Give me an A or you're dead

February 28, 2003

Do students pose a threat to their lecturers? In a disturbing survey on the harassment of academics, Deborah Lee reveals a catalogue of malicious complaints, bullying, assaults and possession of weapons - including guns

He began shouting at me. I kept trying to calm the situation down, but he kept on shouting and shouting even moreI And he came at me. He grabbed me by the shoulders and was shaking me and shoving me. So I grabbed a chair, and kind of manoeuvred away from him and put it between us and shouted back: 'You have to get a grip. Don't do this, or you will be expelled immediately!' And he left the classroom shouting threats and obscenities at me. I was shaking when I got outside and because I had to walk home in the dark, I thought: 'He's going to wait outside for me and have another go at me.'"

We've all heard of children physically and verbally attacking their teachers. But this incident did not happen in a school. The victim here was a lecturer in sociology at a pre-1992 university. Emily (all names are pseudonyms) had just explained to the male undergraduate student that his seminar attendance was unsatisfactory. Senior managers were informed of the incident, but the student was not expelled, just given a warning. Emily is terrified that she may have to teach him again.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is simply an isolated incident because we rarely hear of violence against academics in higher education institutions. That does not mean that it does not happen. I have conducted a small pilot study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, to uncover unacceptable student conduct. My 20 interviews with self-selected informants reveal deeply disturbing events - yob culture is definitely at university.

Academics have been physically assaulted in classrooms, stalked around campus, sexually harassed via email, verbally threatened at home and maliciously accused of poor teaching, inadequate dissertation supervision or unfair examination/coursework marking via student evaluation questionnaires or complaints made directly to managers.

My interviewees were frequently disappointed with management responses to such unacceptable student conduct. Stella, a senior lecturer in law at a pre-1992 university, was heckled for weeks by a group of male students. One day she became distressed in class. Afterwards, she went to seek support from her head of department. But he was unsympathetic, saying that Stella was "just a girl who wasn't able to manage students". The students were asked what had happened. They said they were cruel to each other all the time, but when they were cruel to Stella she just collapsed. The head of department came down on their side.

Management responses are often informed by a desperate need to recruit and retain students. Steve was course leader for a higher national diploma in business and finance at a college of higher education. He explains: "There was a lack of students - if you had under 40, your course was in jeopardy and your job was in question." A group of mature students who "had been made redundant, each with their own personal chip on their shoulder", was recruited. They were confrontational from the start. Steve remarks:

"Frankly they shouldn't be allowed in the building. They would have been asked to leave a couple of years ago, but (now) we are so frightened of losing the money."

Even where managers are supportive, academics can still suffer very deeply when students misbehave. A chunk of academic identity depends on rapport with students. When this rapport is damaged, it can be devastating. Rachel, a lecturer in history at a pre-1992 university, was accused of poor dissertation supervision by a student who had been awarded a 2:2 but wanted a 2:1. Rachel's confidence was shaken. "I'd kind of built up my reputation on the fact that I was a good teacher, and that my door was always open to my students. So it kind of ate at the heart of everything I thought I was good at," she says.

Everyone insisted that Rachel was innocent, but she concurred only when she discovered that the student was fabricating evidence to support her complaint. Nevertheless, she had crossed the divide between academics who think that students are harmless and academics who know that they are not.

She began to wonder if this type of situation would occur time and again.

Subsequently, Rachel explains: "I made a lot more work by making notes after every single meeting I had and trying to have witnesses as far as possible, and spending hours over each email just in case I said something that could be misconstrued." A year after the student made the complaint, Rachel left her lecturing job for a non-academic post. She has no desire to return to academe.

Perhaps one of the most alarming interviews I conducted was with Edward, a senior lecturer in chemistry at a pre-1992 university, who is a warden in a hall of residence. He reported physical violence against tutors, drug dealing, pimping and cleaners finding guns and flick knives under students'

beds. He says: "There's a 300 per cent increase (in guns and knives confiscated) this yearI none of them has been used in a threatening manner, but you think: how long before somebody does?" He says that while students behaved badly in halls of residence, they are - in his experience - usually well behaved in classes. The fact remains, though: students have guns and knives. Is it just a matter of time before an academic is stabbed or shot? "Give me an A or you're dead?"

Indeed, Helen, a lecturer in sociology at a post-1992 university, was threatened with stabbing by a female student when she offered her assistance with some coursework. "She made a physical threat, it was something about a knife, a knife between my ribs or my shoulder blades."

At present, I believe lecturers are quitting or thinking of quitting. As much as they love the job, it is not worth the hassle - especially not when unacceptable student conduct is heaped on serious overwork. So what can be done? University managers must recognise that academics who encounter problems with students are not necessarily poor performers who should be dismissed for incompetence. Even a well-meaning staff development session on "dealing with difficult students" is not the answer. Students who make academics' lives a misery are not merely "difficult". They are harassers.

Student harassment of professors has been noted in North America. In a survey of more than 200 female faculty at Purdue University, carried out by Elisabeth Grauerholz, 47.6 per cent said they had experienced unwanted sexual conduct from students. The term "contra power harassment" has been coined in the US to understand harassment of people who are in formal positions of power by people who are not.

Whatever term we deploy to describe student harassment of academics in the UK, we need to very clearly highlight its unacceptability via university harassment policies and departmental codes of conduct - and make sure both students and academics read them. This is not uniformly the case now.

Prevention is better than cure, so policies may help where students are unaware that heckling a lecturer, for example, is unacceptable.

My feeling, however, is that many students are aware. They're aware that in the consumer culture of UK higher education, they can behave as they please. I believe the desire to retain students at all costs must be derailed. Students are not children whom we should indulge, they are adults who must learn to take responsibility for themselves. Senior managers should consider staff welfare and take robust action against those individuals who harass academics. Universities would then be happier places.

Deborah Lee is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Derby.

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