Illuminating bullying, mobbing, and conformity in academe

In a Mad in America blog post examining why seemingly disproportionate numbers of anti-authoritarians are diagnosed with various mental disorders, psychologist Bruce Levine — definitely an anti-authoritarian himself — looks at how professional and graduate schools train individuals to be compliant:

Having steered the higher-education terrain for a decade of my life, I know that degrees and credentials are primarily badges of compliance. Those with extended schooling have lived for many years in a world where one routinely conforms to the demands of authorities.

…In graduate school, I discovered that all it took to be labeled as having “issues with authority” was to not kiss up to a director of clinical training whose personality was a combination of Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, and Howard Cosell.

This training creates a cohort of mental health professionals with authoritarian biases:

I have found that most psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals are not only extraordinarily compliant with authorities but also unaware of the magnitude of their obedience. And it also has become clear to me that the anti-authoritarianism of their patients creates enormous anxiety for these professionals, and their anxiety fuels diagnoses and treatments.

Bullying and mobbing in academe

I won’t claim any expertise to parse the implications of Dr. Levine’s thesis for mental health diagnosis and treatment generally, but I find that his commentary illuminates our understanding of bullying and mobbing behaviors in academe. After all, many professors are products of this very socialization process.

First, the value placed on compliance empowers some to bully others who won’t go along. A minor “rebellion” such as declining to follow a suggestion for revising a paper or dissertation, or a major one such as refusing to vote a certain way at a meeting, can trigger retaliatory responses. Graduate students and junior faculty are especially at risk in this regard.

Second, the embrace of authority explains the frequency of “puppet master” bullying and genuine mobbing in academic workplaces. Especially in academic workplaces that cannot tolerate dissent or diversity of opinion, individuals seen as not being with the program may face an onslaught of hostility or isolation. These behaviors may be inflicted on anyone, ranging from a graduate student to a senior tenured professor.

Academic culture

Even when the prevailing value system does not prompt abusive behavior, it can create a damaging culture of conformity. Last year I wrote about how academic careers are shaped to fit within the box, at a significant cost to intellectual inquiry and academic freedom:

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.


Related posts

What is academic tenure? (2011)

The culture of academic work: On conformity, bullying, and disappearing jobs (2011)

Keashly and Neuman on bullying in academe (2011)

Study on incivility toward graduate students reports effects similar to workplace bullying (2011)

The culture of academic work: On conformity, bullying and the disappearance of academic jobs (2011)

Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (2009)


Hat tip to Dr. Maryanne Spurgin for the Levine article.

12 responses

  1. As a family member of a consumer of mental health services, I was shocked at how clueless the staff of the inpatient unit at a prestigious teaching hospital were when they suggested using visits from local police to help control behavior of the person in need of mental health services. We regarded that as an absolute last resort, because of the danger of police responders lacking training to understand the complexities of the case, yet having the discretion to make a life-altering judgment call on whether the person would go to the hospital or go to jail. For years, I have not understood where the disconnect lay, but your article makes me think it has something to do with their authoritarian bias. Thank you so much for the work you are doing to help us understand bullying and how it is manifested in so many different ways.

  2. If you want really scary look at bullying, mobbing, conformity, and authoritarian bias; look no further than the military. And there, the inability to deal with diversity of thought can be dangerous to a lot of people – military or civilian; friend or enemy. Unfortunatley, the one power brake on the military system was the draft where the military got diversity of thought whether they wanted it or not and it kept them more honest. The military culture has become one of organizaitonal incest. Our troops and country deserve better.

  3. Interesting post. It makes me think about how early the conditioning begins and I’m wondering if every large institution requires compliant obedience.

    Children are bused to schools where they are pressured to conform, by the school system and their peers. They are sent to churches and other religious organizations where they are conditioned regarding what to believe, who God likes and doesn’t like. From infancy, they spend hours watching TV, where they are bombarded with messages designed to shape perceptions of reality.

    Then they find jobs, in academia, industry, large nonprofits, and government. To get those jobs, they have to express compliance – they have to portray an image of “fitting in,” which usually requires “spinning” answers to interview questions, a game that both the candidate and the interviewer knowingly engage in – a test of willingness to obey the rules. To keep those jobs, employees have to express compliance – people don’t like people who rock the boat. To advance in those jobs, they have to demonstrate compliance – loyalty to the team, even when the team is engaged in unethical behavior. Dissent and you are out.

    Meanwhile, the government takes our money and decides how we should live. They allocate money for the school systems and noncompliant schools lose funding. They allocate money for research, and that grant money supports academic organizations. Researchers who fall out of favor with academic or government institutions fail to obtain grant money. Dissent and your funding is cut.

    There are outliers in society, but the masses are conditioned to become compliant worker-bees for large institutions. Independent thought is penalized every step of the way. People who stand out, speak up, or express disturbing truths are chastised. Honest politicians are ridiculed while politicians who lie, deceive, and manipulate are reelected – anything goes, as long as they don’t rock the system. Civil rights leaders and human rights activists are killed.

