Jump to content

Workplace bullying in academia

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Bullying in academia is a form of workplace bullying which takes place at institutions of higher education, such as colleges and universities in a wide range of actions.[1] It is believed to be common, although has not received as much attention from researchers as bullying in some other contexts.[2] Academia is highly competitive and has a well defined hierarchy, with junior staff being particularly vulnerable. Although most universities have policies on workplace bullying, individual campuses develop and implement their own protocols.[3] This often leaves victims with no recourse.

Academic mobbing is a sophisticated form of bullying where academics gang up to diminish the intended victim through intimidation, unjustified accusations, humiliation, and general harassment. These behaviors are often invisible to others and difficult to prove.[4] Victims of academic mobbing may suffer from stress, depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as posttraumatic stress disorder.

Workplace bullying[edit]

Bullying is the longstanding violence, physical or psychological, conducted by an individual or group and directed against an individual who is not able to defend himself in the actual situation, with a conscious desire to hurt, threaten, or frighten that individual or put him under stress.[5]

Workplace bullying ranges into the following categories.[6]

  • Threat to professional status, such as, public professional humiliation, accusation of lack of effort and belittling.
  • Threat to social status, such as, teasing and name calling.
  • Isolation, such as, withholding information and preventing access to opportunities, such as training workshops, attendance and deadlines.
  • Overwork, such as setting impossible deadlines and making unnecessary disruptions.
  • Destabilization, for example, setting meaningless tasks, not giving credit where credit is due, removal from positions of authority, gaslighting.

Bullying and academic culture[edit]

Several aspects of academia lend themselves to the practice and discourage its reporting and mitigation, due to concerns of possible damage to the reputation of the institution. Its leadership is usually drawn from the ranks of faculty, most of whom have not received the management training that could enable an effective response to such situations.[1] There have been cases of tenured professors acting as perpetrators of academic bullying, leading to the dismissal of the perpetrators[7] or of their targets.[8] Victims include the increasing number of adjunct professors as well as students, c.f. Bullying of students in higher education.

The generally decentralized nature of academic institutions can make it difficult for victims to seek recourse, and appeals to outside authority have been described as "the kiss of death."[9][10][11] Therefore, academics who are subject to bullying in workplace are often cautious about reporting any problems. Social media has recently been used to expose or allege bullying in academia anonymously.[12]

Although tenure and post-tenure review lead to interdepartmental evaluation, and all three culminate in an administrative decision, bullying is commonly a function of administrative input before or during the early stages of intradepartmental review. A series of publications in Nature emphasize the need for improving institutional reporting systems for academic bullying.[13][14]


Mobbing is endemic at universities because universities are a type of organization that encourages mobbing.[15] Academic victims of bullying may also be particularly conflict-averse.[citation needed]

Kenneth Westhues' study of mobbing in academia found that vulnerability was increased by personal differences such as being a foreigner or of a different sex; by working in a post-modern field such as music or literature; financial pressure; or having an aggressive superior.[16] Other factors included envy, heresy and campus politics.[16]

Morteza Mahmoudi proposed some strategies to address academic bullying including mobbing.[17][18][19][20][21][22] While potentially helpful for trainee targets of academic bullying, some of these same strategies can be appropriated by administrators or regular faculty members to greatly expand the scope of an existing academic mobbing campaign against a less powerful or popular colleague.


The bullying in this workplace has been described as somewhat more subtle than usual.[10] Its recipients may be the target of unwanted physical contact, violence, obscene or loud language during meetings, be disparaged among their colleagues in venues they are not aware of, and face difficulties when seeking promotion.[10][23] It may also be manifested by undue demands for compliance with regulations.[24]


The kinds of abusive behaviors in academic bullying cause serious and long-lasting effects on both the academic and personal lives of targets and their families.[25] In addition, academic bullying behaviours can affect the progress of science.[26] Victims of academic mobbing may suffer from stress, depression and suicidal ideation as well as posttraumatic stress disorder. [4] The psychological scars have been described as comparable to rape, and they may not heal for many years. Some cases end in suicide, although the precise prevalence of this outcome is not known.[citation needed]

A 2008 study of the topic, conducted on the basis of a survey at a Canadian university, concluded that the practice had several unproductive costs, including increased employee turnover.[27]


Similarly to studies in general workplace bullying, incidence varies a lot depending on where and what definition of bullying is used. There is up to one quarter or one third of academics who declare they have been bullied in the past year. This is considerably higher compared to other workplaces, with 10-14% workers declaring having experienced bullying in the past year in the United States, but less than in healthcare, where a studies in 17 Greek hospitals reported that half of the doctors and nurses reported they had experienced bullying. Around 40% say they have witnessed or heard about bullying behaviors happening to someone else. One of the largest studies of bullying in universities, surveying 14,000 higher-education staff over 92 institutions in the United Kingdom, found the rate of bullying varied widely across institutions, from 2% to 19% of the staff at each university reporting being always or often bullied.[28]

