Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven?

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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 bludgeoning, 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.

Bullying and mobbing behaviors among faculty receive the largest share of attention, but the possible institutional status combinations are much more varied. Here are the most common ones:

  • Administrator bullying or mobbing administrator/faculty/staff
  • Tenured faculty bullying or mobbing non-tenured faculty
  • Tenured faculty bullying or mobbing tenured faculty
  • Faculty bullying or mobbing mid-level administrator/staff/graduate students
  • Staff bullying or mobbing staff

Fortunately, bullying and mobbing in the academic workplace is receiving more attention. For those who want to investigate this topic further, here are some good starting places:

Faculty Experiences

Two leading researchers on workplace bullying and abuse, Loraleigh Keashly & Joel Neuman, offered these findings about faculty bullying experiences in “Faculty Experiences with Bullying in Higher Education: Causes, Consequences, and Management,” published in Administrative Theory & Praxis (2010).

  • Bullying by faculty tends to be indirect rather than direct, due to the “norms of academic discourse and collegiality.”
  • Tenured faculty who are bullied are more likely than untenured faculty to reduce their commitments to institutional work.
  • Tenured faculty are more likely than untenured faculty to engage in “direct aggression and bullying” in response to “perceived norm violations.”
  • Tenured faculty tend to direct overtly aggressive behaviors toward untenured faculty, staff members, or students.
  • Tenured faculty tend to use “indirect forms of aggression” towards peers, department chairs, and senior administrators.
  • Untenured faculty are more likely to use “indirect and passive aggression” against the perceived sources of their stress and frustration.
  • Institutional cost-cutting measures are associated with “workplace aggression and bullying by faculty.”

Mobbing in Academe

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, mostly involving faculty as targets.  His webpage devoted to academic mobbing is a rich portal of information.

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 and I don’t agree on some key matters. For example, he generally opposes the enactment of workplace anti-bullying laws and strongly prefers the term mobbing to bullying. Nevertheless, his work in this realm is critically important.

His most important book, in my opinion, is The Envy of Excellence (2004), which explores in detail the mobbing of former St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto theologian Herbert Richardson during the 1990s.

My response to The Envy of Excellence and general observations about mobbing and bullying in academe are contained in my essay, David C. Yamada “The Role of the Law in Combating Workplace Mobbing and Bullying,” which appears in Ken’s edited volume, Workplace Mobbing in Academe (2004).

Other Very Useful Books

  • Jamie Lester, ed., Workplace Bullying in Higher Education (2013) (especially recommended)
  • Darla J. Twale & Barbara M. De Luca, Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It (2008)
  • Leah P. Hollis, Bully in the Ivory Tower (2012)

Social Media

Commentaries on bullying and mobbing in academe are appearing with greater frequency in the social media as well:

Bullying of Academics in Higher Education, hosted by a group of European scholars, is an excellent ongoing source of information and commentary.

The Workplace Bullying in Higher Education Facebook group is a more interactive source of information, commentary, and opinion.


This post was revised in April 2014.


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26 responses

  1. Thank you for posting a link to my blog. In my case, in a workplace where academics work, the American Physical Society (physicists, although you can’t tell from the name), there was pervasive bullying and a gender-based reaction in discipline: A male bully was escorted out (and fired); another was taken away by HR when he got hostile. Meanwhile women were considered just “emotional,” and women got away with hostile behavior. I, as a manager, was required to coddle my female bullies and refused, so I got fired. The woman-on-woman pervasiveness of bullying is why our laws (and misplaced conclusion that more females in professions automatically solves disparities) are inadequate. My gender discrimination case is in summary judgment and we have an exact comparison situation with a male, so keep us in your prayers. This could be ground breaking.

    • Thank you for sharing your personal story with us. I agree wholeheartedly that female-to-female bullying is a serious problem. When women bully at work, other women are more likely to be the targets than men.

      Of course, I should also point out that men bully more often than women. Unfortunately, male tormenters are also more likely to target women. Which means that women definitely pay a higher price when it comes to this form of mistreatment at work.

  2. The bullying of academics follows a pattern of horrendous, Orwellian elimination rituals, often hidden from the public. Despite the anti-bullying policies (often token), bullying is rife across campuses, and the victims (targets) often pay a heavy price. “Nothing strengthens authority as much as silence.” Leonardo da Vinci – “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men [or good women] do nothing.” Winston Churchill. –

  3. Mobbing is indeed insidious, whether it is found in a corporate setting or an academic setting. As least in the corporate world, given its established ethos of greed from mercantilism, it is expected, though never condoned. But for it to occur with such prolificacy in academia, it’s just a sad testament to the conniving veracity of human nature, which has to be recognised and arrested.

  4. Pingback: Tenure decisions and bullying in academe « Minding the Workplace

  5. There is plenty of publicity in the form of articles, books, websites, blogs which analyze workplace bullying and document the fact that it is a serious problem. It is particularly widespread in some work environments; one of them is higher education. Various organisations and publications offer suggestions on how to lessen or mitigate the impact of bullying; however they do not offer a satisfactory solution, let alone a means of eradicating this problem.

