Don't sue–run for your lives! (Part II)


This post is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, which was about workplace bullies and the ways in which they can come to dominate a work environment by driving away some people while turning those who remain into bullies themselves.  According to Robert Sutton, “[R]esearch on emotional contagion, and on abusive supervision in particular, finds that if you work with or around a bunch of nasty and demeaning people, odds are you will become one of them.”  This describes many of the people I worked with in my first tenure-track job, which I resigned seven years ago.

My major foe at my former university was someone who was tenured but simultaneously (and humiliatingly) denied her promotion to Associate Professor.  She had published a book after all in a department that didn’t require a book, whereas men in the department had recently been promoted to Associate Professor before tenure and, in one case, without a book at all.  (That’s right:  men without books?  Can’t wait to promote you!  Women with books?  Wait a year or two, then apply again.)  There was a whole class of women assistant professors who got that treatment right around the time I was hired, either within their department or at the college review level.  Need I point out that the curious creature known as the tenured Assistant Professor was a pink-collar only rank?  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. 

This was a pattern that repeated itself many times in that department.  People were filled with ressentiment 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.”  There were a few good people who tried to make changes–but they have been easily defeated by the others.  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. 

One of the effects of this kind of work culture is that it stifles new ideas, fresh methodologies, and innovative research and pedagogy, because of the rate of turnover among those who leave, and the inner turmoil suffered by those who stay.  (Bullying academic departments tend not to allow Assistant Professors to follow their own bliss, either in the classroom or in their research agendas.  This is sometimes the very motive for the bullying:  many departments really don’t want anything–or anyone–new or innovative around.  And, scrutinizing other people’s work to belittle it is one of the pleasures of academic bullying!)  Unsurprisingly, women’s history and histories of other not-dominant groups and historically marginalized perspectives have a hard time gaining purchase in an environment like that.  For example:  Historiann was hired to be the American women’s historian in that department, a position that had been a tenure track line for thirteen years but one that had never seen anyone progress to tenure.  (Historiann was number five in the long line of historians who had held that position.)  And guess what, girls and boys?  Twenty-four years later, no one yet has been tenured in that line!  That’s right:  success beyond anyone’s wildest antifeminist dreams in 1984, when the position was first established.  Of course, the fact that that position was the only line dedicated to women’s history was doubtless a major factor behind the abuse and harassment suffered by all of the historians who hopped on and off that merry-go-round.

So, who says cheaters never prosper?  Bullies may not be happy people, but it seems to me that they get what they want, and that really sucks.  (The woman described above is probably one of the unhappiest people I’ve ever had the misfortune to know–a truly wretched creature.)  But what might suck more is staying in an abusive job because you’re determined to be SuperProf who’s going to vindicate herself and save her department of its destructive culture.  We don’t encourage people in abusive relationships to believe they can make the abuser change–why should we expect people in bullying work environments to stick around and try to change the culture, when they have little if any power or influence to force reform?

The million-dollar question is, of course, how can anyone turn a bad department into a good one?  Who can get control over bullying work environments and force change upon them?  My sense is that it takes a strong-willed dean who’s not afraid of the bullies and who’s got a healthy budget to clean house with brutal post-tenure reviews (including perhaps buyouts), and to support lots of new hires.  But–in the arts and humanities–what deans have that kind of time or money, outside of elite universities and SLACs, where the humanities are central rather than marginal to the identity of the institution?  My guess is that most departments have to shift for themselves, so how do good people leverage their goodness to isolate, marginalize, and/or drive out the bad?



0 thoughts on “Don't sue–run for your lives! (Part II)

  1. At your former institution, they would run the cost and aggravation of conducting a job search every 2-3 years rather than tenure someone, all to keep bullies satisfied. That’s just idiotic! It’s also a testament to how much hold a few well-placed bullies can have on a workplace by creating this horrible climate, even culture, of fear and intimidation.

    Having been in one or two situations myself, one of the things that I noticed in terms of the culture of bullying was something that I compared to hazing, which you describe. “We all had to go through this abuse when we were new, so now you have to go through it too; and our reward is getting to be the abusers this time.” Bullying seemed to be the reward of the survivors.

    The victim is always the loser, staying or leaving, suffering or fighting. One other problem that I have with the “just leave” scenario is that it presumes that you can just go get another job elsewhere. As we know, in academia, it ain’t so easy to get the job in the first place. If you are in an abusive work environment, you will probalby be punished for merely looking and will have a difficult time getting needed recommendations. On the job market, that not only works against you, but can once again make the victim look like a “trouble maker.” Nasty all around.

    These were wonderful posts, with great resources there at the end. Also, thank you for sharing some of your story.


