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


April 13, 2016

Working with an unsupportive supervisor

A supervisor was retired in a small research group. The retired professor continued to guide the studies under the power of the new supervisor. After some years, the supervising altered more and more unsupportive for scientific work. This delayed the studies and made our cooperation difficult. The supervisor forbade the retired professor to have relations with companies, which limited his possibilities to guide students and purchase financing. I was workplace bullied during my PhD defense. In order to avoid such problems, I suggest that the power of the retired professor, the actual supervisor, should be expanded. I also highlight the importance of academic freedom for successful studies.


A professor emeritus continued to guide our studies after his retirement
. Our new supervisor was an old PhD student of the retired professor. The new supervisor had made a consult agreement with the retired professor for handling the studies. The new supervisors’ participation was only partial. As a consequence, I together with the retired professor led our research and purchased our financing.

Our group of two PhD and one licentiate student made progress and created many new research contacts. Also the new supervisor was very interested in our work at the beginning.

A change in atmosphere

The new supervisor had gathered plenty of project financing. It appeared that he started to see our co-operation as a threat for his own studies. Providing samples to be studied to our partners was limited. When I asked, why he did not allow to purchase samples to our partners, while similar samples were provided for the supervisors´ own partners, he answered that our partners were “not buddies of his”. He also explained that this was a way to prevent research competition.

PhD students from our partner group were in a big trouble. They had not produced any meaningful results despite of over two years research. The students asked my help. I understood, how difficult the situation was. Hence, I made a plan that had a good synergy for my studies and would have produced the needed results quickly. We needed a
very conventional sample for the experiments. The supervisor forbade purchasing the sample. We, therefore, had to replace the plan with another with much higher risks. Unfortunately the risks of the new plan realized and the partner group students remained without any results after four years work. It appeared that the PhD studies of the partner group students were cancelled.

The supervisor appeared to become reluctant to cover the expenses (like travelling costs) of the retired professor. While my colleague from our group was finalizing his PhD, the supervisor accused the retired professor of “information leakage”. The retired professor had shown my colleagues PhD plan to an international research partner. The supervisor ended the retired professors’ consult agreement and told that he was not allowed to have contacts with companies. The decision was poorly justified. After all, the plan was already nearly 100 % public and the rest were to be published within months. Discussing about it was in line with the long-range policy agreed with the companies. Naturally, the retired professor was shocked of, de facto, being kicked out from the laboratory by his own student. The decision made our guidance and possibilities to purchase funding difficult. Ever since, the retired professor concentrated to make science in another laboratory in another country.

The supervisors’ incomplete presence affected his competence to evaluate the studies. A big project ended after three years. A licentiate student had made plenty of work for the project. The supervisor told that the project had been lousy and decided to dumb the results to a wastebasket. Later, an international scientific evaluator estimated that the project had been of good quality. Also in the opinion of mine, and the other professors related to the project, the results were good and therefore a suitable basis for her licentiate thesis. The licentiate student had to start her studies from the very beginning.

The supervisor and retired professor had some differing views related to my PhD. While the retired professor emphasized the quality of science, the supervisor was focused on timetables and the fluent progress of the PhD process. PhD defense and post-doctoral party was very important for me. At the age of 8, I had witnessed my fathers’ PhD defense. During my studies I was very impressed about the extreme pride of the Custos, when they told about the brand new thesis and doctors. The university guidelines emphasize the nature of the post-doctoral party as “coronation”.

My PhD manuscript was a few months late, because I had faced difficulties in writing my last articles. In addition, two of my last articles were rejected in the beginning of September. Because of the unexpected drawbacks the retired professor recommended adjourning the defense to the next year. This was, however, denied by the Head of Department denied due to budget reasons.

The supervisor reacted to the problems partly in an abusive manner. In a private meeting he laughed to me derisively about the timetable of the thesis.

In order to complete my studies, I needed to write a report from my last experiments. The supervisor called and asked about the situation of the report.

I answered that I would first make the corrections proposed by my pre-reviewers to the PhD manuscript and then finalize the report.

Something was wrong in my answer. The supervisor started to bemoan loudly. It was not possible to continue the conversation. Three days later my forthcoming Custos (supervisor) called again. He told with an extremely impolite way that the defense would be arranged 5 days earlier than already agreed. No apologies were presented. My wife became angry, since this surprise move messed up the efforts to find the place for the post-doctoral party. Only two weeks was left to find a new place for the party and to invite guests to the new place. I had already informed my relatives about the defense date. It was only good luck that no one needed to retract airplane tickets.

