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In my opinion

Incivility is the new bullying in higher education

Hostile exchanges are quickly coming to the forefront of issues confronting human resources departments.

BY LYNN BOSETTI | SEP 20 2021

As academics, we have been socialized to be contentious, ask critical questions and engage in debate that is a form of ritualized opposition. At department and faculty meetings where important decisions are made, a façade of social order and control can camouflage an undercurrent of incivility. How many times have we stood by in discomfort as collegial exchanges escalate to vitriolic personal attacks and unproductive assaults? Rather than calling out this uncivilized conduct, we tolerate or even sanction it by our silence. Through our inaction we permit a toxic culture to fester.

In my recent research on the emotional labour of leadership in higher education, with Troy Heffernan at La Trobe University in Melbourne, we interviewed 20 faculty deans from eight universities in four Australian states. We did not anticipate the extent of bottom-up bullying and incivility they reported , and the amount of mental and emotional space it occupied in their minds. Eighty per cent said they are routinely targeted by what they called “smart bullies,” exacerbating the emotional toll of administrative work.

Why is incivility so prevalent?

Universities in both Canada and Australia are experiencing a shift in their perceived value and relevancy due to the impact of climate change, the COVID 19 pandemic, the need for workforce development and for research that can be commercialized and address pressing societal and environmental issues. Reduced government funding and a competitive market for higher education are forcing leaders to make tough decisions regarding restructuring, departmental closures, program rationalization, reducing tenured faculty and dependency on other sources of revenue. Survival depends on transformation and on engaging faculty, staff and external stakeholders to articulate a shared vision for a viable future. Leaders are responsible for forming strategies and ensuring that faculty, staff and students understand the intended outcomes.

University leaders know that tough decisions will inevitably alienate some faculty; however, the leaders in our study felt unprepared to deal with the emotional fallout of leading change. Platforms for communication and consultation provide opportunities for robust debate, which, when respectful, can help air concerns, bring clarity to issues and inform the direction forward. But these platforms can also be venues for disgruntled faculty to launch attacks on administrators aimed at revealing the shortcomings in their plans and undermining their credibility as leaders. Aggressive and uncivilized conduct shuts down the conversation and creates an unsafe space for debate. Untenured and early career faculty, and those from marginalized groups, are less likely to contribute to the conversation or provide counter perspectives. The opportunity to bring clarity to the issue or engage faculty in creating solutions is diminished.

These hostile exchanges have a lingering impact on workplace culture, staff morale and organizational effectiveness and if left unaddressed become an accepted form of conduct, often rationalized as the right to academic freedom.

How is incivility different from bullying?

Bullying is defined by repeated patterns of negative behaviour by a single person or group, that results in pressure, provocation or intimidation of the victim, causing psychological harm. Universities have invested in workshops, policies and procedures to raise awareness about, and to address bullying, sexual harassment and, more recently, discrimination.

Smart bullies are adept at working around university policies. They rely on a full arsenal of uncivil behaviours such as acts of rudeness, belittling comments, creating and spreading rumours, or purposely misinterpreting an administrator’s requests or instructions, that serves to undermine administrative authority and credibility, distort communication, and block change. They use micro-politics to create allies and infiltrate committee structures and decisions to camouflage themselves as the real bully or instigator.

As one dean explained to us: “The type of bullying that disrupts me is the passive, underhanded, bulls–t, back-stabbing kind. They’ll say one thing and then turn around and completely slam you. It puts you on edge all the time — being careful in how you speak, what you say, where you say it… you are always in a position where something you said can be misconstrued and come back and bite you.”

Incivility may stand alongside bullying, but is more insidious in nature because it occurs in everyday interactions. It is the very fact that these types of behaviours are noted as being a part of most workplaces that makes incivility so difficult to categorize and to create policies to combat.

What are the impacts?