  2. Hey–where’ve you been, Clio B.? Did you make it to the Berks?

    “As we know, in academia, it ain’t so easy to get the job in the first place. If you are in an abusive work environment, you will probalby be punished for merely looking and will have a difficult time getting needed recommendations.”

    Yes–as I said yesterday in response to a comment, I don’t think I’m any smarter or better than anyone else who has gone through this–I was just luckier in being able to find another job at all, let alone a better job. However, one of the things about the academic workplace is that we don’t necessarily need all that many letters of recommendation from the people we work with. I asked one of my friends at that university, who was an Associate Prof., to write a letter for me just to testify implicitly that I’m not a malcontent. But, I had three other letters of recommendation from well-known scholars in my field, which were ultimately much more important than a letter from the Chair of the bad department. (And did I mention that the woman I described became Chair of that department in my third and fourth years there? She’s way out of my field, and at a third-tier university, so thankfully no one who’s anyone really gives a crap what she thinks.) But other than my friend who wrote a letter for my dossier and a few other allies, I didn’t tell anyone else I was hitting the job market precisely because of the retaliation issue you mention. I didn’t “come out” as on the market until I had four campus interviews lined up. (Miraculously, it was a good year for my field–probably the last really good year for moving up from a 4-4 or 3-3 teaching load to an R-1.)


  3. This is a fantastic, thoughtful post. I’m lucky to have landed in a supportive department, and so I tend to take it for granted. I hear lots of stories like yours, though. Gender bias makes it even worse. ::sigh:: Good for you for getting out, and I hope that your friend does, too.


  4. There is also the question of who the bully really is. There is an official bully in one of my departments we are all supposed to resent. However it is not clear to me that he is the only one, or the worst …


  5. Pingback: On Academic Bullying « Seminario Permanente de Teoría y Crítica

  6. I think that the metaphor of an abusive relationship is a fair one. I would point out, though, that in romantic scenarios that turn abusive, abused spouses often report that they did feel pressure to “stick it out” by their friends and family.

    I also take Clio’s point about the market. At times, though, I think that there is a mythology that it is impossible to move once you have a found a job. While it can be tough, it is not impossible (witness my non-Texas address). Fears of the job market is just another way that dysfunctional departments maintain the status quo.


  7. Prof. Zero–interesting question. Bullies are in the eye of the beholder, and I’ve observed that people can have very different opinions about colleagues, because bullying is selective.

    The man who was chair of the department described above when I was first hired was a bully to me, too. He regularly blew up when I came to him with questions or requests, or (in a particularly disturbing incident) lectured me about the importance of attending to my personal relationship, when I never solicited his advice about personal matters. (That was super-creepy.) But, he was friends with one of my good friends in that department, and she constantly reassured me that he meant well, and that he liked me, etc. That may have been the case–but I didn’t really care about his “feelings.” (In my opinion, his feelings were all-too-visible and all over the place.) It was very clear to me that his *behavior* was utterly inappropriate. One day, he lost it over something totally trivial and started screaming at me in earshot of another friend of mine, and when I went next door to say, “See how he treats me? Now do you believe me?” my friend said, “Wow–I’ve never seen him treat anyone that way. I get it now.”

    (See all the fun you’ve missed by landing a job where you work with adults instead of very damaged children, Notorious?)


  8. Wow, as the late Hunter S. Thompson would say, or more likely mutter to himself, “bad craziness”. In my own line of quasi academic work, sociopathic bullying really has to cross the line into criminal behavior or patient harm before action is taken. This despite clear guidelines and proscriptions against clearly defined intolerable behavior. This is probably because judgement is being rendered by peers rather than the victims. As long as the judges oxes (oxi ?)are not being gored a great deal of offensive behavior is allowed to pass. Your observations about the effect this has on the culture are dead on Historiann, there is a reason that I have found a disproportionate number of female surgeons coming out of academic training programs to be very maladjusted.


  9. GayProf–you are another success story. I think that if you can insulate yourself from the insanity of a bad department and publish, escape is possible (although never guaranteed.) It’s a tall order, but I was fortunate enough to live in a different community from the one I worked in, and while the drive kind of stunk, I came to see my home town as an oasis from work-related unhappiness. Plus, there were lots of academics in the town I lived in who were my neighbors and became my best friends, and they bucked me up and inspired me to believe that I could do better.

    But, if I didn’t, I still wasn’t going to stick around with a “KICK ME” sign taped to my suit jacket. (It was the 90s–I wore skirt suits and pant suits!) I was going to resign at the end of that fourth year regardless–and move to Maine and figure out something else to do. Perhaps in that case, I would have started a blog called “Editoriann,” or “Lobsterwomann,” or “Desperate Housewifiann!”


