Every time I post on bullies, I get linked to by national blogs (thanks Chronicle of Higher Education, Suburban Guerrila, and Inside Higher Ed!) and the outpouring of misery is disturbing and sobering. The hair-raising stories recounted in the comments here, here, and here have really touched me, and I hope all of you are on to better jobs and much happier lives, and if not, that you will be very soon. For the rest of you, my wish is that you’ll all be on the lookout for incipient bullying in your workplaces, and that you’ll intervene on someone else’s behalf to preserve the collegiality and mental health that are the bedrock of all functional academic workplaces.
When I titled my posts on bullying earlier this week “Don’t sue–run for your lives!” I did so somewhat prankishly (as in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with King Arthur and his army always screaming, “run away! run away!”) Some commenters here and over at the Chronicle here thought that I was giving blanket advice–that people should not try to improve things and that they should just resign from a bad job. Of course, everyone has to make hir own calculations about whether to stay and fight, or whether just to “run away” as fast as possible. But, I was disturbed by the judgmental tone of some of the comments that implied that “running away” was irresponsible, and your stories have convinced me that “running away” is not such bad advice after all. (At least, you should consider putting it near the top of your list of options if you’re currently being bullied at work.)
I didn’t say this in my initial post, but it took me four years to “run away” from my bad job–four years of telling allies about the aggressive things that people said to me, four years of confronting one chair and then another when they said demeaning and hostile things to me, two years of having one chair either blow up at me or give me unsolicited advice about my personal life, two years of another chair telling me that “you need to teach more broadly,” because of three student evaluation forms that complained that all I ever talked about was “blacks, women, and Indians, not American history,” two years of that chair threatening my tenure, two years of meeting with the dean, only to be told that “you have to understand, Historiann, that you’re a very intimidating person.” That’s right: Historiann, the youngest and most junior person in that department was told that she was intimidating to tenured professors a decade, or two, or three older than she! I was told that my self-confidence and (very modest!) successes made my senior colleagues uncomfortable, so maybe I should try inviting them out to lunch to make nice! What did I get for my four years of trying to draw attention to the problems in that department? Like most of you have testified, the only thing most of us get for following the faculty manual and reporting bullying behavior is retaliation! At that point, I started to photocopy my Vita and send out letters of application. Thank goodness someone wanted me–so I packed my wagon and drove it west as fast as my horses could run! (That’s me pictured above!)
As enraging as my story is, the comments many of you have left (here, here, and here) were filled with truly hair-raising stories much worse than my own. While I still think that everyone has to make hir own decision about what to do about an abusive workplace, because of all of your comments, I now believe that “run away” is actually pretty good advice, especially for untenured people. Because I lived in a household with a second income, because I had wonderful friends at another local university who were my sounding board and refuge, because I am a highly self-confident person, and because I was still an Assistant Professor, I had a lot more options than many other victims of bullying have. (I’ve noticed the tendency for bullies–male and female alike–to prey on unmarried/un-partnered women, women who don’t have the back-up plan of another household income, and who therefore are perceived as economically and emotionally vulnerable. My second household income gave me the liberty to resign even if I hadn’t found another job.) Given the lack of support from department chairs and deans reported by so many of you in your experiences of being bullied, it seems that leaving sooner rather than later, before you lose sleep, sanity, and good health, before you’re committed to a lifetime of happy pills and therapy, before you jeopardize (or lose) your relationship, your family, and the rest of your career, is not such bad advice after all.
I understand people’s concerns that if bullied people just go away, that workplaces will never reform themselves, but criticizing victims for throwing in the towel is monstrously unfair. There is a big industry now selling advice about how to deal with workplace bullies–and the people in that industry can’t sell as many books as they’d like to if their advice boils down to “get out as fast as you can.” They’re selling hope to people in a bad situation, and some of their ideas for combating bullies may prove useful to many people. But suggesting that the victims of bullies have the primary responsibility of cleaning up the mess after suffering the bullying seems, well, bullying! Bullies are the ones who need to change, and their enabling co-workers are the ones who need to force those changes on the bullies and in themselves. What do you think a victim of bullying owes the department or institution that is bullying hir? (Hint: that’s a rhetorical question!) My answer? Jack crap!
Workplaces that tolerate bullies and do little if anything to assist the victims don’t tend to generate a great deal of loyalty or affection. (My bad job was at a religiously affiliated university, which loved to deploy the rhetoric of family and community when it came to extracting unpaid work from staff and faculty. But somehow, we weren’t all “family” or “community” when staff and faculty needed redress, or when students were raped on campus.) If victims want to assist in a Great Reformation, then by all means they should. But of all people in abusive workplaces, victims are the ones with the least responsibility for making changes. Most of us tried. Most of us were repaid with more abuse. So, I think it’s more than OK for most of us to resign and say, “happy trails!” (Or, you could write a book about your experiences in a bullying environment like this guy!)