Tag Archives: academics

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.

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