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Mediating in the Academic Bully Culture: The Chair's Responsibility to Faculty and Graduate Students

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Chairs should also be aware of a faculty member who makes a habit of "secretly" informing them of departmental matters, be they manufactured or bona fide. Š The chair must recognize this for what it often is: the bully's attempt to ingratiate him or her-self to the chair in order to continue bullying without reprimands from the chair. It's an I'll-take-care-of-you-but-I-expect-you-to-take-care-of-me-in-return situation. 


The posting below has some excellent advice on managing difficult professors. It is by Barbara M. De Luca is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, and Darla J. Twale is a clinical professor in the Department of Counselor Education and Human Services, both at the University of Dayton and authors of Faculty Incivility (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Email:, The article appeared in The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Winter 2010, Vol. 20, No. 3. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing and discount information, please contact, Sandy Quade, Account Manager, John Wiley & Sons, Phone: (203) 643-8066 ( or see:




Rick Reis

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Mediating in the Academic Bully Culture: The Chair's Responsibility to Faculty and Graduate Students


Faculty incivility can rear its ugly head at various levels within higher education institutions. It can surface at any one of the many administrative levels with administrators being the bullies, or it can be found within the faculty ranks with faculty members bullying each other. Interestingly, students can also be victims of uncivil behavior. Administrators, faculty, and students can play different roles in the bully culture: perpetrator, victim, or mediator. This article focuses on faculty incivility with the department chair as mediator, as well as faculty incivility to students, particularly graduate students.


The Chair as Mediator


Although chairs can be involved in bullying as the bully, as the one bullied, or as the mediator in a departmental bullying situation, this section will focus on the chair as a mediator between faculty members. This job responsibility often creates consternation in department chairs. At the same time they are trying to build camaraderie among faculty, they are also facilitators who are responsible for carrying out the institution's mission, liaising between the department faculty and higher administration, and making merit and promotion and tenure recommendations. These tasks can often be in conflict with one another.


Because chairs have a major impact on the future of individual faculty members, they must be able to recognize when a faculty member is being bullied and intervene to stop the bully while simultaneously respecting the privacy, professionalism, and integrity of the faculty member involved. Recognizing a bullying situation means chairs must be aware of the indications of a bullied faculty member as well as the traits of a bully.


Indicators of a bully include showing disrespect toward a faculty member and continually promoting him or herself. Chairs should also be aware of a faculty member who makes a habit of "secretly" informing them of departmental matters, be they manufactured or bona fide. That is, the bully will repeatedly initiate and/or perpetuate rumors. He or she may continually break the confidences of other faculty members and reveal highly classified committee proceedings. The chair must recognize this for what it often is: the bully's attempt to ingratiate him or herself to the chair in order to continue bullying without reprimands from the chair. It's an I'll-take-care-of-you-but-I- expect-you-to-take-care-of-me-in-return situation. A bully is also difficult to recognize because his or her behavior is frequently disguised as concern for the department in some way while it is actually promoting the bully's own personal agenda. Aside from ignoring the rumors and confidences shared by the bully, the chair must avoid contributing to the sharing of confidences. This will essentially "grant permission" to the bully to continue his or her inappropriate behavior. The chair must learn to recognize such behavior and not succumb to it. Not supporting the bully ultimately renders him or her ineffective.


The chair must learn not only to recognize bullying behavior but to discern the indications of a bullied faculty member as well. If a faculty member approaches the chair with assertions of being bullied, the chair must not ignore the individual. Bullying is frequently very subtle, and bullies are good at disguising their behavior in public settings. Often, the chair believes that the bullied faculty member is being paranoid, when, in fact, there is a genuine problem. If the chair is uncertain, he or she should avoid immediately dismissing the claim, but rather carefully watch for other indications that the faculty member is being bullied. The chair must recognize behavioral changes in the faculty member. Bullied faculty members frequently isolate themselves. They remain in their offices and talk with no one during the day. Because they often feel marginalized (and, in fact, may actually be marginalized) they rarely volunteer for service opportunities, be they departmental committees or other activities, and seldom engage in departmental discussions. They rarely participate in social activities with colleagues, even when sponsored by the department or institution. The work effort of previously productive faculty who are bullied may suffer. Research productivity may noticeably decrease, and once above-average student evaluations of teaching may suddenly drop. The constant pressure of being bullied might manifest itself as aggression by the bullied. The aggressive behavior will be misdirected, and this will be the clue for the chair that some- thing is amiss. Bullied faculty members are likely to avoid the office and work at home more than usual. Any one or all of these changes should be an indication to the chair that something is wrong.


Among many other responsibilities, the chair must address bullying issues in the department. All faculty

must be able to trust the chair, believe that their work will speak for them, and that rewards will be allocated based solely on productive work, evaluated both for quality and quantity. To prevent or minimize bullying, chairs must be focused on their department, not on themselves or on matters outside the department or institution. Chairs must be very careful not to inadvertently reward bullying behavior. At the beginning of each academic year the chair should establish a code of behavior encouraging courtesy and respect and discouraging yelling and arguing and promulgating rumors. If rumors do circulate, the chair is responsible for seeking the truth and thwarting the gossip. The bully must be confronted and reprimanded.


