Academic workplace bullying: run away, indeed!

Every time I post on bullies, I get linked to by national blogs (thanks Chronicle of Higher Education, Suburban Guerrila, and Inside Higher Ed!) and the outpouring of misery is disturbing and sobering.  The hair-raising stories recounted in the comments here, here, and here have really touched me, and I hope all of you are on to better jobs and much happier lives, and if not, that you will be very soon.  For the rest of you, my wish is that you’ll all be on the lookout for incipient bullying in your workplaces, and that you’ll intervene on someone else’s behalf to preserve the collegiality and mental health that are the bedrock of all functional academic workplaces.

When I titled my posts on bullying earlier this week “Don’t sue–run for your lives!” I did so somewhat prankishly (as in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with King Arthur and his army always screaming, “run away! run away!”)  Some commenters here and over at the Chronicle here thought that I was giving blanket advice–that people should not try to improve things and that they should just resign from a bad job.  Of course, everyone has to make hir own calculations about whether to stay and fight, or whether just to “run away” as fast as possible.  But, I was disturbed by the judgmental tone of some of the comments that implied that “running away” was irresponsible, and your stories have convinced me that “running away” is not such bad advice after all.  (At least, you should consider putting it near the top of your list of options if you’re currently being bullied at work.)

I didn’t say this in my initial post, but it took me four years to “run away” from my bad job–four years of telling allies about the aggressive things that people said to me, four years of confronting one chair and then another when they said demeaning and hostile things to me, two years of having one chair either blow up at me or give me unsolicited advice about my personal life, two years of another chair telling me that “you need to teach more broadly,” because of three student evaluation forms that complained that all I ever talked about was “blacks, women, and Indians, not American history,” two years of that chair threatening my tenure, two years of meeting with the dean, only to be told that “you have to understand, Historiann, that you’re a very intimidating person.”  That’s right:  Historiann, the youngest and most junior person in that department was told that she was intimidating to tenured professors a decade, or two, or three older than she!  I was told that my self-confidence and (very modest!) successes made my senior colleagues uncomfortable, so maybe I should try inviting them out to lunch to make nice!  What did I get for my four years of trying to draw attention to the problems in that department?  Like most of you have testified, the only thing most of us get for following the faculty manual and reporting bullying behavior is retaliation!  At that point, I started to photocopy my Vita and send out letters of application.  Thank goodness someone wanted me–so I packed my wagon and drove it west as fast as my horses could run!  (That’s me pictured above!)

As enraging as my story is, the comments many of you have left (here, here, and here) were filled with truly hair-raising stories much worse than my own.  While I still think that everyone has to make hir own decision about what to do about an abusive workplace, because of all of your comments, I now believe that “run away” is actually pretty good advice, especially for untenured people.  Because I lived in a household with a second income, because I had wonderful friends at another local university who were my sounding board and refuge, because I am a highly self-confident person, and because I was still an Assistant Professor, I had a lot more options than many other victims of bullying have.  (I’ve noticed the tendency for bullies–male and female alike–to prey on unmarried/un-partnered women, women who don’t have the back-up plan of another household income, and who therefore are perceived as economically and emotionally vulnerable.  My second household income gave me the liberty to resign even if I hadn’t found another job.)  Given the lack of support from department chairs and deans reported by so many of you in your experiences of being bullied, it seems that leaving sooner rather than later, before you lose sleep, sanity, and good health, before you’re committed to a lifetime of happy pills and therapy, before you jeopardize (or lose) your relationship, your family, and the rest of your career, is not such bad advice after all.

