Confronting Nontraditional Bullies in Academe

Becky K. Becker advises readers to be aware and wary of two types that often thrive unrecognized: the opportunist and the victim.

January 20, 2023
working woman pushes back on large fist that comes at her from right of illustration
(Feodora Chiosea/istock/getty images plus)

Robert Fulghum’s best-selling book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten has been around long enough that its maxims have become common knowledge. In kindergarten we learned to share, play fair, clean up our own messes, not take things that don’t belong to us, apologize if we hurt someone and other such “common-sense” lessons. However, as useful and, arguably, truthful as those lessons may be, it is remarkable how often basic behaviors intended to support healthy, sustainable relationships and community are lacking in academe.

As we have adjusted to being back in the classroom in the wake of a global pandemic, we may be inclined to think that the typical patterns of our academic environments have been disrupted. After all, we think, we have spent time away from the tensions and petty jealousies, reflecting on what is central to our missions as academics. Through the pandemic, we have become more thoughtful, kind and collaborative—acknowledging one another’s humanity and value, despite past differences. The lessons learned all those years ago in kindergarten have come back to us, and we have embraced our best selves.

But while that may be true for some people, it’s still largely a utopian dream for many of us in higher ed.

Time spent on Zoom, away from our usual patterns, may have had a softening effect, framing our days in gauzy dreams about how much “better” our world is face-to-face. But now that we are back in our physical spaces with colleagues and students, the pull of business as usual is both refreshing and alarming. Refreshing because it really does feel good to be in the same space and time, doing the work we love. Alarming because our hopes for a more equitable environment deteriorate a bit more each day, undermined by an ego-driven competition for power, often dominated by bullies.

One fractious example of bullying behavior is the Boise State University professor who, during the fall of 2021, proclaimed women unsuitable for unladylike pursuits like engineering, as it causes them to be “medicated, meddlesome and quarrelsome.” Although that particular bully may have garnered scathing and well-deserved criticism for his rant against women, many other bullies are among us. They may appear to be a “kinder, gentler” version, flying somewhat under the radar, but they are doing just as much harm.

The Opportunist Bully

My first experience with a bully in academe was unexpected. I was just starting a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts university in the Midwest, and the person who targeted me did not act like the typical bully. We were both in our first full year at the institution and in the same department, although I had spent a semester there previously, filling a sabbatical vacancy. I had reached out to welcome and support her, inviting her for coffee. As anyone in performing arts can attest, the nature of our work makes it highly collaborative, so forging relationships is vital to what we do. I relished the idea of a woman colleague and a new collaborator.

During the hour or so that we spent talking, my new colleague asked all manner of questions about the department, the college, the university and the types of opportunities it offered. Since she was newer to the institution, I shared as much as I could, thinking that it was a way to help her acclimate more quickly.

When I mentioned a grant program in our college that I was planning to write a proposal for, I didn’t hesitate when she inquired about the details. Her questions became more specific and probing. Not thinking that this was anything more than one colleague attempting to pick another colleague’s brain as a means of learning something new or sparking her own ideas, I complied.

Less than two months later, when I learned that she had been awarded a grant to attend the same workshop that I had told her I was seeking funding to participate in, I was furious. It was my idea! She knew that I planned to use the workshop as part of my research and to support my teaching. I had shared it with her in our meeting, and now it felt like she had stolen it from me. As a very young—and yes, naïve—academic, it was painful for me to acknowledge that she had apparently written a more effective proposal, but it was much more painful knowing that she had taken my idea after I had reached out to support her as a new colleague. Following that incident, I was very guarded with her. Although I tried to maintain a professional and collegial demeanor, I did not seek her out for collaborative projects, let alone coffee.

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Yet her actions had no real consequences. I was a young, untenured professor in the first year of my career. And when I went to an administrator to describe the situation with my colleague, he expressed his regrets but said there was nothing he could do.

While this incident may not seem to fit the usual definition of bullying, not all targeted, manipulative, abusive behaviors look the same. Sadly, academe is well populated by individuals who behave similarly to my former colleague, seeking opportunity wherever they find it and taking what was never offered. I refer to this manipulative meddler as an “opportunist bully,” characterized by individuals who prey on the generosity, ingenuity and collegiality of other academics.

They may appear to be congenial colleagues who are interested in you and your work. They may seek you out for information, disappearing when they have found the key to their own grant proposal or article. They may even wish to partner with you on a collaborative project or a grant, sometimes even offering necessary expertise. It is only when the collaborative project begins to reap tangible rewards, in the form of funding, accolades or publications, that the opportunist bully’s agenda becomes clear. In maneuvering to steal the idea, claim the spotlight or dominate the funds, their bullying tendencies are revealed—particularly as they work to justify centering themselves at the expense of their collaborators.

In my experience, the opportunist bully can be difficult to spot. Many people who exhibit this type of behavior seem to be collegial and engaged, not necessarily pursuing conversations with colleagues in order to hijack their research projects. In fact, in some regards the opportunist bully may actually be collegial and engaged. But when scarce academic rewards are at stake, these otherwise seemingly congenial individuals become inappropriately territorial and manipulative.

