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Mean and Nasty Academics: Bullying, Hazing, and Mobbing

“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

I don't usually post my newsletters here, but I think this is a subject that needs to get more airing. So here is the text of my latest newsletter, called "Mean and Nasty Academics." (If you'd like to sign up for my bi-weekly (sometimes less frequent) newsletter, go to this page, which also lists the bonuses you will receive.)

Another reason I'm posting this newsletter issue is that I have received some interesting replies from my newsletter readers that will help those of you struggling with these issues. I will put these replies up in later posts.

Mean and Nasty Academics

"I 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)

"A 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]

As 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.]
  1. If you are the victim of any kind of abuse:
    1. Document all communication concerning the abuse and take notes on all occurrences.
    2. Share with a close friend and/or colleague to get their take on the situation.
    3. Assess the situation coolly and continue to observe and collect information in order to see who is involved and how widespread the problem is.
    4. Don’t react precipitously or impulsively.
    5. Don’t react in kind. [Note: if you are equally rude, you won’t come out looking better than the perpetrator.]
    6. 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.]
    7. 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.]
    8. [Note: educate yourself about bullying – see links below.]
    9. [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

Twale, Darla J. & De Luca, Barbara M. (2008) Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


If you have been the victim of bullying in academia, this informative blog has many useful links.
Bullying of Academics in Higher Education

Also see: “Mob Rule: In Departmental Disputes, Professors Can Act Just Like Animals” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

And it can happen to postdocs: When Bad Things Happen to Good Postdocs”


  1. Anonymous5:51 PM

    What about students ganging up on professors? I have no problems with my colleagues, but huge problems with certain students. I notice it mainly with sorority girls in classes of 30-40 students. I first noticed the behavior 8-10 years ago, but it has become far worse in the last two years.

    Some whisper throughout my lectures. When I call them on it, they deny that they have been speaking, or claim they needed something repeated because they could not hear me and did not want to disrupt the class, or they needed to repeat what I said for their friend who is partly deaf -- all lies.

    They deliberately show contempt with eye-rolling, bad-mouthing, by eating an entire meal during class, letting the door bang when arriving late, or exiting the class for a drink or bathroom break during lecture (or re-organizing their backpack or changing clothes). In class interactions they complain about various things, consistently exaggerating the course’s weaknesses while persistently ignoring its strengths. These girls seem intent on showing their power, so I tell them outright to take their complaint to the dept head (because I know he will back me up). But the most recent ringleader did so and lied outright, falsely accusing me of actions I had not taken. The head offered to meet with us both and she backed down. Do such girls want to sabotage the class or me personally? It feels very personal.

    Please note that I know for certain that the young women of whom I speak are in sororities, but I do not wish to badmouth them all. Some are hard workers with leadership skills.

    Note: I have a classroom etiquette section in all my syllabi that we read aloud on the first day of class addressing the issues above (speaking while others speak, door banging, etc.). I also call students' attention to the item in all my syllabi reserving me the right to raise or lower a student's final grade on the basis of their classroom behavior and participation. Anyone who behaves in the ways I describes above suffers the grade penalty, yet they still persist. After 27 years as a prof, I am not at all afraid to assert myself with such students and often do, but doing so also sometimes validates them, and I certainly do not want to argue with them in front of the class. Other students sometimes notice these students' behavior but rarely comment on the disruption. Some definitely feel intimidated. I happen to be female (of average height, weight, looks, dress, achievement, etc.) at a well-known state university in the western U.S.

    Does anyone else have this problem? What do you do about it? I had a colleague come in and do a peer teaching evaluation once but the group of five behaved for the visitor.

  2. This is a terrible problem, anonymous, and you're certainly not alone. It truly amazes me that professors have to work under these conditions. You might be interested in reading the post in the Tomorrow's Professor blog called "The Rules of Engagement: Socializing College Students for the New Century," by Neil F. Williams. It's one professor's rules for classroom behavior. At one point there were many comments following this article, although when I just checked I could only find two. But it's definitely a subject that most profs have dealt with. I would also like to hear what others have done about this issue.