PhD thesis must be public 10 days before the defense. One (!) day before this compulsory 10 days deadline Custos (supervisor) called. He shouted to the phone to take the manuscript out of press in the middle of printing. The reason was the minimal corrections (few typographical errors etc.) that had arrived to my last article. Demanding these corrections was not accordance with the practices of the university. It is enough that the article has a permission to be published. The press was upset. I made the small corrections and send the thesis again to the pressing queue. The PhD ceremony was not far from cancellation due to the episode.

My big day dawned. I defended my thesis successfully. Opponent gave praise to the thesis. My family, wife, doctor-father, who paid the post-doctoral party and the workplace were witnessing. Despite of the tight timetable, my wife had managed to book an elegant place for traditional post-doctoral party.

Custos tried to hide his antipathies during the ceremony. He made, anyhow, several sarcastic comments about me such as: "Jee, is he really going to follow the rules" (the procedure of dissertation was discussed together with Opponent). He also carefully avoided saying anything positive about my thesis and presented only negative critics. This was in contrast with his earlier views that had been very favorable for the thesis. Custos became angry, when I mentioned the corrections. ln his speech Custos brought up positive aspects, such as my capability to supply money to the laboratory, but what it came to the thesis itself, he quoted and paralleled the words of the head of the department (apparently, he was not willing to say anything positive from his side personally). The speech included a sarcastic remark about the PhD timetable.

When the supervisor discussed with other people about my work, he appeared to unilaterally focus on its negative aspects such as the thesis being late (I spent plenty of time in answering continuous questions about the difficulties faced during in my party).

During the post-doctoral party, while the supervisor was not around, the retired professor recommended me to change workplace into another laboratory.

Custos left from the party around 23. I escorted him to the door for hand shaking. His facial expression was disrespectful and hand so sluggish that it was difficult to shake.

Next time I saw my Custos two days after the defense. When I arrived his room, his face turned red. We had a very short conversation, since Custos was hardly able to speak anything.

5 weeks after the defense our laboratory engineer called. She had a long experience about salaries. The laboratory engineer was angry and depressed. She had tried to raise my last salary due to my graduation, as was the common practice. My supervisor had, however, refused to raise my salary. The meaning came clear. No thanks in the end.

After the defense I had meet the retired professor and another one of the pre-reviewers. They had started to behave in a peculiar way (avoiding eye contacts etc.).

The behavior of my supervisor was characteristic for workplace bullying /1-4/. The bullying was “subtle”, which is typical for academic environment.

The timing of bullying was worst possible. After all, I had just recovered from the depression caused by the rejected articles. PhD ceremony happens only once in a life and an identity of doctor is a life-long one. Custos has an important ceremonial role. Pride of PhD, if successfully defended, is part of academic culture. One may compare the situation to weddings, where the priest bullies the bride and bridegroom.

After the defense I suffered sleeping disorders and flashbacks. I was not able to read my PhD thesis for many years. In post-doctoral parties I feel myself uncomfortable near the number one table, where the Custos and Opponent sit. My symptoms are typical for chronic posttraumatic stress disorder, a common consequence of bullying.

The supervisor has afterwards explained his behavior by accusing me of causing hard stress, since he had promised my thesis being ready by the end of the year and, according to him, I had delayed the completion of my PhD. The supervisors’ critic is imbalanced. The timetable became challenging, because the supervisor had prohibited sending our last article to the editor before he had read it. This was despite of the tight timetable. We waited the comments of the supervisor over a month. We reminded him about the topic. Nothing happened. Finally, the retired professor decided to send the manuscript for the editor without supervisor’s permission, since defense timetable would otherwise collapse.

The end of research branch

Soon after my PhD defense, I left the university. This was a difficult decision. The head of department had hinted that my future might not be at the laboratory. Also the retired professor had recommended me a career outside the laboratory. However, the professors of our partner groups saw my leaving as a big loss.

While I was leaving, I took care about the continuation our research. I guided one master´s thesis maker and purchased financing for a big project. The same licentiate student, whose results the supervisor had earlier abandoned, continued her studies in the project.

We had had good experiences about utilizing master´s thesis in scientific articles. I, therefore, made a scientifically ambitious plan for the master’s thesis worker. The supervisor rejected the plan. He also discouraged us in making any scientific articles.

