These days, academics are some of the biggest classroom bullies

Academia is one of the most honourable professions, but its standards are being pushed aside by a toxic culture

Studies show that bullying in academia is disproportionately common relative to other professions. Zephyr
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Academia, at its best, can provide individuals with the opportunity to learn and engage in ways that are unheard of in other arenas. But it’s not immune from the human frailties that plague all professions – including, alas, bullying and bigotry. Indeed, there are particularities within academia that make the problem of that kind of treatment all the more difficult to root out, and it’s unclear that the problem is getting any better in terms of being resolved.

When I first started out in academia as a doctoral student, I was fortunate to study under a scholarly gentleman, Prof Muhammad Anwar. He was old enough to be my father, and had decades of experience in both academia and in the policy world. Early on, he told me he wouldn’t recommend taking payment from charitable organisations for guest talks; he believed a secured permanent professor ought to give back to civil society more generally. There was a lot he said in just that one piece of advice about how a scholar ought to behave and engage. I remember him not always being very happy about certain work being done in the field, even by people meant to be studying under him – but he never scolded them or tastelessly attacked them, whether privately or publicly.

More than 20 years later, that model continues to be pushed further aside by a toxic and arrogant standard of academic life. It’s probably been with us for a very long time, but the existence of social media possibly allows it to be highlighted with more vigour now than ever before. It’s only been in the past few years that I see such a regular stream of complaints about how senior academic colleagues are content to not only bully more junior ones in private, but to do so unabashedly in public.

The irony is, as one account puts it: “My fellow students and I often joked about a paradox: how come our management departments (employing dozens of faculty experts in human resources, social psychology, and group dynamics) are a breeding ground for bullies?”

That kind of bullying might take place on email lists, or other types of social media. But it can also take place in forums such as conference panels. One recent example highlighted online showed how a Bath University PhD student was attacked and ridiculed at a conference by a senior academic who said she should be "ashamed", pointing his finger in her face and calling her a "disgrace". When she tried to respond, he continued to attack her and her research. I know of another case of one PhD student (a woman of colour) who has been unable, for many years, to complete her PhD, simply because of the behaviour and conduct of the PhD supervisor (a tenured white male professor).

One student was ridiculed at a conference by a senior academic who said she should be 'ashamed', pointing his finger in her face

It would be comforting to think academic bullying is rare – but it is not. It’s endemic. According to a synthesis of studies published in 2019, in any 12-month period, on average, 25 per cent of faculty members self-identify as being bullied, while 40-50 per cent say they witnessed others being bullied. Twenty per cent of graduate students who engaged in a Nature magazine survey in the same year say they experienced bullying – and more concerning, more than half of them said they felt unable to discuss their situation without fear of retribution. Moreover, it’s disproportionately in academia, as opposed to other professions. As one study noted, one third of academics reported experiencing bullying, as opposed to 2 per cent to 20 per cent of people employed in other industries (though this varied according to country).

Invariably, it is about privilege, and it is thus understandable why, disproportionately, such bullying is carried out by wealthy, white, male, tenured professors. It is also understandable why it often targets young, female, junior scholars of colour. The power differential is quite vivid.

Of course, sometimes academic critique can be harsh, and cutting – and in the marketplace of ideas, one should expect to have their notions challenged. That’s not the point here. It is entirely possible to criticise without being vulgar. Moreover, and most importantly; there is a power dynamic at play, when it is the senior scholar attempting to crush a junior student. The two are not equal in the power they wield at all.

What is perhaps most disappointing of all, however, isn’t that bullies bully – there are clear character traits at work, and one shouldn’t be surprised that given the power, such archetypes will act on their baser instincts. The more unacceptable aspect of this is that they feel, indeed, empowered to do so – and that’s not about them personally. That’s about the environment they move around in, and how others engage with them.

In the above example, neither the panel chair, nor the audience, responded forcefully to the bully. They did not intervene, despite it being a clear violation of how conference engagements are meant to proceed. It wasn’t that they did not know about the impropriety – the student revealed how many came to her afterwards to say how inappropriate the bullying had been – it was that they didn’t think it necessary to do anything about it.

If ordinary people are so averse to accountability, then others will take advantage. And, thus, the bully will just do it again. If we’re serious about the problem, we ought to be far more serious about being part of the solution.

Published: September 08, 2022, 9:00 AM