Surviving Academic Bullying: Stories and Resources for Targets

Academic abuse/harassment or ‘Academic Bullying’ is an issue of critical importance, both in terms of its prevalence and increasing efforts to identify, address and mitigate its effects. A wide range of researchers with various academic positions (e.g., PhD students, postdoctoral researchers, and junior faculties) are subjected to this abuse. The main factors working behind this abuse is the huge power gap and the existence of the hierarchical system in universities. This system gives so much power to professors that PhD scholars remain vulnerable at all the time. Most students silently endure abusive supervision, even if someone speaks up, the university system is similar to stories we hear in toxic workplaces, the system is seen to favour the bully rather.

My name is Debanjan Borthakur, and I am co-authoring this article with Linda Crockett, the founder of the Canadian Institute of Workplace Bullying Resources, and The Canadian Institute of Workplace Harassment and Violence. We are providing this article to help students who may be experiencing academic bullying. We want you to know you are not alone.

I have worked as a researcher at IIT Guwahati, the University of Rhode Island, McMaster University, University of Toronto, and I have experience with this issue. To bring awareness to academic bullying, Morteza Mahmoudi of Michigan State University launched the ‘academic parity movement’. This has led to efforts to increase recognition of and understanding about exploitation, discrimination, and educational abuse in this institute of higher education. Systemic racism is another issue. Systemic racism includes the policies and practices entrenched in established institutions, which result in the exclusion or promotion of designated groups. No doubt this also acts as a catalyst in the abuse of international students. This issue is particularly important because many skilled researchers must give up their doctoral education because of this academic bullying. Recently two students known to us from two North American universities quit their PhD programmes because of the bullying they endured. Sadly, 40-70% of students who enroll in PhD programmes do not complete their doctoral studies in the United States (Gardner, 2007) and supervisors of PhD researchers hold a significant responsibility for PhD attrition (Devos et al., 2017; Rigler et al., 2017). These highly intelligent students are more vulnerable to being bullied in contexts where they are dependent on their supervisors for their monthly wage. This abuse defined as “academic bullying” is a sustained hostile behaviour from one’s academic superior including, but not limited to, ridiculing, threatening, blaming, invasion of privacy, putdowns in front of others as well as interference with matriculation and career progress including removing funding, writing falsely negative recommendation letters, taking credit for others work and threatening to cancel visa or fellowships (Moss & Mahmoudi, 2021)”.  

Bullying can be a career tool for mediocre academics too. Tauber et al. (2022) states, ‘There are multiple, interrelated ways in which bullying can be a way to further one’s career and interests in academia. Bullying behaviours — including abuse of power, mobbing, and devaluing the achievements of others — sabotage the careers of their targets, effectively removing competition from the academic environment. Once they rise to the top, academics can use the same strategies to promote their ‘chosen ones and become untouchable.’ The significance of this issue is extremely high, and the post-secondary community should bring forward polices or enhance existing ones with the goal of deterring this educational abuse in order to protect the future of students in higher education.

Often students who suffer these forms of abuse become abusers themselves. It is called the ‘Trickle-down effect.’ Such abuse has the potential to wound the student’s mind and put them into a state of depression. The University of Wisconsin Madison awarded a doctorate degree in engineering in 2017 to a student named John Brady, after seven long years. But Brady committed suicide a year after he tried to bring awareness about the abuse by his lab professor Akbar Sayeed. Personality traits can be predictive of these kinds of academic abuse, including dark triad personalities i.e., “Machiavellianism, Narcissism, Psychopathy”. Since there are no clear institutional policies to deter such abuse, most students suffer for fear of losing their own stipend. Some people leave the path of research, others later become abusers themselves and this toxic cycle goes on. Targets of abuse try to choose flight rather than fight.

