Academic bullying: these boots were made for walkin'

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a major article out now on bullying in the academic workplace, “Academic Bullies.”  I was interviewed and extensively quoted in it, so if you’re curious, you can read it to learn the heretofore undisclosed location of my first tenure-track job.  (Many thanks to the article’s author, Piper Fogg, who provided Historiann with the free link.  Piper is a young go-getter with her eye on the main chance, so look for her byline in other high profile publications in the years to come!)  I think the article is a good overview of the problem, it offers some possible solutions, it points to resources for people who find themselves in similar straits, and my hope is that it will draw attention to what many of us in the academic blogosphere know is a major problem in our work environments.

These boots of Historiann’s were made for walkin’, and I’ve never regretted my decision to walk out of that university, saddle up Old Paint, and ride on out to Baa Ram U.  I hope those of you who are still stuck in a bullying environment are busy photocopying your CVs and dossiers and will all have good luck on the job market this year.  Changing jobs is not possible for everyone–family obligations, medical issues, spousal employment, or other factors mean that not everyone is as free as I was to change jobs, but I strongly believe that it’s the shortest and fastest route to preserving your career as well as your physical and mental health.  Institutions always have more money and time than individuals, and if your department or college administrators are unwilling to intervene effectively on your behalf, then you owe them nothing.  You’ve already put up with more than should have been expected of you.

For those of you just tuning in, or finding yourself in newly desperate circumstances, here’s a roundup of my major posts on academic bullying:

Workplace bullies and the academy, March 28, 2008

Academic bullying and discrimination round-up, yee-haw!, April 10, 2008

Don’t sue–run for your lives! (part I), June 24, 2008

Don’t sue–run for your lives! (part II), June 25, 2008

Academic workplace bullying:  run away, indeed!, June 27, 2008.

0 thoughts on “Academic bullying: these boots were made for walkin'

  1. Pingback: Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » “Academic Bullies”

  2. Historiann, thanks for linking to this article. I found the resource section of most interest.

    It’s depressing to read how the culture of the corporate university transforms some professors into demons. Professors who bully, students ill-prepared for college-level work, exploited adjuncts and graduate students, administrators more concerned with profit and multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns than education — We’re watching the destruction of the non-elite, U.S. University. No wonder more and more Americans view the “academic elite” with suspicion.

    On a personal note, one year after you left your previous institution, I graduated from its main basketball rival, in Cincinnati.


  3. Ann, yes–many institutions are singing from the same hymnal, I’m afraid. That’s the frightening thing I learned from the comments on my previous posts on this topic–so many people say, “OMG it happened to me too,” or “OMG WTF it’s happening to me now.” Through the Berkshire Conference too, I’ve met so many people–many of whom are extremely prominent and highly regarded stars in our field, who have shockingly similar stories. I’m so glad you were able to escape too!

    And Ortho–UC is a fine school. I don’t take a position on college basketball games, and didn’t in the brief years that I was a “Flyer!”


  4. Historiann, looking good in the Chronicle!! I’m glad that administrator had to respond. Darn administrators! I was really interesting in something you said, and here I quote from the article

    “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.”

    You were talking about why you took the job despite some red flags about bullying, but I think this applies to a lot of us in a more general sense. For me, it involved taking a job in a part of the country where I would not want to live. But I was really grateful to have that job — and, for the most part, I was treated very well and had some nice colleagues. But still, I would not do it again. And that’s why I always warn potential grad students about the job market and how it functions.


  5. Yes–it would have been really hard to turn down the only job I was offered that year. Even knowing what I know now, I’m not sure I would have made a different decision. I’m just such a gosh-darned, cock-eyed optimist! But, I’ve seen people do very, very well on the job market after they’ve taken a year or two off to polish a manuscript and maybe do a little adjunct teaching. Not everyone is in a financial position to do that, but I could have made it happen for me.

    I was brainwashed by the notion that I had to take whatever tenure-track job was offered to me, otherwise I wouldn’t be seen as “serious” about my profession. I really don’t think that’s the case any more, if it ever was. (When we’re searching a position, we have no clue what jobs our candidates have or haven’t been offered, what they have or haven’t declined.) Clearly, I should have been more self-confident–instead, because of my lack of self-confidence in not telling the guy who yelled at me and talked down to me in job negotiations to shove it, I took a job that further undermined my confidence! (For a few years, anyway.)


