Bullying is a feature of UK research universities, not a bug

Departmental hierarchies, job precarity and institutions’ need to protect their star professors enables bullies to thrive in Britain’s top universities, says Wyn Evans

August 30, 2023
Dragon motif on the ironwork outside King's College Chapel, Cambridge to illustrate Bullying is a feature of UK research universities, not a bug
Source: Alamy (edited)

With a video on YouTube (comments disabled) and much fanfare, the University of Cambridge has just announced a new “dignity at work” policy to solve one of its most persistent and pernicious problems.

Three years ago, Unite, Unison and the University and College Union carried out an investigation into bullying at Cambridge. The results fell into the category of the least surprising news ever – alongside the likes of “Boris Johnson has another affair” and “banker receives an enormous bonus”.

Specifically, the survey found that nearly one in three Cambridge staff had either been the victims of bullying and victimisation or had witnessed it in the previous 18 months. Worse still, more than half of those who had experienced bullying did not report it, with many believing that nothing would be done or that the perpetrator would retaliate.

My view on bullies in universities is that they’re a feature, not a bug.

Campus resource: Bullying by supervisors is alive and well – now is the time to tackle it

Huge grants, prestigious prizes, adulatory press coverage, first-author publications, untrammelled power over enormous research groups: these are all highly flattering to the ego. It is no coincidence, then, that big egos are associated with “top academics”, alongside charisma, self-promotion and self-importance. And these qualities are also present in the kinds of people who bully others.

Not all top academics are bullies, but quite a few are. And bullying thrives in the hierarchical and hyper-competitive environment of top universities. Tackling it is difficult because the bully is typically so much more valuable than the victim, and direction from the top can easily lead any inquiry to exonerate the bully by finding the evidence inconclusive.

On the academic side, the people most often bullied are graduate students and post-doctoral research assistants. Victims might first approach a departmental anti-bullying representative or a wellness advocate, often a sympathetic senior academic. The problem may be resolved informally – but, if it is at all serious, it will most likely not. You will then be encouraged to contact human resources.

Your difficulties are about to begin.

Initial contact with HR might be gentle, but do not be deceived. HR staff are not interested in anything other than containing the damage to your university’s reputation. Particularly if the alleged perpetrator is your supervisor or senior professor, you will not be believed. Any evidence you have will be explained away.

You might even end up being investigated yourself if your supervisor or professor retaliates and complains about you. And if you’re particularly unlucky, HR will join in on your professor’s side!

If a UK graduate student or postdoc is being bullied, the best advice is to move as soon as possible to another supervisor, research team or university. Don’t waste time trying to fix it or report it. As a young academic without tenure, your time is limited and precious.

I realise this will seem grimly pessimistic. After all, brave graduate students have managed to hold to account bullying or harassing academics in departments of European or American universities. The fall of Geoff Marcy at Berkeley and Tim de Zeeuw at Leiden University – two of the most famous astronomy professors on the planet – came about because of complaints from graduate students.

But UK universities are organised differently, so allegations are not handled by an independent body. Even if your HR department commissions an external report, they will choose the investigator with a view to protecting the institution.

Unsurprisingly, the Cambridge survey found that women were more likely than men to experience bullying and harassment. It also found that non-academic support staff were more likely to be bullied than academics; you are especially expendable if you do not bring in any money from research or teaching.

So if you are a female member of support staff, there is no way to sugarcoat it: you are at high risk of being bullied. In the saddest case known to me, one such individual at a UK university killed herself because of bullying.

The best advice to a member of support staff who is being bullied is to join your trade union immediately. Trade union lawyers are among the UK’s heroes. You will need their experience of employment law in any battle with your HR department.

To give one example, many violations of good employment practice have statutes of limitations. It is easy to waste months raising matters with intransigent HR staff only to find you are out of time. As soon as there are difficulties, raise the matter immediately with your trade union. Don’t believe HR’s endless blather about “putting people first” or “breaking the silence about bullying”. It is just spin to enable your university to look good and get its Athena SWAN badge.

As for Cambridge’s new policy, if bullying is as pervasive as the unions’ survey suggested, why is no one ever dismissed? In all my years at Cambridge, I cannot recall a single instance of a bully being held to account. That lack of action speaks much louder than any YouTube video could about where the priorities have lain.

Wyn Evans is professor of astrophysics at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge

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Reader's comments (3)

the issues with the above is that all the bullies I have encountered were the trade union representatives and that fact alone meant their sexism, misogyny and poor behaviour was seen as untouchable.....HR don't do anything that is very true but I also don't trust anyone else to help you.
It is true that HR's sole interest is to defend the rep of the University and make sure nothing leaks out and there are no loose ends. They are single minded and very determined and you need to be very hard indeed to get the better of them. The position of a postgrad..yes, I agree with the advice in this column as there is really nothing you can do. University supervisors and powerful Profs do behave like minor potentates and the money they bring in does make them valuable and places like Cambridge/Oxford/Imperial place their management objectives some miles above the lives of their fully expendable employees. The overall message is and always has been, you are easily replaced and there are hundreds behind you who will take your place and take the 'supervision' in the chin or wherever else the academics choose to place it. The whole academic business is just that, a business. You are in or you are out and it is not even your choice. If you are a postgrad/postdoc in this position, you have to learn strategies to cope until you can find another place and you do need a reference, but it does help to cultivate some political awareness and find an sympathetic academic that you can rely on if all else fails. Sometimes this is one of your supervisor's enemies, which can be a double-edged sword...better if you can find somebody senior that you are friendly with. If all else fails you can get a reference out of them. However, don't let the reference thing totally terrify you-academics know that people fall out and often they are only too aware of the environment. If you have produced the papers-that is the currency-that is what counts. To paraphrase the Emperor Caligula, 'Let them hate you as long as you publish..' one day you will find somewhere sympatico...
"So if you are a female member of support staff, there is no way to sugarcoat it: you are at high risk of being bullied. In the saddest case known to me, one such individual at a UK university killed herself because of bullying." Many may already be familiar with the details of the case to which Wyn is likely referring, but for those who are not, it occurred a couple of years ago at a university in the southeast and got a lot of coverage in the tabloid news.