Prevention of Bullying on Campus

Neither collegiality nor congeniality are always present in faculty relations.
By Clara Wajngurt

Elizabeth Farrington, an expert on women in higher education, defines campus bullying as behavior at colleges and universities that tends “to threaten, to intimidate, to humiliate or to isolate members of the working university environment [and] that undermines reputation or job performance.” It occurs frequently, and very often we who work in these environments are unaware of it.

Imagine the following scenarios: 

  • A unit director submits work to a vice president who makes comments that discredit or devalue the work of the director. The vice president criticizes the director, shows a lack of patience, and fails to demonstrate, in a sensitive, professional manner, how to proceed.
  • A committee is asked to review the state of departmental assessment, but the department chair declines to share significant information with the committee and comes to a committee meeting where he denigrates a member for lack of knowledge.
  • A faculty member is given an unreasonable teaching schedule. He is e-mailed his teaching schedule with a note emphasizing that the schedule is not open to discussion.
  • The registrar asks the associate registrar not only to compile student registration figures for each academic department but also to write the enrollment management section of the accreditation report. If the assignment is not completed by next week, the associate registrar is told, he will suffer disciplinary action.
  • The director of grants carefully monitors the professional schedule of the coordinator of grants, imposing restrictive work rules.
  • A faculty member in the professorial ranks makes cruel, insulting comments in public about an untenured faculty member’s psychological problems.
  • In the performance review of a faculty member who is up for promotion, the department chair undermines the faculty member’s professional standing, does not identify reasonable means of improvement, and ignores the faculty member’s contributions to the department.
  • A faculty member believes that she is a target of bias or discrimination in the department. She feels that her professional status is threatened through isolation and obstruction. 

Bullying is an escalating process in which the person who is bullied is in an inferior position. Bullying in the workplace is an act of aggression, and it is associated with high stress levels and lack of collegiality. The bullying employer demeans, humiliates, and intimidates employees as individuals. 

Is Bullying a Problem on Your Campus?
The following behaviors may constitute workplace
bullying:
• verbal abuse
• nonverbal conduct that is threatening, humiliating,
or intimidating
• interference in work or sabotage that prevents
work from getting done
• false accusations of mistakes
• hostile glares
• yelling or shouting
• “exclusion” of individuals
• use of put-downs or insults
• unreasonably heavy work demands

In severe situations, workplace bullying triggers health problems for the bullied employee. According to legal expert Sarah Morris, 37 percent of adult Americans are affected by workplace bullying; many victims stay in their jobs even though they feel tormented. 

Employers, including colleges and universities, need to consider strategies for training employees in problem solving, consensus building, negotiation, and mediation. This kind of training promotes skills that could defuse tensions and reduce bullying behaviors. 

Harmful Consequences

It is in the best interest of college and university leaders to promote ethical conduct and a collegial working environment. Bullied workers, be they faculty members, academic professionals, or administrators, can experience serious psychological and physiological problems, from insomnia and depression to cardiovascular disease and impaired memory. 
Reducing workplace bullying is cost-effective, resulting in happier, more passionate employees. After all, people don’t work well in high-anxiety situations. Employers experience reduced productivity when employees are bullied. Employees who are bullied are less motivated at work and may go to great lengths to avoid unpleasant situations, calling in sick more often and even leaving their jobs. Employers may also become liable for legal costs resulting from the mistreatment of employees. 

Fighting Workplace Bullying

Forty-eight states have passed laws requiring school districts to take specific actions to prevent bullying, and some states are trying to introduce legislation on workplace bullying. 
Comprehensive antibullying laws could protect employees and provide incentives for employers to respond to bullying. Provisions of one proposed law, New York’s Healthy Workplace Bill, include compensation for targets of workplace bullying who can demonstrate physical or psychological harm; at the same time, the law would shield from liability employers who engage in preventive actions. The Healthy Workplace Bill would force employers to pay serious attention to complaints from employees. Such a bill would make a difference for those individuals who have witnessed or experienced workplace bullying. 