The chair must be knowledgeable about internal grievance procedures and share workplace harassment policy with new faculty. The chair's job is to ensure that faculty work together to understand the institution's policies and procedures and to develop departmental policies and procedures. This cannot be done without establishing common ground within the department. If bullies in the department are only concerned with their own welfare, the goal of common ground or community will be impossible. The chair must protect the tenured as well as nontenured faculty. It is a mistake to believe that bullies go after only nontenured faculty. Faculty members who have only their self-interests in mind and are not concerned with the successes or accomplishments of other faculty will bully anyone they feel is in their way, be the person tenured or not. Above all, the chair must be cognizant of the signs of bullying and be willing to address the behavior as a problem.


Faculty Incivility and Graduate Students


Faculty incivility does not contain itself just to faculty and administrative ranks. It often spills over to involve graduate students and, more often, graduate teaching and research assistants. Faculty cannot only take advantage of their colleagues but their students as well. A power relationship that faculty have over students makes it easy to control them overtly and covertly for several reasons.


Graduate students are reluctant to speak up about faculty who fail to meet minimal obligations to them in terms of teaching, job supervision, or directing doctoral research. Power imbalances of faculty over students coupled with the student's desire to complete the degree typically silence the acts and the student. Furthermore, because students are in this precarious position, they avoid complaining or confronting and instead retreat as a coping strategy and means of survival. Meanwhile, the student's inaction can be seen as an invitation for perhaps another encounter.


A culture of silence explains why other faculty, administrators, and student peers tend to be unaware of or oblivious to these problems. Some are unable or unwilling to intervene on be- half of a student based on the perception that no one would know how to remedy the situation. Considered unprofessional, faculty would be unlikely to criticize colleagues' judgment regarding the oversight of graduate students or their dissertation research. It is possible that the administration knows of certain faculty who poorly supervise and advise their graduate students, and yet they do nothing. What is worse, they tend to cover it up, find plausible excuses for it, and disregard further complaining by disgruntled students. Thus, anything untoward that faculty supervisors and advisors do becomes acceptable by default, supports an insular, protective stratum, and perpetuates the culture of silence.


Few departments and chairs, however, prepare themselves to sanction faculty over this potential form of control or manipulation. If a star professor has already been placed on such a pedestal (or placed him or herself there),the professor may choose to further self-aggrandize to the detriment of the student. Should the student choose to complain, the department would be unlikely to reprimand the professor and more likely to cast dispersions on the student. The faculty member remains above reproach and, furthermore, regards his or her behavior as appropriate.


To overcome this culture of silence, students may benefit from an open forum conducted periodically by a neutral party, such as an ombudsman or human resources manager, especially if the department is unwilling to intervene. Students would be permitted to express problems in oral or written form, whichever is more comfortable, and know that their concerns are being heard.


Graduate students evaluate faculty teaching in the aggregate, but typically students seldom rate faculty supervision of their assistantship or dissertation research. This supports the realization that graduate students are not recognized as part of a community of learners or a community of scholars.


Furthermore, at no time is feedback from this supervisory aspect of academic life factored into faculty promotion, tenure, or post-tenure review. Without a feedback loop, some students will encounter or be assigned to faculty members who exploit their student labor and/or fail to socialize and usher them effectively into the profession. Because some students expect faculty to initiate contact and professors rarely do, students perceive faculty as unsupportive, intimidating, and/or uncaring. An opportunity for the department chair to inquire into the one-on-one relationship between student and faculty member, either separately or as a dyad during a performance appraisal, is essential. Maintaining the sanctity of a strong advisor/mentor/ supervisor relationship between faculty and student should be a top priority.


Educating faculty formally in the supervision of students and academic work and research should be considered a professional development necessity. Discussing the expectations of the faculty/student relationship could begin the graduate student socialization process. Consider a stated contract of ground rules and expectations between student and supervisor, student and dissertation chair, student and advisor, and so on, explaining the duties and responsibilities of each party to the other, the time to be allotted, and the outcomes to be realized, instead of relying on unstated implications. This approach would be helpful to both parties and should be initiated by the department chair. Colleagues seldom choose to police boundaries with another colleague and often decline to condemn, sanction, or remedy the situation; a contract stating expectations may avert that uncomfortable task.


Without a clear policy statement that reaches beyond a stated or implied ethical code of conduct, little can be done to break the silence. Policy discussions may begin with initial research obtained from student exit interviews, alumni interviews, and separate focus groups of current students and faculty and proceed to subsequent drafts from a policy formulation committee that is comprised of faculty and students. Without recognizing that problems exist, there will be no first step toward averting them. This undertaking may be perceived as an arduous task by the chair, but it is one that is worth the effort.




Although we have discussed two different levels of incivility in this article, the indicators of victimization and the solutions for the prevention of bullying are the same regardless of who is being bullied and who is doing the bullying. Victims of bullying, be they faculty members or graduate students, generally retreat into their own world. They become silent, fearful of repercussions or being seen as a whiner or troublemaker. Providing an environment in which the victim feels comfortable to share what is happening is the first step toward minimizing bullying behavior. Another major step is to establish formal policies against bullying, including the actions to be taken to eliminate the behavior. The policy must also include a process by which the bullied can seek help without fear of retribution by the bully. Finally, the policies and processes contained therein must be made available to everyone, even discussed with new faculty and graduate students, so they feel comfortable in the environment and confident that someone will intervene if incivility occurs. The department chair plays a pivotal role in facilitating this process.