  10. Hi Fratguy–yes, it’s oxen, and good point about victims as patients versus peers. In medicine, I suppose you care more about patient opinion than most universities care about student opinion (on balance, unless bullies decide that negative student opinions can be used fruitfully to bully another faculty member!) I suppose that so long as a physician is making enough money to cover hir expenses and is not angering too many patients, it’s A-OK with the rest of hir colleagues. But, because we academics make so much less money than you doctors, we have to pretend that we care deeply about keeping up standards.

    (Whereas even marginal doctors with bad attitudes can save up enough F.U. money to walk whenever they want to. Why does it seem like the doctors with the particularly bad attitudes–at least to hospital and clinic staff, and especially to nurses–seem to be the richest doctors?)


  11. The dynamic that I was describing was more MD’s vs subordinate staff and nursing rather than MD’s vs patients. You are right we, do care about pt evals yet could give a rat’s about the opinion of the subordinate staff that makes our jobs doable. You have to be pretty darn good before you can consistntly piss off patients and have them come back. Hence the attitude you see with surgery, they control a very finite good that has to be delivered correctly the first time and every time. Time and time you hear “He’s gruff, but he’s the best” Ironically it is the MD’s that are most loved by patients who are often most loathed by staff.


  12. I’d like to respond to a bunch of things…..

    On the analogy of abuse. This really helped me make sense of what was happening to me, especially on the issue of denial. I remember fleeing my home to stay with a friend when I no longer felt safe alone. I was being bombarded with admonishing emails from administrators and my supervisor. By this time, I was so destroyed that it was all I could do to get to the civil rights commission in my pajamas to file my complaint. I remember sitting in the waiting room when a young woman, perhaps in her twenties, came in with an older man, presumably her father, to file. We both looked at each other and looked away immediately. I recognized the glaze of her countenance–lost in a vortex of protective inwardness, repellant and angry towards anyone who looked her way. We were both fleeing, but we were not safe. When I arrived at my friend’s house–isolated in the woods, free, safe–I was obsessed with the idea that “they” were going to find me. I did compare myself–no matter how hyperbolic this sounds–to a victim of domestic abuse, who remains unconvinced that a shelter, or anything, will protect her.

    The denial of the surrounding community (those who outright turned against me or turned indifferent–friends and colleagues who simply disappeared–is also akin to the scenario of abuse in that the surrounding community refuses to believe the speech of the victim. You are right, GayProf, that the analogy is fair. Speechlessness. loss of voice is an important modality to consider here, for it plays such a huge role in the experience of trauma. My first fine art installation, having to do with confounding binary gender roles and patriarchy in general, included the shell of a roasted pig in the middles of the room on a low table, garnished. The point of this gesture was to induce self-reflection on the simultaneous pity and repulsion we feel when the force of oppression is challenged. Oppressors are manipulative. The prey on both fear and pity to keep change contained. When people came out of the space, they were offered free pig sandwiches, the sacrificial meal, as I called it. When confronting bullies and the institution structures/personalities that support them, we must resist our human/humane tendency to feel sorry for those who oppress us.

    More thoughts. Let me expand the context as I see it. First, the national climate is not at all worker friendly. We all know this, no new news, but I’m not sure that we, both as a self-selected community of intellectuals nor as a larger population, have really internalized this sad, grave fact–this disregard for the labor and the autonomy of laboring individuals. The courts repeatedly rule in favor of the corporate defendant (and we must include the university at this point in history as a corporation). They have even used the “essential functions” argument (see yesterday’s post for my comment on that). For those of us who are not academics, or not faculty in academic settings, we are under the rule of “employee at will,” a farcically ironic nomenclature, given that it functions to give employers the right to fire an employee at any time. The other issue to consider is the fact that we receive healthcare from our employers in a sort of in loco parentis fashion. Workers would have much more freedom to move about if their benefits were not provided by employers but by the state.

    The other important consideration to me as I’ve reflected on bullying, trauma, and institutional power has to do with the totalitarian nature of our society, or at least the institutions that exist in our society. Earl Shorris, in a fabulously interesting and quirky analysis of totalitarianism from 1980 called The Oppressed Middle, addresses the different modalities that make up the totalitarian nature of the workplace in contemporary American society. He makes clear that we should not only consider totalitarianism in its extreme forms (Hitler, Stalin) but understand that totalitarianism works through the presumption of ownership and the threat of dissolution if ownership is not welcomed, accepted (Shorris’s analysis is heavily influenced by Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which is extremely relevant to this conversation, as totalitarianism banks on banality). The most elemental and powerful form of ownership has to do with the despot’s power to define happiness, which is then administered by the manager and peddled by the merchant. In my mind, we can consider the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates despots of the day, among others of course. I say this to shift the orientation of our thinking about totalitarianism, to see it as political in terms of our culture, and not in terms of nationalism.

