...Sadly, academe is well populated by individuals who behave similarly to my former colleague, seeking opportunity wherever they find it and taking what was never offered. I refer to this manipulative meddler as an “opportunist bully,” characterized by individuals who prey on the generosity, ingenuity and collegiality of other academics.
They may appear to be congenial colleagues who are interested in you and your work. They may seek you out for information, disappearing when they have found the key to their own grant proposal or article. They may even wish to partner with you on a collaborative project or a grant, sometimes even offering necessary expertise. It is only when the collaborative project begins to reap tangible rewards, in the form of funding, accolades or publications, that the opportunist bully’s agenda becomes clear. In maneuvering to steal the idea, claim the spotlight or dominate the funds, their bullying tendencies are revealed—particularly as they work to justify centering themselves at the expense of their collaborators.
In my experience, the opportunist bully can be difficult to spot. Many people who exhibit this type of behavior seem to be collegial and engaged, not necessarily pursuing conversations with colleagues in order to hijack their research projects. In fact, in some regards the opportunist bully may actually be collegial and engaged. But when scarce academic rewards are at stake, these otherwise seemingly congenial individuals become inappropriately territorial and manipulative.
While the opportunist bully may appear to be a less dangerous category of academic bully than other more easily recognizable bullies, the damage they do is significant. When a colleague hoards resources, steals an original idea or otherwise preys upon another colleague’s work—most often that of a junior faculty member—the person whose work has been pilfered is likely to question their own role in allowing their work to be compromised. That can result in a sense of shame, guilt, fear and mistrust—all emotions connected with more traditional bullying behavior.
Ultimately, once the rank of full professor is achieved, certain individuals can become so emboldened by their positions that it is relatively easy to maintain power over those whom they outrank—and sometimes even administrators who try to rein in their unbridled egos. And the segregation and uneven support that various disciplines receive can lead to a more insidious hierarchy that is internalized by the individuals within areas or programs that perceive themselves as ranking “lower” within that hierarchy.
In such an environment, a form of bullying can arise that is described as “victim bullying” by C. K. Gunsalus in The College Administrator’s Survival Guide. As the name suggests, in this instance, the person attempts to turn their own bullying behavior upside down, positioning themselves as the victim. Victim bullying occurs when an individual uses a position of relative power to convince others that they are treated unfairly, work harder or are the target of disrespect. Yet while these individuals insist that their work is unappreciated, they often enjoy the most resources, the least external control over their workloads and the highest academic ranks.
A kinder term for this bully might be “the squeaky wheel.” While we may consider the squeaky wheel to be someone who’s simply persistent in expressing a need, the resolute steward who continues to speak up for the benefit of all differs markedly from the academic who uses manipulation for their own self-interest. Victim bullies may insist that their concern is for students or the greater good, but when this type of bully’s demands are pinpointed, it becomes clear that theirs is largely a narcissistic project.
Perhaps the most disturbing instances of academic bullying involve small groups of empowered faculty members who band together in an attempt to control, punish or even push out any individual whom they see as a threat to their agenda. In their book, Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It, Darla J. Twale and Barbara M. De Luca describe a relentless and insidious form of bullying known as “mobbing.” Similar to schoolyard bullying, this form of abuse typically involves a small group of people who align in the interest of achieving or maintaining power, often in order to protect the status quo—and sometimes even when their independent agendas don’t align.
For example, I am aware of an academic administrator who was taken to task by a small group of faculty members after that person’s first year in a leadership position. When the administrator failed to comply with the “mob’s” self-interested agenda, through deceit and manipulation they managed to push the administrator out...
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