Battling Bullying in Academe

If you've been wounded by a bully, you're not alone, writes Maria Shine Stewart, who also asks if campuses can do better to support victims and promote more positive behavior.

August 1, 2018
 
 
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“Bullying” is a word that evokes strong reactions. And it spawns firm, yet contradictory, advice. You’ve heard the stock phrases, I am sure:

  • “Don’t back down.”
  • “Ignore it.”
  • “Be strong. Bullies prey on the weak.”
  • “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

If you question whether bullying truly happens in the workplace -- including in academe -- check out the work of Gary and Ruth Namie, who have written on the topic and coordinate the Workplace Bullying Institute. I may have joined any skeptical reader in a skeptical point of view at one time. After all, middle school is over. But personal experience plus awareness of the encounters of others has taught me otherwise.

I offer a few types of aggression below that I have observed. Whether each type exhibits random or intermittent hurtful behavior or an instilled, chronic pattern (or even an adaptation on how to garner power), I am not sure. I am basing my types on my life in academe. To my surprise, other people's categorizations offered online from different work environments look surprisingly similar.

Do any of these types sound familiar to you?

The screamer. This person may be a staple of an institution yet prevails through intimidation. It could be someone who has served a long time and, like a sturdy tree, will weather future storms -- that is, when the individual is not causing them. Why this person is “an institution” within an institution is anyone’s guess.

The blamer. Though we all make mistakes, blamers will never let you forget. This person will taunt or wait for a vulnerable moment to let others know that your -- or someone’s -- errors are not forgotten. This co-worker functions like the Dementors in Harry Potter. Don’t let a blamer brainwash you into blaming yourself. Especially nefarious if crossed with a narcissist. (See below.)

The naysayer. This person, often vocal, may throw a wrench in important projects or fresh new ideas, blasting them with ample schadenfreude. Though the character of Lucy in Peanuts has charm, the insidious campus wretch (naysayer) is not small, cute or confined to a comic strip. Their “vanity of knowing better” (an elegant phrase for “know-it-all,” coined by Abraham Low, neuropsychiatrist and founder of the self-help group Recovery International) is a compulsion and rarely based on fact.

The narcissist. Having already fallen in love with their own reflections, narcissists will be out to get anyone who does not echo the admiration. A virulent combination is the narcissist/tyrant. (See “tyrant” below.)

The tyrant. If you have encountered one of these on campus, you may have already left academe. Eschewing collaboration. Demanding behavior. Degrading comments. Everything we were supposed to have learned in kindergarten apparently did not apply.

The Janus. Though foolish consistency is one thing, being outright two-faced is a flaw not only in middle school but all through life. Make sure you are looking in all directions if such a type wields power at your institution.

The supersized ego. Not to be confused with Freud’s superego, the supersized egos actually believe that academe, and all of its constituents, serve them. The ego may emerge anywhere -- from the freshman orientation session to campus president’s office to the governing board. Healthy self-concept is one thing; obliviousness to the needs of others is quite another.

The rumormonger. Not since first grade has the power of having a secret been so important -- regardless of the validity of it. The toxic potential of rumormongers’ gossip is not to be underestimated.

Though my makeshift taxonomy is undoubtedly incomplete, I do believe that lack of humility among perpetrators is a common thread through all of these, as well as at least some of the 27,000 hits for “bullying in academia” via Google Scholar. Some might say a lack of social or emotional intelligence is one, too. The topic is rarely discussed, in my experience, because most victims would rather bolt than reveal what occurred. And if bolting is not possible, the victims may suffer disenchantment, at least, and loss of vocation or health, at worst.

Advice?

The best advice for anyone encountering bullying in academe must come from very deep within. And that advice must be more than an abstraction. It should be accompanied by relentless self-care, friendship, skilled helpers, chances to build confidence again and genuine buffering in the forms of groups that get it. And though certain diagnosable emotional conditions may run parallel to being a victim of harassment or bullying, that does not mean anything is intrinsically wrong with the victim. The situation is absurd; victims should avoid self-blame.

Through my own painful experiences, and by reading about and listening to others’ difficult academic tales, I have learned that if one is dedicated to academe, one can change institutions -- and even professions within it -- and eventually have a new life. Still, it is indeed possible to be derailed by another bully again.

But please, if you are a reader in the thick of being bullied right now, don’t let your story in higher education end there. Here are some things I wish I had known to tell myself a little earlier in my career:

  • I am not imagining this, even though it flies in the face of every expectation.
  • While I can perhaps do little about this situation, I can mobilize on my own behalf.
  • I will not succumb to drugs, alcohol or compulsive behaviors. Their relief may be short-lived, and the long-term results may include layering a problem upon a problem.
  • I will not harbor fantasies that anyone will come to my rescue. People flee when they see trouble in academe.
  • The perpetrators will probably not change. This shtick has worked for them a long time.

There are many subtypes and types of aggressors, and they occupy important spots at private and public, two-year and four-year, urban and rural institutions. My go-to plan of coping has been to probe the research done by scholars such as Claudia Lampman. I discovered David Yamada five years ago, astounded that bullying could happen in the mental health profession. And the work of Dan Olweus brought me hope when a child in my life was harassed at school.

Of course, sometimes the culture of any workplace is so toxic that one must leave. Persevering under hostile circumstances can exacerbate other problems and lead to an erosion of physical or emotional health, necessitating another kind of leave.

But I wonder if there are ways to remediate, short of filing grievances and lawsuits. I wonder if self-scrutiny of culture -- collective campus culture -- can help reduce a bully’s power. I envision that on a kinder campus, no tolerance of bullies can become a reality. When I did some research on K-12 teachers some time back, I learned that sometimes bullying is on their radar but they do not intervene, thinking that students may be better left to fend for themselves. That does depend.

Perhaps you are still skeptical, having persevered almost to the end of this column. You may be thinking that this behavior does not happen on the campus depicted on your website and in admissions’ publications, employee manuals or recruitment ads. I hope you’re right.

For those who are in the thick of bullying as victim or bystander: note that it takes awareness and guts to change a culture, to confront someone out of bounds and to strive to create a healthier climate.

In graduate school, I encountered a colleague who admitted to being a bully at a young age. I was intrigued, as such a revelation is rare. She explained that she was a student in preschool run by a grandparent, and she therefore deduced (using pre-K logic) that the lineage of power extended to her. She even climbed up on a table and shouted at the group -- ordering some children around and denying privileges to others. Fortunately, a relative taught her an early lesson: “We all must work together.”

How wise to provide that counsel. I wish all campus bullies had a loving grandparent like that to set them straight before habits became ingrained.

If colleges and universities cannot educate their own constituency, who can?

Bio

Maria Shine Stewart teaches writing and is a licensed professional counselor. This is part of a series, “A Kinder Campus,” that explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome.

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