Tackling academic bullying during the era of COVID-19

Joshua Bromley

Joshua holds a PhD in social psychology and has worked in predoctoral and postdoctoral research roles at a number of UK universities. After leaving academia to pursue a writing career, Joshua now works to inform on all topics relating to higher education.

There are numerous benefits to working in higher education, including decent salaries, excellent benefits, and high job satisfaction. This seemingly rosy picture is somewhat marred, however, by the disproportionately high levels of workplace bullying, relative to other sectors, reported by UK academics. Though efforts to tackle academic bullying have been made by a number of universities in recent years, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic risks both exacerbating the conditions that drive bullying while simultaneously diverting attention and resources from efforts to address the problem. This article explores the causes of academic bullying and the various ways the pandemic has aggravated these before proposing some steps universities can take to tackle the issue.

What is academic bullying?

Academic bullying refers to any bullying behaviour experienced by academic staff in the workplace. More than isolated acts of aggression or harassment, workplace bullying is a sustained and usually escalating pattern of aggressive behaviour directed towards a person at work. This might be in the form of insulting or demeaning comments, constant criticism, social exclusion, or interference with work performance. Bullying behaviours unique to academic settings include the imposition of unfavourable teaching schedules, excluding targets from faculty meeting or communications, maliciously damaging the reputation of a target in the eyes of potential collaborators, and concocting spurious reasons to deny promotion. Bullying of this sort damages the mental wellbeing and work performance of targets, giving universities both moral and instrumental reasons to get to grips with the problem.

What drives academic bullying?

Many factors have been proposed to explain the high prevalence of academic bullying. In part, it’s been attributed to a university environment that pits academics in direct competition with one another over limited resources, such as research space, equipment, funding, and high-calibre students. When paired with an academic culture that prizes research output as the primary metric of achievement, an incentive is born for academics to sabotage their colleagues’ success. To make matters worse, aggressors can pursue their malicious agendas with plausible deniability by exploiting the subjective and often ambiguous criteria used by peer-review committees to appraise the performance of their academic colleagues. And even where appraisals are conducted entirely fairly, academics receiving less than favourable outcomes may harbour suspicions that hidden agendas have corrupted the process, stoking frustration and resentment. This perfect storm of perverse incentives and exploitable institutional arrangements gives academics the motive and means to harm their colleagues’ careers, providing fertile ground for bullying to occur.

Other key contributors to workplace aggression (including bullying) are stress and frustration, sources of which academics may be disproportionately exposed to. Compulsory student evaluations, stringent promotion criteria, a growing need for accountability (e.g. showing “value-added”), “publish or perish” anxieties, and the rising expectations of high-fee-paying students leave many academics frustrated, unable to satisfy all of the demands placed upon them. This frustration can then spill into (often indirect) acts of aggression towards colleagues that can spiral into bullying.

How might COVID-19 make academic bullying worse?

There are two primary ways the pandemic might have worsened academic bullying: 1) by exacerbating the conditions that drive bullying, and 2) by diverting resources from efforts to tackle it. On the first point, there can be little doubt that the pandemic has created new frustrations for academic staff who’ve had to adapt rapidly to a higher education environment restructured to meet the challenges of national lockdowns and other COVID-19 restrictions. A lightning shift to remote learning forced virtually all academics to modify their approach to teaching and assessment overnight. At the same time, most had to acclimatise to working in a home environment replete with distractions and demands – sometimes including childcare – hostile to the surge in productivity needed to meet the expectations of increasingly disgruntled students. For many academics, these pressures were compounded by a race to publish research connected to COVID-19, exacerbating pre-existing “publish or perish” fears at precisely the worst time. These new stresses and strains arrived alongside more general anxieties about the pandemic itself, including its detrimental economic, health, and social impacts. Though data are not yet available, considering the link between workplace frustration and aggression, it’d be surprising if this cocktail of mutually reinforcing stressors didn’t yield an uptick in academic bullying.

Against this inauspicious backdrop, universities have had to marshal all of their resources to meet the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic. Concerns have been raised that the monitoring and/or investigation of bullying might have slipped down university administrators’ priority lists as a result. On top of this, entities that have traditionally extended institutional support to targets of bullying, ranging from ombudsmen’s offices to grant agencies, have redirected much of their focus to tackling COVID-19-related issues. This has left academic targets of bullying more vulnerable at a time when bullying is especially likely to take place.

What can universities do?

Now that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, it’s incumbent on universities to prioritise tackling academic bullying as part of their post-lockdown plans. One place to start would be creating interdisciplinary committees tasked with assessing how and where the pandemic might have contributed to academic bullying so that administrators know where remedial efforts are most needed. Second, in lieu of national legislation that outlaws workplace bullying, universities must take the initiative by creating comprehensive anti-bullying policies that put robust procedures in place to investigate complaints and punish perpetrators where these are upheld. These policies should be informed by extensive consultation with key stakeholders and strive to include operationalised definitions of bullying behaviour, rather than relying on ambiguous terms like “unsafe environment”, to ensure that any policy is actionable and commands broad institutional support.

Beyond this, however, a more ambitious transformation in institutional culture is needed to alleviate some of the frustrations experienced by academic staff that make bullying more likely. For example, increasing rewards for excellence in teaching and other forms of academic contribution could help to relieve the relentless pressure on academics to publish that currently drives hyper-competition over limited resources. Taking steps to improve the work-life balance of academic staff, and junior faculty in particular, would also help reduce levels of stress that no anti-bullying policy, however well-drafted, could ensure never lead to acts of aggression.

Conclusion

Many factors come together to explain why academic bullying remains a particular issue in higher education. The fact that COVID-19 seems to have aggravated many of these factors shows that it’s more important than ever for universities to take bold action to tackle this problem.

No one deserves to be bullied. Now is the time to act.

 

Photo by Dee @ Copper and Wild on Unsplash

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