  6. I am glad that you emphasized the possibility of leaving a bad academic scene. Too often I think we stick out hostile working environments because we are told that academic jobs are so rare that we will never possibly find another one.


  7. Hi, GayProf–you, Rad, and I all found second (better, oh so much better!) jobs. Hooray!

    I think one lesson of my experience is that there are some jobs, perhaps many jobs, that are worse than unemployment when you factor in the price you may pay in mental and physical health. Those of you who may be anxious about employment can see a silver lining here: that job that you didn’t get offered? Maybe it was one of those jobs!

    But, getting and keeping a good job is pretty great.


  8. Interesting to read in the Chronicle article, Historiann, what is surely true: department heads and many other administrators rarely have training in management where (one hopes) they might learn how to deal better with bullies. Yet surely it also remains important to have heads and other administrators who rise through the ranks, rather than replacing all those folks with (business-)management graduates. One might suggest that the highest ranks of administrators might generally do more to see that new chairs and heads be given appropriate management training; a failure to do so–too much willingness to let heads and chairs “simply” learn by doing–may save dollars and time in the short run, but it’s a short-sighted calculation. Certainly, when I served as an interim chair, I was not trained to deal with these kinds of things–and I might have grumbled at having to go through it, but I suspect now that it might have helped me at one or two points, too.


  9. Kudos to Historiann for highlighting the issue of bullying in the workplace. The prevalence of bullying is both alarming and grave. Like others who have posted on this blog, I have been repeatedly mobbed over the past decade and have been the target of hate mail and whisper campaigns, have received negative postings on Rate My Professor by fellow professors pretending to be students, have been followed to and from a classroom to see if I was teaching, had my office broken into, investigated through a background check (by colleagues) and more. I was not the only target. One colleague who was seen drinking at a College event was arrested for DWI driving home from the event. The bullies who were with him that evening did not take away his keys. Instead, they called the police. I could go on endlessly with these stories, for it has been a decade of nonsense by three who work as a team to target a handful of fellow faculty they deem to be threats.

    I applaud those that have already offered advice on how to handle bullies. I would, however, like to widen the discussion. My anger at the bullies is second only to my anger at co-workers and administrators who knew what was happening, privately offered support, but did nothing to stop it. Omission is commission, and to anyone reading this who has not been harassed, do something. Please recognize that the most likely reason that co-workers don’t speak out is that they are scared that if they do, then they will become victims. But notice the logic. The bullying has constrained the behavior of those who are not targeted, and hence when one person or group is bullied everyone is bullied.

    Second, for the time the targeted remains at the workplace, what are they to do? Very often bullies are master psychologists who utilize the “Big Lie” to undermine the target’s credibility. Repeat a falsehood frequently enough, and eventually everyone will believe it. Moreover, the bullies have changed the rules of the workplace so that no matter what the victim does, she/he loses. Stand up to the bully? Well unfortunately that only stops the behavior temporarily. Ignore the bully? Well you are going to be saddled with the anger of injustice unpunished. Leave your job or career? The bully then has either destroyed your career, or forced you unjustly to make a huge career decision for reasons other than what is in your best interested. Fight back through underhanded means? This would be easy and most gratifying. However, the bully would have reduced you to the same moral level as him, and consequently he wins.

    The only solution is managerial intervention. There has to be a zero tolerance policy, and violators must be dealt with immediately and severely. I have seen the difference strong management makes at my own college. Our new president immediately confronted the bullies, and while whispering still continues, the rest of the nonsense has stopped. Dignity has been restored and morale has started, albeit slowly, to improve.

    So, administrators please hear me! If you do not act, then you are most blameworthy and have sided with the bullies. Please act quickly and decisively. No one should have their health destroyed or their careers gutted, because of the behavior of a few contemptible individuals and the cowardice of coworkers. Your intervention is not a matter of discretion. It is an obligation.


  10. Tom, I totally agree with you: I too don’t want professional “managers” brought in, I want our (temporary) manager-colleagues to be better prepared for the challenges of administration.

    And D.A. Xue–what a tale. I’m always humbled by how much worse the experiences of others are by comparison to my small example. I agree with everything you say, but I especially want to highlight this:

    My anger at the bullies is second only to my anger at co-workers and administrators who knew what was happening, privately offered support, but did nothing to stop it. Omission is commission, and to anyone reading this who has not been harassed, do something.