    To bring the point home, I would like to suggest that the university is, or has become, a totalitarian enterprise. Its definition of happiness for faculty, tenure and promotion, is both imposed on and welcomed by us. And those who operate within its terms, are consequently left powerless. I would like to suggest that the tenure system, although begun on behalf of the noble principle of academic freedom, is part of the totalitarian system. I believe it must be interrogated as much as anything else. It is no longer a form of protection. As already mentioned, it has become an instrument of hazing and discipline while also serving as an occasion or trigger for faculty who made it through, now slavish, to unleash sadistic behavior bottled up by their own experience of disciplining.

    I should stop here. I’m not much of a blogger and forget about length etiquette.


  13. SF–great comments. (You get amnesty on comment length, especially on this issue!)

    I’m glad Prof. Zero’s analogy to domestic violence was helpful to you–I thought it really shed new light on the issues. Interestingly, the Chronicle of Higher Ed Employment blog has picked up on these two posts, and linked to them today. The two comments on the Chronicle blog are from people proclaiming that victims need to stand up and fight! We are all responsible for fighting this problem! (Basically, more victim-blaming if one doesn’t respond the ONE CORRECT WAY to bullying.)

    See here:

    Yeah, Jack: do you think it never occured to me in the four years I spent in the bad job to fight back? What do you think I was doing all those years? SF–how many meetings did I have with my Dean, the Chair, and my friends, constantly, all the time? As if institutional processes and grievance procedures are designed to do more than justify what’s already going on. At the Berks weekend before last, I saw a friend who’s been through hell with one job and luckily moved on to another, and her comment was: “I will never, ever file a grievance again.” At some point with a bad work environment, it’s time to throw in the towel. My posts today and yesterday weren’t commentary on individual cases of bullying–especially in the second post today, I was hoping to raise the issue of how bullies can take over and corrupt a work environment, and how there really is little hope for making positive change at that point.

    SF, you know how very damaged so many of our former colleagues are (not that I’m suggesting we feel sorry for them.) They’re (in your words yesterday) “royally “f’ed up!” personally and professionally. Both of us could see that 10 years ago–and neither of us wanted any piece of it.


  14. My goodness, this was exactly my experience. I got chills reading it. My bully not only had to suffer the humiliation of getting tenure but no promotion, on top of that her husband was denied tenure. She was taking anti-depressants to just get through the day. Despite best efforts to sympathize with her and dodge the land mines she targeted me with vengeance, for what? I never figured it out. So sad what she had to go through and what she did to others.


  15. What a brilliant series of blogs, Historiann! For the last 2 years I have been working in a department full of bullies and now I realize that I am not alone. I knew there were similar issues elsewhere but it is nice to see people coming forth with similar experiences. You hit the nail on the head: the bullies hate change. It will never change until the power structure changes and that is not likely to happen in my department. I am continually reminded that I will not be renewed if I do ANYTHING to make the tenured faculty upset. Who the hell can function in an environment like that? I am working on getting out but I am finding it very difficult. I feel like getting out of teaching altogether.

    Why do highly educated people feel that the “Because I had to go through this, so do you” attitude is acceptable? This is supposed to be academia!


  16. GayProf, I’m not saying that the move can’t be done — I’ve done it myself! When someone is a young neophyte, however, and most suseptible to bullying, then the move is a bit more difficult. I’ve found in my own experience that, after the first two (one in Texas, which seems to be a breeding ground), I had the wisdom to recognize the behavior from a mile away and had the contacts and work experience to get the heck out. In fact, that was when I realized that co-workers could be better references than supervisors because they know exactly what you do from day to day.

    SF, your experience was terrorizing. What horrible horrible people! I like your description of the bullying environment as one on a continuum of totalitarianism because this is, after all, what Historiann is getting at and what those nasty commenters at the Chronicle aren’t understanding. The problem is not just the one bully, the problem is the system that allows, enables, and protects bullies, and makes them models for effective behavior.

    Historiann, I’ve been under a rock! I did make it to Berks, and was a tad overwhelmed with all of the fantastic panels and people and research. I was out of town all last week, as well, but a post is coming. Suffice to say right now, you all did a wonderful job! My goal is now to present next time, or at one of the Little Berks.


  17. Pingback: Suburban Guerrilla » Blog Archive » Bullying

  18. Thanks for these posts—I was bullied all last year and am trying to get my head together to decide how to deal with it this year. And I’m in a Unionized faculty; the reps are no help at all. My situation is not as bad as most, in that I am tenured, well published, & respected in my field outside the U. When the bully slandered me to people in the upper administration, I tried to fight back, and was told by my chair to drop it. Fine, whatever. It has nevertheless made me a different person at work, and I cannot imagine how bad this would be if I were untenured or less powerful outside the U.

