From The Chronicle Review [A Weekly Magazine of Ideas] / The Chronicle of Higher Education, Section B, Friday, September 12, 2008, Volume 55, Issue 3, pp. B10-13. See http://chronicle.com/free/v55/i03/03b01001.htm
Academic Bullies
The Web provides new outlets for combating workplace aggression
By Piper Fogg

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.

Recognizing bad behavior and dealing with it swiftly is crucial, says Gunsalus, who wrote The College Administrator's Survival Guide (Harvard University Press, 2006), which includes a chapter on how to handle academic bullies. Even deep-rooted problems can be solved, she says, although it can take a couple of years and a serious commitment from campus leaders. Not all bullied academics agree that facing down one's nemesis is wise. Some suggest the best way to preserve one's career is to get as far away as possible from a bully, even if that means leaving.

At Minnesota State University at Mankato, administrators have taken the rare step of approaching bullying holistically. The president had been informed of a few bullies on the campus and wanted to make sure they weren't poisoning the atmosphere. Dispute-resolution specialists, brought in to assess the situation, found that one-third of the workers surveyed said they had been bullied in the past year.

"We're taking it very seriously," says Richard Davenport, Mankato's president. "If we can get some good results, I think we can use that to help other universities."

It's only in the past two months that one former academic has found herself beginning to recover from what she describes as the trauma of being bullied. The woman, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, worked in an administrative position at an Ohio college, where she also occasionally taught academic courses. While organizing a prestigious campus event, she says, she raised $67,000 and arranged for an internationally renowned speaker to attend. It was then that her supervisor began acting strangely: "She started haggling with me over little things, disrupting my work." The director conspicuously failed to thank her publicly at the event, and later mocked her behind her back, she says. When she needed to prepare for a course she planned to teach, her boss refused to grant her the time and even clicked her tongue in disapproval.

"I started to panic," the woman says. She lodged a formal complaint and requested mediation. Because her supervisor then made nice, the employee agreed to write a memo saying things had improved. But when relations again deteriorated, she couldn't get support from the human-resources department, and she failed to win a claim with the state's civil-rights commission. By that time, she says, she'd lost weight, wasn't sleeping, and went on medical leave. When it expired, she did not return to work.

The former academic is now happy with a job at a college-preparatory company in California that focuses on Asian-American students. "It has been a horrible, long haul," she says. She still sees a therapist twice a week but is hopeful that she's on the way to recovery.

When confronted with bullies, Darla J. Twale and Barbara M. De Luca decided to stick it out. Faculty members at the University of Dayton's school of education, they say that in their long careers they have faced colleagues who undermined them and made them feel worthless.

De Luca says there was a bully in her department who made it impossible for her to be heard in meetings. The person would get up to go to the bathroom when she tried to talk, or simply change the subject. The bully had supporters, leaving De Luca even more alienated. "I took it personally, initially," she says. Then she, too, gained allies, including Twale. They decided that one way to fight back was to use their experiences to help others. Together they have published Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It (Jossey Bass, 2008).

Talking about bullying, says Twale, can be very cathartic - and sometimes productive. "Given the types of media we're exposed to, we are able to let people know" about bullying when it happens, she says. "There's the faction that is ready to expose it." (Twale can be seen discussing bullying on YouTube.) Every bullying experience is different, she says, but the overall culture of academe "has all the right ingredients to make it grow."

As her book notes, departments sometimes isolate themselves from other departments, and even encourage schisms within. Fighting the system isn't easy, especially for academics who are often busy enough already. "Rarely are we likely to speak up," Twale says. And there is often an element of denial: "We're all Ph.D.'s - we think we're above petty behavior. But we're not."

One approach for dealing with a bully culture, suggests Twale, is to make sure there is a strong workplace-harassment policy in place, and that it is enforced. She advises victims of bullying to lie low and gather information before coming forward with complaints.

Ann M. Little, an associate professor of history at Colorado State University at Fort Collins who writes a popular blog called Historiann, decided she wanted to speak up. She recently wrote a post on her blog about bullying, suggesting that people cut and run if their situation is dire, as hers was. "My major foe at my former university was someone who was tenured, but simultaneously (and humiliatingly)" was denied promotion to associate professor, Little wrote. "Unfortunately, this individual's experience resulted not in anger and radicalization, but in shame and internalization, which was then directed outward not at the people who caused her misery, but at other targets below her on the hierarchy."

That became a pattern in the department, Little continued on her blog. "People were filled with resentment about the way they were treated, and most of them either became bullies or apologists, explaining that 'don't worry, you'll still be tenured. That's just the way we do things. Everyone goes through it, so you'll just have to suck it up.' Those who were my friends and allies were valiant in their optimism and their commitment to change, but in the meantime, what a life: stomping out flaming bags of poop that someone else is leaving on yet someone else's doorstep."

Little's experience was enough to drive her away from Dayton, where she was an assistant professor of history (although she had never met or heard of Twale or Deluca). She says she should have seen the red flags when a prospective colleague there yelled at her during her job negotiations. She took it in a stride (a mistake, she believes in retrospect). "We all feel so grateful just to get a job," she explains in an interview. "When you're a grad student, there is a culture of groveling." When she arrived at Dayton, she won a prestigious fellowship. But she was shocked when her department chairman told her it was good that the fellowship was for only six months, because she ought not to neglect married life with her husband.