In 2008 the United Kingdom's University and College Union released the results of a survey taken among its 9,700 members.[29] 51% of respondents said they had never been bullied, 16.7% that they had occasionally experienced it, and 6.7% that they were "always" or "often" subjected to bullying.[29] The results varied by member institutions, with respondents from the University of East London reporting the highest incidence.[29]

The Times Higher Education commissioned a survey in 2005 and received 843 responses.[23] Over 40% reported they had been bullied, with 33% reporting "unwanted physical contact" and 10% reporting physical violence; about 75% reported they were aware that co-workers had been bullied.[23] The incidence rate found in this survey was higher than that usually found via internal polling (12 to 24 percent).[23]

According to a survey conducted in 2021 by NOS op 3 among science PhD candidates enrolled at universities across the Netherlands, the most common forms of bullying included sexual misconduct, discrimination and violations of scientific standards. Approximately 50% of the PhD students interviewed, whose number was approximately a hundred, reported that they had experienced inappropriate behavior in terms of unreasonable workload, inability to ask critical questions, teasing, intimidation, social exclusion and not receiving credits for their work. Among international students, the most common experiences included sexism, racism and sexually inappropriate behavior. One of the identified reasons for the unreasonable workload and the unhealthy working conditions of PhD students include competition for research funds (primarily provided by the largest subsidizer, the Dutch Research Council) among professors running a research group. Research conducted by the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions and the Dutch Research School of Philosophy found similar results to those reported by NOS op 3 with the conclusion of the latter being that "58% of PhD students had an increased risk of developing a psychiatric condition like depression" or burnout.[30]

Author C. K. Gunsalus describes the problem as "low incidence, high severity", analogous to research misconduct.[9] She identifies the aggressors' misuse of the concepts of academic freedom and collegiality as a commonly used strategy.[9]

University bullying policies and processes are open to misuse, however, and the AAUP notes that faculty who dissent on academic governance issues or who complain about workplace inequities may become the target for retaliatory bullying complaints aimed to silence unpopular views.[31]

Bullying of medical students[edit]

In a 2005 British study, around 35% of medical students reported having been bullied. Around one in four of the 1,000 students questioned said they had been bullied by a doctor, while one in six had been bullied by a nurse. Manifestations of bullying included:[32]

  • being humiliated by teachers in front of patients
  • being victimised for not having come from a "medical family"
  • being put under pressure to carry out a procedure without supervision.

