Why I ... believe we must stop using the b-word in the academy

March 11, 2005

"University management uses bullying tactics!" We've seen the headline many times. And there is no doubt that university managers can be vindictive, aggressive, insensitive and plain daft. But the word "bullying" seems to come to mind a little too easily when today's academic has a gripe.

I've heard colleagues label many situations as bullying: not getting their own way in a difficult meeting, having someone raise their voice, getting their lecture schedule changed, being firmly told what to do by a line manager and realising that they are not respected or even liked by their peers.

Is it bullying to strongly encourage an academic to join a union or to give a negative appraisal? My puzzlement is not only about the term's almost meaningless application. I'm baffled as to why professionals happily describe themselves as if they were children frightened of the big bruiser by the bike shed.

This playground language is in part encouraged by management whose anti-bullying and dignity-at-work policies prompt often difficult and independent-minded academics to regard themselves as feeble.

A colleague tells me that I fail to see that "there are a lot of vulnerable people" in universities who need safe spaces and to know that their concerns are heard.

He clearly sees the academy as in essence a therapeutic institution where we expose feelings rather than ideas. But he is wrong.

Workplace slights and minor fears are exaggerated and built into major issues.

A cynic might argue that this gives managers, staff developers and even unions some purpose, allowing them to "relate" to the workforce. But haven't we all got more important issues to deal with? An old-fashioned response would be to tell academics to get a grip and tackle their supposed injustices or simply forget about them.

I used to recommend stoicism, because I concluded that the obsession with bullying reflected the anxieties and vulnerability of the individualised workplace relations since the collapse of unions. A bit of toughening up would do no harm, I thought. But it was only through talking to people about why I see no place for the "b-word" in the academy that I became conscious of a profound sociological change.

Being bullied has become an expression of the contemporary victim culture in which victimhood is a state that people never want to come out of. But the fact that feelings of vulnerability are so freely expressed in universities reveals the falseness of the obsession. It is precisely because they are, for the most part, unthreatening environments that such damaging emotionalism can thrive.

Bullying, like other notions that centre on supporting victims, produces passivity and abject compliance with management intervention. Despite this, unions continue to popularise the notion, partly in a bid to recruit fearful members seeking protection.

The idea is that support strategies will help to rebuild collective approaches to workplace relations. But it doesn't even come close to understanding the new victim culture. A collective of victims is not going to bring about change, academic or otherwise.

One of my critics sent me an irate email that whined: "Typical of you to be debating when people are suffering." This captures the essence of victim culture. Anyone who challenges the demoralising use of terms such as "bullying" is condemned. The victim is beyond criticism. We must all be silent as he tells us about his feelings. "Bullied" is now a fashionable badge for the academic in the therapeutic university to wear.

If this creeping infantilisation of academic life is to be reversed, we must stop using the b-word.

Dennis Hayes's book Defending Higher Education: The Crisis of Confidence in the Academy will be published by Routledge this year.

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