While the opportunist bully may appear to be a less dangerous category of academic bully than other more easily recognizable bullies, the damage they do is significant. When a colleague hoards resources, steals an original idea or otherwise preys upon another colleague’s work—most often that of a junior faculty member—the person whose work has been pilfered is likely to question their own role in allowing their work to be compromised. That can result in a sense of shame, guilt, fear and mistrust—all emotions connected with more traditional bullying behavior.

The Victim Bully

One might wonder why academe so successfully attracts, accommodates and amplifies bullies. A key reason is that academe remains fundamentally a white, medieval hierarchy. Some of the earliest Western universities grouped highly prized male scholars together in competitive clusters that vied for top male students—the original good old boys’ club. Baked into the university structure from its earliest inception is a patriarchal foundation, evidenced by continued gender and pay inequity that persist across most contemporary institutions—and often embarrassingly so in particular departments. Scarce resources enhance competition and heighten the stakes for achieving tenure and promotion.

Ultimately, once the rank of full professor is achieved, certain individuals can become so emboldened by their positions that it is relatively easy to maintain power over those whom they outrank—and sometimes even administrators who try to rein in their unbridled egos. And the segregation and uneven support that various disciplines receive can lead to a more insidious hierarchy that is internalized by the individuals within areas or programs that perceive themselves as ranking “lower” within that hierarchy.

In such an environment, a form of bullying can arise that is described as “victim bullying” by C. K. Gunsalus in The College Administrator’s Survival Guide. As the name suggests, in this instance, the person attempts to turn their own bullying behavior upside down, positioning themselves as the victim. Victim bullying occurs when an individual uses a position of relative power to convince others that they are treated unfairly, work harder or are the target of disrespect. Yet while these individuals insist that their work is unappreciated, they often enjoy the most resources, the least external control over their workloads and the highest academic ranks.

A kinder term for this bully might be “the squeaky wheel.” While we may consider the squeaky wheel to be someone who’s simply persistent in expressing a need, the resolute steward who continues to speak up for the benefit of all differs markedly from the academic who uses manipulation for their own self-interest. Victim bullies may insist that their concern is for students or the greater good, but when this type of bully’s demands are pinpointed, it becomes clear that theirs is largely a narcissistic project.

Perhaps the most disturbing instances of academic bullying involve small groups of empowered faculty members who band together in an attempt to control, punish or even push out any individual whom they see as a threat to their agenda. In their book, Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It, Darla J. Twale and Barbara M. De Luca describe a relentless and insidious form of bullying known as “mobbing.” Similar to schoolyard bullying, this form of abuse typically involves a small group of people who align in the interest of achieving or maintaining power, often in order to protect the status quo—and sometimes even when their independent agendas don’t align.

For example, I am aware of an academic administrator who was taken to task by a small group of faculty members after that person’s first year in a leadership position. When the administrator failed to comply with the “mob’s” self-interested agenda, through deceit and manipulation they managed to push the administrator out.

Hold Hands and Stick Together

I have come to see the continuing problem of bullying at universities as being tied to several underlying values within academe that are not just outdated but also detrimental to our progress as a community. I understand that care must be taken to address situations like these, where free speech and “she said, she said” arguments add to their complexity. But each time we overlook a microaggression, such as an administrator referring to a male colleague as “Doctor” while calling a woman colleague by her first name, we undermine the values we claim to hold dear. Every time we ignore a colleague’s angry, manipulative outburst in a meeting, we contribute to an environment that enables these behaviors—or worse.

Looking back on my experience as a junior faculty member whose idea was purloined by a colleague, I now realize that I did not do the one thing I really needed to do: talk to her directly. While I am fairly certain she would have denied culpability, she would at least have known that I was aware of her unethical and noncollegial behavior and that I refused to be disrespected. If we expect academe to be a world in which administrators, faculty, staff and students behave in ways that support the collective good, we must be willing to call out behaviors and actions that undermine it.

Obviously, doing so can be uncomfortable—and, in some cases, risky. As a white woman with full professor status, I face potential risks in speaking out. But for my BIPOC, LGBTQ, differently abled, untenured colleagues, staff and students, the risks are likely to be much greater.

That brings me back to Fulghum’s book and the basic ideas we learned in kindergarten, such as “Hold hands and stick together.” Too often we overlook egregious behavior because we don’t want to get involved or assume that someone else will handle it. But we must join ranks in the battle against bullying.

We also don’t want to be perceived as difficult. And, admittedly, many of the lessons we learned in kindergarten are about getting along with others. But they are also intended to imbue the individual child with a sense of agency—something that our antiquated academic system has often encouraged us to relinquish too easily as adults. We must have the courage to speak up on behalf of ourselves and others to call out bullying behavior, even when it appears in less volatile forms.

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Becky K. Becker is professor of theatre at Clemson University.


Becky K. Becker

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