Why universities must act in the face of the rise of a new type of harassment: incivility
Incivility is increasingly present in university culture. If you are an academic, you have probably seen or experienced instances of bullying, incivility, or bullying in department meetings, in hallways, and at seminars.
For our research on the emotional work of leadership in higher education, we interviewed 20 deans of faculty from eight universities in four Australian states. What they called “smart bullies” regularly targeted 80% of them, they reported.
Of course, academics have been used to being controversial, asking critical questions, and engaging in intellectual battles. But sometimes these exchanges can become an intellectual battleground characterized by vitriolic attacks, sarcastic innuendos, and intellectual one-upmanship. Ideological beliefs turn into personal attacks, creating a fractured and toxic work environment.
Difficult times for university leaders
Australian public universities are challenged to develop strategies to mitigate the impacts of cuts in government funding and tuition income for international students and unforeseen events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. University leaders face difficult decisions about restructuring, streamlining programs and layoffs to ensure the long-term viability of their institution. It is their responsibility to involve stakeholders in the development of strategies and to ensure that faculty, staff and students understand the intended outcomes.
Read more: For ‘future-proof’ universities, leaders must challenge professors to make tough decisions
These changes and consultation platforms fueled ideological clashes between academic staff and administration. Combative attacks on administrators by tenured academics aimed at exposing flaws in their plans and undermining their credibility as leaders are increasingly common. Non-tenured professors are less likely to contribute to these forums, especially if their views do not match the perspectives of the dominant group.
Of course, there should always be space for debate in universities. The problem is when it escalates to aggression and uncivilized conduct. It is then an obstacle to clarity and understanding of the problem and to staff commitment to solutions.
These exchanges can have lingering effects on corporate culture and the well-being of staff, students and administration. We see it in low morale, absenteeism, increased health problems and faculty disengagement.
Read more: Bullying at regional universities is a serious issue that needs to be addressed
What type of behavior are we talking about?
Generally, aggressive behavior is not overt bullying. As one dean put it:
“Harassment, assault or yelling doesn’t happen a lot because it’s a university.”
There are policies, workshops and procedures for dealing with harassment and bullying. She went on to say that these were the “smart bullies” she found most difficult to deal with as a leader.
Bullying is defined as repeated patterns of negative behavior, by a single person or group, which results in pressure, provocation or bullying of the victim causing psychological harm. Smart bullies are adept at circumventing workplace policies. Instead, they rely on a full arsenal of uncivilized behaviors such as rudeness, humiliating comments, and the creation or dissemination of gossip and rumor.
Smart bullies use micropolitics to build allies. They infiltrate committee structures and decisions to camouflage and isolate themselves as a real tyrant or instigator. Their behavior is tolerated and often attributed to expressions of academic freedom.
Incivility can accompany bullying, but it is more insidious because it occurs in everyday interactions. Since these types of behaviors are part of most workplaces, it is difficult to categorize incivility and create prevention and control policies.
Read more: Half of our universities don’t have a student bullying policy. This is what they need to protect them
What are the impacts of incivility?
Victims of incivility rarely seek organizational help. The usual reason is that they lack confidence in the process and the outcome.
Human resources departments and their policies are rarely adequate to tackle uncontrolled uncivil behavior. It is the victim’s responsibility to document these behaviors and actions. There is also little incentive for other academics to get involved in speaking out against the harassment.
The stress of repeated exposure to intentional acts of microaggression can adversely affect mental and physical health. When left unchecked, it becomes part of the accepted standard of an increasingly hostile and toxic work environment.
In our study, the Deans described the emotional work of maintaining calm and professional demeanor in the face of micro-attacks from intelligent bullies and their allies. These behaviors put them on edge, aware of their words and actions. They have become aware of the possibility of being caught off guard at any time.
While part of the Dean’s role is to deal with management and performance issues that involve difficult conversations, the Deans felt unprepared for the intensity and impacts on their mental and emotional well-being. They suffered for the most part in silence, unable to discipline their subordinates for behavior that did not technically violate codes of conduct.
Deans who confront the authors risk triggering complaints or disputes over academic freedom. The alternative of appealing to the provosts may seem weak and incompetent.
It is almost impossible under current policies to stop or prevent incivility, but incivility does exist, the consequences are real and can have serious consequences on the health and the person of the victims. For a sector that claims to be more and more aware of the well-being and mental health of staff, incivility is rapidly establishing itself at the forefront of the issues facing researchers and HR departments.