    Man oh man, do I know what you’re talking about. That’s exactly right. It’s the people who avert their eyes and let it happen to you, because they’re so relieved that it isn’t them. You’re right, too, that retaliation is the only thing you get when you as an individual try to confront the problem. Unfortunately, in my case at my former institution, I was harrassed by two department chairs in succession, and because the Dean refused to intervene effectively, I hit the trail. I’m so glad to hear that you’ve got an effective leader who is confronting the problem directly. I hope that you continue to see improvement, and that your institution maneuvers the bullies into corners where they can’t lash out at others any longer.


  11. Historiann – Thanks for the words of solidarity. They are most appreciated. It is two and half hours after my first post, and my mind is still racing in rant-mode. While the external mobbing may have slowed/stopped, the internal turmoil takes considerable time and effort to exorcise. Alas.


  12. My dissertation director. My first tenure track job. My current job.

    I knew my dissertation directer was a jerk but I was shocked to find out in my first job that everyone was. I didn’t succumb to it then but I have done so more lately, and had to re study bullying so as to even recognize it and escape. I had been told so often that the world without bullying was a fantasy that I am immature to believe in that I started to believe that.

    And what I cannot stand about professors in general is the junior high level behavior – cliquish, mean, imperious, vindictive, catty. Most of the ones I had as my professors weren’t like that but large numbers of the ones I’ve worked with have been. That is without counting the outright bullies. I think a lot of people go into academia *because* it covers so well for bullying.


  13. We have one the worst bullies here at IUPUI. Roisman and Mitchell are some of the worst bullies in academia. They will fight anything just because…it is incredible.


  14. The Chronicle piece was a fascinating if troubling read. Historiann lucidly articulated the case there and it was interesting to see the DU spokesman feel obliged to (at least nominally) not slay the messenger, but rather speak about changes for the better since she left. The “aggression” questionaire in the sidebar box below, however, struck me as being analytically incoherent. In any academic community I’ve ever been in, circulating it would invite virtually everyone there to self-identify as having been at least sporadically bullied.
    This could lead to submerging or even trivializing, rather than sharpening, remedial focus on the problem. The rampant subjectivities of many of the criteria are obvious. But potential assymetries in others are also problematic. Will it be assumed that bullying behaviors can only be acknowledged down certain presumed, fixed, and readily-defined heirarchies of status? How would the latter be defined in environments with few explicit reporting or supervisory lines but myriad overlapping markers of power or authority? If a longer serving but equally ranked person with denser alliance networks intradepartmentally and institutionally–but working in a subfield less celebrated or rewarded among the department’s stated areas of specialization–concluded that ze was “not…given the praise to which [ze] felt entitled” by a newcomer, would that person a) have a case for having been bullied from downslope? Or would b) the very expression of such an idea be an example of hir trying to slyly undermine a threatening and ascendant intruder? (to unpack just one of the bulleted queries)

    It’s clear that “punched in the gut” can’t be the operative standard of misconduct here, but “eyerolling,” glaring, suspiciously-timed bathroom breaks, or third-party failures to “deny false rumors” might well invite community political indifference to the problem. Any hope of moving from merely therapeutic to remedial or especially regulatory interventions will probably need to rigorously engage with the unusual anthropology of academic–as opposed to most other–kinds of workplaces.

    None of this is to doubt the obvious severity (and outrageousness) of the issue, or the fact that the questionaire is an excerpt with little reference to context or protocols for its implementation. But that’s a _Chronicle_ editorial choice, and comment or analysis can only extend as far as the furnished content does.


  15. Having just been ranted at for a full hour by an irate faculty member for the crime of requiring him to follow the rules, I can definitely relate. In my position, I hear regular reports of individual bullies who are allowed to torment entire departments. Even though this implicitly may disproportionately affect women and people of color (who may more often be junior, vulnerable etc.), people who are asses to everyone are often not breaking any rules, other than civility. Much easier to take official action against a sexist/racist/etc. than an equal-opportunity bully.

    Rather than punitive action (which strikes me as hard to realistically enact), we need to change the environment to give stressed faculty support, and try to avoid creating more frustrated bullies who can make themselves feel better only by torturing others. More training/support for people in positions of power would be in order as well — especially since budget problems do not bring out the best in people!


  16. Hello Again – Sorry, I don’t mean to monopolize the discussion, but hopefully the following suggestion and information will be helpful to the other readers.