University policies related to harassment and bullying are inadequate in addressing acts of incivility because they are often justified as everyday grievances or misunderstandings, or because a perpetrator will deny they occurred because no proof exists. Victims seldom seek organizational assistance because they lack confidence in the process and outcome. The onus is on the victim to document and report the behaviours, and take part in any investigation, with the knowledge that they will continue to encounter the perpetrator (or mob) and may have to work with them in future.

Deans who confront perpetrators risk sparking grievance complaints or rows over academic freedom. They are reluctant to appeal to senior administration due to concerns about being viewed as weak and incompetent. Most suffer in silence, unable to discipline subordinates for behaviour that does not technically breach codes of conduct.

The stress of repeated exposure to intentional acts of microaggression and incivility takes its toll on the mental health and wellbeing of the victim and bystanders. When left unchecked, it becomes part of the accepted norms of an increasingly hostile and toxic work environment.

For a sector that claims to be increasingly concerned with the mental health and well-being of faculty, staff and students, incivility is quickly coming to the forefront of issues confronting human resources departments. It is time for university administration to give serious consideration to organizational culture and ensuring a safe, healthy and respectful learning and work environment.

What can be done?

University policy is imperative to address unacceptable workplace behaviour; however, it’s equally important to change the culture and norms in how academics are socialized. As Robert Sutton, a professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford University, succinctly put it — we need a “no a–hole rule.” Some Canadian universities have recently developed respectful community and workplace policies that address discrimination and workplace bullying. The question is, to what extent are faculty aware of these policies, and how well are they understood?

Based on our research in Australian universities, we make the following recommendations to address a culture of incivility:

  1. University leaders need to make creating a safe and respectful organizational culture a priority. Explicit, respectful workplace policies are imperative. They must set clear expectations for the provision and maintenance of a workplace that ensures faculty, staff, students and administrators are treated with respect and dignity in an environment free from bullying, harassment, discrimination and violence.
  2. To be effective, policies need to have a zero-tolerance rule, with no exceptions. Guidelines should articulate clear and confidential procedures for reporting acts that violate the code of conduct, and what actions will be taken to address unacceptable behaviour.
  3. Faculty, staff and students need to be aware of, and understand respectful workplace policies and standards for them to be embedded in the cultural norms. For example, an Australian university addressed their toxic organizational culture by collaboratively developing cultural quality indicators (settling on “connected, caring, collaborative and innovative”). All executive and faculty meetings begin with colleagues sharing positive examples of these qualities in action. Examples are showcased and celebrated in newsletters and at events. Staff, faculty members and workplace teams are acknowledged for their contributions as cultural champions.
  4. While student evaluations of teaching are taken seriously, so should employee opinion surveys of leadership, working conditions and organizational culture. These can be useful barometers of the culture, informing collaborative action to address concerns.

Lynn Bosetti is a professor of education at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan and former dean of education at universities in Canada and Australia.

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  1. Moira Rose / September 20, 2021 at 21:03

    You have touched on the academic freedom argument but only briefly. Subordinates, especially in higher education, should be able to confront superiors, respectfully, to discuss and advocate. A zero-tolerance policy feels dangerous and heavy-handed, and could easily be utilized by weak and insecure managers to silence any dissent, even legitimate, respectful dissent or necessary advocacy. You also haven’t touched on power dynamics at all which is a significant oversight. The toxic work culture I have witnessed has been the result of ugly bullying-down, enabled by power and privilege, resulting in mental health issues for subordinates, most often members of marginalized groups. Even now, as I dissent slightly to your argument, I wonder if something like this would potentially destroy my reputation and career if your recommendations were to pass, and were applied by those lacking in integrity and empathy. Where I do agree is that higher education, for many reasons, appears to be evolving as a toxic and unsafe space for many, counterintuitive to what many of us had hoped for.