    But I have an idea about some structural change that really might help in the long term make sure others have a better situation in future. Why not change the evaluation structure so that administrators are evaluated annually BY THE PEOPLE THEY SUPERVISE? That way, a “good boss” or one who can get a promotion, is one who is fair, treats employees with respect, does not flip out and yell, does not pick on people, does not slander and say malicious things, etc etc. We profs are evaluated by our students; why not let chairs and deans be evaluted by the profs and staffers they have charge over? And give these things teeth—one year of bad evals = no pay raise; 2 bad years= no pay raise & a letter of concern in the official file; 3 bad years = removed from power! Maybe the assessment-obsessed could set this up for us? What do you think?


  19. Clio B.–I saw the story of your travails over the past two weeks! I’m so sorry–I hope it didn’t diminish your pleasure in the two conferences too much.

    Jane, Calhuwassee River Rat, and LitProf2–I’m sorry to hear about your experiences. This thread is turning into an old-fashioned consciousness-raising! LitProf2–our department solicits anonymous annual evaluations of the Chair by the faculty. It’s not a huge department, and with a truly evil chair there would be risks–but it’s one mechanism for someone to draw attention to a dysfunctional or bullying relationship. (Although, given the way that bullies can make the whole work environment toxic, it may be the case that your colleagues wouldn’t back you up because you may serve the useful purpose of being the scapegoat. They want to believe that it won’t happen to them, so they’re happy to let it happen to you.)

    Jane, I hope you were able to get out of your bad job, and CRR, I hope you’ll be able to escape soon, too. On the subject of depression in academia, go see today’s post at The Clutter Museum, and some of her earlier work.


  20. LitProf2 – We evaluate our chair but it is problematic. Last year, I left several comments to explain my evaluation and the chair was able to figure out who said what. Then he brought up the issue in a department-wide email and during a department meeting. I realized after last year that the process is more of a “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” exercise. The department faculty all gave the chair good marks but badmouthed him behind his back. He, in turn, gave the faculty good teaching evaluations. At least I have some say in the chair evaluation process. Ironically, 1984 is college-wide book this coming year.


  21. Academic bullying, or “mobbing,” is epidemic. The doctoral program process actually weeds out the strongest people. So the ones with terminal degrees are the ones most apt to put up with cruel politics and manipulation. For some reason (and the literature is unclear about correlation), mobbing is most apt to take place in female-dominated fields like social work and education (check out Elizabeth Reichert’s work at So. Illinois Univ. regarding her own horrible experiences and how she has had to eat crow to survive).

    I admire the people who fight bullying or mobbing ESPECIALLY on behalf of other people. But academia is full of cowards. So nothing will change. Kissinger was right.


  22. this is probably far too simplistic a question, but what about direct confrontation? it doesn’t have to be screaming and shouting and in fact, that is contrary to your end goal, because that is likely what the instigator is seeking.

    academia is, oddly enough, to be filled with a lot of highly verbal people; that’s why personal attacks get vicious as all get go but you very rarely hear about one professor duking it out with another, despite often dancing across that nebulous line of “fighting words” that would get the speaker (perhaps literally) gutted in your average bar.

    unfortunately, such are the games people play when looking for status, which is a big game all of us play. that’s probably never going to change. and workplace backbiting and sniping are one very difficult thing; hard to defend against, beyond being conscientious, but that’s unfortunately the way rumor mills go.

    but directly abusive behavior, like the professor mentioned above with email and meeting issue…it’s absurd that people on their same level would tolerate that. i worked in a non-profit environment (another place where the emotionally-damaged and the monomaniacal meet to screw with each other) where the head boss lady was, to put it gently, completely out of her gourd schizoid. she was alternately mean and petulant, nice and incredibly hostile, both forgetful and endlessly vengeful. in an all female-office, minus my own token self, she was a big fan of screaming and then making up for the screaming with small gifts and other odd (to my mind) touches. now, she only screamed at me once, a spittle-flecked rage over a very, very minor issue, and *never* did it again.

    however, i neither complained nor argued, and here’s why:

    1) overly-emotional arguing is *what they want.* at least, this is what their tactics tell us; frankly, i don’t give a fig what they want and neither should you! don’t give them what they want. some people enjoy the emotional opera. i say phooey on opera. opera is for fancy people in fancy dresses, and unless you work at the opera house that’s never going to be the case.

    2) don’t get upset, ever. in fact, if you can avoid reacting at all, the better. the best way to interrupt a tirade is to stare at their forehead. they can’t see you’re looking at their forehead, so it looks like you’re giving them a thousand yard stare. in an environment where
    flight or fight responses are generally tuned to flight, this neutral switch is jarring in the extreme.

    3) insults are the last refuge of people who suck at subtlety. it also works well for herding sheep, which in a high risk, paranoid work environment, with so many vying for so few coveted tenure spots…you’re going to have an abundance of easily-cowed, fearful people running about. (not to mention those poor demi-humans, grad students)

    3) don’t make statements – ask short questions instead. this derails anger like nothing else on earth. it’s a bit like tai chi but without the neat outfits and cool wispy beards.