    In the 3rd paragraph of their Statement on Professional Ethics, the AAUP is quite clear about harassment.

    “Professors do not discriminate against or harass colleagues. They respect and defend the free inquiry of associates. In the exchange of criticism and ideas professors show due respect for the opinions of others.”

    Perhaps, if just one college or university was censored for failing to address bullying, mobbing, and general harassment, then academic administrators nation-wide would get the message.

    Second, I give a full-throated endorsement to Robert Sutton’s book, “The No Asshole Rule.” (I have no affiliation with the author.) Sutton is a Management Professor at Stanford who originally published an article in the Harvard Business Review on the impact of assholes (pardon the crude language) in the workplace. The book is a continuation of his earlier research. Sutton quantifies and analyzes the different kinds of obnoxious behaviors widely found in the workplace, provides ample examples (many of which are akin to those posted on this blog), and highlights the lost productivity of good employees and co-employees of a-holes run rampant. I found Sutton’s clarity of analysis both gratifying and cathartic and his ability to evaluate the consequences in the managerial language of cost-benefit economics to be strategically promising in influencing administrators.


  17. Pingback: Jerk du Jour: Robert Felner, bully par excellence! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  18. Hi everyone–thanks for keeping the conversation rolling. I’ve got a new post that addresses some of the points you raised here, particularly Shaz and D. A. Xue. Maybe some good can come out of the experience of the University of Louisville related above.


  19. Pingback: Department of Corrections : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  20. Great news from the administrative front. I just spoke to my dean, who had a copy of the Chronicle article in hand, and we plan to have a discussion soon with our department chairs about the article — and about ways to respond to bullying. Not sure this would classify as “training” of chairs, but at least we can have a conversation that brings bullying to light and prompts chairs to think about appropriate ways to respond.


  21. WOW, Rad! We luvs us your dean!

    (I think I know her…no?) I don’t know if it’s material or not, but please inform her of my error, described in the latest post. My apologies again for not fact-checking my initial posts on this topic.


  22. Pingback: We “love” our “readers!” : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  23. Pingback: Feminism, “Post-feminism,” and Ruth Bader Ginsburg : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  24. Just thank you.

    I happened upon your blog when doing a google search for “academic bullies.” As you may discern, I, like so many of your other readers, am struggling with some extremely difficult colleagues. Indeed, I feel a tremendous sense of mourning because I entered the department in admiration of my colleagues’ work and extremely eager to work with and learn from them. But, for the sake of my own sense of self-worth, this is now out of the question.

    Your posts and your example helped me to come to terms what’s happening to me and to make some decisions about next steps. I’m sure you’ve long tired of the topic. But I think that it’s important to say “thank you” when someone has given you something valuable in life.

    So thank you.


  25. SL–I’m sorry. I’m glad my writing here has helped you, but I’m sorry.

    The good news is that no one I know regrets leaving a bullying environment. It will take a while to get over your experience, but it will happen. I think I would have gotten over it faster if I had gone into counseling. A friend of mine is doing that now, and it’s been enormously helpful for her. A sympathetic counselor will give you some perspective, and (sadly) my bet is that ze will probably have heard your story dozens of times over.

    There are places where you can thrive. You just had bum luck with this job.


  26. Pingback: Are you an adjunct instructor or lecturer? Plus memories. . . : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  27. You’ve got me reading your back posts, Historiann (which is good as I’ve only had you on my Google Reader feed since the beginning of the year).

    I have one very important thing to say about bullying:

    The most important way to get it to stop is for other tenured faculty to take off their “me, me, me” blinders and say to the bully, “This crap has got to stop.” That is especially true of the department chair.

    Can you tell that I’ve been bullied? It’s a long, long story which ended happily so I don’t feel a driving need to tell it now.


  28. That might work, Jonathan–but my experience with bullying suggested to me that some people are so soaked in bullying culture that they can’t–or won’t–intervene. Many perpetrators and/or bystanders in bullying environments were bullied themselves, so the instinct to keep their heads down is very strong.

    I’m not saying it’s right for people to keep their heads down. I’m suggesting that intervention by colleagues, while necessary, may not be sufficient.


  29. In regards to your statement “That might work, Jonathan–but my experience with bullying suggested to me that some people are so soaked in bullying…”

    So, what are your suggestions for this?


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