The last student from our group made her studies without any guidance a long time. Naturally, this hindered her studies.  Finally, she asked help from the project partners and from the retired professor. With the aid of them she was able to finalize her licentiate thesis. The project partners planned to carry on the studies and purchase more financing. The supervisor told, however, that he was not interested to continue. The laboratory even withdraw from the project prior its’ ending. The licentiate thesis was finalized as unemployed.

Later, the research branch has gathered plenty of scientific and financial interest. Meanwhile the big projects at the laboratory ended. This caused lack of finance. At this situation it would had been a wise idea to focus the research on our field again (researchers in close contact with the laboratory had been hoped so). Once terminated, the research branch was difficult to revive. Valuable contacts and know-how had been lost.

What could be learned

Two out of three students, the retired professor and our project partners suffered from supervising that had altered unsupportive for academic work. This prolonged the studies and hindered our cooperation. It had also financial effects, since the income of the laboratory was allocated by means of accepted theses.

The roots of the problems are related to change of generation in supervising. This is a common source of tensions in academy. The new supervisor holds the power, while the studies continue under the guidance of the retired professor, the actual supervisor. I suggest that our problems would have been avoided, if the power and guidance were more clearly concentrated on the hands of the retired professor. The retired professor had originally hoped more power relating to our research. Those universities offering official positions (as a research director etc.) for the retired professors should set a good example. These kinds of positions should be decided at an upper level of the organization and not by one supervisor alone.

I was ordered to cede my thesis for pre-reviewing, although the retired professor, who had handled tens of PhD thesis, had warned that it would be unwise. Do these kinds of orders violate the rights of students? According to the rules of our university, PhD candidate decides his thesis timetable. Budget estimations should not control the graduation timetables.

I would also like to question, whether it is wise to close down research branches in the middle of successful studies. I have been familiarized myself to three such cases. In all of them, the ending of studies has been regretted afterwards.

Finally, I manifest that it is important for researchers to freely implement their ideas. Certainly, co-operation with companies limit the academic freedom. Anyhow, the restrictions should be as minimal as possible. Good ideas are rare and difficult to replace. Research synergy is difficult to build, if the research partners are seen as potential competitors.


1. Peyton P.R., Dignity at Work, Eliminate Bullying and Create a Positive Working Environment, Brunner-Routledge, 2003.

2. Rayner, C., Hoel, H., Cooper, C.L., Workplace Bullying, Taylor & Francis, 2002. 

3. Workplace Bullying, Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workplace_bullying

4. Bully On-lin

April 10, 2016

Bulster Uni’s New Bully

3698031748_b77ac5fa99And so it came to pass that Bulster finally sacked Dictator Dickie and named a new supremo, finding the ideal replacement in a tough Scouser, Prof Baddy Nix-off. Baddy has a proven track record of corporate bullying “down under” having in just three years sacked a cool 15% of his staff @ Tassie University, and earned a formidable reputation for conducting summary dismissals. Hence staff at Tassie now collectively refer to forced redundancy as getting the “Nix-off”. But old Baddy talks a pretty good board-room yarn as he’s now become the highest paid public figure in Northern Ireland, and one of the top uni “fat cats” across the UK. At Bulster the very utterance of his name has swiftly become the ultimate managerial expletive!

s200_paddy.nixonHaving quickly taken command, Baddy said “he looked forward to working with the Northern Ireland Political Executive to ensure the higher education sector fulfils the ambitions of young people and contributes to economic growth”.  Within a month he had announced massive course closures and a comprehensive programme of sackings at Bulster which could only be achieved by compulsory redundancy. "Jimmy-boy", actor and Bulster chancellor who Dictator Dickey had affectionately dubbed “Bilbo’s Elf”, had summarily praised Baddy’s  “dynamic appointment at an exciting time for…staff, students and partners…” but so far Bulster has seen nothing but programme cancellations and staff dismissals.  Within a few miserable months Bluster University confirmed a series of cutbacks, 1,250 student places lost across the four university campuses and over 200 staff sackings, most of then effectively compulsory severances.

