Ten rules for succeeding in academia through upward toxicity

Universities preach meritocracy but, in reality, bend over backwards to protect toxic personalities, says Irina Dumitrescu

November 21, 2019
Source: Getty (edited)

Think the way to forge a brilliant career in academe is to produce good research, teach skilfully and mentor generously? That arduous approach works for some – but there is an easier way.

Universities sing the song of meritocracy but dance to a different tune. In reality, they will do everything to reward and protect their most destructive, abusive and uncooperative faculty. The more thoroughly such scholars poison departments, programmes and individual lives, the more universities double down to please them.

Universities are even willing to ruin their own reputations and alienate their alumni to protect bullies and abusers. They might think that reputation management demands that such behaviour be swept under the carpet, but they ought to know that the scandals will break eventually, and that the cover-up will make them look worse. Some universities even hire people in the full knowledge of abuse allegations against them, thereby becoming invested in keeping secret their decision to put their students in harm’s way.

You too can become upwardly toxic; if you are the sort of person who likes harassing less powerful people, you will enjoy it, too. It is not necessary to actually be a genius scholar or administrator. Once enough people buy into the elaborate fiction of your irreplaceability, everyone will play along. To maintain it, universities will devalue the work of colleagues and students who are more brilliant, productive or collegial. These people, in turn, will internalise the message that they are inferior, and will be too busy dealing with their shattered confidence to pose a threat.

Your indiscretions – on occasion, even your crimes – will be kept quiet through regimes of fear. Threaten lawsuits, repercussions, closed-off opportunities. The more people cave to fear, the more they become implicated in shared guilt and work to maintain silence whether they want to or not. Colleagues who used to get along fine will be divided by resentment of their mutual failure to stand up to you.

Upward toxicity can work in any industry, but it is particularly effective in a career with few escape routes. If your students and colleagues want to get away from you, it could mean moving their family to another country, or even abandoning their life’s work altogether. Most are forced to deal with you for the long term.

There are many fringe benefits to being upwardly toxic. Use service assignments to benefit yourself at the expense of colleagues and you will magically find yourself doing less service. You will not get certain duties because you are not trusted. Of course, you can also ignore remaining work; your colleagues will learn to compensate accordingly.

Carry out a steady programme of harassment and gradually you will be released from duties to students, too. They will tell each other to avoid you. Your colleagues will take on extra work to protect them from your roving hands. Eventually, you will mentor only a select group of acolytes, who always do your bidding. If you behave egregiously enough, you may even win the grand prize: paid leave from teaching, which you can use to publish more research, bolstering your reputation for genius.

Still unclear? Try following these 10 easy rules:

  1. Cultivate powerful friends. Gain power over as many publication organs and scholarly bodies as possible and use them to promote your clique.
  2. Do nothing for anyone unimportant.
  3. Find a less successful scholar who will fear and admire you. Flatter them into becoming your sidekick and count on them to denigrate your colleagues and defend your reputation.
  4. Crush the confidence of students with the potential to surpass you. Or sleep with them. Or both.
  5. Manipulate students and employees into feeling they owe you, long after you no longer have power over them. Make outrageous, unethical promises they will feel bad about accepting or refusing.
  6. Promote a zero-sum model of success. Anyone else’s gain is your loss. Claim your students’ work as your own and reassign their best ideas to your favourites. Collaboration is for losers.
  7. Systematically badmouth your colleagues so you can improve your own standing. Shut out the students of rival scholars. Mock those rivals for having less successful students.
  8. Gaslight and spread misinformation about anyone who stands up to you. Complain about the “rumour mill” and “witch-hunts”. Accuse your critics of jealousy. 
  9. Ask loudly why no one is willing to come forward officially to substantiate the rumours of abuse against you. If someone overcomes their terror, call them crazy.
  10. Lie brazenly. Accuse others of lying.

By following these rules, you can absorb enormous amounts of attention, time and resources with impunity. Sure, there will be critics. They will grumble among themselves that universities ought to foster talent, not protect abuse, and that research and education should serve society, not the gratification of a few egos. They may even call for a breaking of the conspiratorial silence that drives good people out of academe and leaves psyches shattered.

Don’t worry. They will be too afraid even to share this article.

Irina Dumitrescu is professor of English medieval studies at the University of Bonn.


Print headline: Want to get ahead in academia? Try adopting a toxic personality

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Reader's comments (11)

Love it :)
Are you me? Is it defamation if I tag my uni in this?
These days the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of our more psychopathic (ruthless, conscience-free, manipulative, self-oriented) colleagues are well understood and easy to describe. Just yesterday an inter-state visitor told me that she thought her Vice-Chancellor was highly psychopathic as judged against ten of the most proto-typical characteristics of the ‘corporate’ or ‘primary’ psychopath. These people are adept at getting to the top, where, because of their power and influence, they can do enormous damage. The best way to stop them is probably at the recruitment stage, but shallow interview-based selection methods will not achieve this. Deep investigation is needed and while this is costly in terms of time, it aces any type of cost-benefit analysis. Post-appointment the psychopathic are extremely difficult to deal with and a team effort is needed because individual action is too dangerous. These people are ruthless and vindictive when challenged. Nevertheless, potentially fruitful areas to investigate include past plagiarism, pornography use during work hours, undeserved promotion of cronies, sexual coercion and philandering in the workplace, CV fraud, inflated expense claims, huge falls in job satisfaction together with high levels of staff exit behaviour among those who work closely with the psychopathic individual and an increase in the signing of non-disclosure agreements among those who do leave. This is emotionally costly and often damaging for those employees who get involved and detrimental to the institution and society.
Except for 1 and 9, this is exactly my PhD advisor. Or should I say, the guy I try to cut out of my life as much as possible but he better sign my paperwork when the time comes, since the university environment gives me zero defenses or recourse or ability to change advisors without throwing away years of work.
I've never thought of university life like this. But when I was working at Us Career Institute reviews department I really did not understand lots of things... Now it's little more clearly, thanks to the list of your rules.
During my 10 years as a Lecturer at a Western Australian University I found these same issues/problems rearing their ugly head. I was discriminated against, harassed, and bullied by senior staff because I refused to accept bribes from students ($10,000 for an "A", or an "A" for a lay). I was sacked as a result, but being an independent person was able to survive by returning to buying and selling Small Businesses, which was my area of expertise. Being smarter than the Boss does not work in the Australian University sector, but creates opportunities in the real world.
Why are only white men pictured? Women are often the victims of such toxicity but they can also be the perpetrators.
@susanne_brander_oregonstate_edu Because white men occupy most leadership roles and have privilege/power to enable this type of environment. Anyways, this article laid it all out. Very relevant to my industry.
White women/Amy Cooper can be snake attacks too.
Black guy, america, STEM, outside attacks, threats of violence, constant denial, newly appointed federal judges, no escape, no way in, no way out, guess ill start selling drugs, rapping, or be a token... somewhere... somewhere
Might i add other rules to stamp out African Americans from STEM.... Make sure you interrupt any thing they say when in the presence of any one who may be a neoliberal... Don't hear what they say... they are subhuman... so point out any inconsistency... people suffering from white guilt will have some burden relieved and will be grateful to you for it... the closet racist will say to themselves 'they get it!!' and will admire you.. n-word lovers will try to criticize but there is always rule 8... hell you will always use it against an cis n-word male who doesnt know his place... It's America!! If there is anything we can do it is that!! Is that all we can do? ... doesn't matter that's been enough since i can remember :)