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Bullying up: academic ‘incivility’ exerts heavy toll on deans

Written by: John Ross
Published on: 21 Apr 2021

Rebellion Punk Festival, Blackpool, illustrating upward bullying and insubordination

Source: Getty

Academic seniority is no shield against victimisation, with faculty heads routinely targeted by “smart bullies” on their staff, researchers have suggested.

An Australian study has found that deans are regularly subjected to bottom-up bullying by academics who know how to “act around” workplace rules.

Victims mostly suffer in silence, unable to discipline subordinates for behaviour that does not technically breach codes of conduct, such as gossiping, muttering in meetings or deliberately misinterpreting instructions. Deans who confront perpetrators risk sparking grievance complaints or rows over academic freedom, while appealing to provosts can appear weak and incompetent.

But the experience exacts a heavy toll, with some victims seeking psychiatric help and ultimately quitting. Others turn to drink or agonise to family members.

Previous research has indicated that around one in five university workers endure such “incivility” on the job. But the new study has found it is pervasive at the faculty leadership level, with 18 of the 20 deans interviewed describing it as a regular feature of their working lives.

Their tormentors were often established professors who knew the system and enlisted awed junior colleagues as allies, according to co-author Lynn Bosetti. Many resented restructuring obligations foisted on deans from further up the hierarchy.

“Incivility is really designed to undermine the credibility of the leader,” said Professor Bosetti, who has served as dean of education at the University of British Columbia and Melbourne’s La Trobe University. “It’s about when the administration tries to make a shift in the workplace that challenges someone’s identity or the way they’ve been working. Once you become dean, you’re part of the administration, so you’re part of the problem.”

Lead author Troy Heffernan, lecturer in leadership at La Trobe, said bullying was usually inflicted by managers on underlings and, as an early career researcher, he had assumed life was “easier” for those in power.

However, he said, “incivility can go upwards in the hierarchical chain and you’re not really protected by seniority”.

“It’s so much worse than I had envisaged,” Dr Heffernan said. “It certainly put to rest any aspiration I ever had of going into management.”

paper published in the Cambridge Journal of Education by Dr Heffernan and Professor Bosetti identifies incivility as a “crucial shift” in workplace misbehaviour, and calls for universities to develop methods to tackle it.

Professor Bosetti said that some incivility came from a healthy tradition of robust debate, where academics challenged managerial decisions. “We want this to happen, in some ways. We want professors to be able to speak out and make us deliberate on what we’re doing,” she said.

“But there’s a fine line between where that is constructive, and where it’s getting destructive and poisons the whole culture of the organisation.”