Why I think bullying in university departments is on the increase

October 14, 2005

The articles and letters on bullying published recently in The Times Higher have made me contemplate my experiences as head of department.

It was nearly 30 years ago and there were only six of us in the department.

No one thought of me as a "line manager", I was merely a young lecturer. I may have known about theology, but I had no training or experience in administration. That did not matter. In essence I was a paperpusher. I organised timetables, distributed lists of students, co-ordinated exams and sat on various committees. There was never any thought I might "manage" colleagues. They would have laughed if I had tried.

This was before the cult of Thatcherism. In many ways, it was a halcyon time for universities. We seemed to have enough students. Study leave was a regular occurrence. All of us had tenure. There was no research assessment exercise or Quality Assurance Agency. In general, we were free to pursue research that interested us.

In the 1980s and 1990s things began to change. The spirit of the market penetrated the groves of academe. We became competitive. Polytechnics became universities. Our teaching and research were quantified and assessed. Students evaluated classes, gave feedback on courses and produced student surveys. Pressures from above were combined with pressures from below, and we academics were caught in the middle.

Along with all this, administrators suddenly became managers. They had to supervise their departments; they became budget-holders; they were sometimes even required to institute disciplinary procedures. Yet the majority had as little training as I had. Individuals whose main interests lay in matters such as the Prophetic Books of the Hebrew Bible or the peculiar properties of magnesium were suddenly expected to follow complex personnel regulations.

Not surprisingly, there have been problems. As The Times Higher has revealed, academic bullying is on the increase. The reasons are obvious.

Vice-chancellors and other senior staff are anxious about university finances. They are preoccupied with league tables. They want results.

Departmental heads are only too aware of these demands. They want results, too. But most have no direct training in personnel management. With the Pre-Exilic Prophets (or magnesium) as their only guides, all too often they harass colleagues. Insecure themselves, some try to bully people into submission then issue warnings with no regard for employment legislation.

Others create a climate of intimidation, seeking to drive their hapless colleagues into early retirement or even an early grave.

I have seen it done at other universities. In one case, a head of department was aware that a member of staff was drinking too much. Students were complaining. Instead of dealing with the issue as a pastoral problem, discipline was immediately invoked. The person, a hugely talented scholar, was hounded out of his job. At another university, a lengthy grievance procedure was instituted against an unpopular member of staff with no justification and the victim eventually retired with a nervous breakdown.

We should not want to turn the clock back. It is right that there is pressure from the Government. Students should feel justified in complaining if their needs are not met.

We need managers - but we should not be overwhelmed by them. Bullying can be prevented by careful training and the implementation of policies.

Complaints can be tackled through proper procedures. Academic standards can be protected through official codes of practice. We can still embark on the brave new world of efficiency, accountability and excellence, but we must insist that we do so in an environment free from fear.

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