    • Lynn Bosetti / September 27, 2021 at 16:13

      There is plenty of research evidence to support top-down bullying and issues of power and privilege cannot be ignored. In a toxic work environment we all suffer and many react through disengagement. In some cases it is easier/safer to remain silent for fear of alienation, marginalization and being caught up in the gossip mill that can feed misinformation. We need opportunity to engage in respectful, robust debated and for diverse perspectives to inform decisions.

  2. Patrick Owen / September 20, 2021 at 23:18

    I agree that much of higher education’s survival depends on transformation and the clear articulation of a shared vision for a viable future. The trouble – and the incivility – arises when this is absent! It is interesting to note that the role of leaders is described as being “…responsible for forming strategies and ensuring that faculty, staff and students understand the intended outcomes” and I believe this may be at the heart of much of the incivility in faculty meetings. When staff consultation is poor and there is no clear articulation of a fair, sustainable direction for the future – the psychosocial impacts for staff can be immense. Leaders have a moral responsibility to take care of those they lead – and the no a-hole rule applies equally to leadership. The recommendations made here are spot-on and would go a long way to ensuring all staff have a safe, productive workplace for all faculty members.

  3. David Seljak / September 22, 2021 at 15:30

    I found this article shockingly one-sided. It uncritically sides with administrators who allegedly are “bullied” by their subordinates. It completely ignores the power dynamics involved: chair, directors, and deans evaluate faculty members annually, and their evaluations have direct and concrete consequences; faculty members are consulted about their chair’s and dean’s performance at the time of the appointment or renewal–if at all.

    I found this section particularly disturbing.

    “Platforms for communication and consultation provide opportunities for robust debate, which, when respectful, can help air concerns, bring clarity to issues and inform the direction forward. But these platforms can also be venues for disgruntled faculty to launch attacks on administrators aimed at revealing the shortcomings in their plans and undermining their credibility as leaders.”

    These platforms are meant to give faculty members an opportunity for “revealing the shortcomings” in the plans of their leaders. That is not incivility “rationalized as the right to academic freedom.” That is collegial governance. Perhaps it is the shortcomings in the plans of the administrator–rather than its revelation in an “attack”–that is undermining the credibility of the administrator. More likely, it is the inability or unwillingness of administrators to take legitimate criticism seriously that undermines their credibility.

    Formulating a policy on something as nebulous as “incivility” and empowering administrators to discipline faculty members with it strikes me as the perfect tool for quashing legitimate criticism, suppressing academic freedom, and empowering dictatorial administrators.

    I am frankly suspicious of an article that uncritically uses terms like “victim” and the discourse legitimately used by marginalized groups to defend increasingly powerful administrators while offering them tools to silence dissent.

  4. Raymond Morrow / September 23, 2021 at 14:13

    How do you differentiate “zero tolerance” from “criminalizing dissent”? There is an overlap between “incivility” and “civil disobediences”, especially when institutions are being gutted and careers ruined. Administrators are well paid to “take the heat”. These proposed guidelines are simply a mandate for suppressing internal dissent, given the ambiguity of the administrative evaluation of the “micro-aggressions”of dissenters.

    • David Seljak / September 29, 2021 at 13:41

      I am pretty sure your comment would violate the proposed Code of Conduct. You are, after all, using this forum for “revealing the shortcomings” in Dr. Bosetti’s plans.

      I personally would love to see my university adopt the practice outlined in this section:

      For example, an Australian university addressed their toxic organizational culture by collaboratively developing cultural quality indicators (settling on “connected, caring, collaborative and innovative”). All executive and faculty meetings begin with colleagues sharing positive examples of these qualities in action.

      Are beginning ALL executive and faculty meetings with examples of “cultural quality indicators” a good idea? No! I would say, “Doubleplusgood!” (Can you put a smiley emoticon in an UA comment box?)

  5. Sinclair Benjamin / September 25, 2021 at 01:51

    It’s not only the students who are being treated like little kids, it’s the faculty too. Not surprising given how we have been raised to be so adverse to any negativity or provocation, no matter how slight or perceived.