Bullying in Academia

17 Mar

If you get it right, a career in academia offers all sorts of advantages:
– immense autonomy on how you manage your time;
– the opportunity to work on precisely the topics that stimulate you intellectually;
– the opportunity to travel to weird and wonderful places, and to work collaboratively with scholars and others from fascinating backgrounds;
– the opportunity to work with students who stretch your mind and inspire you.
Put simply, if your luck is in, you can be paid to read and talk about the things that interest you. There are, of course, many drawbacks to an academic career. The salaries are not always appealing. A recent Financial Times article called academics ‘cling ons’ – desperately trying to cling onto their middle class status as their salaries are eroded in comparison with other professions. There is also the drudgery associated with work (namely marking) and the creeping and insidious way in which bureaucrats and spreadsheets have taken over universities to the detriment of teaching, research, and ideas. In general though, it can be an enviable career.
One major drawback though, and one that is not discussed as often as it should be, is bullying. This usually takes the form of senior academics wielding power over their more junior colleagues. Most universities have state-of-the-art anti-bullying charters, but bullying still goes on. In fact, it is often hardwired into the organization and culture of universities.
The key to the whole issue is power. Usually, junior academics are in highly dependent positions. They need to stay ‘on side’ with their senior colleagues in order to remain in a job, or to progress in terms of promotion or access to resources. I can talk with some experience on this subject because I was worked in a department where bullying was rife (I am happy to say that it was not St Andrews or the University of Ulster). Some senior academics in the department had their own fiefdoms and academic staff who they saw not as colleagues, but as chattel. The University management saw the senior academics as ‘successful’ as they variously brought in money or were prominent in their research fields. So the University had little incentive to rock the boat by investigating claims of bullying. The Head of Department was weak. And, most of all, the victims of the bullying were reliant on the senior academics to stay in a job, earn promotion or avoid being ‘punished’ by teaching and administrative loads that would render them research inactive.
The bullying was abetted by a culture of secrecy in which decisions were taken among cliques. Discussion, even at Departmental meetings, was frowned upon. The bullies usually had been at the University for well over a decade and so knew everyone in the senior administration. As a result, the bullied felt that their chances of successfully taking a formal case against the bullies were slim. The bullies also had a technique of presenting themselves as the voice of the University, implying that their outlook was in accordance with that of the University. The cards were heavily stacked against the bullied.
The single biggest regret in my career (so far) is that I did not directly take on the bullies. I was not the direct victim of bullying but I saw it go on to colleagues. The psychological and self-esteem costs to the bullied were enormous. Everyone knew about it, and it was discussed in hushed tones. To my shame, I did not intervene. I too was trapped in a situation in which I wanted promotion and other ‘favours’ – crumbs that would be dropped from the table of the bullies. As I look back, I see that the bullies were incredibly vain and insecure individuals who used the bullying as a way of feeling in control. Often they were single dimension people, with little going on their lives apart from work.
There are three things that we can do about workplace bullying in universities. Firstly, we should call bullying by its name. It is not ‘mentorship’, ‘leadership’, ‘the rules of the game’, ‘the way it is’, or ‘that’s just the way XXXX operates, you gotta go with it’. It is bullying. There are plenty of excellent mentors out there who do not resort to silly mind games and who are generous enough to encourage rather than thwart more junior colleagues. Second, we should talk about bullying much more often. Weirdly, there is a stigma attached to being bullied. A chief aim in academia is to maximize one’s own autonomy over research agendas, time and budgets. To be seen as bullied is to be seen as being ‘a loser’ – as someone incapable of maximizing autonomy. Thirdly, we need to think seriously about the working cultures that are being developed. Whether it is the tenure-track system in the US or the research census in the UK, we are creating and validating systems that allow powerholders to flex power over junior colleagues. Often these are deeply flawed individuals who are in positions of power not because of their people skills, but because they were good at playing the game. Universities need to seriously look at their management processes that reward managers of budgets or stewards of arcane university rules but penalize good managers of people.
Bullying often occurs at a key moment of the junior academic’s career. It is precisely the post-PhD time that they should be flourishing, pursuing their own ideas and cutting a path through innovative publication and research. Instead, bullying (whether directly towards them or indirectly occurring to others) encourages conformity, silence, obedience and a lack of creativity.


10 Responses to “Bullying in Academia”

  1. alanbullion 17/03/2014 at 11:29 am #

    Good stuff Roger. Never got this right, and was bullied by time wasters at the OU….