    4) just indirectly cut them off. turn around halfway through the abusive tirade and point at a picture on the wall. “you know, i’ve never understood why this picture was hung here.” this is absolutely infuriating for someone who is used to their words being stronger than bullets and twice as awesome. the indirect message is “you are not even as interesting as this terrible painting.”

    mobbing is probably more common in female-dominated environments because most men are going to be more likely, even in academia, to eventually resort to violence when pushed too far. violence, like msg, is a great leavening agent in social conflicts and a way of concretely demonstrating that “enough is enough.” it also scares the dickens out of people, sometimes involves the cops and otherwise hinders life.

    but on the other hand, you do get neat scars. is there anyone who doesn’t dig cool scars?

    anyhoo, if direct confrontation isn’t your bag of lucky charms – and in academia it is probably less common than yellow moons, purple stars and green clovers – or simply isn’t possible due to an old boys/girls club networks and the like, then perhaps a run of some psy-ops is in order. violence may not solve anything but fighting fire with chemical foam usually does.

    some free ideas (invite your colleagues if you think they are of sufficient backbone, but each person added to your psyops cabal will increase the risk of detection due to the oft-mentioned current of terminal wuss-dom.):

    a) come up with a theme song to sing while they’re in the room – make sure it has no possible racial, sexual, social, political, economic, material, immaterial, theological, metaphoric, metaphysical or anything else someone could immediately take offense at. while this may appear to be nearly impossible in your particular environment, you can always pick something by blondie.

    b) low grade abstract “harassment.” put a post-it note on his/her door that says “DOOR” on it. when it’s removed, put it up again. obviously one should disable cctv in the area, and failing that, bribe campus security. if you can do it while they’re out in the bathroom, particularly in a high-traffic area, you might start seeing them lashing out at whomever happens to be in the hallway at the time.

    c) you can move up into fetishes and other folk magics; a small doll made out of your offending colleague’s most recent published paper can be a creepy addition to any office environment. you don’t have to go that extra mile and collect samples of their hair or menstrual blood, but it helps!

    d) label food in the department fridge with his name. a nice donut if they’re overweight or a steak if they’re vegan is too obvious; but vegan rice pudding for a vegan? scrumptious AND creepy!

    e) find their okcupid profile. this seems obvious but there’s so much more potential than the usual romantic comedy sideplot ripped off from that cyrano dude. for starters – begin a flirtatious relationship that ends with a fake suicide! recruit them into a cult that doesn’t exist! get them to send nude pictures!

    (ps: if you don’t know what tunnelers and anonymizers are, use a friend’s computer off-campus)

    remember: you’re not going to break the law here, just their spirit.

    as bad as things may get, and lord knows it can be pretty bad, i think comparing it in any real way with an abusive relationship seems to do more to contribute to the initial problem. it’s not just because academics do not regularly cap each other for real or imagined slights, commit sexual assaults upon rivals or shoot a professor, drown his grad assistants and then grease themselves because they spent their whole lives equating love with possession.

    it’s also because as economically hobbled as newly-minted phds are, you can always get out. they’re not going to track you down and shoot you at your new job.

    and if they do, well, buy a crossbow, and in the immortal words of g. gordon liddy:

    “They’ve got a big target on there, ATF. Don’t shoot at that, because they’ve got a vest on underneath that. Head shots, head shots…. Kill the sons of bitches.”

    perhaps not exactly the same thing, but you get the idea.


  23. Cahulawasseee River Rat, your experience with the chair evals is suggestive. I guess I would say that they might work to fix problems in some departments, but they’re much likelier to work in functional departments.

    S-Whit: there are people of principle and courage who have Ph.D.s and professorships, but unfortunately, they’re not always a functioning majority in all departments everywhere. My basic point of view is that academia has its eccentricities compared to other work environments. Tenure raises the stakes for everyone–bullies and the bullied alike (see my posts on tenure, and also those of Tenured Radical, from earlier this spring.) But I don’t think that people in academia are any more or less corrupt than people in other lines of work.

    And dhex: Direct confrontation is clearly the only way to go. (I personally am not into the gaslighting and manipulative tricks you suggest–in fact, following up on some of your suggestions would probably lose victims of bullying some if not all of their allies, and leave them vulnerable to a harrassment charge!)

