June 01, 2009
Harassment Among University Professors and Academic Staff
Harassment is behavior that manifests itself in the form of conduct, actions, and verbal comments, often insidious, aimed at destabilizing an individual. This behavior breaks down the individual’s psychological resistance, often for the purpose of submission. Harassment can lead to the victim’s exit from an organization. Harassment can take the form of injurious comments, unjustified criticism, or openly proffered insults, but it can also include seemingly harmless insinuations and other forms of abuse. A simple act of aggressiveness becomes harassment and has deleterious effects when it continues over a period of time, and when the targeted group or individual is, or is perceived to be, in a situation where it is difficult to mount a defense.
Heinz Leymann (1996a, 1996b) described this phenomenon as a form of psychological terrorism. The acts he terms harassment have the effect of taking away people’s freedom of expression, isolating them, destabilizing them, discrediting them personally and professionally, and restricting their access to resources to which they are normally entitled if they are to perform their work. Harassment can jeopardize the victims’ health and make them feel insecure. Considered separately, the actions constituting harassment may appear harmless, but their constant repetition has pernicious effects.
Several indicators of harassment have been observed in universities. To understand this phenomenon, an ad hoc committee of the Québec Federation of University Professors (FQPPU) conducted a qualitative study of union representatives and faculty members. The study, rich with personal testimony, found that the university culture and context breed harassment and an abusive exercise of power, the effects of which harm the victims, and the university as a whole.
Contrary to what many of us prefer to believe, harassment is rarely the work of perverse individuals who take pleasure in targeting others having the typical victim profile. Instead, we found that harassment ensues from political and organizational choices that impose extra workloads, competition, and an emphasis on individualism as methods of managing and organizing labor.
Québec universities are not immune from the problems faced by other organizations. The underfunding of higher education combined with the growing commodification of university activities and the movement toward the quantification of performance evaluation criteria is the breeding ground for harassment. Some professors, facing too much work and competition for limited resources, take extreme measures to remain successful in the system. Because of the of the discourse that urges professors “to keep their noses to the grindstone,” to embrace the virtues of pride, excellence, and economic realism, we have observed practices that surreptitiously corrupt the work ethic by subjecting professors to excessive competition and accounting management strategies that are foreign to the idea of quality research and training. We have also observed practices that make it seem normal to consider people as instruments and resources to be manipulated and burned out.
“What I learned from my experience is that, in the university hierarchy, you have to be prepared to fight like a tiger. And if you don’t have the stomach for that, you just have to lie low. I never would have said that three or four years ago.”—a comment by a professor in an FQPPU focus group In the university milieu, harassment generally occurs at key points in a professor’s career—during hiring, performance evaluation, and the time leading to the granting of permanent status or tenure. It can also come into play in the major decisions governing university activities, especially during the allocation of teaching duties and budgets or when setting development
Legitimate formal and informal powers are exploited not only by people in administrative positions, but by colleagues prepared to take advantage of others. Harassment is often associated with the manipulation of committee work, rules of debate, consensus-making, and the criteria for allocating duties and resources. Certain strategies are regrettably popular in order to get to a professor...