bullied may not realize it for weeks or months, as our British cousins remind us, until the moment of enlightenment comes. Workplace bullying tends to fixate on trivial criticisms and false allegations of underperformance, with little overtly offensive language. It tends to take place in secret, behind closed doors, without witnesses or notes taken. (Be alert about department or program meetings at which no one takes minutes, of which there is no written record, which only some faculty are required to attend or at which only some faculty can vote.) It takes place at work and/or at social occasions related to work. In any case, the target is seen as a threat who must first be controlled and subjugated–and if that doesn’t work, eliminated–often for conduct that the target herself/himself would not have recognized as threatening, like trying to do a good job.

Not to belabor a point, but the results can be a bit discouraging. Some managers or supervisors may appear to invite suggestions but dismiss each idea not already incorporated into the program. They may register a suggestion as a complaint and a complaint as an offense, even while claiming to invite faculty input. They may betray trust and misuse authority behind the scenes. When employee morale deteriorates, this method of operation discourages innovation and creativity, even amid claims that faculty autonomy, independence and creativity are being supported.

What to do? Recognize that you are not alone. Academic bullying is regrettably widespread, but the silver lining is that you are not alone.

Regrettably, public policy in the U.S. has fallen behind that in the U.K., which has a national helpline that includes adults–workplace bullying–as well as children. In this country, most attention to bullying has focused on children and young people, and rightly so; most attention to bullying in the educational system has focused on students, again rightly so. There is, however, a Facebook page on bullying in higher education. The bulliedacademics blogspot has an email contact address.

High time. Some apparent cases of academic bullying have had dire outcomes.


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