Symptoms of Bullying
Victims of bullying may suffer from the following
psychological, physical, and behavioral problems:

• severe stress or anxiety
• panic attacks
• sleep disturbance
• concentration difficulties
• tendency to make mistakes and have
accidents
• loss of control
• depression
• elevated blood pressure and risk of
cardiovascular disease
• reduced resistance to infection
• impaired memory function
• stomach and bowel problems
• severe loss of confidence and self-esteem
• headaches and feelings of nausea
• gain or loss of weight
• aggression
• irritability
• vengefulness
• withdrawal from social activities
• obsessive dwelling on the aggressor
• feeling of being emotionally drained

Most American colleges and universities have a workplace code of conduct that deals with harassment, but few have codes of conduct that deal with workplace bullying. Colleges and universities are presumably guided by mission and goals statements, but chilly working climates often belie these lofty pronouncements. 

Effective leaders in higher education provide direction and create a structure to support their decisions. They foster a supportive and collaborative environment. Freedom of expression and thought are essential, but rules of conduct must reflect the college’s mission and be enforced. Colleges and universities must develop clear statements of organizational values that foster a culture of mutual respect. 

Colleges and universities can arrange an early-alert program in which administrative and academic departments are trained to recognize workplace bullying. In addition to educating faculty and staff on harassment  policies, institutions can offer workshops on antibullying behavior. An objective mediator or someone who specializes in conflict resolution can also be helpful, since people who are being bullied often cannot confront the bullies themselves. Grievances over alleged bullying behavior must be taken seriously. 

An effective policy should help employees understand what steps to take in response to inappropriate behavior at work and what behavior is expected of employees. It should also describe the steps for filing a complaint and provide for the involvement of a third party well versed in aggression, control, conflict, and resolution to support the victim. Employees need to be encouraged to speak up when they encounter inappropriate behavior. Behavior expectations can be considered during performance evaluations, and employees need to be made aware when another’s behavior is inappropriate. 

By educating faculty and staff members on campus policies through ongoing workshops and by providing an objective mediator, colleges and universities can begin to tackle workplace bullying, allowing faculty and staff to focus on producing students who are prepared for the world. 

Clara Wajngurt is professor of mathematics at the City University of New York Queensborough Community College, where she has taught since 1983. She is collaborating on the development of an antibullying policy at her institution and has lobbied for the Healthy Workplace Bill in New York. Her e-mail address is cwajngurt@qcc.cuny.edu.

Comments

This useful article would be even more important if some of the examples that begin it addressed situations involving part-time faculty, where the protections are much weaker and both personal and professional vulnerability are acute.

While working at a large state university last year, I was repeatedly bullied by a high level supervisor who had previously pushed other administrators and faculty out of their positions. This VP yelled at and berated one particular program director during a staff meeting, humiliating her, and eventually driving her out of the university. This VP proudly refers to herself as the "plunger" and has been allowed to place unreasonable demands on her staff, take credit for the work of others, and has yelled, bullied and intimidated her way across campus unchecked. I have been excluded from meetings with my own staff, excluded from important campus-wide meetings and social events and denied the support of an administrative assistant. I was held responsible for the poor performance of one of my staff members, but was not allowed to provide a performance evaluation that even hinted at this staff member's problems, nor was I supported in taking any form of disciplinary action. I went to our HR department to complain (privately) as my supervisor subjected me to one of her screaming and yelling episodes at a conference in front of colleagues from other academic institutions. The HR department did nothing and although I could have filed a more formal complaint, I chose not to out of fear of losing my position. Nevertheless, I was eventually pushed out of my job before I was able to find another position. From what I have heard, the VP has done all she can to ruin my reputation, and I am unable to find another full-time position. It is my belief that because this woman was successful at her job, she was able to get away with 30 years of abusive and highly unprofessional and unethical behavior. What can people in my position do to save their reputation and career?

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