Academic life can be a great thing, providing one with the opportunity to engage in teaching and educational activities, scholarly research and writing, and myriad forms of public service.
However, the culture of academe can be petty, mean, exclusionary, competitive, and hierarchical. Bullying and mobbing behaviors occur with surprising frequency, and sometimes with stunning brutality. They can transcend the type of institution, academic disciplines, and political beliefs.
Here’s my short take on bullying in academe: Academicians are adept at intellectual analysis, manipulation, and argumentation. When applied to the tasks of teaching, scholarship, and service, these skills reinforce the most socially useful aspects of the academy. But many of us who have worked in academe have seen what happens when they are applied in hurtful or even malicious ways.
Of course, exquisitely rationalized actions and explanations occur in many organizations, but in dysfunctional academic settings, they often rise to an art form. After repeated such bludgeonings, we may become accustomed to, and sometimes all too indifferent towards, intellectual dishonesty and rhetorical “mal-manipulation.” Call it Dilbert in Tweed.
Because this kind of mental facility often is at the heart of both perpetrating and defending bullying, academe becomes a natural petri dish for such behaviors, especially the covert varieties. After all, so many decisions in the academy are based upon very subjective judgments. This can create a particularly attractive setting for the passive-aggressive bully and the quiet-but-deadly mob.
Fortunately, bullying in the academic workplace is receiving more attention. For those who want to investigate this topic further, here are some good starting places:
The Work of Kenneth Westhues
Kenneth Westhues is a University of Waterloo sociologist who has written a series of insightful, provocative, and exhaustively researched books about workplace mobbing in academe. Ken’s work, which is grounded in meticulous case studies and analyses of how professors have been subjected to extreme mistreatment at the hands of administrators and faculty colleagues, digs well beneath the surface: He shows us just how twisted and frightening these behaviors and the rationale behind them can become – often at the hands of intelligent, successful people who claim to be fair-minded, ethical human beings.
Ken’s most important book, in my opinion, is The Envy of Excellence, which explores in horrible detail the mobbing of former St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto theologian Herbert Richardson during the 1990s. The impact of Richardson’s story runs throughout Ken’s subsequent works.
Ken and I share a great mutual respect for each other’s work, even though we disagree on several matters. Ken uses the term “mobbing” to label the behaviors he finds so disturbing, while I usually use the term “bullying.” More substantively, Ken expresses deep reservations about enacting legal protections to address these behaviors, while I believe that the law can and should enter the picture when bullying becomes malicious and harmful. (For those who want to explore that debate, The Envy of Excellence includes his argument, while my response and general observations about mobbing and bullying in academe are contained in my essay, “The Role of the Law in Combating Workplace Mobbing and Bullying,” which appears in Ken’s edited volume, Workplace Mobbing in Academe.)
Ken’s website is a mere introduction to his work. His books require study, not casual perusal.
Significant Relevant Works (Mellen Press series)
The Envy of Excellence
Workplace Mobbing in Academe
Winning, Losing, Moving On
Remedy and Prevention of Mobbing in Higher Education
Commentaries on bullying and mobbing in academe are appearing with greater frequency in the blogosphere as well:
Bullying of Academics in Higher Education, hosted by a group of European scholars, is an excellent ongoing source of information and commentary.
See also individual posts in:
Millennial Law Prof — with an interesting generational view
Brainstorm — Chronicle of Higher Education blogger Marc Bousquet blogs on “The Last Professors,” with comments that follow
Darla J. Twale & Barbara M. De Luca, Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008).
For those not in reading mode, Darla Twale’s short video on YouTube introduces their book.