    Dr Alan Bullion
    Principal Analyst/Special Reports Publisher
    Informa Agra
    Christchurch Court
    10-15 Newgate Street
    EC1A 7AZ

    0207 017 7508



  2. TitusAndronicus1984 20/04/2014 at 11:03 pm #

    Thank you for this post, I just had a shorter than expected post doc, due to a bullying supervisor. I was lucky enough to find another similar job, applied for it secretly and got it. Six months of psychological torment, which doesn’t sound long but I knew I could never stay for the three year contract without totally destroying my confidence and career. I’m really glad I stood up to them, but this wasn’t my first job, I knew how wrong it was to be micromanaged, belittled and intimidated every day. I saw a job advert for my previous position appear today and I have a sinking feeling that they’ll get another post doc and carry on as they were.

    The most constructive thing I can do is promise myself that if I get to any position of academic power/responsibility, which I hope I will now I’m away from the last post doc nightmare, I will not stand by and watch bullying occur, or tolerate it in my peers. I liked the part of your article referring to the stigma of being bullied, which is very real. At the time I was ashamed to tell anyone what was going on, but having got my confidence back in my new job I’ll be happy to let people know I got bullied. It doesn’t just happen to ‘easy targets’ it happens to anyone who the bully thinks they need to control or get out of their way.

  3. rogermacginty 22/04/2014 at 9:18 am #

    Thanks for this! And I think your response is the right one: make sure that bullying does not happen on your watch or to others around you.

  4. Cathleen Young 12/07/2014 at 4:27 pm #

    Thank you for this! Within academia, it doesn’t just happen to the academics. Where bullying exists, it tends to be pervasive. That means others are feeling it too. I do understand the need to focus on what it means for academics to be bullied, and at the same time, bullying hurts everyone. I see a need to maintain focus on the particulars for academics but also to connect with all employees in our various workplaces. There is enormous, latent power in these stories told together.

  5. C W 18/12/2014 at 3:49 pm #

    I have been bullied by someone who was not even in my department, but seemingly was absolutely determined to stick the knife in to me. This is how it works: First the bully persuades all his friends that you (the target) are in someway morally repugnant in their eyes (e.g. active homosexual), second the bully and his friends target people who are close to you such as your friends, work colleagues, people sharing my house. The bully tries to get some of these people to bully me too and to feed back information to him such as what jobs I am applying for. Now, the bully finds the job advertisement and notes the contact person for the academic job and the expiry date of the job. He phones the contact person on a fake enquiry by pretending to be me and then proceeds to be rude, ignorant, criticise their work etc. Finally, when the expiry date for job applications is passed, the bully phones the HR department of the University and again pretends to be me. This time he tells the HR staff that I wish to withdraw my job application. This activity probably went on for maybe about 10 years. A few times when I contacted the person late, I was told that I had already contacted them, but it never occurred to me at the time what was going on.

    In addition, I have found that the bullying may take the form of making complaints to the professors about my work, breaking equipment after I have used it, leaving “literature” in places where I have been and obtaining entry into my computer username and downloading “inappropriate images” and then complaining to the head that I had been seen downloading such images. Unfortunately, some of these activities occurred while I was working at a government Lab (Daresbury) and only became aware of them some considerable time later. The head was too embarrassed to approach me, but was extremely angry with me. The sabotage that I am aware of would have cost the Lab tens of thousands of pounds. However, the activities with regard to job applications I only became aware of years later and I believe it caused a significant detrimental effect on my career.

    I still have an academic career thanks to some professors who still believed in me.

    The reason why I was picked on? This was probably because I had mental health problems as a young man.

    • rogermacginty 19/12/2014 at 8:01 pm #

      Hello Chris. This is a shocking story. I am so sorry to hear of it .In fact, it goes beyond bullying to wards some sort of personal vendetta. Dreadful stuff.

  6. sam 18/04/2015 at 6:40 pm #

    It’s good that you never went up against them.


    I’ve just spent a year going up against the bullies. It’s a waste of time, stress, and a huge weight to carry around.

    In the end, the university did nothing, even though they fully recognised what had happened.

  7. L mcK 15/10/2019 at 7:42 am #

    A bully’s first victims are often their own research students. If you are their student, you either are bullied or are the chosen one, who also learns to become a bully. Bullies spawn more bullies who continue their legacy. Others may not say so out loud, but bullies are always remembered for being bullies.


  1. Bullying in Academia | Catholic Canada - 03/07/2014

    […] One major drawback though, and one that is not discussed as often as it should be, is bullying. This usually takes the form of senior academics wielding power over their more junior colleagues. Most universities have state-of-the-art anti-bullying charters, but bullying still goes on. In fact, it is often hardwired into the organization and culture of universities.  (more…) […]

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