Little says that she tried her best to be a team player, taking colleagues out to lunch, but that they began to side with her "major foe." One day, several years into her time at Dayton, she heard that the woman was "storming around, cursing my name, screaming," she says. "I just needed to get out." She did.

Joseph Untener, Dayton's associate provost for faculty and administrative affairs, says that since Little left, in 2001, the history department, which had experienced a rough patch, has had a turnaround. Over all, he says, the university is a "good, collegial, respectful" place to work. In fact, he says, periodic third-party surveys show that employees are happy, and the turnover rate backs that up. He notes that Dayton ranked among the top five institutions in several categories of The Chronicle's Great Colleges to Work For survey this summer.

Little is still glad she left. At Colorado State, she says, she was initially surprised when people responded positively to her, praising her ideas. "When you're told constantly for four years that you're a problem, you do think that people see you that way."

Experts warn that victims of bullying may begin to mirror the destructive behavior they so fear themselves. And it can be hard to sort out whether some victims are at least partly to blame for their own troubles.

Christopher Diaz says his own expectations for his job as an assistant professor of government at Morehead State University probably played a part in the way he was received by colleagues there. "At Morehead you really have to be a company person," he says. "I just treated it like a job. I expected to go home at 5 o'clock." When one of his colleagues was injured, he did not show up at a benefit for the person. "I got the silent, cold treatment," he says. Then an administrator began to repeatedly undermine him, he says, and his colleagues went along: "They decided I wasn't fitting in with the Morehead family." Diaz's contract was not renewed, and he left. While he says he did not deserve the treatment he got, he admits that he and the university were a "bad fit."

Experts say that if campus leaders recognize signs of bullying, they can catch it early. But deans and chairmen, who often start their careers as faculty members rather than managers, are not always trained to handle such issues. And department heads, says Gunsalus, author of the survival guide for college administrators, usually serve in that capacity for only a few years and thus have little incentive to deal with problem employees. Gunsalus, who has counseled department officials on such matters, knows of one chairman who gave the department's biggest complainer a raise. The reason? The chairman thought that if the complainer got what he wanted, he would calm down. That's like handing a screaming toddler in the grocery store a candy bar, Gunsalus warns: Bullies learn quickly who will tolerate their antics and who will shut them down. Often no one has ever told them that their actions are unacceptable in the first place.

Some people may not believe that eye rolling or schedule changing rises to the level of misconduct worth confronting. And in academe, where some faculty members prefer to hole up with their books rather than interact with colleagues, an aversion to conflict is not uncommon. Those who have been bullied will often elect to keep quiet rather than risk a nasty public battle. With the rise of blogs, however, academics are finding a new outlet for their complaints. In The Chronicle's online forums, readers were so eager to discuss the topic this summer that someone posted a link to a site created to out academic bullies (it was taken down almost immediately). A group of academics in Europe has pseudonymously created a blog, Bullying of Academics in Higher Education, that gives voice to academics who feel they've been unfairly treated. "The bullying of academics follows a pattern of horrendous, Orwellian elimination rituals, often hidden from the public," announces the blog on its home page. "Despite the anti-bullying policies (often token), bullying is rife across campuses, and the victims (targets) often pay a heavy price."

Loraleigh Keashly, an associate professor of communications and director of the graduate program in dispute resolution at Wayne State University, in Detroit, says bullying is less about specific behaviors and more about its pattern and frequency. She and Joel H. Neuman, an associate professor of management and organizational behavior at the State University of New York at New Paltz, created a Workplace Aggression Research Questionnaire, which seeks to identify victims of bullying by asking such questions as whether they have repeatedly been glared at, yelled at, or subjected to mean pranks over the past six months. The two researchers recently used some of those questions to understand the work climate at Minnesota State University at Mankato.

Richard Davenport, the president, invited them to the campus as part of a larger effort to improve the quality of life there. "We want everyone to get up in the morning and come to work with a smile on their face and go home with one," he says. Hardly a Pollyanna, he had an inkling that just a few bad actors were preventing colleagues from doing their jobs. But he was surprised to learn of the extent of the problem. Keashly and Neuman's survey revealed that one-third of Mankato's employees felt they had been bullied, and, according to another measure in the survey, that 25 percent had experienced actions defined as bullying.

So Keashly and Neuman brought campus officials together, including those from the affirmative-action and human-resources offices, to coordinate their responses to such complaints. The researchers also posted a report for everyone at the university to read. Getting people on board is crucial to success, Gunsalus says: "Bully-proofing an academic department is a team sport."

She recommends that campus leaders who want to prevent bullying should first identify the offensive behaviors, figure out when they occur, and then design a response based on the type of atmosphere they want to encourage.

Gunsalus also advises leaders to identify their allies and the applicable policies and resources that can help. Then it's time to tackle the bully. Usually the first step is to inform him or her that such behavior is not acceptable, to follow up in writing, and, if necessary, to carry out threatened punishments. Meanwhile, Gunsalus says, point out and reward good conduct, revise bylaws when necessary, and hold meetings to devise new standards.

At Mankato the initiative is still getting under way, but the president is already impressed: "The fact that we're being open about it, more people are coming forward" to say they've been bullied, says Davenport. "And the bullies are stopping to think. A lot of people aren't aware they're even doing it." He hopes that by being proactive, Mankato will set an example for other institutions in taking on bullying. "I think it's rampant across higher ed."
Piper Fogg is a staff reporter at The Chronicle.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL  62901-4610
Phone:  (618) 453-4241  [O]
            (618) 457-8903  [H]
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E-mail:   jbecker@siu.edu