    Finally, a note to all commenters: I guess I should have been clearer in my initial post, which was mostly prankishly titled “run away!” In my own case, I went with direct confrontation of my aggressors, seeking the advice and assistance of administrators higher up in the university, and silent cooperation with allies who tried to fight back on my behalf within the department behind closed doors. But this only meant that (as so many people have testified earlier in the thread) the attempts to discipline and punish accelerated. I stayed in my first job for FOUR years, so no one can accuse me of “quitting” or “running away” without exhausting every above-board strategy. (In fact, I think I can be fairly accused of fantasizing that I was “SuperProf,” whose powers were so transcendent that she could change her department and make it a happy and nurturing place for everyone! Well, I was still in my 20s and very early 30s then!) Some work environments are so broke that individuals must look out for themselves, and after Voltaire, “cultivez notre jardin” (tend our own garden).


  24. As some have already noted, the bullying is part of a larger context in a profession where people spend a lot of time sniping, plotting, taking revenge, humiliating, abusing…I better stop there. This is a workplace (academic departments) where until recently, sexual harassment was widely accepted and condoned. We all suffer a hangover from the good old-boy days. A lot of this behavior, despite some of the examples in the discussion, comes from men. This year I was treated very rudely twice, and in one case I sent the person an email asking the guy to be more civil. He apologized, and we are on good working terms. Of course, having tenure and being a low-level administrator allowed me to call out this sr. professor. In another case, I began making plans to get back the person. (I cannot claim to rise above it.) But I thought better, in part because this is a woman who is kind of a mess and thus I do want to try to rise above it.

    The million dollar question is difficult to answer because a lot of it is about behavior and workplace environment. People have a lot of independence and time, and they feel empowered to do and say things. But I suppose we can all model more professionalism (as one term for it) — and definitely people with tenure and in positions to respond should challenge not only bullying but other forms of abuse, however subtle. Lawsuits are an interesting strategy, particularly if there is a strong gendered component to the bullying. Universities, after all, will respond if it affects the bottom line. And that may be why historiann’s former employer continues to search for assistant professors. The salary remains at the assistant level and there may be years when the position goes unfilled (as the dept searches, etc.), and that amounts to salary savings.


  25. Rad, that’s a chilling scenario, but a plausible one! (But, you’d think that eventually, even the most unscrupulous Deans would get tired of forking over money to facilitate search after search for the same position. Searches cost money, too–a lot, actually.) Your administrator’s point of view illustrates my educated guess, which is that departments are left on their own to work things out, because the turmoil caused by a bully or several bullies affects mostly just people in their own departments. It doesn’t bother the Dean at all to see Assistant Professors come and go–after all, ze’s not on the search committee year after year after year…

    Good for you for listening to the better angels of your nature. That’s in theory what power is for–your polite e-mail made much more of an impression on her coming from the Associate Vice-Dean of Student Outcomes Assessment (or whatever), than it would have coming from you as a mere Associate Professor of Chumpology!


  26. Well, I hate to be a spoiler. Based on my experience and the extensive research I’ve done, there is no way out and there is no solution. You either leave or become very ill, and perhaps suicidal. I tried direct confrontation–a memo and a conversation–and was bullied into writing a conciliatory email stating how “productive” our conversation was. This went on record and was used against me later on. I was also retaliated for writing the initial grievance memo. Two months later, I was blindsided into a meeting with my supervisor and her supervisor, the senior vice president (a cold-blooded meglomaniac, and an African American, btw) and given a memo called “Position Duties and Responsibilities,” written in collusion with the director of human resources. I was told that this memo was a response to my grievance memo and that such a response–clearly a mobilization to set me up to be fired–was HR “policy,” which it was not. Let me also say that my contributions to the honors program and the university were exemplary. Such a memo had nothing to do with my job performance. So much for the direct address.

    Now for the formal grievance process. Forget it. I went through it and was stonewalled the whole way through. Such processes are “fa show,” and nothing else. When I made my last appeal (by the way, if you do go through the formal grievance process, you will be mired in documentation–your life will become all about documentation–I’ve got 535 pages myself.

    Once you are on the other side, you are on the other side. One more story, this one from the institution both Historiann and I were employed. I was a “diversity hire” (proudly). Three years into my time there, as the department was getting ready for a search, the dean came to a department meeting to explain to our white-boy yahoos the importance of looking for diversity when hiring. He instructed us to look at “promise” over “record.” During this conversation, I explained how much I appreciated this approach. HIred 1/2-way into my dissertation, I was one of those promising candidates. The problem, however, was that with the high teaching load at this university, it was almost impossible to build a record. I suggested we include a pre-tenure leave for such hires so that they could write more productively. He responded that the university already provided leaves. Still on fairly good terms with my department and the chair, I received support in requesting a leave for myself. After my 4th-year review, however, the chair came into my office and told me that the dean had changed his mind and come up with an alternative plan: instead of being released from my 3 classes, I would be released from 2, teach 1, and “pay back” the other two by teaching for free sometime in the future before tenure. I told her I needed to think about it, and she, agitated, insisted that I tell her the next morning. That night, I spoke to the goofy guy I was dating–a sculptor going to a community college for engineering, in other words, someone with no connection to the university, no Koolaid–who responded that they were asking me to do more work for the same amount of money. He was right, and after receiving an email at 9 am the next day, I declined the offer. From that point on, the entire department stopped talking to me. No one understood why I would turn down such a “good deal.” My thought in return was that academics will go to great lengths to convince themselves that dog shit is caviar. In other words, to reference my comment from yesterday, I did not accept their definition of happiness–laying down and taking it up the ass for being a delinquent girl who, according to my chair, did not know how to budget my time (she actually sat me down with a yellow pad to make a timeline for me). Once you do not accept the terms, you are done. And, btw, so much for diversity.