I understand people’s concerns that if bullied people just go away, that workplaces will never reform themselves, but criticizing victims for throwing in the towel is monstrously unfair.  There is a big industry now selling advice about how to deal with workplace bullies–and the people in that industry can’t sell as many books as they’d like to if their advice boils down to “get out as fast as you can.”  They’re selling hope to people in a bad situation, and some of their ideas for combating bullies may prove useful to many people.  But suggesting that the victims of bullies have the primary responsibility of cleaning up the mess after suffering the bullying seems, well, bullying!  Bullies are the ones who need to change, and their enabling co-workers are the ones who need to force those changes on the bullies and in themselves.  What do you think a victim of bullying owes the department or institution that is bullying hir?  (Hint:  that’s a rhetorical question!)  My answer?  Jack crap

Workplaces that tolerate bullies and do little if anything to assist the victims don’t tend to generate a great deal of loyalty or affection.  (My bad job was at a religiously affiliated university, which loved to deploy the rhetoric of family and community when it came to extracting unpaid work from staff and faculty.  But somehow, we weren’t all “family” or “community” when staff and faculty needed redress, or when students were raped on campus.)  If victims want to assist in a Great Reformation, then by all means they should.  But of all people in abusive workplaces, victims are the ones with the least responsibility for making changes.  Most of us tried.  Most of us were repaid with  more abuse.  So, I think it’s more than OK for most of us to resign and say, “happy trails!”  (Or, you could write a book about your experiences in a bullying environment like this guy!)

35 thoughts on “Academic workplace bullying: run away, indeed!

  1. I so much agree with everything you’ve said here. There have been a few instances in my life, and in the lives of people close to me, when there were choices about whether to sue wrong-doers, though not these bullying situations exactly. In all cases, after careful consideration about the personal costs og going through such a process, decisions were made not to go forward. In at least one of those cases, a court decision in favour of my brother-in-law, had he chosen to sue, would have gone some distance towards making patients safe from a rather reckless doctor and perhaps given my brother-in-law’s family some financial security. Some advisors got really stuck on that first issue – how can you let him get away with this? he’s gonna do it again.

    The thing is, these problems are usually of a systemic nature, even when we are focussed on individual transgressors. When you look at the institutions they work in, there is often something “bullying” about them, in terms of the concentration of power or rigid hierarchies or lack of adequate and responsive complaints procedures and so forth. In fact, I would think that it takes COLLECTIVE action to solve these kinds of problems and collective action distributes the responsibility more evenly, giving better protection to vulnerable individuals. Nice that what actually works overall is likely better for each person as well. Except that, so often, these kinds of processes are not available.

    If you’re not in a work environment that provides that kind of support, I’d say run for sure. And even if you are, surely everyone has the right to decide for themselves what kinds of personal sacrifices they’re able to make for the common good.


  2. As one who did sue, I can only agree with you on the limits of the law. It costs a lot of money, and every time something happened with the lawsuit, it reminded me of how awful things were.

    What kept me sane was having friends outside the institution (and in the institution outside my department) who served as a reality check.


  3. Susan–you should write your book one of these days!

    And hysperia–yes, focus on the system, not the individual bullies and victims. That’s precisely the problem that I have with much of the advice for combatting bullying that’s out there–it presupposes that individuals can accomplish meaningful reforms without having to overhaul the system that created the problem.


  4. Yes, the system. That is what I have been trying to communicate as well. And in this, as I addressed in a post a few days ago, a serious interrogation of the tenure system must be undertaken as well, for this is a breeding ground of bullying.

    Congrats, Historiann, on getting a nod in the Chronicle. You are awesome!

    I hesitate to suggest this, but perhaps some of us might think about an anthology of intellectual nonfiction addressing the bullyiing and totalitarian nature of the contemporary university, the university as privileged corporation?


  5. I was going to say something and then found myself unable to speak. So I will say this instead: Sometimes surviving is as big an act of resistance as “fighting back.”


  6. Prof bw: thanks for stopping by to comment! Indeed, survival is key. I really dislike the concept that it’s up to the victim to fix the problem. (And, Clio B: there’s a new book called Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles, about a guy stuck in AA purgatory, just like you were after the Berks! I thought of you when I heard about it today.)