  3. Anonymous2:46 PM

    anonymous, this happened to me as well. A couple of students had warned me that there was a plan on the part of students to go to my chair or my dean about me. Since I never heard anything I resumed that it never happened. Imagine my surprise, when my chair (the bully) used their statements in my annual review without ever telling me that he planned to do so. In fact he said in an e-mail ("if you tell me you did something, I will believe you") So I just told my side of othe story.

    I unsuccessfully appealed a poor review based on less than 10 students out of nearly 200 taught.

    I found out in the process of my appeal that the students had plotted outside the class and all got their stories aligned with each other.

    I could write a book about it.

  4. Anonymous7:02 AM

    My story in a nutshell is that I have come from academic environments where I was bullied twice and also where, in one instance, I was in a toxic environment that didn't involve bullying, but did involve a nasty and mean academic who was prepared to stab her way to the top. The happy ending is that I received a job offer (tenure at a senior position, no less) at the height of all this and have gone on to a job I love with a team who are just fantastic. BUT I still feel the effects of bullying - stress, anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, lack of self worth, guilt, shame and a desire to hide away rather than be 'out there'. I am paranoid, expect the worst and react like a startled rabbit. AND I am not alone. I have spoken with other colleagues who have experienced the same and have reacted the same way. There is a lot written on how to deal with bullying as it happens, but very little on how to deal with the effects in the weeks, months and even years after the bullying. What does exist rarely goes beyond a list of symptoms and a description of these as a form of PTSD. If you could tackle this (i.e. how to carve out a life post-bullying) in your blog I think you would be broaching new ground and doing a great service to those who have survived being targets of bullying. Just a suggestion of course!

    Also you may be interested in this:

    This is just one harrowing installment of a series of posts by a bullied academic. I have posted as 'Another Bullied Academic".

  5. I am reading Twale & DeLuca's book about Faculty Incivility but unfortunately most of the book is devoted to the experiences of those with tenure or who are on tenure track. Things are even worse for non-tenure track teachers or directors who are rarely acknowledged, rewarded or respected for their work. Instead, we function as pawns for the petty power games of the tenured and untouchable elite that is increasingly out of touch - especially with digital technologies. Considering the security of their employment, tenured elites demonstrate an astonishing insecurity in their attacks on their peers - perhaps this should be a topic for further study. And, since the mechanical productions of our tenured profs are considered the *only* significant work on campus, maybe it's also time for a public conversation about the practical value and readership of tenured publications. To start, just check Amazon for the title of your favorite tenured prof's publications. When our English chair started going after me, I found her latest title on Amazon for the impressive price of $2.
    Try it yourself!

  6. A large group of us who have been bullied for whistleblowing at the University of Newcastle (Australia) have lost our jobs, for some our careers, family and personal life and our health. The university has a long history of bullying but nothing seems to change. We have now started a petition to get our state ombudsman to initiate a proper investigation into this. We have a website at which gives details of our survey, history of bullying etc. For our petition, please have a look at

  7. Anonymous9:00 AM

    I second that motion for a petition exposing the bullying culture at the University of Newcastle. That University is not only Australia's worst but also has the highest rate of bullying in the whole country.

  8. Anonymous6:37 AM

    I second the observation that Newcastle University (australia) is a dangerous place to study.

    Some people have committed suicide the bullying is so bad. I was almost one of them.

  9. Anonymous5:41 PM

    Great blog Gina, very helpful indeed.

    About your advice on avoiding a place where bullying is tolerated.

    I am coming from such a place.
    My boss was the Head of the Institute, he not only tolerated mobbing although I tried to voice my concerns a few times, but contributed to it to a great extent and became the top bully himself. In my last year I was bullyed even by our secretary.

    The consequence: I had enough,I left academia, because I love my life, my husband and my child. We, including my 2-year-old, were already paying its toll.

    I did try to fight it though, went to our gender equality offices, talked to lawyers, etc. There is nothing that they can do. There are offices of such kind in the university and even in the institute itself but they are not functioning.

    And this university has ranked top.
    The equality office person told me that they were getting a lot of complaints from the women working at my institute. But there is not much they can do about it.

    My ex-boss is happily talking about the gender equality measures and improvements that they have at the institute, showing off still whenever it comes to a funding evaluation or something, but in reality all the university knows that he hates his female employees.