In a survey conducted in 2019 (Moss & Mahmoudi, 2021), 84% of the students said that they were targets of academic abuse and 59% found others to be targets of it. This illustrates the prevalence of the situation and is suggestive of how terrifying it may be for students. As a result, it may be extremely difficult for non-conformist free thinkers to succeed in this abusive hierarchal system. We are losing brilliant minds because of this toxic abusive academic system as this abuse and exploitation can also cause strong academics to quit (Kossek, Su, & Wu, 2017). Considering the seriousness of the endemic of bullying, it is important to consider how we might reduce the target of the bullying’s dependencies on the bully. Tauber et al. (2022) provide some recommendations such as Institutions prohibiting the perpetrators from submitting letters of recommendation for students they have bullied, having others, such as department chairs, write such letters instead. Moreover, Tauber et al recommended that PhD and postdoctoral students be allowed to independently pursue research and publication projects when supervisors are known to engage in bullying behaviors. Ironically, none of these recommendations are applicable where I studied at least not as far as I was informed.

I would like to share my own experience. Students often find it hard to speak up as it can adversely impact their career progress. I personally suffered from this academic abuse at multiple universities where I studied. I was not able to make a complaint as I needed the degree, I was vulnerable and scared too. Unfortunately, the same things happened again, and I decided to speak up. Because of this the relationship with the professor deteriorated and eventually as a reprisal, I was removed from the lab without citing any proper reason. I paid the price for being the whistleblower. Despite my repeated requests, instead of having a polite discussion the professor decided to threaten me, tried to interfere with my career progress by removing funding as well as removing me from the lab for whistleblowing, retracted recommendation letters so that I do not get the scholarship, authorship orders in a published article is changed etc.

All of these acts are by definition academic bullying (Moss & Mahmoudi, 2021). I also talked to student targets from different universities and their stories are heart wrenching. I was misguided and misinformed. My authorship order in a recently published paper is changed without my consent. This is not a new phenomenon. Ghost and gift writing is common in academia. Not everyone sees discrimination, or most people pretend that it does not exist. Most of us are oblivious to the plights of the underprivileged ones. Had Gandhi not been taken off the train in South Africa that day, if he was not humiliated, we would not have found a Mahatma (Great soul).

We must fight against academic bullying. If those who are targeted do not get justice, no few will have the courage to speak up against academic bullying. The scenario is so concerning as mentioned earlier that two bright students I know already resigned from their PhD while we were preparing this article. Many more will quit, or they will be forced to quit. As far as my experiences go, the institutional support is close to none. There was no expert advice available from the Racism Centre, and departments did not seem to understand what academic bullying is. The educational abuse of doctoral students who hold little if any power, must stop but it requires awareness and legislation to make those who are in power accountable. There is a need for awareness specially to ensure that doctoral supervisors do not misuse the immense power they get in the university and do not treat students as cheap labour (Slaughter, Archerd, & Campbell, 2004) at their disposal. The future depends on the new generation of academic researchers/supervisors.

My name is Linda Crockett and I have been advocating, building awareness, and offering specialized services to employers and employees in Canada, from all industries and professions for over 11 years. I am also a member of the Academic Parity Movement founded by Morteza Mahmoudi, PhD. A resource you need to become familiar with. You can find it here www.paritymovement.org

This site will provide you with further information to help you identify if you are a target of academic bullying, share examples from other students, the challenges they face, and it will also offer you some solutions. When I was in university doing my master’s degree specializing in workplace bullying, I was laughed at, made fun of, dismissed, told by my professors that workplace bullying was not an actual thing, and that this would go no where for me. In fact, my pattern of A’s turned to B- when one instructor took exception to my topic. She even admitted this to me stating I needed to consider another topic. Just before I graduated, there was one PhD student who stole my idea and made it her thesis. Almost nine years later, with legislation in place to protect people at work from psychological harassment, and thousands of research papers written over decades for academics to read, I crossed paths with a past professor of mine. I was shocked to hear her say “I think this bullying thing might be about people who feel sorry for themselves.” This is a highly educated person working in human services causing further destruction due to ignorance. I lost all respect for this woman and felt that she was unprofessional. You do not make comments like that without reviewing the facts. The facts are there.