    What is really needed goes beyond the currently available options. New laws, new procedures and drastic changes in management attitude and accountability are needed. This requires the involvement and commitment of politicians and lawmakers. They in turn can be motivated to act by the people they represent. One can canvas political representatives by petition. There are petition facilities available through the internet which makes it easy.

    Find live petitions against workplace bullying, sign them and spread the word. If no suitable petitions can be found start your own. If you are a UK citizen or resident please sign the petition below and SPREAD THE WORD.

  6. Pingback: Bullying in Higher Ed -

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  8. Pingback: Anonymous

  9. Pingback: Did workplace bullying trigger the suicide of a University of Virginia literary journal editor? « Minding the Workplace

  10. Pingback: One tragedy in academia « Samuel Snoek-Brown

  11. Wow…what an article. I have just come off of a 9 month experience with Academic bullying. However, this happened at a Technical College. It wasn’t even a 4 year Institution! I worked my butt off…put in long hours…spent gobs of time with my students and drove many miles and hours in between campuses. I was given impossible standards…far too many classes for my level of experience (1st year)…and so much work there was no way I could have been successful. But I was new in teaching and LOVED it. I even liked my tormenter at times. She was very good at what she did….but abusive. And…I was naive’.
    After several months of this insanity, I decided to “push back”. As I’ve leaned since then, it was too late. My fate was sealed and I was dismissed among an ocean of deciet…twisted logic…half truths…trumped up charges and outright lies. Thank you God for this website and thank you Dr. Yamada for your hard work. All of this Workplace Bullying phenomenon has been a Revelation to me. And…very sad. This is not the America that I was raised to beleive in or that our Founding Fathers intended.

    • I am so sorry you had to endure this experience. Hopefully in the near future academic bullying will receive awareness so potential targets will be empowered and bullies punished.
      Hope you now have a job you love and that you are being treated with the respect you deserve

    • I’m just seeing this for some reason. I hope time has been kind to you and you have found a place of goodness and peace. Your story resonates very strongly with me, right down to the time line.

  12. I am wondering if anyone can recommend books/articles on how to address bullying in the form of manipulating students behind the scenes. Specifically, I am interested in strategies to address this insidious form of bullying, where students are befriended by professors, then influenced to undermine colleagues in the classroom. Often times students are unaware of how they are being manipulated. These behaviours are extremely difficult to document and to call out the perpetrators (i.e. the colleagues who initiated them).

    • I know what you’re talking about. This is indeed a tough one. I don’t know what the situation is. I’ve found myself telling my students (although I’d prefer not to) about my experiences with bullying and the role of enablers/bystanders in that process, and the need to report such tactics to an informed, understanding authority who can stop it.

      • I do not have materials but I bore first had witness to students being manipulated by Principal and Dept Head to engage in emotional injury – some unconsciously, others consciously with promises of graduating at all costs, manipulation of grades including MCAS scores.

  13. I was bullied out of a health services management assistant professor job at SUNY Institute of Technology in 2003, in a year where I had two articles published, two more in press, and a book in press. Eleven out of twelve of my teaching evaluations were great. I did plenty of committee service. My department chair was an insulting, stupid little bully who was trying to prime the pump to be my non-working co-author by being nasty. My non-reappointment was fabricated entirely. Later, after I left, the president of the college was run off by members of the management professor clique (and others) who set up a scurrilous website, and enlisted students to help them. The professors often had full time jobs off campus (illegal in this state), plagiarzed, were bribed to do (very poor) research such as “journal articles” consisting only of bullet points.

    Henry Vandenburgh, Professor, Sociology, Bridgewater State University

  14. Here is a chance to have your say if you or someone you know was bullied. The Federal Parliament has asked a Parliamentary Standing Committee to hold an inquiry into workplace bullying. Make suggestions or just tell your story. You can make a submission without fear that someone can sue you. In making a submission you are protected by Parliamentary Privilege so you are immune from legal action. If you still work where the bullying is taking place and are worried about reprisals then you can make a confidential submission. For all the information you need follow the links on the following link (copy paste into your browser):

  15. In Boston Public Schools, the bullying takes a different turn, more sinister, because the “recruit” without vision does not see that they will eventually mirror their designated targets. Administrators recruiting non-tenured teachers to bully tenured teachers with the reward of a permanent job. I saw this repeatedly. The most aggressive are the new teachers who were without a job until they were “saved” in October or the new teacher who is going to be cut from the building and the administrator fakes a “save”. They feel indebted and if they forget, they are reminded of the Faustian pact by their “savior”. One Haitian building sub who was struggling to pass the MTEL was directed to bully and spy on a tenured Haitian math teacher and told, “That is your job.” The reality was the tenured teacher did leave with extreme health issues but the deal did not come through. After a few years, the new staff was not new anymore and seeing what they had seen or participated in the whisper in the halls was “and then they came for me.”

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