  7. There is also some way that people across the political spectrum in the academy have utterly bought into the “private solutions” for institutional problems mantra pushed by the New Right. You know that agenda out in the real world — Are you poor? Be more virtuous! Have a crappy school? Teach your kid at home! And so on. Individualism in the academy isn’t new, but the assumptions about self-help bleed out of every anxious email and comment I get, particularly from those on the tenure track. And I would argue that all of us, but particularly those of us who benefited from affirmative action and were then hung out to dry in an academic world that was still hostile to our intellectual paths and identities, are more than a little confused about how to survive intellectually around hostile people. This is aided and abetted by well-meaning senior colleagues. The way institutions make us all responsible for our own professional success, regardless of the obstacles, is one of the grievous wrongs of our system (people don’t get your work in women’s history? Take them out to lunch and explain the field to them!)

    But one thing that is particularly bad is that even our allies no longer see reforming academic institutions (and I mean by this practices, like promotion and tenure, as well as the larger “institution” that houses such practices) as a viable path, only working it better and filling it with more people “like us” (whatever that means.) One of the salient bits of fun accompanying my Unfortunate Events was a) the notion that everyone, regardless of teaching load, institutional obligations, or the hostility/warmth of colleagues, has the same opportunities to publish in a timely manner. The other was that our tenure and promotion system worked, and that it had only been abused by evil doers. After a certain point, it became clear to me that like space junk ejected from rockets, my promotion case could probably circulate through committees for years, and that I was supposed to endure this emotional hell *and* conclude a book project that had been savaged by trolls at the same time. Enemies believed that this path would relieve them of responsibility for the damage they had done, since ultimately, the book would come out and they would be “right.” But many of my allies also thought this was the only viable path short of a lawsuit, and still point to their ability to keep my case “in process” as a great victory over our enemies. Anyway, once I got it that that was the plan, I called the AAUP, which I should have done at least a year earlier.



  8. Hi, TR–yes, the bootstrap theory of professional success. I’ve bought into it too–why else would I have stayed in that abusive “relationship” with my erstwhile colleagues if I didn’t think that somehow, someway, if I just worked hard enough and showed what a earnest and committed teacher I was, that I could change their minds (unlike all of those other incompetent broads who had preceded me? Right. I recognize the delusional thinking of my perspective at the time.)

    You called the AAUP–what a wonderful idea (I belong now), and one that NEVER occured to me before. This I think is endemic to the younger (or younger-ish) generation of academics who left grad school in the 1990s and 2000s. We’re so far from thinking about using professional organizations (let alone unionizing)–but of course, that’s in part why they were founded! Great advice–readers, make a note of it. Consult the AAUP if you’re being jerked around. (It might be a nice gesture if you joined, too!)


  9. “I’ve noticed the tendency for bullies–male and female alike–to prey on unmarried/un-partnered women, women who don’t have the back-up plan of another household income, and who therefore are perceived as economically and emotionally vulnerable.”

    I’ve definitely noticed this. That’s convenient, too, since then one can’t show a misogynist or homophobic pattern so easily.


  10. Also: leaving *is* the best idea. And don’t think it isn’t a way of fighting: places that can’t retain faculty are pretty obvious. You can also warn people, which is pretty powerful.


  11. Clio B.–SF is proudly and relievedly free of academia now, so I don’t think that’s the direction she’ll want to go. I hope she does write about her experiences–she’s an accomplished writer who has won several arts grants for her writing before, and has published in academic journals and outside of them. But–doing a panel about her experiences in an academic forum is probably the last thing she wants to do!

    Prof. Z.–I agree that places that can’t retain faculty are glaringly obvious. However, there are always new recruits who buy into the bootstrap theory that Tenured Radical described above. I too believed the propaganda of my colleagues when they said that my four precessors “just didn’t work out,” and reassured me that “you won’t have the same problems!” Those who tried to reassure me were in fact my friends, who were trying to reassure themselves that they didn’t work in such a colossolly f’ed up department. (In my department, one catchphrase was, “at least we’re not as bad as English.” Meanwhile, English had improved a little bit, but no one in History wanted to notice, because they were so invested in their identity as “at least we’re not the worst.”)


