Departmental hierarchies, job precarity and institutions’ need to protect their star professors enables bullies to thrive in Britain’s top universities, says Wyn Evans
With a video on YouTube (comments disabled) and much fanfare, the University of Cambridge has just announced a new “dignity at work” policy to solve one of its most persistent and pernicious problems.
We have observed before that any bullying or harassment in research is intolerable, and research institutions must do more to stamp it out. Even though this story is about the UK, we believe the same criticism could be levelled at jurisdictions globally. The first step is agreeing a researcher cannot be someone to celebrate, promote or reward if they are a bully or harasser. The next is establishing a process on where it is safe to make a complaint and where it will be looked at seriously. For too long, research institutions have been trusted to sort this out internally. They aren’t, and it is time for systemic change.
Specifically, the survey found that nearly one in three Cambridge staff had either been the victims of bullying and victimisation or had witnessed it in the previous 18 months. Worse still, more than half of those who had experienced bullying did not report it, with many believing that nothing would be done or that the perpetrator would retaliate.
My view on bullies in universities is that they’re a feature, not a bug.
Huge grants, prestigious prizes, adulatory press coverage, first-author publications, untrammelled power over enormous research groups: these are all highly flattering to the ego. It is no coincidence, then, that big egos are associated with “top academics”, alongside charisma, self-promotion and self-importance. And these qualities are also present in the kinds of people who bully others.
Not all top academics are bullies, but quite a few are. And bullying thrives in the hierarchical and hyper-competitive environment of top universities. Tackling it is difficult because the bully is typically so much more valuable than the victim, and direction from the top can easily lead any inquiry to exonerate the bully by finding the evidence inconclusive.