Time to tackle abuse head-on

September 16, 2005

Academia must admit bullying exists and try to stamp it out, says Petra Boynton

Sometimes in research you instinctively know a study's going to be different. The Times Higher's bullying survey was one of those instances.

As well as 800-plus responses, I received more than 500 e-mails from people repeatedly stating "don't just do this as research - please help us".

Their stories were tough to read and remarkably similar. Victims weren't immediately certain they were being bullied, but over time became intimidated and cowed. Talented and enthusiastic academic and academic-related staff were enduring regular bouts of humiliation. It wasn't their imagination. If you're threatened personally or professionally by someone powerful who tells you they'll destroy you if you complain, you tend to believe them.

Social researchers are used to hearing about problems, so this survey was depressing but not unusual. What was unusual was how people responded.

Usually with a survey, people question your methods or findings. They don't criticise your participants. Academics said of these participants: "They're whiny, oversensitive people who can't hack it" or "They claim they're bullied when they've done a crap job". Imagine doing a survey of people living with cancer and saying: "They don't have cancer, they're just pretending." We're expected to treat participants with courtesy, yet when studying something unpalatable such as bullying, it appears people overlook this.

There's nothing particular about our profession that leads to bullying, although organisationally we've been less willing to accept there's a problem than, say, the police. Some features of academia can make it easier for bullying to continue. Participants cited peer review, academic hierarchies, appraisals and the research assessment exercise as causes of and opportunities for bullying.

This research showed we've half-heartedly incorporated business models into working practices with human resources departments, management hierarchies and competition for grants. We don't support to the same level 360-degree feedback, management training or staff awareness of their rights - things that could enable people to deal more effectively with bullying.

Bullying isn't a private event behind closed doors. Counsellors e-mailed me to say how much bullying they knew of but were powerless to act on. Ask anyone working in a given field and they can name the departments and universities in which bullying flourishes.

Many victims simply give up and leave university but years later still suffer flashbacks, anxiety attacks and nightmares.

After analysing the survey, I could not make sense of results using an organisational model. That is because bullying is more akin to domestic violence. It escalates over time and victims feel the abusers have power over them but long for them to show kindness. The victims internalise what the abusers tell them - that they're stupid or clumsy - and in some cases become these things. The abusers justify their behaviour but also need help.

For years, public and professional bodies allowed domestic violence to continue because they agreed victims were lying, hysterical attention-seekers who invited abuse. That's where much of academia is now.

We have a choice. We carry on letting abuse happen, or we admit we have a problem.

Petra Boynton is a psychologist at University College London.

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