  12. P.S. Another common line is that when Persons X and Y retire or leave, all will improve. What one then discovers is that other people step into roles X and Y, and/or that Persons X and Y were not the sole or even necessarily the main causes of the problems.


  13. Well, I did a quick search and did not find anything specifically dealing with bullying in academia, so there’s a niche (and, Historiann, when I did a google search, guess whose site popped up first?). I looked at Bosquet’s site (who lives close to me!), which is great, and his work is very important, but he does not address bullying per se. What I do not envision is a book consisting of mere of testimony with editorial remarks sprinkled in. (Historiann, did I read an article out of the Feminist Waves book? A woman in anthropology? While cathartic to read at the time, that’s the kind of narrative I would not be interested in.) I would like to see reflective, critically intellectual essays with personal situations as evidence. I’m not really sure what this would look like, and perhaps I spoke ahead of myself. But I will toss out this suggestion: the academic career and traumatic experience. We have not yet addressed this head-on in our discussions. I have read a lot about trauma, much of my art is about trauma, and I have many resources I could share. For those of you who have shared stories on this site, I would recommend looking into this; you will find yourselves. Let me know what you think of my angle and let me know if you want a book list. SF


  14. SF–thanks for checking back in. Yes, the Feminist Waves, Feminist Generations book had one essay by Jennifer Pierce specifically about a bullying sociology department, although I don’t think she used the noun “bullying.” I recommended Bosquet’s book as well as many of the other essays in FWFG because they address the corporitization of the University over the past 2 decades, because of the ways in which that too has contributed mightily to making universities comfortable places for bullying to flourish.

    I think your idea is a great one, especially because of your expertise in autotheoretical writing. (Witness the tremendous interest this post has inspired here, as well as over at the Chronicle–last I looked there were more than 50 comments, most of them from people who want to share their stories.) Story telling–describing and illustrating the problem with specific examples–seems like what has to happen first, in order for us to make bulling an issue that people watch out for and try to counteract in the workplace.

    Perhaps you’d like to do a guest post on trauma, with a bibliography? Let me know.


  15. TR – I have noticed the desire to “rearrange the furniture” rather than dismantle the master’s house and I too am deeply concerned by it. It is hard to weather conversations with people who think it is simply a matter of changing the guard and worse to try and discuss that with people invested in the individualism model you mention. When you say something horrible happened and the response is “I suspect you did something wrong b/c no one benefits from behaving that way” it teaches you to be silent.

    SF/Z/historiann – there is research being done on workplace bullying with regards to race and gender in anthro. At least two calls were out last year and I think there was a panel planned for this past AAA (but I didn’t make it, so I don’t know for sure). A former colleague also initial planned to do her research on it then switched to social service agencies after finding out how hard it was to get people to willing talk about or publish articles on it once they knew it was going to go to print.


  16. forgive me. that should read “A former colleague also initially planned to do her research on it then switched to studying social service agencies after finding out how hard it was to get people to willingly talk about or publish articles on it once they knew it was going to go to print.”


  17. Hi Professor bw–thanks for the info. Over at the chronicle discussion of this issue, there are people there conspiring to name the dysfunctional departments (but there are questions about the anonymity of the people reporting on the bad departments. Given the abuses and misinformation perpetuated on the job search wikis–which were initially a great idea to help level the playing field–I think there are legitimate concerns about creating a website for reporting on bullying.)