Blaming this corporate tsunami on the NI Executive, Baddy regretted that his necessary “budget cuts "will have far reaching consequences for our young people and our local economy….We cannot absorb further cuts so now more than ever, we must be decisive. We must strengthen our focus on the sustainable delivery of high quality teaching and world-leading research that produces graduates with industry ready, relevant skills that benefit business and society”. All of this coming from a Uni leader who had negotiated close to double the salary and benefits package of his predecessor, Dictator Dicky. Oh and the existing VC Residence has not proven good enough for Baddy- he's taken to first class digs while the official palace is refurbished, a sad evidence that he probably intends to stay!

no-bullying-signs-rightPosturing that this corporate blood on the college carpet could not be avoided, Baddy has went on to say that  “In making these decisions, a number of factors have been taken into consideration, including student demand, attrition rates, student satisfaction, employment statistics and research performance” all of this coming from a uni chief whose time at Tassie had been marked by an unprecedented problem of college retention and disastrous staff morale. Baddy’s time at Tassie had also coincided with a massive cheating scandal at the uni’s law faculty and a rash of staff suicides.

Regular readers of this blog may recall a previous submission back in October 23, 2015 on the specific problem of bullying at Australian regional universities. The evidence from more than 22,000 university staff suggested that academics in Ozzie regional universities were more likely to experience bullying compared to those at other types of universities. The survey, which looked at working life in 19 different universities across Australia, was set up to test whether the anecdotal complaints of colleagues were more than traditional complaints of academics about freedom, autonomy and managerialism.

This major report into university bullying uncovered a veritable crisis of staff harassment in regional colleges, of which Bulster’s new man, Baddy featured all too prominently. A distinguished Arts Professor at Tassie noted that “Baddy had taken a purely monetary view of research”. Staff who could not bring in enough money quickly got the “Nix-off”. Even some of the most highly regarded staff got their marching orders because their continued presence at Tassie was regarded as “economically unviable”.

A suicide note from a long-time staffer at Tassie recorded that “my life has become unbearable…this is no longer a university.. Whatever one’s publication record one no longer has a place in college unless one could get sufficient financial dosh…idiots who managed to bribe their way unto public grants now run the show ….” Several press investigations by Hobart journalists were threatened by Tassie university lawyers, and Tassie staff who got a pay-off were made a sign “gagging orders” that excluded any further public comment on university affairs.

images (3)There is a rumour that as soon as Baddy arrived at Bulster he ordered a U-Turn on Bulster’s intended sacking of HR director “Mad Bonnie” Magoo. “Bonnie” had got himself into a bit of trouble with the police over corporate threats and perversion of justice. Baddy seems to have assured “Bonnie” that all could be forgiven as long as his “black arts” could be more corporately focused. Immediately Bonnie’s disciplinary suspension was lifted…..There is gossip too that old “Bonnie” actually managed to get a pay rise. Fresh from the police cells and a long spell of college “gardening leave” “Bonnie” now finds himself reinstated as the Hitlerian Hermann Goebels of Baddy’s corporate bullying operation at Bulster.

Bully-free-austRecently, at Australia’s Newcastle Uni a senior professor said in confidence that the only college in the country which was worse for governance failings and staff bullying was Tassie. And of all the places in all the world the boffins at Bulster could look for Dictator Dicky’s replacement, they found Baddy Nix-off in the very Van Diemen’s land of Oz.  And so it has come to pass that Bulster has found precisely the right man to replace Dictator Dicky, a man whose corporate shirt-sleeves are suitably blood-stained and who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Stay tuned for the next instalment as Baddy consolidates his power, more staff get fired, and a new regime of bullying establishes itself. Meanwhile we hear that forcible retirement has been difficult for Tricky Dicky. Having blackmailed the Higher Education Minister to get a parting honour (yes the very Minister caught in an embarrassing late night mélange les trois with Dictator Dicky) retirement has been tough! He failed even to get shortlisted as chief-executive of a lowly regional technical college and the invites unto trusteeships have been sparse! And his dream of remaining as “president mentor” to his successor was quickly scotched as Baddy Nix-off brings in his own “dream team” of scavengers and mercenaries from his black academic past!

fatcat.jpgADVISORY… This is a work of humorous parody and any similarities with persons or places real or imagined is purely a matter of coincidence. 

If you’ve been bullied at your F/HE institution don’t hesitate to confidentially contact the Bullied Academics forum. Victims may complain without penalty under their college procedures or consider making a complaint to their local police. Where the police are contacted bullying usually ceases immediately. The e-mail address is bullied.academics@yahoo.co.uk