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Academic Bullying the Vacuum of Moral Leadership in the Academy

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Workplace bullying is an increasing problem. Books are being written about it, and there is even a Workplace Bullying Institute. The problem isn’t restricted to the business world. Books such as Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It, Bully in the Ivory Tower: How Aggression and Incivility Erode American Higher Education, and Workplace Bullying in Higher Education suggest that bullying is a particular problem among academics.

Unfortunately, academic bullying is often allowed to go on unchecked. That’s just how academics are, people often think. What can you expect? It’s hard to control tenured faculty, administrators argue, because there is little you can do to discipline them.

Rot starts from the top, though. The failure of administrators to curb academic bullying and other forms of professional misconduct on the part of faculty is the reason academic departments become dysfunctional. Faculty harass and bully one another with impunity. Distressed administrators have even been known to reward trouble makers in a misguided attempt to win their goodwill, not realizing that the trouble makers see such gestures as a sign of weakness and a green light to cause even more trouble.

Bullying can sometimes take such unequivocal forms as yelling at and or publicly disparaging the victim, but micro-aggressions are the bully’s trademark because there are innumerable opportunities for them and because no single micro-aggression ever appears sufficiently heinous to warrant disciplinary action. Micro aggressions include such things as a consistently condescending tone of voice on the part of the bully toward her target, repeatedly interrupting the target when she attempts to make a point in a department or committee meeting, laughing or making faces or whispering to colleagues when the target speaks and failing to respect the target’s authority as a committee chair, program director, or academic advisor. (More examples of bullying are listed in an article entitled “Tackling the Menace of Workplace Bullying” on the website Law Crossing.)

People usually try to ignore micro-aggressions. Sometimes they even worry they’ve imagined them. People don’t expect to be relentlessly taunted and goaded. Human beings are social creatures and evidence suggest that their default position relative to others is trust (see, for example, Louis Quéré, “The Cognitive and Normative Structure of Trust,” and Guido Möllering, “The  Nature of Trust: From Georg Simmel to a Theory of Expectation, Interpretation and Suspension”).

That people are social creatures and, all other things being equal, generally decent, kind, sympathetic and empathetic toward those with whom their lives bring them into contact holds, I believe, the key to controlling academic bullies, and any other kind of bully for that matter. People don’t like bullies. Since all human beings, as social creatures, want to be liked, bullies can be controlled, to a large extent anyway, if not entirely, by simple public condemnation of their behavior.  Someone in a position of authority has to make it clear that the offending behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Academic departments, like other professional communities, become toxic when people in positions of authority are reluctant to do this.

The absence of an open condemnation of unacceptable behavior makes people fearful that if they express disapproval of such behavior, they’ll draw the attention of the bully and become her next victim. Worse, rather than expressing disapproval, many people will try to ingratiate themselves with the bully in order to insulate themselves from attack, hence rewarding the bully socially for her bullying behavior.

A bully whose behavior is positively reinforced by frightened colleagues quickly becomes out of control. There are ways, however, to discipline faculty, even tenured ones. They can be denied authority on committees, excluded from departmental social functions and given teaching schedules that effectively isolate them from the rest of the faculty. In extreme cases they can be excluded from serving on committees, assigned undesirable courses, have their teaching loads increased and be denied promotion and sabbatical leave.

Ideally, a code of professional conduct that clearly indicates what sorts of behavior are considered unacceptable would become part of the bylaws of the department, college, and or university. This code can then be referred to when taking disciplinary action. Such a code isn’t necessary, however, for disciplining academics for bullying and other forms of professional misconduct. There are myriad ways chairs and other upper-level administrators can make clear to faculty that they will not tolerate unacceptable behavior.

The safest and most effective way to discipline faculty, however, is simply to openly condemn bad behavior. A statement by the chair at a department meeting that harassing and badgering colleagues, raising one’s voice at a colleague, rolling one’s eyes, or making a face when a colleague is speaking, are all unacceptable, can have a dramatic effect because everyone will know at precisely whom these remarks are aimed. Few things are so humiliating for an adult as to have it pointed out publicly that she is behaving chronically like an ill-mannered child. It’s humiliating, and human beings, being social creatures, are sensitive to public humiliation.

