April 27, 2016

Bullying happens in academia

I REFER to the letter “Dealing with bullies at work” (The Star, April 15). One such place where bullying often occurs but unknown to most is academia, although university administrators may deny this. The hard truth is bullying in the form of mobbing, camouflaged aggression and harassment exists within academia.

Academics are surprised to experience hazing as those with genuine and good qualifications but from less prestigious universities are continually treated as second-class academics at best by those who graduated from elite universities. Those from lesser-known colleges are often ridiculed even if they can hold their own ideas and defend them. Their fault is the lower rank of their alma mater.

Academics are also bullied by administrators who get them to show support for certain individuals when well-known personalities visit the campus.

Compulsory attendance is a definite method to fill the hall, and a full hall augurs well for the administrators and makes the prominent visitors feel welcomed and comfortable. The postponement of classes to attend these functions doesn’t matter to the administrators. What matters is the acceptable turnout in the hall to please the guests and put the administrators in a good light.

This method is also used to fill the hall to listen to top management outlining the future plan of the university. Attendance is recorded electronically and an academic’s presence or absence will be easily detected. His/her absence is taken to mean that he/she does not have the shared vision of the top management.

This will be used to deny him/her leave, travelling and subsistence allowances when opportunities come to attend and to present papers at a conference.

The difficulty in finding time for replacement classes is the problem of the academics even though it was initiated by the administrators. To solve the problem, academics would do a “speed up” or summary of the lessons or considered the period as cancelled and the topic done.

Presenting papers at conferences abroad is an opportunity for academics to promote their institutions, travel abroad and share their findings and ideas with other academics. But procedures as prescribed by the universities are like invisible barriers discouraging the academics from going.

Attending international conferences locally or abroad is challenging. The acceptance of a paper is testament to its quality as confirmed by a conference’s committee after being scrutinised for its worthiness. Despite this, it is still subjected to approval by the faculty’s or the university’s committees.

A junior academic and those from lesser-known universities may find their papers being rejected perhaps out of envy or jealousy by senior academics who sit on the committees.

To overcome the obstacle and out of fear his/her application may not be approved, he/she may endorse the administrators and/or those seniors as co-writers. Thus, instead of 100% credit as author, he/she has to share it with the “co-authors”. Worse he/she may feel obliged to name the administrators or senior academics as the lead authors. This is tantamount to blackmail and corruption although no money is involved.

Why join the academia? The answer normally centres on love for teaching, writing and research. But over and above these, an academic has to be involved in several activities and hold administrative posts to help his/her faculty.

Though the involvement is voluntary in nature, many academics will admit that they have to comply with the wishes of the administrators. Their high marks in teaching, writing and research will be deemed useless if there is hardly any non-academic contribution.

Those returning with PhDs, hoping that their specialisation will contribute to a university’s academic advancement through research and writing, are also not spared. What surprises them – and is a loss to a university – is their placement as administrators rather than as academics. This defeats the purpose of having a specialist.

In this age of electronic communication, to gain access and quick response, many heads of department set up their own complaint blog online or on Facebook to get feedback from students. Some students have no qualms ganging up on academics. They want excuses to explain their own poor performance and grades and may not hesitate to undermine the genuine efforts of the academics and hold them to ransom. As an analogy, football referees will testify that those who are quick to voice their dissatisfaction are normally from the losing team.

No one deserves to be humiliated, undermined, insulted, shunned, marginalised, ganged up on or even spoken to harshly in any workplace. Academics are no exception.

Retired academic
Subang Jaya



Anonymous said...

Not quite sure if I agree with the full content of this interesting submission.

I have observed that there is a tendency to over-rate a few select universities abroad....but it is up to us collectively to strive to reward excellence from all our colleagues irrespective of their place of study....

As a student of a couple of those revered old colleges, I have been delighted by the quality of some of my colleagues, in particular, those who were students of some of the former Polytechnics or even the CNAA postgraduate system.

By comparison, many of my tutors in those elite places were well past their sell by date- having made it as permanent fellows they had become a little too addicted to the college sherry cabinet!

One was often persuaded they had been great minds once, but their publication track record would not cut ice nowadays!

Anonymous said...

I used to teach at a certain post-secondary institution. Think back to your days in high school and the social order that existed there and you'll have a good idea of what I had to put up with from my colleagues. (I didn't have that concern with my students, though. Most of them behaved like they were still in elementary school or, in some cases, kindergarten.)

The institution, and my department in particular, had its cliques, its "cool kids", its jocks, and a grumpy principal (in the form of the dean, who treated me as if I was an impudent misbehaving schoolboy). Also, like in high school, it had its bullies and character assassins.

There were the rumours, the back-stabbing, the petty jealousies, and the deliberate snubbing.

Over the years, I worked for a number of employers. I encountered much of what I described at most of them. It was in academe, however, where that sort of behaviour was the worst.