The culture of academic work: On conformity, bullying, and disappearing jobs

A career as a professor provides opportunities to teach, engage in scholarly research, and serve the public. It can be a great gig, providing a good income and a chance to help others. I count myself among the fortunate who get to do this work.

However, I also find myself increasingly troubled by the culture of this vocation.

Put simply, professional success in academe places heavy premiums on jumping through career hoops, conforming to external expectations, and pleasing others in order to get ahead.

Of course, higher education is hardly the only vocation to play this game. However, it is sadly ironic that an endeavor that should celebrate creativity, original thinking, and public education all too often discourages these qualities.

Thinking big thoughts? Sometimes, but not too often

OK, so higher education is all about academic freedom, thinking about and expressing significant ideas, and challenging students to think outside the box, right?

Well, not nearly as often as you might think. Aspiring professors would do well not to be seen as being daring or bold. Those seeking academic appointments are counseled to stay on the good sides of their advisors, even if it means tempering their own views.

Tenure-track faculty are advised to play the same cautious game when it comes to courting those who will be voting on their tenure applications and reviewing their work. Engaging in some vigorous bootlicking doesn’t hurt, either.

The end result can be a disappointing one: Once junior faculty have jumped through the tenure hoops successfully, all too many of them have been conditioned not to test the academic freedom protected by their tenured status.

A diminishing public role

Furthermore, too many professors are bludgeoned or fall naturally into the trap of limiting their scholarly role to writing jargon-laden work on narrow topics, followed by exchanges of those writings with small coffee klatches of academic colleagues.

In The Last Intellectuals (1987), sociologist Russell Jacoby lamented the passing of the independent, bohemian public intellectual, opining that this role has been usurped by highly specialized and heavily credentialed academicians who write for a very narrow audience. English professor Regina Barreca, in a 2009 essay in The Common Review, wrote that the “wolves” of modern-day higher education have filled academic prose and dialogue with so much pretense and jargon that they have caused people to “hate theory.”

Today, massive energies are devoted to facilitating cozy conversations among academicians, at the expense of thoughtful interaction with those outside academe. Too many professors are passing up marvelous opportunities to educate and learn from the broader public.

Plenty of bullying, too

Not surprisingly, higher education can be a petri dish for bullying behaviors. As I wrote in this blog’s most popular post:

(T)he 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.

University of Waterloo sociologist Kenneth Westhues has done pioneering work on the topic of mobbing and bullying in academe.  His thorough case studies of professors who have been mobbed out of their jobs document the very worst aspects of academic culture.

The disappearing professor

Academe is not always decoupled from real life. In fact, colleges and universities increasingly are mimicking the employment practices of their private sector counterparts, cutting full-time teaching jobs with good pay and benefits and replacing them with low-paid part-time positions. As historian Ellen Schrecker wrote in a 2010 op-ed piece for Forbes magazine (link here):

(R)oughly 70% of the people currently teaching at American institutions of higher learning have contingent appointments. They are part-time adjuncts and temporary instructors who have no job security and can be dismissed at any time for any reason, or for no reason at all. Tenured and tenure-track academics, the professors many Americans may assume are educating the nation’s undergraduates, are on the verge of extinction.

Sound familiar?

So here’s a (concededly cynical) view of the academic labor market, 2011: Many of the lucky full-timers are playing a game of hoop jumping, conformity, and career advancement, while growing cohorts of exploited part-timers are simply trying to make ends meet.

In short, for those who believe that academe is not sufficiently “businesslike” or “real world,” it appears that we are catching up in the most unfortunate ways.


Some of these ideas percolated in David C. Yamada, “Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship,” 41 University of Memphis Law Review 121 (2010), which can be downloaded here.

5 responses

  1. 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.

    • Paul, I’m sorry you had to undergo some of these monstrous behaviors in order to learn about workplace bullying. Yes, it comes unexpectedly in academe, but sadly it’s very prevalent. And often in the most passive-aggressive indirect ways — no big surprise there! Good luck to you in recovering from your experience, and thanks for your kind words.


  2. Unfortunately Academic Bullying does not stop at the teaching level. Many teachers pass it down to their students because they see it as “appropriate challenging” or just bully the student because they can.
    I recently experienced the horrible tragedy of a friend, a promising young 20 yo who killed herself after such abuse. She was 2 wks away from her AA degree when the instructor for her internship gave her a D for the semester. This one grade by the rules of her particular institution would keep her from graduating and would make her inelligible to continue her academic scholarship at the University of her choice.
    This student had never recieved any grade from gradeschool to her second year of college below a 3.0. The Mentor for her internship gave her an “A+”. Her classwork was 4.0. The instructor never came to observe her in her internship although 2 appointments were made which the instructor did not keep (and gave no notice or explanation as to why she did not show up for the appointments.) Inexplicably, 40% of her grade for this class was based on one class presentation of her internship. Even though these were 2nd year students in an Equine science program the evaluation of the presentation was given to the individual students by the instructor with the Dean of the program present. Several students came out of the evaluation in tears. One of the comments made in her evaluation was, “your presention was so bad that I had to force myself to stay in the room to listen to it.” This is not a constructive criticism, it is a personal attack. There were several other similar comments concerning the student’s manner of dress and even her hairstyle.
    My friend was a very shy person who overcame her shyness by always trying to exceed academic and employment expectations. She worked in retail through her last year of high school and the first 1 1/2 years of college. I knew her managers. She was well respected, liked by the customers and had an “exemplary work ethic.” Because of her shyness, she was very aware of her image and always dressed conservatively. The personal attacks in her evaluation stunned her.
    She had loved her internship. She was the first to work with her Mentor and she considered it a privilege to do so. She spoke often of the fact that she wanted to represent not only herself, but her school, well.
    She was told, “I might give you an F in this class,” during the evaluation of her presentation. This again is not constructive, it is a threat meant to intimidate and it, in my opinion, was an abuse of power. My friend went to her parents, myself (I am an RN with an MBA) and a former instructor in her program to get help to draft an appropriate appeal of her evaluation. She was willing to have an independant instructor look at her Power Point presentation and other materials. Her request for appeal was objective and appropriatly addressed her concerns. The reply she received from the Dean told her that her appeal would not be considered, that the grade of D would stand AND that she had basically wasted the last 2 years of the money and time she had put into her education.
    She received that reply the afternoon that she killed herself.
    My young friend said that she had done the best that she could do, she couldn’t have done anything any better.
    I believe her, to the 153 hours she needed to put into her internship, out of love she had added 183 for a total of 336. In addition to the 2 days of required volunteer work, she added 3 more. She was given written and verbal thanks for her “great work ethic, knowledge and cheerful manner.”
    How can a straight A student be prevented from graduating and lose her academic scholarship over one class presentation?
    It was something none of us saw coming.She was so proud of her work and so excited about her future. How does such a student recover when the Dean of your course of study strips you not only of your future, but also your past and preys on your deepest vulnerabilities?
    My friend was too young and vulnerable to be able to cope with this loss of faith in the system and of the hope for her future.

    • What a horrible and avoidable tragedy. I agree that it sometimes rolls downhill. Being an educator sometimes brings with it such a psychological power advantage over students, and we have to be cognizant of how we exercise it.

      • Her parents would like to honor her memory by trying to do something to help prevent other students from becoming victims. They are appealing to the school and trying to get her grade corrected along with having her degree awarded. The school is refusing to talk with them and has advised the faculty to “refrain from contacting the family.” Do you know of anyone who is specifically addressing this issue or of anyone who might have knowledge or experience that would be helpful to them?

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