In 2019, The Lancet journal proposed a need for establishment of a global committee on academic behaviour ethics to consider academic bullying reports in a robust, fair, and unbiased manner.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Mahmoudi, Morteza (2019). "Academic bullies leave no trace". BioImpacts. 9 (3): 129–130. doi:10.15171/bi.2019.17. PMC 6726746. PMID 31508328.
  2. ^ Keashly, Loraleigh; Neuman, Joel H. (2010). "Faculty Experiences with Bullying in Higher Education: Causes, Consequences, and Management". Administrative Theory & Praxis. 32 (1): 48–70. doi:10.2753/ATP1084-1806320103. S2CID 142766958.
  3. ^ Academic, Anonymous (26 January 2018). "We need a bigger conversation about bullying in academia". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 August 2018.
  4. ^ a b Khoo, S. (2010). "Academic Mobbing: Hidden Health Hazard at Workplace". Malaysian Family Physician. 5 (2): 61–67. PMC 4170397. PMID 25606190.
  5. ^ Thompson, David; Arora, Tiny; Sharp, Sonia (2002). Bullying: Effective strategies for long-term improvement. (Summaries at Eric, at Jstor)
  6. ^ Rigby, Ken (2002). New Perspectives on Bullying. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. ISBN 9781853028724. OCLC 875667926.
  7. ^ Cassell, Macgorine (November 2011). "Bullying In Academe: Prevalent, Significant, and Incessant" (PDF). 2010 IABR & ITLC Conference Proceedings.
  8. ^ Egner, Heike; Uhlenwinkel, Anke (May 2021). "Dismissal and public demotion of professors: An empirical analysis of structural commonalities in apparently different 'cases' (translated from the German article "Entlassung und öffentliche Degradierung von Professorinnen. Eine empirische Analyse struktureller Gemeinsamkeiten anscheinend unterschiedlicher "Fälle"")". Beiträge zur Hochschulforschung. 43 (1–2): 62–84.
  9. ^ a b c C. K. Gunsalus (30 September 2006). The college administrator's survival guide. Harvard University Press. pp. 124–125. ISBN 978-0-674-02315-4. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
  10. ^ a b c Robert Cantwell; Jill Scevak (August 2009). An Academic Life: A Handbook for New Academics. Australian Council for Educational Research. p. 168. ISBN 978-0-86431-908-1. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
  11. ^ Wilmshurst, Peter (2007). "Dishonesty in Medical Research" (PDF). The Medico-Legal Journal. 75 (Pt 1): 3–12. doi:10.1258/rsmmlj.75.1.3. PMID 17506338. S2CID 26915448. Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 May 2013.
  12. ^ Reveal bullying in academia
  13. ^ Mahmoudi, Morteza (2018). "Improve reporting systems for academic bullying". Nature. 562 (7728): 494. Bibcode:2018Natur.562R.494M. doi:10.1038/d41586-018-07154-x. PMID 30356195.
  14. ^ Nik-Zainal, Serena (2019). "Bullying investigations need a code of conduct". Nature. 565 (7740): 429. Bibcode:2019Natur.565..429N. doi:10.1038/d41586-019-00228-4. PMID 30675047.
  15. ^ Eve Seguin, "Academic mobbing, or how to become campus tormentors," in University Affairs/Affaires universitaires, 19 September 2016.
  16. ^ a b Workplace Bullying in the Academic World?, Higher Education Development Association, 13 May 2007, archived from the original on 24 July 2011, retrieved 5 March 2011
  17. ^ "Academic bullying: Desperate for data and solutions". Science Magazine.
  18. ^ "You are not alone!". 30 September 2020.
  19. ^ Mahmoudi, Morteza (31 August 2020). "A survivor's guide to academic bullying". Nature Human Behaviour. 4 (11): 1091. doi:10.1038/s41562-020-00937-1. PMID 32868883. S2CID 221403792.
  20. ^ Mahmoudi, Morteza (2021). "Academic bullying: How to be an ally". Science. 373 (6558): 974. Bibcode:2021Sci...373..974M. doi:10.1126/science.abl7492. PMID 34446599. S2CID 237308678.
  21. ^ Mahmoudi, Morteza (2022). A Brief Guide to Academic Bullying. Jenny Stanford Publishing. ISBN 9781003160342.
  22. ^ Täuber, Susanne; Mahmoudi, Morteza (2022). "How bullying becomes a career tool". Nature Human Behaviour. 6 (4): 475. doi:10.1038/s41562-022-01311-z. PMID 35132170. S2CID 246651521.
  23. ^ a b c d Anthea Lipsett (16 September 2005). "Bullying rife across campus". Times Higher Education. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
  24. ^ "Workplace Mediators Seek a Role in Taming Faculty Bullies". The Chronicle of Higher Education. 8 June 2010. Retrieved 9 March 2011.
  25. ^ Mahmoudi, Morteza (2019). "Academic bullies leave no trace" (PDF). BioImpacts. 9 (3): 129–130. doi:10.15171/bi.2019.17. PMC 6726746. PMID 31508328.
  26. ^ Mahmoudi, Morteza (2023). "Academic bullying slows the evolution of science". Nature Reviews Materials. 8 (5): 301–303. doi:10.1038/s41578-023-00549-x. S2CID 257249266.
  27. ^ McKay, R. Arnold, D. H. Fratzl, J. Thomas, R. (2008). "Workplace Bullying in Academia: A Canadian Study". Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal. 20 (2): 77–100. doi:10.1007/s10672-008-9073-3. S2CID 155084423.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  28. ^ Else, H (November 2018). "Does science have a bullying problem?". Nature (Feature news). 563 (7733): 616–618. Bibcode:2018Natur.563..616E. doi:10.1038/d41586-018-07532-5. PMID 30487619.
  29. ^ a b c Great Britain: Parliament: House of Commons: Innovation; Universities; Science and Skills Committee (2009). Students and universities: eleventh report of session 2008–09, Vol. 2: Oral and written evidence. The Stationery Office. pp. 531–532. ISBN 978-0-215-54072-0. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
  30. ^ Kapot gemaakt door je eigen universiteit [Destroyed by your own university] (in Dutch). NOS op 3. 13 July 2021. Retrieved 24 July 2021.
  31. ^ "AAUP Collegiality Report". American Association of University Professors. 26 July 2006. Retrieved 29 November 2018.
  32. ^ Curtis, Polly (4 May 2005). "Medical students complain of bullying". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 October 2011.
  33. ^ Mahmoudi, Morteza (2019). "The need for a global committee on academic behaviour ethics". The Lancet. 394 (10207): 1410. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(19)31361-3. PMID 31631849.

Further reading[edit]


Academic papers[edit]

External links[edit]