    I think about my life choices and why I made them. Didn’t I have a big mortgage and a big house and didn’t I use the home equity for purchases? Didn’t I put money into stocks, before creating a substantial cash cushion? Didn’t I roam the shopping mall for entertainment, spending money on things I didn’t need? And didn’t that make me more dependent on employers? Didn’t I believe in the “perfect” job? That being a hardworking, responsible, creative, optimistic, and agreeable employee would be rewarded? That “all people are basically good”? That positive thinking will fix everything?

    I’m glad my world was turned upside down after being bullied. I sure see things differently. At least now, maybe I have a modicum of independent thought.

  4. Been There, you point out an interesting byproduct of being bullied. It is true that once that happens; you reasses whether or not to be compliant in terms of being true to yourself rather than to others. Surviving the experience requires that of you. Those who go on to many more bullying experiences have not understood that they need to revise their perspective on life.

  5. I am currently thinking that perhaps the purpose of “higher education” has been socially re-defined. People now “earn” degrees that they obtain specifically so they can “earn” a pre-determined living. In Buddhist tradition, there are distinctions made between “learning” (from others) and “realization” (which comes from within). Knowledge is distinguished from wisdom.

    I was once told that “there are no non-Buddhist teachings”. Information is available, but the ability to critically assess and determine how that information can be applied is still an individual pursuit and responsibility. My preference is to view education more broadly, and the purpose of academic learning less as a means to a career path. Any solid educational experience or meaningful academic pursuit should produce growth and development of a human being.

    I guess it boils down to values, and how we pursue and express them within our finite human circumstances.

    • Julia, I’m out of town right now with limited Internet access but look forward to reading your blog post when I return this weekend. Best, David

    • I have found a curious freedom in unemployment. The voice I have is heeded more from outside the organization and appears to be more audible than when I was in a room with people who had the power to initiate changes. The key is not to be silenced and continue to hold feet to the fire when you no longer have anything to lose by doing so. Power “over” has become irrelevant, there is no longer the issue of institutionalized “superiority”….and the truth becomes clearer as those pseudo-concerns evaporate. I’m clearly not fighting for my life, and my failure to act like the figure who died the day I left my job is subtly creating changes that benefit those who remain and will come later.

      Kinda fun to realize that haunting is an under-utilized capacity of the not-yet-dead. It may not pay well but it has a lot of value!

      • Well said, Kachina!

        You mentioned survival… I just heard about two women, each in their early fifties, who had recently been bullied out of their jobs. One suffered a stroke within weeks after leaving and died. One was bullied and then fired. A few weeks later, she suffered a stroke and is now paralyzed on one-half of her body. She is expected to regain function, but currently has limitations (ex: can only eat pureed foods).

        We all need to take care of ourselves!

      • I am acutely aware that I’m one of the lucky ones in a position to devote time and energy to the cause. Other ex-co-workers have developed serious chronic illnesses that deplete their resources, others cannot bear to be reminded of the most horrific experience of their lives and/or have other priorities. I have elected to learn to live with a LOT less in order to preserve my health and identity as a champion of the under-dog and health advocate…with particular focus on crisis intervention,mental health and suicide prevention. So ironic that that was pretty much exactly the “job” I was bullied out of. I knew I had to commit financial/career suicide to preserve my health and quite possibly save my life. But my experience lends me some credibility!

  6. Excellent blog post Julia!

    You have, by writing that post, revealed your true colors – not just brown-skinned, but singularly honest and courageous!

    I couldn’t keep my mouth shut either (re ethical issues where I worked). I was also portrayed as inappropriate and unprofessional (didn’t I know that the problem was NOT to be discussed?). Like you, I was scared, but thought eff-it, and did it anyway.

    My electronic documentation was wiped from my computer and HR had me shred the hardcopies – stood by and watched to make sure every sheet was destroyed (make sure you document, backup, and keep files and hardcopies in a secure place). In short time, I was out. The experience was traumatizing and isolating. I’m unemployed and have had a problem with that job reference, but I would do it again.

    By the way, prior to my last job, I did some adjunct teaching. I found that treatment of adjuncts is grossly unfair – there needs to be less disparity between tenured and adjunct teachers.

    I’m white. For what it’s worth, I apologize for the stupidity of my people of no color. I hope if I witness a similar situation, I will have the presence of mind to effectively speak up so somebody in your position won’t have to. In the past, I’ve missed opportunities because I wasn’t thinking fast enough to respond appropriately.

    You did the right thing. Telling the truth is not unprofessional. What they will do next is squeeze you so hard that you crack, and when you do, and your emotions leak out, and your comments are imperfect, they will document everything. Then, they will gang up, and if they still don’t have enough grounds to fire you, they will threaten you with what they have, making it clear that they will document everything, real or imagined, until they can force you out. Be smart (smarter than I was). Don’t stress. Get a lawyer.

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