  18. Hi historiann and friend SF,
    I mentioned the book idea to a grad school friend who teaches in a relatively well-functioning (!!) English department. She suggested the book include ethnographies of departments that don’t tolerate bullying. What are the commonalities between them? Can a strong dept chair stop abuse hirself, or does ze need upper administrative support?
    As historiann knows,I was bullied out of a t-track job at an institution where the dysfunction saturates every aspect of the place like a noxious smell (a rather apt analogy, actually). Even if the chair had had the moxie to stand up to department meanies, ze would have received no help from anyone “above” hir, even at the state higher ed commission level.
    I did call the AAUP. Given the particulars of my situation, the AAUP higher-up I spoke with (since retired) said there wasn’t anything I could do. First of all, I wasn’t a stellar employee in some ways–but salvageable, I think. Second,at my school, all department faculty (tenured and non) voted yearly whether to re-appoint non-tenured faculty. No standards applied. Some of my “colleagues” insulted me on their ballot; others obviously hadn’t read my file. All comments were anonymous, of course. So in my “terminal year,” I’d politely greet faculty members wondering if they’d been the one who wrote “Can’t even speak proper English” or “Nothing but trouble” or (read the file, dummy!)”poor publication record.”


  19. Hey, Ignatz–thanks for stopping by to comment. (You might be interested in the comment by Rose on this related post:

    Your former department’s review practices are totally screwed up. I’ve heard of other departments that let even untenured people vote on tenure cases–but yours is the only one that allows people to gratuitously insult you anonymously as they fire you. It’s like a crazed evil fraternity or sorority house over there.


  20. I’m not sure if this is still active, as there are no posts after 2008. I want to express my appreciation for you web pages on academic bullies and second your advice to get out of highly problematic departments as quickly as one can. I’ve been in one for 27 years. I did try to leave before I was eligible for tenure. Then I hoped that getting tenure would calm things down. Maybe a new chair or dean would help. Eventually the bullying did modify–but only to become mobbing. I’m exactly the type of faculty member you described as vulnerable: single, supporting an elderly mother, female.

    In rare instances, if one has a courageous and fair-minded administration, bullying and mobbing will be confronted. Even if I were lucky enough that such an administrator were to be hired at my university, I seriously doubt that there would be any substantive change in my situation. The department has a bullying culture. If there were only one bully, it might be possible to rein him in until he retires (which he could have done already). One bully just got tenure, and another is the chair. Yes, tenure-track bullies do exist.

    Staying to try to change the situation is long-shot, and I wouldn’t recommend taking on those odds. My biggest mistake was believing that a religiously-affiliated institution would have some commitment to practicing what they preach.


  21. Cherie–thanks for your comment. I’m sorry to hear about your situation, but I hope that tenure has given you the space you need to protect yourself and to build a career that is somewhat satisfying.

    Thanks also for sharing your data point about singleness and vulnerability–if I weren’t married to a burly guy who looks like Ernest Hemingway that I would have been treated even worse because they would have known that I was economically and emotionally more vulnerable.

    I think you’re exactly right that leadership is key to turning things around–but in humanities departments, most administrators don’t want to bother or spend the money and attention it would take.


  22. I was a victim of workplace mobbing at a large law firm where I worked for 3 1/2 years. All my performance evaluations were exemplary. Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer, and complained to the firm’s senior managers. The managers “investigated” and discovered that everyone I worked with had problems with me (big surprise!). The firm spoke to a psychiatrist behind my back — never having me speak with the psychiatrist personally, a violation of medical ethics — and the psychiatrist advised the firm that I was severely mentally ill, that my report of harassment was a product of mental illness, and that I might become violent. Within a week of my complaint, the firm fired me. They claimed there was a “lack of fit” between me and other employees.

    I wrote a case study of the harassment I experienced, which can be accessed at the following site:


  23. I have been bullied for the last two years since I started my tenure track position. Five faculty members left without a tenure before I started working in our Department. I have never met them. The reason is the politics in the Department; either you bring in large amounts of funding during your first year or the Chair starts making your life difficult in every aspects and talks to other faculty members badly about you so that at the end the your emails are not even answered. I am ignored, isolated, not taken seriously, my ideas are not appreciated and are always wrong, whatever I do is wrong and even my successes, such as having single author papers published and a book, and received small grants are simply not enough. Given the funding situation and financial crises, it is really hard to receive grants and funding. The job market is bad and I cannot just leave. I loved my research before I started working here and they hired me from a hot shot University, I was a dedicated and motivated and a happier person before I came to here. I feel really bad and I started not liking myself. I also have graduate students and what would happen to them if I leave the academia? I think I will be ready to leave research and academia for good after my students receive their degrees but I am not sure how long I can take this. I lost my love and passion towards research in this place. I became a very depressed person.

