September 29, 2008

Academic Bullies

One professor uses an alias, refusing to disclose his location beyond "the south of England." Embroiled in a lawsuit with his university, he sees a doctor for post-traumatic stress disorder. Another academic whispers into the phone, fearful her colleagues will overhear her. Yet another scholar has left academe altogether to escape the stress that caused her to lose sleep, along with clumps of her hair.

These college professors — and others who share similar stories in the safety of the Internet — blame their troubles on a single phenomenon: the academic bully.

This is no playground bully brandishing fists in search of lunch money. The academic bully plays a more subtle game. He — or, just as likely, she — might interrupt every time you speak in a committee meeting. Or roll his eyes at your new idea. Bullies may spread rumors to undermine a colleague's credibility or shut their target out of social conversations. The more aggressive of the species cuss out co-workers, even threatening to get physical. There is nothing new about this type of academic bullying. What's new is how it's talked about now, and, thanks to the blogosphere, where and how often.

Over time, say experts who study bullying, this kind of behavior in the workplace can lead to serious stress, a dip in productivity, an inability to attract new hires, and in some cases, a dysfunctional work environment. In academe, where tenure allows bad apples to stick around longer, bullying can be particularly debilitating.

"There are high costs, and often there are hidden costs," says M. Sandy Hershcovis, an assistant professor of business at the University of Manitoba, who studies workplace aggression. Her research has shown that victims of bullies often suffer from depression and anxiety, and that they are at an elevated risk of becoming bullies themselves.

Colleges may provide a particularly ripe environment for bullies because campuses are so decentralized, says C.K. Gunsalus, special counsel to the University of Illinois College of Law, where she is also an adjunct professor. Some faculty members abuse the little power they have, whether it is over a graduate student's future, a junior colleague's promotion, or simply anyone whom they view as a threat.

The growing use of adjunct professors, who often lack influence and the protection that tenure can offer, may also encourage academic bullying: Part-time faculty appointments now count for more than 40 percent of the academic work force, and 65 percent of recent appointments, according to an article in the magazine Academe, published by the American Association of University Professors.

And department chairmen, who often lack management training, don't always know how to respond to bullying. That gives the bullies free rein...



Anonymous said...

When I first started grad studies, I saw first-hand how the faculty behaved as I was a student rep in the department meetings. I found it astonishing that well-educated and (supposedly) mature adults should behave in such a manner. What made matters worse was that the chairman sat there and did nothing.

Later, when I was teaching for a living, I was a target for administrative abuse myself. Someone in my department took an extreme disliking to me for some reason and began a subtle campaign to push me out, increasing when he became assistant head. When we got a new department boss, the new chap was quickly turned against me by my adversary.

This harassment continued for several years, especially after I added more credentials to my qualifications. The allegations against me became increasingly outlandish, though actual proof of my transgressions were never provided (to protect the students, apparently). Unfortunately, the dean at the time had a tendency to back the department heads, so I was out of luck there. Even the institution's staff association was of little help.

Eventually, I quit, but at a time and in a manner of *my* choosing. I'm sure that I irritated my enemies by doing that. It took me a bit more than two years to rid myself of all the stress built up from that place.

While doing my Ph. D., I locked horns with my supervisor. Over half way through the time allowed to complete my degree, he told me that he wasn't interested in what I was investigating. The remaining time was far from peaceful, but I did finished my thesis, though largely on my own once I developed the key concept of my research topic. I passed my defence and convocated and haven't had any dealings with my supervisor for several years.

I spoke with the university ombudsman about my situation. My choices were:

- continue as before,
- fire my supervisor and find a new one (if one was willing to take me on),
- change topics and possibly put up with more abuse, or
- throw away all the time and effort I put into my degree by quitting.

I chose the first one as one major undertaking at a time was enough for me. I know of other people who were in similar situations and they walked away.

So much for the joyous academic life.

Anonymous said...

Graduate students are at the mercy of academic bullies just as professors are. It appears to be a phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic, as well. In the US, a system of regional accrediting agencies is supposed to ensure students' rights, but in reality these agencies are run by the institutions and do little or nothing to ensure fair processes.

In my case, the university administrator in charge of the doctoral program made substantive changes to the program and prohibited doctoral candidates from pursuing their dissertation research until long after advancement to candidacy. She claimed the delay (two full semesters) was for educational purposes, but she provided no rationale and the regional accrediting agency refused to intervene even though such a delay was a clear violation of the agency's standards (WASC, in this case). The university ombudsman offered no relief just as in the case of the post, above. It's a sad commentary on the state of higher education when educated individuals act in such a medieval manner. I'm not a fan of anonymous posts, but you will see that I have posted anonymously. Why? Retribution for asserting (or trying to assert one's rights).