Faculty Experiences with Bullying in Higher Education: Causes, Consequences, and Management

...Surprisingly, university-based researchers have paid relatively little attention to bullying in their own backyards. This is an interesting oversight for a number of reasons. First, it stands in contrast to reliable evidence of other forms of hostile and demeaning behaviors on campus such as student and faculty incivility in the classroom (e.g., Braxton & Bayer, 2004). Second, the quality of interpersonal relations, such as collegiality, is an important factor in retention of faculty (Norman, Ambrose, & Huston, 2006). Third, the extensive literature on conflict and misconduct in higher education (Cameron, Meyers, & Olswang, 2005; Euben & Lee, 2006; Holton, 1998) highlights the structural and interpersonal opportunities for disagreement and potentially for hostility in such settings. Finally, the academic environment has a number of organizational and work features that increase the likelihood of hostile interpersonal behaviors (Neuman & Baron, 2003; Twale & De Luca, 2008).

While academics have paid little systematic empirical research attention to bullying in academic settings, this has not been the case in several popular online outlets and more traditional trade publications. For example, http://bulliedacademics.blogspot.com and www.mobbingportal. com/index.html represent some online destinations. In terms of a respected “industry” publication, the Chronicle of Higher Education has published numerous articles recently on the hostility and mistreatment that occurs on campuses (e.g., Fogg, 2008; Gravois, 2006). This suggests that academic settings are worthy and in need of concerted attention by researchers in workplace aggression and bullying.

...First, the rates of bullying seem relatively high when compared to those noted in the general population, which range from 2% to 5% in Scandinavian countries, 10% to 20% in the UK, and 10% to 14% in the United States (Keashly & Jagatic, in press; Rayner & Cooper, 2006).

...in our recent study conducted with university employees (Keashly & Neuman, 2008), colleagues were more likely to be identified as bullies by faculty (63.4%), while superiors were more likely to be identified as bullies by frontline staff (52.9%). Contrary to the current emphasis on student incivility, faculty concern about workplace harassment was more likely to be associated with colleagues (especially senior colleagues) and superiors much more frequently than with students. These findings support the importance of focusing on faculty behaviors in understanding bullying in academic settings.

Another observation is that the experiences reported involved two or more actors, that is, mobbing. Westhues (2004), in discussing the mobbing of professors by their colleagues and administrators, has argued that the experience of being mobbed is very different from the experience (however upsetting) of being harassed by a single actor. In our 2008 sample, we found that rates of mobbing differed as a function of the occupational group being studied. Faculty members were almost twice as likely as staff to report being the victims of mobbing by three or more actors (14.5% vs. 8%, respectively). Frontline (nonacademic) staff members, on the other hand, were 1.5 times more likely to be bullied by a single perpetrator. These occupational group differences, and the possibility of some differences in antecedents, consequences, and dynamics, support our focus on faculty experiences for this article.

When bullying/mobbing occurs, it tends to be long-standing. McKay et al. (2008) found that 21% of their sample reported bullying that had persisted for more than five years in duration. In our 2008 study, 32% of the overall sample (faculty, staff, administrators, etc.) reported bullying lasting for more than three years. This percentage increased to 49% when we focused on faculty. It may be that academia is a particularly vulnerable setting for such persistent aggression as a result of tenure, which has faculty and some staff in very long-term relationships with one another... Further, while ensuring a “job for life,” tenure may also restrict mobility so that once a situation goes bad, there are few options for leaving.

...Of all the types of bullying discussed in the literature (e.g., Einarsen & Mikkelsen, 2003), the behaviors most frequently cited in academia involve threats to professional status and isolating and obstructional behavior (i.e., thwarting the target’s ability to obtain important objectives)...

Proposition 1: When faculty bullying does occur, aggression will be indirect (as opposed to direct) in form, given the norms of academic discourse and collegiality...

Proposition 2: Tenured faculty exposed to bullying will be more likely than untenured faculty to “retire on the job,” or lower the quality of their courses, or less likely to engage in “discretionary” service-related behavior...

In sum, the studies reviewed here suggest that workplace aggression, bullying, and mobbing are part of the academic landscape, and their impact not only can be damaging to the targets and bystanders, but also may adversely affect the learning environment and the institution itself...

Proposition 3: In general, perceived norm violations will result in higher levels of direct aggression and bullying on the part of senior (as opposed to junior) tenured faculty members.

Proposition 4: Senior (tenured) faculty members will direct their aggression and bullying against untenured faculty members who are lower in rank, students, or staff.

Proposition 5: Senior faculty members will be more likely to engage in indirect forms of aggression against colleagues of equal rank, department chairs, and other senior administrators...

Proposition 6: The experience of frustration and stress among junior (untenured) faculty will result in higher levels of indirect and passive aggression against the perceived source(s) of that frustration and stress...

Proposition 7: Increased levels of cost-cutting measures will be associated with increased levels of negative affect, unpleasant physiological arousal, and, ultimately, workplace aggression and bullying by faculty...

This analysis suggests that faculty may have little motivation (or perceive themselves as not having the “legitimate” authority) to handle issues with “difficult” colleagues—allowing situations to escalate, resulting in a toxic climate and an increased likelihood of aggression and bullying. Recent research suggests that faculty find such circumstances difficult and often intolerable. For example, Ambrose, Huston, and Norman (2005) found that lack of collegiality was a key influence in the dissatisfaction of current and former faculty, resulting in their decisions to leave their institutions...

We believe that we have demonstrated that aggression and bullying is part of faculty experiences, and the potential consequences of these behaviors... Over the past 10–15 years, researchers have learned quite a bit about workplace aggression and bullying in a variety of organizational settings, but very limited attention has been focused on bullying in the academy. We have suggested there are contextual factors that seem unique to institutions of higher education that have been strongly linked to the onset of aggression both theoretically and empirically. Consequently, we believe that there is sufficient justification for pursuing more systematic research on bullying and aggression to better understand the nature, causes, consequences, and management of such damaging behaviors within institutions of higher education...

Keashly, L. & Neuman, J.H. (2010). Faculty Experiences with Bullying in Higher Education: Causes, Consequences, and Management. Administrative Theory & Praxis, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 48–70.