Academic Bullying Beyond the Workplace

Over the past few years, I’ve been introduced to the insight that “bullying” is not something that just occurs in the schoolyard between children. Often bullying has been seen as a process of one child beating up another child, or an exertion of power over another child. We talk about “bullies” and “bullying” as if they are only actions, often, when limited to child development, a common part of growing up. Nothing to take seriously. Too often bullying is seen as only a step toward learning social graces or learning to accept diversity or difference or learning how to stand strong and “be a man”. What is overlooked, however, is that bullying is a process of power and control. It’s not the black eye or the stolen lunch money or the teasing that is occurring, it is the establishment and maintenance of a power relationship between two social actors.

Bullying is a form of abuse.

Although we have learned that bullying in the schoolyard is a serious problem and not just growing pains (literally and figuratively), there has been a growing body of research and interest in bullying among adults. Workplace bullying has become a focus of attention and rightfully so. But what is often overlooked is that bullying also occurs in higher education between those who are widely viewed as the progressive voices of diversity, tolerance, and self-reflexivity. Indeed, there is data indicating that people in higher education face a greater potential of bullying than in some other professions!

Below is a link to one article, by Christine Sprigg (Sheffield University Management School), on the dynamics of bullying in higher education, that opens a helpful discussion on some of the factors at play in such bullying.


There are a few additional observations that I want to make on academic bullying, specifically from what I’ve seen in the field of religious studies.

We need to recognize that academic bullying is not limited to the university or work environment. As scholars, our professional “cultural field” (to evoke Pierre Boudieu) is much wider than where we clock in and out of each day. Beyond our institutions of employment, we also are professionals in much pro bona/volunteer or extended professional contexts: the academic societies we are part of; the publishing of our research; referee service to ensure the quality of what is published; conferencing (attending, giving papers, moderating sessions, serving on committees); serving on various academic boards (beyond our employment institutions); editing journals, book series, and increasingly websites; blogging; etc. Most of what we do as academics is without pay, without a contract, without any “job” indicators. Mostly we gain prestige points (points that we hopefully cash in on at our institutions of employment, such as publishing leading to pay increases or promotion or a new teaching contract) and we extend our ideas (most of us, I like to think, are more interested in contributing to intellectual discussions rather than financial investments).

So, are we safe from bullying when we serve on a committee, give a paper, edit a journal, join an editorial board, or interact online? Does the fact that everyone involved is a volunteer mean that bullying is de facto excluded? Absolutely not. Bullying is a power relationship. Even when there is no economic capital involved (or directly involved), there is still cultural and social capital at play in our social interactions. Any utilization of capital (to again evoke Bourdieu) is to engage in power exchanges. And all power exchanges risk the emergence of bullying. Identity markers also play a role here. I’ve learned that my female colleagues face the danger of online harassment when posting their opinions in ways that go far beyond what a male colleague would face in the same situation.

Often such bullying—which is abuse—is not overt. This isn’t about a scholar stealing lunch money or giving a colleague a wedgie during a conference panel. Rather, such abusive behavior is innocuous, passive aggressive, and therefore difficult to pin down. Social actors may not even realize that they are bullying or even being bullied. Academic culture—what the linked article explores as institutional factors—facilitates not only bullying but the obfuscation of bullying.

The thing about bullying in the workplace is that there are remedies or strategies that can be pursued, even if ineffectual. As the article linked here recommends, we can keep track of incidents, we can attempt reconciliation, we can report harassing behavior (with potential economic hardships directed against those engaged in bullying; i.e., we can get someone fired). But in our volunteer activities—activities that are just as central for our identities as academics—there are fewer options; fewer because the economic capital (and threat of losing economic capital) is not in play. The only thing we can do, it seems, is to simply walk away, to shut down our blog site, deactivate a public Facebook page, resign from an editorial assignment, drop membership in an academic association.

But what’s wrong with that course of action? Doesn’t walking away solve the problem? In a sense, it does. And perhaps, in some cases, walking away is the best thing we can and should do–at least for our own mental well being. Yet, think about the loss involved. The target of bullying becomes disconnected from their social networks, losing that social capital that is so necessary for being a successful scholar (and often, I’ve noticed, an academic bully will activate social capital to attack the person they are bullying, thus giving a greater sense of legitimacy to the bully while isolating the one being bullied). Finally, even beyond the loss, in my gut I keep thinking about the inevitable outcome: the bully wins.

Bullies shouldn’t win. To allow a bully to win in academia is to confer upon that person even greater cultural and social capital, capital that will be utilized to continue bullying behavior. Remember that scholars live for their reputations, to, as I’ve jokingly put it in conversation, “live on in footnotes.” Some scholars are driven to an excessive level in such efforts (efforts that we all engage in as academics), in trying to establish their legacy, to build a school of thought around themselves, to live on not in footnotes but in the main body of the essay (to extend the metaphor). I’ve known scholars who have used their capital to crush other scholars who refuse to be dominated by them, while controlling like a puppet master other (often younger) scholars who, to be honest, are better scholars than the bully but whose full potential will never be fully realized as their existence as academics is to serve the ego of the bully. I’ve seen scholars try to shape their departments and academic associations to fit their own image, to transform institutional structures into an extension of their own glory.

Part of this observation ties into the linked article’s discussion of personality factors in workplace bullying. I think that much bullying in higher education, especially perhaps in the volunteer arenas of academia, is driven (and ironically obscured) by the social psychologies nurtured by the academic vocation. Not only are academics highly driven people, often with large egos in need of constant satisfaction, but many of them (perhaps those with the greatest egos) are also the most insecure of individuals. My hunch is that academic bullies are not simply exerting power over others, but that they are exerting power over their own frail egos, their own insecurities. Bullying, perhaps, is as much a power relationship over self as over others.

And let’s be clear: bullying is abuse.

My concern over academic bullying is personal. I don’t like bullies and I don’t like bullying. When I was a kid, I was a target for bullying. Decades later, I still feel the emotional scars of those childhood years. But I’ve also seen bullying in higher education, among my peers and in a profession that is built on critical thinking and open debate. I’ve already mentioned female colleagues who have faced or fear facing online bullying as women (a bullying that often translates into sexual harassment). I’ve also known at least one colleague who left higher education due to bullying (and his story was one of the first I encountered). But this topic is also personal because over the past year or so I have also faced professional bullying. This was not in my workplace—I’ve been very fortunate to work with the people I work with and have worked with—but rather in some of the volunteer work I do and love to do. I won’t mention names or details, of course, but it is important to recognize that bullying does indeed occur in higher education even beyond the “job” proper, perhaps even more so beyond the workplace.

And let me repeat: bullying is abuse—be that emotional, physical, or even sexual. It Is abuse.

Academic bullying is ironic, we could say. Not only are academics supposedly collegial and collaborative, they are also critical thinkers. Many are trained to study power relations, while engaging in reflexive theorizing, often teaching their students to be sensitive to such power dynamics in society. Yet, some of the very same people who praise such intellectual giants as Bourdieu, Foucault, and Kristeva also engage in the very same efforts at control and domination that they oppose. They are bullies who may not even realize that they are bullies, engaging in abusive and narcissistic behaviors wrapped up in the comfortable blanket of scholarly debate and academic endeavor. But in the end, they are not being academics–they are abusers.



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