    Our Chair has all the politics in his hands and favors some of the faculty and ignores and treats others differently. Either you need to have very large amounts of grant funding in your first year or you need to be one of his good friends.

    I feel depressed and I do not see a way out. Its like not being alive anymore without knowing if there is a way out. I admire your new position and that you could escape from such an hostile environment.


  24. profb: I’m so sorry to hear about your situation. I think you’ve diagnosed your plight correctly. However, I would urge you not to worry about your students and just try to find a way out. The academic job market stinks more than ever, but if you’re willing to consider non-academic work (at least for a while) you might see that you have other options.

    Your colleagues probably feel very guilty to have recruited you into such a dysfunctional place. That may be one reason why you are being isolated. (Then again, those who remain might well be a big part of the problem–it’s hard to say.)

    If you can’t get out in the next few years, try to make alliances with people in other departments and programs. One of the consequences of bullying (and the attendant isolation that you feel) is that information isn’t circulating freely in your department and you are not in the loop w/r/t a number of things that might help you out. Get to know people who work in other units by attending seminars, inviting people out for lunch or coffee, and get to know them and insinuate yourself into more supportive spaces on campus. They may not be able to help you, but the very least, you’ll meet colleagues and make friends who will make you feel less personally isolated. But, they may also have ideas for you, or background information on your department, or a line on some startup funds that your Chair may never have told you about, all of which might be useful and get you re-energized about your research.


  25. At Binghamton University the bullying is institution wide and top down. In other words, the upper administration has set the stage for the bullying that takes place at the department level. The Deans fail to intervene even when conduct by faculty towards others is egregious. Victims are told that the bullying conduct aimed at them is justified–with reasons given that would knock your socks off (although identical conduct against a male by a female would not be tolerated and would likely result in the males circling the wagon and brutalizing the female). Males are routinely allowed to take credit for work completed by female faculty, are allowed to interfere with relationships between graduate students and female faculty members and are allowed to marginalize and discredit female colleagues without any concerns for consequences. Defenders of the university are quick to deny that this is possible because the university is gender balanced and many of the administrators, (and until recently the president) are female. Those who think having females in key positions makes gender discrimination and tolerance for bullying impossible are sadly mistaken. My topic area consists of 80% male faculty and 80% female graduate students. Guess which gender is viewed as more influential. Historically the male faculty have marginalized area women who usually leave after a brief period-never getting near tenure-and never setting foot in the town again. The women in the other areas that are gender balanced have had no reason to support those in my area since they often align themselves with the more powerful males. You don’t have to listen particularly carefully to hear the negative comments made to graduate students about the female faculty. Yeah, I am no longer silent. What a poor environment in which to train professional women (and men) and what a poor environment in which to be trained!


  26. Pingback: The Tattooed Professor has Some New Year’s Resolutions for Academics |

  27. To anyone reading this: fight back anonymously by 1. Go to a public computer (e.g., one at the University’s library). Do not log in! 2. Create an anonymous email address (gmail/yahoo/whatever). Be sure to remember your login name and password. 3. Go to, and create an anonymous account using your new anonymous email address. 4. Create a new review of your beloved department. In the headline put something like, “XYZ University, English Dept. – Bullying Encouraged” or ““PDQ University, Biology Dept – Bullying Rewarded.” Proceed to explain the bullying encouraged/rewarded scenario. Do not name names – Glassdoor will not publish reviews that contain identifying information (read their community rules for more info). Wash, rinse, repeat! Encourage your buddies to do the same. Eventually, your department and the university will have a very difficult time recruiting top talent due to the nature of the publicness of these reviews (since, everyone now uses sites like Glassdoor to scrutinize future employers). Once the bottom line is affected, the university/department will have to make some changes. Happy reviewing!


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