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Characterizing the Bully Culture

Tomorrow's Academy

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With all the funny business going on, I requested to see my personnel file. The HR guy went into a state of panic and stalled me. After I returned from leave, I asked the HR guy for my folder again, and he said he would ask the VP if I could see my file. I wanted to see what was in there.-Ben


The posting below looks at the warning signs that a department is in trouble and experiencing a "bully culture". It is from Chapter 8, Characterizing the Bully Culture in the book, Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It, by Darla J. Twale and Barbara M. De Luca. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 [] Copyright © 2008 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academy


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Characterizing the Bully Culture

For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and every kind of evil.

James 3:16, New Living Translation


Faculty recognize that tenure offers relatively secure employment. Some may presume they can do anything they please. Left unchecked, however, any aggressive behavior not reprimanded may escalate into increasingly more serious behaviors. With the specialization of academic disciplines and professions and the rise of the corporate culture, faculty members may inadvertently dismiss aggressive behaviors as typical of the times or treat them as a trade-off for the personal autonomy they enjoy. In actuality, an academic bully culture may be functioning due to prevailing assumptions, newly adopted corporate values, and unwitting personnel. In time, such behaviors become accepted as necessary to accomplish tasks or perhaps for senior faculty to increase their power or move up the administrative ladder. Bully behaviors become institutionalized within the culture, strengthen it negatively, and are transmitted to the next generation of faculty. Faculty may not recognize existing leverage that will help alter a bully or mob culture.

Warning Signals

Barometric pressure in an organization may be measured through astute faculty and administrative recognition of prevailing problems. These problems manifest themselves through typical workplace warning signals. If not addressed, these warning signs become characteristic of the academic culture and organizational structure. Their presence can precipitate conflict and increase anxiety. Warning signs of incivility and further disintegration to a deeply ingrained bully culture begin with low morale, high turnover, increased early retirement, and increased absenteeism and tardiness; diminished work quality of once-productive people; new faculty struggling to survive; increased illness and health issues; working at home more than usual; lower or poorer work quality, increasing faculty isolation and alienation; a low degree of meaningful faculty participation in governance activities; poor faculty performance patterns illustrated through low research productivity and poor teaching evaluations; and consistency of poorer faculty performance evaluations (Davenport, Schwartz, & Elliott, 1999). In addition, Kezar (2000) found that misunderstood, disrespected, and disenfranchised faculty and administrators exit universities, most often citing conflict and miscommunication. Some are concerned as to what has been contained in their personnel files that may not be reflective of their work..


With all the funny business going on, I requested to see my personnel file. The HR guy went into a state of panic and stalled me. After I returned from leave, I asked the HR guy for my folder again, and he said he would ask the VP if I could see my file. I wanted to see what was in there.-Ben


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.

Warning signals may be telling, if and when they are noticed (Montez, Wolverton, & Gmelch, 2002; Rosser, Johnsrud, & Heck, 2003). However one major reason that these warning signals may go unnoticed is that recognizing workplace aggression and doing something about it are not part of the standard graduate curriculum or the socialization or professionalization process of junior faculty (Weidman, Twale, & Stein, 2001). No one is really sure what he or she is looking for. Furthermore, attempting to deal with workplace aggression within the university organizational structure often dwarfs the person or victim seeking justice or restitution. When unsuccessful, the do-gooder often experiences powerlessness or helplessness (Dziech & Weiner, 1990).


A faculty colleague who left had an exit interview with the provost and mentioned things that were going on in her department, and to my knowledge nothing was ever done to change them.-Lucille


Faculty and administration need to ask themselves the following questions:

* Where are the pressure points within my smaller department and the larger organization?

* Is moral low? Why?

* Is turnover high? Why?

* What are the work patterns over time?

* What is the tenor at faculty meetings?

* How would one describe faculty demeanor toward one another? Are colleagues uncivil to one another?

* Are there opportunities or committees where individuals can bully others and remain undetected?

* Are there situations that harbor bullying yet have been ignored?

* Does the organizational tolerance for bullying create mutual acceptance for such behaviors?

* Is bullying a learned behavior supported in the culture and the organizational structure, and do certain organizational structures attract bullies?


Davenport, N., Schwarts, R., & Elliott, G. (1999). Mobbing: Emotional abuse in the American workplace. Ames, IA: Civil Society Publishing.

Dziech, B., & Weiner, L. (1990). The lecherous professor (2nd ed.) Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Huston, T., Norman, M., & Ambrose, S. (2007). Expanding the discussion of faculty vitality to include productive but disengaged senior faculty. Journal of Higher Education, 78, 493-522.

Kezar, A. (2000). Pluralistic leadership: Incorporating diverse voices. Journal of Higher Education, 71, 722-743.

Montez, J., Wolverton, M., & Gmelch, W. (2002). The roles and challenges of deans. Review of Higher Education, 26, 241-266.

Rosser, V., Johnsrud, L., & Heck, R. (2003). Academic deans and directors:

Assessing their effectiveness from individual and institutional perspectives. Journal of Higher Education, 74, 1-25.

Weidman, J., Twale, D., & Stein, E. (2001). Socialization of graduate and professional students in higher education: A perilous passage? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.