Today I have worked with thousands of adults (students and employees), who have suffered from this abuse of power, including the shame, and silencing it causes for fear of damaging their reputations, careers, and losing the jobs they went to university for. They have families to care for and often a loved one who needs those health benefits. Adult bullying is far more sophisticated and insidious than childhood bullying. No one deserves this abuse at any age.

“Bullying fundamentally disrupts the trust and nurturing relationships necessary to achieve any school’s mission. Most observers within and outside education would agree that fair and civil treatment of students is—or at least should be—embedded in the ecology of academic work. However, the opposite seems to be true: The problem of educator-student bullying is compounded by a general absence of institutional policies and procedures written to handle allegations of abusive conduct. 

Here is a basic overview of the psychological and physical injuries of adult bullying:

  • Insomnia, fatigue, loss of focus/concentration, and memory.
  • Increased fear, isolation, anxiety, panic attacks.
  • Hypervigilance weakened immune system, frequent illnesses (e.g., cold, flus, viruses, infections).
  • Loss of trust, safety, respect and commitment or motivation.
  • Loss of appetite, increasing headaches, body pain, gastrointestinal issues, blood pressure.
  • Depression, Adjustment Disorders, PTSD, Burn Out, suicidal ideation, feeling trapped, stuck, helpless/hopeless, paranoid.

“It is important for audiences of many kinds to understand that psychological trauma, the type most noticeable in bullying, produces biologically measurable damage to specific regions of the developing brain. Dr. John Medina Neurobiologist, author of Brain Rules 2nd ed. 2014

Unfortunately, the silence and shame that people feel will always feed those who are toxic and enable this abuse to continue. “Many people do not know that all forms of bullying and abuse can do significant and lasting harm to both the perpetrator and targets brains”- Jennifer Fraser.

As a therapist, advocate, coach, I am noticing over the past 11 years that this abuse is coming out of the closet. More people are talking about it. More resources are becoming available. This is not going away, and the day is coming when more universities will be exposed for the psychological hazards of psychological harassment, sexual harassment, and psychological violence (bullying and racism).

We have some tips on how to deal with academic bullying and discrimination. Mahmoudi, M. (2020) also provides some useful tips targets of academic bullying can employ to protect themselves and fight back.

We will list them here.

  1. First, try to document and record any interactions that involve situations that make you feel uncomfortable, or that becomes abusive behaviour. Simply print off and save emails and memos in a binder “at home.” Document verbal conversations or make sure to have conversations in the presence of a trusted ally. If you just cannot write anymore, talk to your phone recorder, date it, and keep it safe. Download this to your home computer whenever possible. Documentation is critical for several reasons.
  1. If you are ever involved in a complaint, or an investigation, documentation will show you are credible. This is important!
    1. Documentation will also help you maintain your mental health. This type of abuse does not cause an injury over night. It is an accumulation of many insults over time, often months to years. With that in mind you will become fatigued, forgetful, and when that happens, self doubt, loss of self confidence, loss of self worth all creeps in. Self doubt can be debilitating. Documentation maintains your clarity.
    1. Clarity maintains your confidence.
    1. Confidence maintains your courage to address this abuse in some form.

Document for credibility, clarity, confidence, and courage. You always carry your cell phone so find an app that protects texting your documentation!

  • Second, consult your institution’s ombudsperson or mediation office. Be sure to ask if they have experience in this area. If they do not, have hope – but you may want to keep your expectations realistic. It did not work out in my case (Debanjan). The ombudsman could only rely on institutional definition of bullying. This is not helpful when the university does not have clear policies on academic bullying.

