An academic bully culture?

Dear colleagues,

Is academic life becoming more cut-throat and less pleasant? Seemingly so, at least in the US, according to Darla Twale and Barbara De Luca, who make the case in their book Faculty Incivility.

"Incivility" may not sound so bad - just a bit of impoliteness - but what the authors are really talking about is more serious, as indicated by their subtitle: "the rise of the academic bully culture and what to do about it". They use the word "incivility" very broadly to mean "bullying, mobbing, camouflaged aggression, and harassment" (p. xii). Mobbing means collective bullying.

Incidentally, "faculty" in the US refers to academic staff.

Twale and De Luca make the case that US academic life has become less collegial and more dominated by self-interest, power plays and various forms of domination. They look at the history of US higher education, at how academics learn to be uncivil, at organisational structures and at academic culture. They argue that a bullying culture is being facilitated by responses to the changing demographics of the academy (more women and members of minority groups) and increasing corporate influence.

The authors rely heavily on academic sources to make their case, so much so that sometimes their own argument gets a bit lost in the surfeit of references. To lighten the tone, they intersperse their text with other academics' comments about personal experiences or observations of incivility.

What to do? Twale and De Luca make various recommendations. They favour setting up a workplace harassment policy, with grievance procedures and sanctions. I must say that from my own research, I am pretty sceptical about the effectiveness of policies and procedures. Twale and De Luca also canvas strategies for targets of bullying, including learning to be assertive, gathering and sharing information, taking action and learning from what happens - a type of action research. Arts academics certainly have the skills for this sort of thing.

Different individuals will have different assessments of what is happening in their own workplace. Faculty Incivility provides plenty of ideas and references to help think through the situation.

Below are some quotes that illustrate the book's style and content.

12 August 2009

Reference: Darla J Twale and Barbara M De Luca, Faculty incivility: the rise of the academic bully culture and what to do about it (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008).

"If we merge micromanagement common to ineffective administrators in some universities with the fact that the university faculty members are ego centered, we have a situation ripe for what Abdennur (2000) labeled bureaupathology. With a lack of leadership and an overabundance of big egos and middle managers, incivility and aggression can be easily masked in the system. It is entirely possible that in the absence of good leadership, victimized academics cocoon themselves in order to render their lives more livable. With the university administration leaning more to a bureaucratic and corporate focus, they may have created a silent upheaval among academics, who have adopted one of two responses: open fighting or retreating to their work. Bennis (1989) insisted that administrators manage the money rather than lead the organization, causing faculty to go their own way and work in ways that are egocentrically driven. Incivility likely increases under these circumstances." (p. 87)

[Interview comment] "When I worked in a large department, it became apparent to the newcomers how dysfunctional it really was. To the faculty who had been there for decades, it was normal. They thought nothing of sweet-talking new faculty into helping them with projects or getting some of us to put their names on the research we were doing. They did it with graduate assistants too. As much as I and some of my other colleagues wanted to tell them how dysfunctional the department was and how unethical it was, we were afraid to do so, so we just gravitated away from them. - Abby" (pp. 95-96).

" Consider this trend in academe. Zemsky, Wegner, and Massy (2005) contended that faculty disengage from the university in response to administrative tactics aimed at change. With the increase in the research function, universities have outsourced classroom teaching duties to adjuncts and part-timers. The results are fewer tenure-track positions, more part-time positions, tighter job mobility, greater administrative intrusiveness on faculty autonomy, less faculty involvement in campus governance, increases in bureaucracy, splintered disciplines, lower morale, increased workloads, and decreased rewards (Austin & Gamson, 1983) - in other words, a tense, changing culture." (p. 100)

" While these ideological shifts may legitimize behaviors as necessary to accomplish newly stated goals, they are uncommon elements in traditional academic culture. Autonomous work that faculty did previously may be displaced for greater control of work by administrators. This shifts the collegial culture to a managerial one, forcing a once-dormant negotiating culture to grow in response (Bergquist, 1992). Faculty shift their efforts away from a traditional academic value system to address managerial and administrative directives whether they want to or not. Administrators shift academic priorities in accordance with market quality and trends, often without including faculty. Faculty are nevertheless expected to comply with the administrative directives regardless of their effect on rigor. Work norms become less clearly defined, and feelings of disenfranchisement arise. Faculty may resort to political strategies in order to negotiate with administration as a means to try to preserve traditional collegial norms. They may become passive-aggressive and slow to change. Tenured faculty may resort to micropolitics to preserve their eroding territory, power, and control, and untenured faculty may be victimized because they are naive and unprotected compared to senior faculty (Hoel & Salin, 2003)." (pp. 135-136)

"What could logically be the result of academic bullying tends to fall under what Huston, Norman, and Ambrose (2007) labeled disengagement. They found in their research that productive senior faculty experience a negative, often traumatic experience in their department or college and subsequently disengage from collegial discussions, campus service, department socials, and junior faculty mentoring. Instead already productive faculty channel that negativity into positive other-focused activities that improve their teaching and enlarge their publication records, and often they engage in professional service off campus and pursue consulting opportunities. They also found that a typical faculty response among the disengaged manifested itself in exiting the institution, withdrawal from it, silence or its opposite (speaking out against injustice), or cynicism and sabotage. Bully cultures can emerge within the cultures of silence and cynicism and set in motion long-term consequences for the institution." (pp. 150-151)

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