    Let me also say that HR is NOT your friend. These people are bots, and they are trained to be so as part of this totalitarian work climate (the HR enterprise keeps growing, btw). I could not even get my complaint filed in this person’s personnel file at the second job (although mine was loaded). I was also told during my first meeting with HR that I did not have much of a case because there were no other formal complaints. Go figure.

    I hate to be so hardline, but I do think the scenario is radically grave. If we don’t confront this reality, then we will not get very far. Unions, too, are a bust. So adversarial they are not. At my last place of employment, the union would not even advocate for women faculty who felt that they were being saddled unfairly with too much committee/caretaking work. Not the answer.

    While I was going through my last situation, I came across a website by Tim Field, which helped me immensely. Because he passed away, the website is no longer active. But his book, Bully in Sight, is a very good resource for understanding what happens to bully victims, and why.


  27. Hi SF–I think you’re right about there being no good answer to the “million dollar question,” at least when the proportion of bullies reaches a tipping point: your only option is to stay and get sicker (or get co-opted), or to leave. Direct confrontation plus a supportive Chair or Dean might be effective if you’re dealing with one or two jerks in a much larger unit. But your unit in the honors program was (as I recall) only 4 people, with your bully the Director, you, and two others. That’s a high percentage of bullies, even if there was only one (although the other 2 were enablers who were happy that they weren’t the ones targeted.)

    Good point about HR, too. They represent the interests of the institution, not the interests of workers.


  28. I recall a study written years ago that showed that most people who are changing jobs cite “higher pay” as the reason, but many of them are lying because the new jobs pay the same or even less.

    Better working conditions, including escaping a “hostile work environment” is often the real reason.

    I’ve worked jobs I hated even though the pay was good. The way I was treated made the pay insufficient.


  29. Hi myiq–thanks for stopping by to comment. Interesting observation about the money–I guess people think it’s the only legitimate reason to quit a job, and that if you resign a position, it had better be for more money or people will think you’re an idiot. But as you suggest: mental health and happiness may be worth more than gold!


  30. Having just left tenured positions for untenured (and, in my husband’s case, non-tenure track) positions at another university, we’ve heard our share of “How the hell could you do that?” sorts of comments. And yeah, it’s been a difficult transition in some ways. But I think that tenure is an idol faculty need to stop worshiping, at least in the “better tenured than dead” sense that many people have. Tenure is only liberating if you’re somewhere you can imagine being happy and productive for the rest of your career. When you’re in a self-destructive department, tenure might as well be a cat o’ nine tails to whip yourself with.


  31. Hi Rose! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I think you’re right: giving up tenure in a bad department is the only rational response to an abusive work environment, in the way that divorce is the only rational response to an abusive marriage. You can get married/tenured again if that’s what you want, so it’s stupid to fetishize the status at the risk of your health and happiness. In cases like yours, you really have to question the value of tenure: what exactly was it doing for you in your former job?

    Hope all is well with you and your spouse in your new positions.


  32. Some of us sadly do not have the option to leave but we are made to leave through penalties, and disciplinary procedures that are unjust. We then suffer depression, PTSD and other conditions… Sometimes, by the time you are bullied it is too late…


  33. I have worked really hard to get into honors year at the University of Canterbury and I just treated like shit on a daily basis. Most days I just want to die because nothing I do works. They say “suck it up, ignore them etc etc,” but it just doesn’t work. Even the ex academic women exam supervisors are bullies. I will never forget a particular experience this year where I was shouted at, and told that I was stupid, it cut me to the bone and I just spent the first half an hour of the exam in a daze. I hate that place, everyday it just makes me sick. I want to get my honors but I reckon that they will do anything to break me. They would rejoice if they learnt that I was found dead with deep wounds on my wrists. Then “she’ll be right, mate,” as the popular New Zealand saying goes.


  34. Kelly, you really must run, and run away fast and NOW. I’m so sorry that you’re being treated that way, but if they don’t appreciate your work or encourage you, you risk damage to your physical and mental health. Drop out and work for a while, or find another university to finish you degree.


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  37. Pingback: Academic Bullies

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