    We must take action to change this. Did you know that employees who are federally employed have legislation to protect them in the workplace? And that most of our Canadian provinces have provincial law to protect employees? How is that Universities get away with no policies?
  • Resist isolating. Stay safe but look for others who might be experiencing the same situation and are afraid of speaking up. Peer support is needed and valuable. When you have allies, it gives you courage and compels the institution to take you seriously. We find far more strength in numbers.
  • Each of you will have unique cases. You need to talk to someone to develop strategies to cope, maintain your psychological and physical health, stay grounded in your own truth, feel heard and validated by others, and have an exit strategy just in case.
  • Remind yourself that you are human and that you do not deserve this abuse. We highly recommend you talk to a coach/counsellor who is experienced in this area. Have a safe space to vent, process, and gain guidance and support. Remind yourself that you are a target, not a target. Resources are listed throughout this guide.
  • Know that you have a right to report abuse without being retaliated against. However, it happens with or without legislation in place. Toxic people find their ways to get back. Therefore documentation, having paper trails, and keeping recordings will be essential to you. This is how you can prepare for subtle, passive and/or micro aggressive acts of retaliation—and it might come from unexpected sources and colleagues. Protect yourself.
  • Reach out to your student’s union and Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). They will be of immense help.
  • It is important not to be naïve. Sometimes the institution or Departmental responses might be biased. To avoid these mistakes, mistakes which cause additional harm to students, and targeted staff members, training on this topic needs to be mandatory for all staff and students!
  • Learn about gaslighting so you can recognize it before it causes you serious harm. Read more about gaslighting here https://www.verywellmind.com/is-someone-gaslighting-you-4147470.
  1. Become informed of your rights and if you find the courage, take a stand. If you do not have the courage, talk to someone!
  1. If you are an international student, it is also prudent to reach out to the embassy or consulate of your country as well as international office.
  1. Equity denied people, neurodiverse people and international students are often the targets of bullying. Introverts and Highly Sensitive People are more prone to be bullied.
  1. When your psychological and/or physical health has become so impacted that you are chronically ill, depressed, or having suicidal ideation, it is time for you to consider leaving the toxicity and saving your life. Nothing can be more important than your health. You must come first. “Recovery must be a priority with or without justice” Linda Crockett.

Stay close to your loved ones, talk to them. Cultivating healthy habits or hobbies, walking, running, biking, swimming, meditation, yoga, any of these will help improve your mood and capacity to cope.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” By George Bernard Shaw.

Read the research, spread your awareness, author some research, make ally’s, educate others, validate those going through this, offer support, advocate for policies, and keep your eye on the goal. You are there to get your degree and get out. Brighter days will come. You are not alone.

Guidelines for Academic Officials:

  1. Update your policies to explicitly address the conduct of both students and staff. Define academic bullying in your policies, offer examples, and inform that tolerance at any level is your policy. Use information from legislation and research.

                 Examples of policies:

  • Protection against retaliation.
  • Protection against malicious complaints.
  • Protection against racism, discrimination, and sexual harassment.
  • Examples of consequences for the above.
  • Provide mandatory trauma informed training to all University staff, CUPE, legal services, student services, counselling services, unions, ombudsman, and all entry level students. Empower each with knowledge of early warning signs, risk factors, their rights, and resources. Training is mandatory in our legislation, and the best source of prevention.

              Policies and training will include:

  • Strategies for protecting oneself, resources available, and processes or options for reporting abuse.
  • Detail the responsibilities and expectations of leaders, employees, and students. Every person should have access to learn what is expected of them, and what they can expect of others.
  • Offer alternative processes for complaints. What if the person causing harm is the Dean, Professor, Sessional Instructor, HR, Safety, or a student. Each will require a safe process.
  •  
  • Have trauma informed trained and experienced investigators to access when complaints occur. Avoid further harm by ensuring there is no risk of bias, conflict of interest, or lack of skill set. If you utilize experienced third-party investigators, you expedite recovery and repair e.g., rebuild trust and safety. Know that there are alternatives that need to be considered before doing an investigation. Also, please note that an investigation with the outcome of “unsubstantiated,” does not mean that the concern is resolved. Something happened. Either there was not enough information to substantiate a complaint, a problem occurred (e.g., incivility, abrasiveness, miscommunication, lack of knowledge, or a cultural difference), and this needs to be resolved, or someone made a malicious complaint.
  • Offer the right to appeal. Crete a process by which grievances can be heard and settled. This is a basic civil right. 
  • Keep track of formal and informal complaints. Watch for patterns and/or recurrences. including student comments on course evaluation forms. Any allegations of bullying should be included in annual evaluations.
  • Do not force anyone to confront the person they feel is causing them harm. This is an error placing the person feeling harmed at risk of further harm. Therefore, training is necessary.
  • Do not force anyone into mediation. If an injury has occurred, this process will not be best practices. Best practice is to have a consultation with a specialist in this area to determine next steps. There are many other options.
  • Consider creating a team for addressing complaints. This needs to include a several specialties e.g., leader, HR, Safety, Union, and most importantly, a counsellor (psychologist or clinical social worker), specifically trained in this area.
  • All parties involved have the right to a safe and confidential space to process what is happening for them. Have resources available for coach/counselling services specifically trained in this area.

