Bullied Blogger: What is to be done?

June 9, 2009

Over the course of my penultimate blog and the final one next week, I hope to enter into the debate with readers about my experience of being bullied and offer my thoughts on how things should change. I welcome readers’ comments and will participate in the ongoing discussions.

I submitted my grievance after several months of attempting to solve the problems with Marcus. I had made suggestions, sought support from other individuals and managed to find a way forward. This seemed to be a “win/win” option. It was left to me to seek this out due to the lack of interest shown by my dean, Helen. Why did she constantly refuse to accept my practical suggestions?

Several contributors to this blog have already mentioned that individuals in prominent university positions often lack training in supervision or management. Many have only worked in the closed world of academia.

It is unclear what part this plays in the culture of a university, but in terms of “modernisation”, higher education remains relatively untouched by the outside world. Institutions have certainly become more profit-driven, but have not emerged over the past few decades with anything resembling a “transformed” culture. Power structures remain in the hands of the few, governance is still centralised and board members are often handpicked by vice-chancellors. It is all very elitist.

Consequently, when I issued a grievance with credible points that would be difficult to dispute, something “automatic” kicked in that seemed to work on the basis of defending the organisation rather than objectively evaluating what had happened. Both the organisation’s hierarchy and individuals within it acted in almost Pavlovian ways to attack me and put me on the defensive.

Members of the Human Resources department joined this attack and were utterly robust in their attempts to defend Helen and Marcus. At no time were counselling services offered: rather, I received a constant stream of correspondence aimed at destabilising my sense of self.

Finally, illegal directives told me that, for example, I could not socialise with anyone at the university. In the middle of this, I was unable to grasp any objective sense of reality over my situation. The organisation’s efforts to isolate me were intentional. Its constant letters strived to undermine me.

Throughout the grievance and disciplinary procedure, I received no direct phone calls from managers, HR or anyone in the organisation. All I heard were distorted counter-allegations and terrible attempts to discredit my work.

Throughout this time I had some support from my union representative at the university. He was a good man who, in common with many other union reps, was part of the organisation while simultaneously challenging it – a difficult position. But the union’s regional office was hopeless. As soon as my post came to an end, I cancelled my monthly union fees. The union must represent its staff, provide immediate advice and support and give open access to legal counsel. It is no surprise to me that only about 48 per cent of university staff are members of the union.

It must undergo fundamental change because in my experience it is out of touch with members. Its bureaucracy needs to be re-evaluated. It seems to function for its own sake. University culture will only change when we have active representation that management fears.

My concluding thoughts are speculative and concern why universities are so anxious when challenged.

In my experience, an individual’s status as a professor or pro vice-chancellor has no bearing on their ability to manage others. Management is a unique talent and requires the development of communication skills.

However, power emanates from patronage. When relationships become difficult, there seems little space for objective reasoning. Those with such an elevated sense of self must find it potentially catastrophic when a minion from the lower ranks challenges their competence.

My experience has been that the way they react to any challenge is to exaggerate or distort anything their potential adversary says or does. This culture of arrogance permeates the university. From what others have said in previous blogs, I fear that university systems have an almost reptilian response to challenge.

Such injustice can only be countered by external intervention, where a completely independent regulatory body critically explores the power and methods of those who are challenged.

Are you experiencing problems at work?

Whether its money worries, issues with colleagues or emotional difficulties, the College and University Support Network (CUSN) can help. CUSN provides free, confidential support services, 24/7, specifically for all staff working in adult, further and higher education. Established by Teacher Support Network and supported by UCU, CUSN offers information and advice, telephone counselling, online and telephone coaching and financial assistance. All CUSN services are delivered by professional advisors, counsellors and coaches.

You can contact CUSN for free on 08000 32 99 52 or visit www.cusn.info, where you can also sign up for the free monthly newsletter.

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