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A professional headshot of Antoinette “Bonnie” Candia-Bailey, a Black woman, who smiles widely.

Antoinette “Bonnie” Candia-Bailey 

Lincoln University

Many in the higher education community are mourning the untimely loss of a colleague, Antoinette (Bonnie) Candia-Bailey. The former vice president of student affairs at Lincoln University, in Missouri, was only 49 when she died by suicide. In emails sent before she died, she accused the president of Lincoln, a historically Black university, of bullying and harassing her, causing her mental harm.

Black women, in particular, note yet another woman of color, by her account, cut down by her organization, and they are startled that her employer, an HBCU, seemingly allowed this to occur. Unfortunately, scholars of workplace bullying are not surprised because time and again in our research respondents comment that they have considered suicide to escape a bully.

I have been studying workplace bullying for more than a decade. Between 58 and 62 percent of higher education employees face workplace bullying. The percentages are higher for women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. These vulnerable populations often do not have the power to resist organizational aggression and betrayal.

Though several states (California, Maryland, Minnesota, Tennessee and Utah) have some type of legislation or policy in place to prohibit workplace bullying, these are penned to protect the powerful employer; only Puerto Rico has strong workplace bullying protections in place. Workplace bullying is still to a large extent legal in the U.S., where under federal laws harassment must be tied to protected class status (race, gender, age, ethnicity, national origin, etc.) for an employee to take independent legal action.

Some organizations dismiss bullying as stemming from personality conflicts or difficult employees. However, workplace bullying is based on a power differential; when someone abuses the power they have over another, that abuse of power leads to emotional and psychological damage for the target. As we reflect on higher education, we know the bastions of power lie in the presidents’, provosts’ and deans’ offices. A close look at American Council on Education data on the college presidency reveals that such powerful positions are held primarily by white men. The power structures in higher education still fall along racial and gendered lines.

While it was once considered a universal, colorblind phenomenon, workplace bullying data confirm that race and gender matter and are statistically significant factors in the higher education workplace when it comes to bullying. Yet across many colleges and universities there appears to be widespread apathy about this problem. In a recent study of more than 200 human resources personnel at four-year institutions, more than 61 percent stated they didn’t know about workplace bullying training and that workplace bullying just isn’t a priority at their institution.

In this context, one can revisit the work of Carly Parnitzke Smith and Jennifer J. Freyd, scholars who have studied organizational betrayal. We, as higher education employees, rely on our institutions for our well-being, health-care coverage and, at times, education for loved ones. Naturally, we are financially dependent on that organization; therefore, when the organization falters, employees must decide if they will tolerate the problem to avoid rupturing the relationship or leave the relationship by taking another job.

I fear what we are witnessing at Lincoln University may amount to an organizational betrayal that cost a vice president her life. In reviewing the emails, one can see that Candia-Bailey, a 1998 graduate of Lincoln who took the vice president of student affairs job just last spring, submitted complaints about President John Moseley to the institution’s board and to human resources and sought accommodations for “severe depression and anxiety” under the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act. After receiving a negative performance evaluation this past fall, Candia-Bailey asked for a specific performance plan, but she claimed Moseley sidestepped the request. She received notice of termination Jan. 3 and was warned that if she did not vacate her campus apartment by the time her firing went into effect, in February, campus police “will promptly remove you and your possessions from the apartment.” I imagine her being stunned and appalled, feeling betrayed by her own alma mater.

If one did not think a Black woman could be abused at an HBCU, reflect on a recent study I conducted in which Black women from HBCUs made up 62 percent of the sample. Over all, the study revealed poor treatment and the abuse they faced while trying to achieve tenure. Between unequal-pay issues, overloaded course assignments and outsize service requirements, Black women are still treated like second-class citizens in the academy.

Candia-Bailey’s suicide resonates with me, as I have studied workplace bullying and its impact on vulnerable populations. Research respondents report depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, hypertension, panic attacks and suicidal ideation. As a result, bullied women specifically have reported irregular menstrual cycles, preterm childbirth and miscarriages. The stress of dealing with a workplace bully is health harming and life-threatening.

As we mourn for Candia-Bailey, we also need to recast policy to prevent such abuse for everyone. Though I am commenting on the Lincoln University tragedy and Black women specifically, the data show that anyone can face bullying. I receive calls from men, women and gender-fluid colleagues of all races and backgrounds, desperate to find relief from a workplace bully. While we in higher education have yet to embrace workplace bullying as an existential threat, we can consider some strategies to end this abuse:

  • Seek a counselor or life coach. The human body is not built to withstand unrelenting mental and emotional stress. A stressed mind leads to emotional decisions, but a counselor or life coach can help develop an escape route or strategy for resisting the bullying.
  • Share the problems with family and friends. Too often, bullied colleagues hide their pain in shame. By not sharing the problem, they lock themselves out of potential help and solutions from people who care about them.
  • Unions and faculty senates can forge change. For example, the University of South Carolina has an excellent system to combat bullying, including an entire investigatory process and mechanisms for holding bullies accountable. Its Faculty Senate supports this process.
  • If you choose to report a bully to human resources, be cautious about how that department has handled previous complaints. Though it is good to create a record of bad behavior, depending on the circumstances the target may exacerbate the problem by reporting it, since Title VII of the Civil Rights Act does not cover workplace bullying alone, absent its interrelation with a protected category.
  • Write your congressperson to insist on legislation to make workplace bullying actionable in and of itself, like in Puerto Rico. A letter-writing campaign can further highlight the urgency for such policies. Several states, such as New York and Massachusetts, have introduced the Healthy Workplace Bill to prevent workplace bullying.
  • When such legislation is debated at state capitals, join the hearing and testify about what you have seen or experienced. You can also send written testimony to be considered at the legislative hearing.
  • Create an institutional policy to prohibit workplace bullying. Even if a state does not have a sweeping or effective policy, colleges and universities can craft policies to maintain a civil and respectful culture. Alamo Colleges District has an excellent policy.
  • At the department level, even without an institutional policy, leadership can set the tone for civility and respect throughout the unit.
  • Take a page from civil rights reforms: collective action can foster change. A large group of faculty and staff can insist on changes that sustain a healthy workplace.

The higher education community mourns the loss of Antoinette Candia-Bailey, yet we have also seen our colleagues endure similar issues. With two of three research respondents from the aforementioned studies reporting that they faced bullying, it is statistically reasonable that readers have witnessed or experienced workplace bullying. This psychological and emotional abuse erodes our mission and demoralizes the very people committed to educating our communities. Yet this epidemic of bad behavior continues to spiral out of control.

At Lincoln University, President Moseley is on administrative leave amid numerous calls for his resignation. The tragedy at Lincoln raises a terrible question—did Candia-Bailey have to die to be heard?

Leah P. Hollis is the associate dean of access, equity and inclusion at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Education. She is author of Black Women, Intersectionality and Workplace Bullying: Intersecting Distress (Taylor & Francis, 2022) and Human Resource Perspectives on Workplace Bullying in Higher Education: Understanding Vulnerable Employees’ Experiences (Routledge, 2021), among other works on workplace bullying.

If you or someone you know are in crisis or considering suicide and need help, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 9-8-8, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

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