Last but not the least, it is the collective responsibility of the institution, teachers, and students to create a safe and productive workplace. “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower”- Alexander Den Heijer.

References:

Gardner, S. K. (2007). “I heard it through the grapevine”: Doctoral student socialization in chemistry and history. Higher education, 54(5), 723-740.

Devos, C., Boudrenghien, G., Van der Linden, N., Azzi, A., Frenay, M., Galand, B., & Klein, O. (2017). Doctoral students’ experiences leading to completion or attrition: A matter of sense, progress, and distress. European journal of psychology of education, 32(1), 61-77.

Rigler Jr, K. L., Bowlin, L. K., Sweat, K., Watts, S., & Throne, R. (2017). Agency, Socialization, and Support: A Critical Review of Doctoral Student Attrition. Online Submission.

Moss, S. E., & Mahmoudi, M. (2021). STEM the bullying: An empirical investigation of abusive supervision in academic science. EClinicalMedicine, 40, 101121.

Täuber, S., & Mahmoudi, M. (2022). How bullying becomes a career tool. Nature Human Behaviour, 6(4), 475-475.

Kossek, E. E., Su, R., & Wu, L. (2017). “Opting out” or “pushed out”? Integrating perspectives on women’s career equality for gender inclusion and interventions. Journal of Management, 43(1), 228-254.

Slaughter, S., Archerd, C. J., & Campbell, T. I. (2004). Boundaries and quandaries: How professors negotiate market relations. The review of higher education, 28(1), 129-165.

Susanne Tauber, Loraleigh Keashly, Sherry Moss, Jennifer Swann, Leah Hollis, Linda Crockett, Pooya Sareh, Morteza Mahmoudi (2022). Academic harassment: The need for interdependent actions of stakeholders.

Mahmoudi, M. (2020). A survivor’s guide to academic bullying. Nature human behaviour, 4(11), 1091-1091.

Abdelaziz, E. M., & Abu‐Snieneh, H. M. (2022). The impact of bullying on the mental health and academic achievement of nursing students. Perspectives in psychiatric care, 58(2), 623-634.

Rashidi, Z., & Rouhani, S. (2022). Study of Academic Bullying in educational departments; Case study (humanities and engineering departments). Iranian Journal of Engineering Education, 24(93), 105-132.

Bokek-Cohen, Y. A., Shkoler, O., & Meiri, E. (2022). The unique practices of workplace bullying in academe: An exploratory study. Current Psychology, 1-20.

Resources:

  • www.workplaceharasssment.ca
  • www.paritymovement.org
  • https://www.iawbh.org/
  • https://workplacebullying.org/

 News:

Institutions and funding agencies:

Additional Recommended Research, Articles or Books

  • Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Seattle: Pear Press, 2008. https://brainrules.net/
  • Fraser, J. (2022). The Bullied Brain: heal your scars and restore your health. Prometheus Books. Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc. https://bulliedbrain.com/

Authors

Debanjan Borthakur MS, Doctoral Candidate – University of Toronto Email: debanjanborthakur@gmail.com  social media: Twitter @Deb_Borthakur                    

Linda Crockett MSW, RSW, SEP, CCPA

The Canadian Institute of Workplace Harassment and Violence (not for profit). The Canadian Institute of Workplace Bullying Resource Centre Inc. (for profit), www.workplaceharassment.ca Edmonton, Alberta Canada. Member of the www.paritymovement.org Email: psychologicalsafetyfirst@gmail.com