    My experience showed me the following: There may be offices of such kind, ensuring the gender equality, taking active measures against discrimination and mobbing, having the power for bla bla...but at the end of the day, these may not reflect the reality at all. One should not be convinced easily just by the existence of such policies. Because whether they are functioning is completely another story.

    I had quite a bright future as I finished my own PhD, having studied in one of the top universities in my field. I did not think for a moment when I got the postdoc offer, to have a look at the university's policies. But I do remember that in the job post there was this popular statement of these days: 'We are an equal rights institute, the female, handicaped applicants and those of the ethnical minorities are encouraged to submit their application.'

    My own story is coming (hopefully soon) on my own blog, because my boss threatened me in quite an intimidating way, not to talk about my problems with them, and stop talking.

    Well,I won't talk, I will write!

  10. For several years I contended with the words and actions of abuse... words and actions that have left permanent wounds upon the very essence of my being. I also struggled with the moral and ethical responsibilities thrust upon me as a survivor of abuse.

    After experiencing the abuse directly, and observing some other 11 students and 5 volunteers experience it, I could no longer shirk my responsibility.

    I also struggled with how the story ought to be told. Should I provide an obtuse narrative, omitting such details? I felt it necessary to provide these details in order to convey credibility. I also discovered a victim can continue to have compassion and empathy for their abuser. I came to understand I could tell my story of abuse in its entirety and not be burdened with fear and intimidation. I could preserve the love in my heart and compassion in my soul while revealing these things. I could become a better person, a better friend, a better student, a better brother, a better scientist and a better teacher by being forthcoming.

    "WE CAN DISCUSS THIS, BUT THE ANSWER IS NO" is the response I received via Denver University email from my direct supervisor and mentor, DU Biology Professor Anna Sher-Simon, when I asked if I could be absent from work-related assignments on the basis of illness or emergency. Less than two weeks later, my professor ordered me to work 4+ days surrounded by wildfire in the remote backcountry of Colorado. Two of our worksites were torched by wildfire, turning the landscape into a moonscape. Absent any protective gear, heavy smoke and particulates permanently damaged our lungs and vascular systems (three other DU students were present). We were exposed to untold numbers of carcinogens.

    Even after the US Army ordered our evacuation, we were forced to remain in this extremely toxic and dangerous environment. Then, a week after this event, when we were assigned to another remote location, I became food poisoned due to unsanitary, unlawful and deplorable environmental health conditions imposed upon us by my professor and DU. I reported the food poisoning to Dr. Simon, and that I was vomiting, dehydrated, fatigued and exhausted. She ordered me to continue working 12+ hour days, again placing my life in great danger. About three weeks later, my professor terminated me from the job where these abusive experiences occurred. She stated her reason to the university for the termination was that she "could no longer advise me". Just 5 months prior to this, she plagiarzed entire pages of one of my published works.

    The injuries of abuse are forever. The pain is everlasting. Telling my story is part of my recovery as a victim. I do not hate those who have abused me. I love them as I always have. As I pray for these wounds to heal, I also pray for our loving and forgiving creator to heal them. I pray that He show them a better way to treat their fellow man, and to fill their lives with joy and love. I pray for the cycle of abuse to end and the cycle of love to begin. We are obliged to love everyone, unconditionally, and to show them the compassion they have refused us.

  11. Anonymous9:26 PM

    To anyone reading this: fight back anonymously by 1. Go to a public computer (e.g., one at the University’s library). Do not log in! 2. Create an anonymous email address (gmail/yahoo/whatever). Be sure to remember your login name and password. 3. Go to, and create an anonymous account using your new anonymous email address. 4. Create a new review of your beloved department. In the headline put something like, “XYZ University, English Dept. – Bullying Encouraged” or ““PDQ University, Biology Dept – Bullying Rewarded.” Proceed to explain the bullying encouraged/rewarded scenario. Do not name names – Glassdoor will not publish reviews that contain identifying information (read their community rules for more info). Wash, rinse, repeat! Encourage your buddies to do the same. Eventually, your department and the university will have a very difficult time recruiting top talent due to the nature of the publicness of these reviews (since, everyone now uses sites like Glassdoor to scrutinize future employers). Once the bottom line is affected, the university/department will have to make some changes. Happy reviewing!


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