Mean and Nasty Academics

in Articles from our Newsletter

“Tenure is supposed to protect scholars from outside control, but it does a lousy job of protecting them from one another.”
— Kenneth Westhues, quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education

quoteI was surprised to experience hazing as a graduate student, not once, but continually and by multiple professors… I watched how some of the other women faculty members in the department were treated, and they were second-class citizens at best. (Twale and De Luca, 2008, p.84)

quoteA tenured full female prof gets up to talk, and an untenured junior faculty man tells her that her ideas are not really important, that it may be a concern of hers but not ours.  And the entire faculty went along with it, including the women… Be invisible.  We weren’t supposed to say anything, even the strong women who could hold their own.  Women sensed they were in a powerless position. [Ibid, p.85]

bullyingAs an academic coach, I could add many more examples of graduate students and professors of all ranks being victimized by mean, nasty, harsh, underhanded, passive aggressive or bullying behavior at the hands of other academics. 

The only reason I don’t give you details of what my clients have told me over the years is that I need to protect the identity of the victims.  However, I’m not giving anything away if I tell you that I have heard numerous examples of departments ganging up on one individual, of professors being shunned, of tenured professors harassing other tenured professors, and of incredibly harsh treatment of graduate students by their advisors or other professors.

Bullying and emotional abuse don’t only exist in academia (see Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace).  But Darla Twale and Barbara De Luca, the authors of Faculty Incivility:  The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It, suggest that there has been an increase in “bullying, mobbing, camouflaged aggression, and harassment” (p. xii) within academia.

In working with people who have been the victims of bullying, I find that one of their first needs is reassurance that they did not do anything to deserve such treatment.  So let me say that No one, ever, under any circumstances, deserves to be humiliated, undermined, insulted, shunned, marginalized, ganged up on, or even spoken to harshly.  If it has happened to you, you did not cause it to happen.  And you are not alone.

What Can I Do About Bullying?

There is no space here to review the reasons that academics can be so cruel to one another.  Instead, I’ll focus on what you can do about it.  The following suggestions are summarized from the Twale and De Luca book; additional comments from me are in brackets.

  1. Avoid becoming part of an abusive department.  Before you attend graduate school or accept a job, do your homework.  Look at faculty turnover rates, policies and guidelines regarding harassment, and level of enforcement of such policies as seen in grievance filings and resolutions.  [Note for prospective faculty: Talk to all the current and past faculty members that you can.] [Note for graduate students: Look at graduation rates and time to degree for both your prospective department and advisor, and talk to as many more advanced graduate students as you can to find out the “hall file” on any prospective advisor or department that you are considering.]
  2. If you are the victim of any kind of abuse:
    • Document all communication concerning the abuse and take notes on all occurrences.
    • Share with a close friend and/or colleague to get their take on the situation.
    • Assess the situation coolly and continue to observe and collect information in order to see who is involved and how widespread the problem is.
    • Don’t react precipitously or impulsively.
    • Don’t react in kind. [Note: if you are equally rude, you won’t come out looking better than the perpetrator.]
    • Show appropriate assertiveness.  [Note: the way to do this could be the subject of a book, so get help with this if you don’t know how.]
    • Get institutional support.  The authors suggest that professors contact a local chapter of the American Association of University Professors. [Graduate students should contact their Director of Graduate Studies, the chairperson of their department, or their dean.]
    • [Note:  educate yourself about bullying – see links in the right-hand column.]
    • [Note: If necessary, get help from a therapist or academic coach that is knowledgeable about this kind of situation.]

Luckily, academia has many wonderful people in it, who are horrified by the notion of abuse, and who would not stand for it if they were made aware of it.  By exposing such behavior to the light of day, we can increase awareness and help increase the likelihood that administrators will intervene in cases of academic bullying.

Have you personally experienced an incident or situation in which you were bullied, abused or mobbed (ganged up on) within an academic setting?  If you were, and you’d like to share it (with names and identities changed) in order to help the readers of this newsletter better understand what can occur in academia, please write me at


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