Bullying in Academia

Is there something unique about institutions of higher learning that make bullying so prevalent?

Learn what to do about bullying

I was asked about the problem of bullying in higher education and stuttered. It’s not school bullying and it’s not like workplace bullying. Heck – even bullying in hospitals is easier to sort out than the dynamics at a university.

Consider this. Bullying is ultimately about power and about exercising power. At a university you have:

  • Student on student bullying – But unlike in school bullying you also have a hierarchy of students competing for limited resources and opportunities.
  • You also have coworker bullying – because they are also competing for limited resources and opportunities.
  • You have boss on employee bullying.
  • And you have professor on student bullying. This is often done because part of the school experience is to initiate students into the world of higher education – and if they had to go through it – they are going to put their students through it too.

Also, some professors really are psychopaths who use and abuse the students at their disposal in their quest to out best their closest rivals in academia.

So basically, because higher educational situations are both manifestly democratic and because you don’t have a single source of power there isn’t a dominant form of bullying that you can address.

In most bullying situations, you have to figure out who has power and whether that power is real or virtual based on what they gain from bullying. Because the power is so diffused in higher academia – you almost have to treat each individual incidence on its own terms as opposed to making an organizational effort.

The stakes are high and there is competition for limited resources. If someone can gain an unfair advantage through bullying, they are likely to take it and the system tends to reward them for their efforts.

In order to get it to stop, you pretty much have to take each separate type of bullying that occurs on a campus and handle it separately. Student on student bullying can and should be handled by the professors in charge of deciding who gets access to what opportunity. But they will only do that if they feel that there is a benefit to eliminating the current cut throat system.

Honestly, out of all the work situations that bullying occurs in, I am least optimistic about being able to eliminate bullying in higher academia on a systematic basis. At least in a business there is a business and economic benefit to eliminate bullying if the management is enlightened enough to take it on.

I have a hard time when I try to think of where the pressure points for change within academia might actually be, because again, power is so diffuse. Probably the best strategy is for individual victims to address their individual situations based on where the levers of power reside in their particular situation. Again, hate to be pessimistic, but you have to be realistic if you are going to be successful at something this difficult and make no mistake about it, getting a bully to stop is INCREDIBLY HARD, even when the situation is ideal.

Leave a Reply