May 14, 2007

A Golden Oldie: The Mobs of Academe - Excerpts from an online discussion

The Chronicle of Higher Education

The guest: Kenneth Westhues is a Professor of sociology at the University of Waterloo who has written a five-volume series about mobbing in academe and who frequently visits college campuses to collect data on episodes of mobbing.

'...Academe is a perfect petri dish for the culture of mobbing, according to the sociologist Kenneth Westhues, thanks to its relatively high job security, subjective measures of performance, and frequent tension between individual professors' goals and the goals of the institution. The victims of mobbing are not always wholly innocent, he says, but the campaigns against them are often based on fuzzy charges, take place in secret, happen fast, and are full of overheated rhetoric. And yet academics tend to think they are immune from the groupthink that characterizes mobbing...'

'...Mobbing is especially tragic when the target is a young scholar who has not yet had a chance to acquire credentials to fall back on. The graduate student most at risk is an independent thinker whose scholarly record (e. g., publications) threatens the supervising professors. So yes, of course, mobbing happens at all levels. My priority has been on the mobbing of professors because if professors are not secure, graduate students working with them are even less secure.

How does one heal from the humiliation of being mobbed? The general answer is, "Slowly." Support from family and friends is indispensable. Some kind of professional counselling may or may not be helpful. Healing happens above all as the mobbing target regains confidence by renewed achievements in whatever is the relevant field -- or in an altogether new field of work. It can be really, really hard for a mobbing target to "move on," but it gets easier with every day of successful negotiation of relationships at home and at work...'

First, encourage administrators and colleagues to inform themselves about the mobbing research (the website is a rich resource, so is the book, Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace, by Noa Davenport and her colleagues in Iowa, or one can simply google "mobbing"). The more aware we make ourselves of the human tendency to mob, the more able we are to control that tendency in ourselves and others.

Specific step number two is to keep campus media for discussion and debate alive and active. A vigorous campus press helps a lot. So do chat rooms for faculty. I often quote Churchill's line, "It is always better to jaw, jaw, than to war, war." Yes, it sounds better with a British accent.

Third and probably most important, stand with mobbing targets. In most healthy, productive, well-functioning departments and faculties, one can identify individuals who do not let colleagues get mobbed. Such individuals have the guts to say at crucial moments, "Cut it out." They are what researchers call "guardians" of prospective targets. They are willing to be seen with a mobbing target and to speak up for him or her when that is a risky, unpopular thing to do...'

'...The starting point for any possibly effective action to stop or turn back a mobbing has to be a careful analysis of the structure of the mob. Who, one asks, is the instigator, the "chief eliminator"? Sometimes this is the administrator who formally leads the exclusionary action, but sometimes such an administrator is only responding to the ardent wishes of some number of colleagues. The goal, generally speaking, is to "break up" the mob, to try to take some kind of action that will get the professors to behave as independent, reasoned thinkers, as they're supposed to be, instead of like a bunch of sheep...

Complete online discussion available at:

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