Workplace bullying in academia

Bullying in academia is a form of workplace bullying which takes places in the 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. Recently, a Non-Profit Organization called "The Academic Parity Movement" has been established in Massachusetts to provide legal and mental advises to the targets of academic bullying.[4]

Academic mobbing is a sophisticated form of bullying where academicians 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.[5] Victims of academic mobbing may suffer from stress, depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as posttraumatic stress disorder.

Workplace bullying

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.[6]

Workplace bullying ranges into the following categories.[7]

  • 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.

Bullying and academic culture

Several aspects of academia lend themselves to the practice and discourage its reporting and mitigation. 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. The perpetrators may possess tenure—a high-status and protected position—or the victims may belong to the increasing number of adjunct professors, who are often part-time employees.

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."[8][9][10] 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.[11]

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. Recent publications by Nature emphasize the need for improving institutional reporting systems for academic bullying.[12][13]


Mobbing is endemic at universities because universities are a type of organization that encourages mobbing.[14] Academic victims of bullying may also be particularly conflict-averse.

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.[15] Other factors included envy, heresy and campus politics.[15]


The bullying in this workplace has been described as somewhat more subtle than usual.[9] 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.[9][16] It may also be manifested by undue demands for compliance with regulations.[17]


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.[18]

Victims of academic mobbing may suffer from "stress, depression and suicidal thoughts" as well as posttraumatic stress disorder. The psychological scars have been described as potentially worse than with sexual harassment, and they may not heal for many years.


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 the 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.[19]

In 2008 the United Kingdom's University and College Union released the results of a survey taken among its 9,700 members.[20] 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.[20] The results varied by member institutions, with respondents from the University of East London reporting the highest incidence.[20]

The Times Higher Education commissioned a survey in 2005 and received 843 responses.[16] 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.[16] The incidence rate found in this survey was higher than that usually found via internal polling (12 to 24 percent).[16]

Author C. K. Gunsalus describes the problem as "low incidence, high severity", analogous to research misconduct.[8] She identifies the aggressors' misuse of the concepts of academic freedom and collegiality as a commonly used strategy.[8]

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.[21]

Bullying of medical students

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:[22]

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

Recently, 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.[23]

See also


  1. Mahmoudi, Morteza (2019). "Academic bullies leave no trace" (PDF). 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.
  3. Academic, Anonymous (26 January 2018). "We need a bigger conversation about bullying in academia". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 August 2018.
  4. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  5. Khoo, S. (2010). "Academic Mobbing: Hidden Health Hazard at Workplace". Malaysian Family Physician. 5 (2): 61–67. PMC 4170397. PMID 25606190.
  6. Thompson, David; Arora, Tiny; Sharp, Sonia (2002). Bullying: Effective strategies for long-term improvement. (Summaries at Eric, at Questia, at Jstor)
  7. Rigby, Ken (2002). New Perspectives on Bullying. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. ISBN 9781853028724. OCLC 875667926.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Wilmshurst, Peter. "Dishonesty in Medical Research" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 May 2013.
  11. Reveal bullying in academia
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. Eve Seguin, "Academic mobbing, or how to become campus tormentors," in University Affairs/Affaires universitaires, September 19, 2016.
  15. 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
  16. Anthea Lipsett (16 September 2005). "Bullying rife across campus". Times Higher Education. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
  17. "Workplace Mediators Seek a Role in Taming Faculty Bullies". The Chronicle of Higher Education. 8 June 2010. Retrieved 9 March 2011.
  18. 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.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  19. Else, H (November 2018). "Does science have a bullying problem?". Nature (Feature news). 563 (7733): 616–618. doi:10.1038/d41586-018-07532-5. PMID 30487619.
  20. 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.
  21. "AAUP Collegiality Report". American Association of University Professors. Retrieved 29 November 2018.
  22. Curtis, Polly (4 May 2005). "Medical students complain of bullying". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 October 2011.
  23. 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.

Further reading


Academic papers

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