A subtle wave of relief will ripple through those present at the meeting because they will feel that finally, there is something they can do when they are the victims of bullying by colleagues: they can complain to the chair. A wave of relief will ripple through the faculty and people will begin, gradually, to band together against the bully or bullies.

I’ve spoken so far only about the general harassment and bullying of colleagues. Everything I have said about that, however, is equally true of other forms of unacceptable professional behavior, such as sexual harassment. There have been several highly publicized cases of sexual harassment among academics in recent years. Emphasis has tended to be placed on the harassers themselves. The problem I believe, however, is less the individuals than what would appear to be a lack of moral leadership in the environments that have allowed the harassment to take place. It isn’t difficult to communicate to a colleague that that sort of behavior is unacceptable. It it continues over a period of weeks, months, or even years, it’s because those in authority have decided to look the other way.

A department chair needs to have the courage to publicly condemn unacceptable behavior and upper-level administrators such as the dean of the relevant college need to support the chair in such condemnations. I have seen firsthand the effect that strong moral leadership can have on a department and the effect that the absence of such leadership can have.

Few people, it seems to me, understand the nature of moral authority. A moral leader is not a “nice” person in the sense in which people generally understand that term. A moral leader is not someone who tries to look the other way when people behave badly, or endeavors always to interpret malevolent behavior in a way that makes it appear benign. Sometimes people’s behavior is conspicuously ill intentioned and interpreting it in any other way can have disastrous consequences.

Plato addresses this problem in an early examination of what constitutes just behavior in his Republic. “[E]veryone would surely say,” observes Socrates, “that if a man takes weapons from a friend when the latter is of sound mind, and the friend demands them back when he is mad, one shouldn’t give back such things, and the man who gave them back would not be just” (Republic, 331 c-d). Giving back the weapons wouldn’t be just, of course, because the the “mad” man is going to use them for malevolent purposes and may do things that he will likely later regret himself when he has recovered his sanity.

People are sometimes ill intentioned and it is not a kindness toward anyone to fail to acknowledge that. Certain forms of behavior are unacceptable, however, quite independently of the intentions behind them. The reluctance to recognize unacceptable behavior as such is not equivalent to being “nice.” It is cowardice and people in positions of authority who suffer from this conflation of decency and cowardice can wreak untold damage on those over whom they have authority.

A moral leader is not necessarily perfect. No human being, after all, is perfect. A moral leader is not necessarily a warm, effusive person, not necessarily outgoing or gregarious. A moral leader may lack a sense of humor. There are numerous other personal flaws from which they may suffer. What makes a moral leader, or what gives a person moral authority, is that they exhibit an unwavering commitment to decency and fairness, that they openly and unequivocally condemn unacceptable behavior while at the same time, continuing to evince respect for those who engage in it.

That is, unacceptable behavior must be quickly an unequivocally condemned. It is important to appreciate, however, that only the behavior should be condemned, not the people who engage in it. Anyone can behave badly, at least occasionally, and an environment where harassment and bullying have become the rule rather than the exception encourages people who would not otherwise behave in such a way, to do so as a form of self defense.

A moral leader is someone who can make clear, both that certain forms of behavior are unacceptable, and that they expect even those who engage in them habitually are capable of reforming themselves. People need to feel that they can redeem themselves when they’ve behaved badly. A moral leader is someone who makes clear that they believe everyone under their authority is perfectly capable of behaving properly and that only such behavior is acceptable.

A moral leader has to have the courage to condemn unacceptable behavior, knowing that doing so will expose their own behavior to closer scrutiny than most people are comfortable with. It takes a lot of courage to throw the first stone, so to speak, particularly since none of us is without sin. A moral leader has to have that courage, however, or we are all lost.

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M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu 

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