Bully-Free Zone

While college leaders elsewhere who recently pushed civility faced a backlash, U. of Wisconsin Madison faculty approves policy against bullying.

December 2, 2014
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Hard data on bullying in academe are scant, especially in comparison to the robust research on the subject within the business world. But anecdotal data suggest bullying by academics is a problem; everyone seems to have a bullying story, or several, and a blog post on faculty jerks from an Australian academic went viral last year. At the same time, administrators' attempts at making policies about or even encouraging civility are historically controversial. Most recently, Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, faced harsh faculty criticism over a memo on the importance of civility.

So it’s perhaps surprising that the Faculty Senate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison recently approved an anti-bullying policy, 106 to 63. The policy describes “hostile and/or intimidating behavior” as “[u]nwelcome behavior pervasive or severe enough that a reasonable person would find it hostile and/or intimidating and that does not further the university’s academic or operational interests.”

Such behavior is “unacceptable to the extent that it makes the conditions for work inhospitable and impairs another person’s ability to carry out his/her responsibility to the university,” the policy says, noting that a person or group can be responsible. Abusive expression -- including verbal, written and digital utterances – along with “unwarranted” physical contact, “conspicuous exclusion” or isolation, sabotage of another person’s work, and “abuse of authority” all constitute bullying, according to the policy. It says repeated acts and patterns are a concern, but a single, severe act also could rise to the level of hostile or intimidating behavior.

The policy will be “implemented” either informally, through the intervention of a ombudsperson or vice provost with no written record of complaint, or formally.  Under the formal process, an aggrieved faculty member may file a written complaint with a department head or union representative. If the conflict is with the chair, the complaint may be filed with the dean. Following an investigation, the chair or dean may initiate the disciplinary or dismissal process, according to existing university policy.

“These standards are to be construed within the context of the university’s historical and enduring commitment to academic freedom, freedom of expression, and the conception of the university as a place that must encourage and foster the free expression of ideas, beliefs and opinion, however unpopular,” the policy notes.

It continues: “In no case shall a sanction be imposed in response to a complaint solely about the contents or a faculty member’s beliefs, views or opinions taken in the abstract. The policy is not intended to constitute a general civility code addressing ordinary stresses of the workplace, such as occasionally insensitive language or behavior.”

Additional references to academic freedom and the freedom to protest and participate in labor unions were added before the Faculty Senate approved the policy last month.

The policy is the brainchild of Soyeon Shim, dean of the School of Human Ecology. Shim recently moved from Madison from the University of Arizona and noticed that some junior faculty members in particular were afraid to “speak out” about various issues among more senior colleagues, she said. The dean said she didn’t think faculty bullying was worse at Madison than at any other university. But she said it seemed “paradoxical" that some professors at an institution with such a strong shared governance structure felt intimidated by their colleagues. And whereas at Arizona deans and unit directors had significant authority to deal with personnel matters, she said, Madison is more “decentralized.”

Shim thought a policy could help jump-start a campaign for civility, she said, noting that other education efforts, such as a website, are forthcoming.

“I strongly believe that nobody excels in an environment that is not civil,” she said. “Civility is needed to maximize talent. Eighty to 90 percent of our assets here are human capital – we’re not making stuff, we’re not machines. We work with our minds and we have to feel like we are in a position to maximize our potential.”

Shim said she and another dean worked to include faculty members in a kind of monthly workshop-style process to research civility and anti-bullying policies in place elsewhere, such as one approved at Oregon State University last year.

“Under this university policy, bullying is prohibited,” the Oregon State version reads. “Bullying is defined as conduct of any sort directed at another that is severe, pervasive or persistent, and is of a nature that would cause a reasonable person in the victim's position substantial emotional distress and undermine his or her ability to work, study or participate in his or her regular life activities or participate in the activities of the University, and actually does cause the victim substantial emotional distress and undermines the victim's ability to work, study, or participate in the victim's regular life activities or participate in the activities of the university.”

Shim said the collaborative nature of the process at Madison was key to its success, and said the key to civility is not “what you say, but how you say it.”

Jo Ellen Fair, chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee, did not return a request for comment. Russ Castronovo, a professor of English and a Faculty Senate representative, said he wasn’t opposed to the policy in “the abstract,” but said key questions remain about how it will be enforced.

But, he said, “If this is about creating an open space for people to share ideas without injury and abuse, then I think that’s important... I think this reflective of how uncivil public discourse has become.”

Chad Alan Goldberg, professor of sociology and a member of the Faculty Senate and United Faculty and Academic Staff, the American Federation of Teachers-affiliated union at Madison, proposed the amended language -- including that to protect union activity on campus. Goldberg said he was instinctively skeptical of any policy potentially expanding an institution's ability to sanction or dismiss faculty members, but that he listened to faculty testimony before the vote and noticed that women faculty members and faculty members of color were disproportionately in favor. That signaled "a systemic problem here that needed to be addressed," he said.

Still, Goldberg said he didn't think bullying was necessarily worse at Madison than anywhere else, and that the university might just be among the few that have so far "put processes in place and thought deeply about the issue."

The American Association of University Professors traditionally is wary of collegiality or civility policies, citing their potential to be used punitively against unpopular professors, or those who challenge conventional wisdom or powerful figures. But Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of the history at California State University at East Bay and chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said via email that the Madison policy didn’t seem like “inappropriate efforts to impose ill-defined standards of ‘civility’ or ‘collegiality,’ and not only because it explicitly states that it is not a civility code and reaffirms a commitment to academic freedom.”

The specific, negative behaviors named in the policy “mainly go well beyond the bounds of protected expression,” he said, highlighting the fact that the faculty approved the document and that it ensures existing guarantees of due process for alleged offenders.

Reichman added: “I am somewhat concerned that the terms ‘hostile’ and ‘abusive’ might be interpreted by some in ways that would indeed limit academic freedom, although that does not appear to be the policy's intent.”

Jaime Lester, associate professor higher education at George Mason University and editor of Workplace Bullying in Higher Education, said there have been few comprehensive studies of bullying in higher education, and that bullying in general is hard to study because bullies don’t usually recognize their behavior – at least enough to self-identify as bullies. And a few bullies can affect lots of people, complicating the incidence rate. But what little research there is suggests that bullying is a problem that cuts across traditional hierarchies of power. Students, for example, can bully faculty members, she said – although faculty-faculty bullying typically involves more senior professors bullying more junior ones.

Lester praised the Madison document, saying she hoped to see more colleges and universities address the issue head-on, particularly as higher education faces rapid change, budget cuts and other stresses, which can exacerbate bad behavior.

“What we see in the literature in corporate settings is that when organizations are experiencing stresses, such as shortages of resources and leadership changes, these instances increase,” she said. “When we think about that, it sort of makes sense, with people feeling that their jobs are in jeopardy, and they’re not sure where they stand socially or inside of organizations. These folks are experiencing psychological distress.”

She cautioned, however, that such policies mean little without larger, ongoing educational and climate-changing efforts behind them, especially since job security in academe for some is stronger than in other sectors.

“We see how hard it is to fire a tenured professor, for example,” Lester said. 


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