Bullying Across the Disciplines

One topic of our course is civility in higher education. Bullying is usually associated with children on the playground, or more recently, “cyber bullying” on Facebook and elsewhere online, usually involving high school students. Many think that after graduating high school people grow up, move on, and bullying stops. Unfortunately, that is sometimes not the case.

The topic of civility and bullying has gained increasing attention in recent years, as have efforts made by universities to address this issue. Two recent articles by the Guardian highlight this issue. The first article, dated from October 2014 (Source 1) is from a British professor who claims that “bullying is rife in academia”, and provides his experience as a case study in how faculty can bully each other. The author describes how university counselors can be reluctant to step in when professors are not civil to each other, and described how he resorted to drinking to help cope with stress. When the author claims to have at last confronted his superior within his department about his stress, his advisor replied that “You’re supposed to be stressed! Professors here are supposed to be stressed! That’s the job.” The author suggests that, more broadly, in higher education heads of departments have “absolute power” over those they supervise, and many people do not go to HR when they are being bullied by these people because of fear that their careers will be ruined.

The second article by the Guardian (Source 2), dated November 2014, looks at the issue and causes of bullying within academia more broadly, and cites “Characteristics of our jobs, such as low autonomy, boring tasks, unclear roles and high workload have … as possible causes of bullying” (Source 2). The article also states that within the United Kingdom between 18% and 42% of academics experience workplace bullying, which is higher than average for industries. To help resolve bullying issues, the article suggests that individuals:

  • Keep a written record of events, along with any evidence of negative acts (such as emails or memos)
  • Seek informal resolution early in the conflict by speaking to the perpetrator early on, which may allow for a resolution without a formal process.
  • If the bullying continues, then identify the university’s grievance policy and then Identify report the problem to a relevant individual; and finally
  • Discuss the problem with your support network inside and outside of work.

In the U.S. some universities in which academic bullying has occurred have taken actions to put policies in place to prevent this behavior. For example, recently the University of Wisconsin-Madison put in place a policy that defines academic bullying as “Abusive expression” — including verbal, written and digital offenses, as well as “unwarranted” physical contact, and “conspicuous exclusion” or isolation, sabotage of another person’s work, and “abuse of authority” (Source 3). The policy allows for individuals to resolve issues informally by going through a university ombudsman or vice provost, or else formally through a written complaint with a department head or union representative. However, “if the conflict is with the chair, the complaint may be filed with the dean.” The result of a formal complaint may then result in discipline or dismissal of an individual.

These articles provide an interesting personal as well as organizational view of the issue of bullying and civility in higher education. They also show that the issue is not specific to any one country or university. While it is tempting to at times pretend like bullying stops becoming an issue in life after childhood or graduation, these articles are a good reminder of the problems that can be caused when people within higher education are not civil with each other. They also provide needed advice and solutions for both individuals and universities to help prevent bullying and also to resolve such issues once they occur.



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