On Academic Bullying

Member: Kristen S. Slack (University of Wisconsin - Madison)

"WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” he yelled at me over the phone. I was standing in an airport with a luggage bag weighing down my shoulder, as indecipherable loudspeaker announcements repeatedly jostled with the drone of bustling travelers swarming through the terminal. The man on the other end of the phone had sent me an email with the words “Please call me.” I assumed it was regarding a sticking point we were trying to work through involving our respective human subjects institutional review boards, which were not in agreement about the language to include in a consent form for survey participants. As proxies in this disagreement, we had been relaying feedback from our IRBs back and forth to each other over the last few weeks, and it had been frustrating for both of us. I was alone, on my way home from a conference. I thought, I’ll give him a quick call to keep the process moving. I figured he had more information to share or an additional question.


“Hi Doug!” I greeted him when he answered. (Not his real name, by the way). He returned with his rage-y, shouted question. For more than a moment, I was completely disoriented. Not only was I not expecting this from him, but I had never experienced anything like it in my entire life. I had no cognitive schemas to activate for conjuring up a reaction. So I stood mute while he verbally attacked me for 8 solid minutes. I was “unprofessional," “hostile," “combative," and “disrespectful," and I should have "my senior colleagues educate me on how to be collaborative.” (No matter that I was a senior colleague in my school—but that’s really beside the point). When he was finished with his tirade, all I could think to do was apologize. It is one of the single biggest regrets of my career. I assumed, on autopilot, that because this loud, obnoxious, condescending man, perhaps a decade older than me, was feeling slighted by my interactions with him, that I must have done something wrong.


After hanging up, I called my husband and with voice shaking, recounted the whole thing. And then I spent the next 40 minutes poring over my emails to and from “Doug” looking for any evidence I could find that I had been out of line. I next sent these email exchanges to a few trusted colleagues and asked them to review them and tell me honestly whether my “tone”, as I’d been accused of having, was in any way unprofessional. I didn’t see it. They didn’t see it. Some of my responses in longer back-and-forth exchanges were brief and to the point, to be sure. But nothing, nothing was deserving of the loud, hostile, aggressive attack I had just experienced.


The next day, there was a planned project phone call involving me, Doug, a colleague of his and several of my colleagues, all of whom I had apprised of the episode. In a pre-meeting meeting, I shared that I wanted to address what had happened with Doug as a group. Although my colleagues were sympathetic and appalled by his behavior, they didn’t want to jeopardize the contributions that this man’s organization was bringing to our project. I reluctantly agreed to do or say nothing. Frankly, their lack of action-oriented support was even more hurtful than the episode itself. I couldn’t imagine, if the tables had been turned and one of them had been victimized in this way, that I would be in favor of sweeping it under the rug.


When the project meeting began, Doug started off by asking to “apologize for yesterday.” He’d been told by another colleague during a phone conversation, which had apparently occurred after ours, that the volume on his phone was too loud. ?? He thought perhaps that had been the case in our phone exchange, and he wanted to make sure I knew about the technology malfunction. I said nothing in response. He then said, I kid you not, “I’m glad we all know how to behave going forward.” I was seething, but still said nothing. Nor did my colleagues.


Flash forward to two and half years later. I had made a point since that earlier attack to never be on the phone alone with Doug. And then out of the blue, he sent an email and asked if we could schedule a call. I told him yes, but that I wanted to include one of my colleagues on the project. But he kept insisting on a private call. I made excuses, and eventually just asked him directly about the purpose of it. He replied, “It’s about an apology I owe you.”


I decided to go through with the phone call. Not because I needed anything from him at that point. The damage had been done and I had long since moved on. I’d shared the story with several close friends and colleagues in our research area in the months after the initial episode. I’d processed the experience to death. I had no more energy to give to it or to this man. I took the call motivated more by sheer curiosity. What could he possibly say to apologize for his completely unacceptable, bullying behavior? I sat in my den at home, the call on speaker, with my husband by my side for moral support in case it was needed. Doug’s apology was a mixture of contrition and rationalization. He was going through something at the time. I listened. I accepted his apology. For a moment, he seemed to want to make it about me, too. By then, I’d had plenty of time to reflect on everything and had engaged in many conversations in my head about what I wished I had done and said differently that day in the airport. I simply reminded him that I had done nothing wrong, and he quickly agreed.


So, why do I tell this story? In part, because I think stories like this are quite common, and perhaps for reasons like those of my project colleagues, or more likely, power imbalances that create legitimate fear for one’s position in academia, they go untold. The most bothersome thing about the experience was that I let it shake my confidence, if only for a brief time. For a much longer time, though, it occupied my head space and I expended emotional energy reliving and replaying it. It wasted my time. It took away from the things I needed to be doing in my career. My experience involved a single episode, for the most part. But for many others, victimization is ongoing and the compounded toll of a pattern of bullying is something I can easily imagine derailing or diminishing a career. Whether from the psychological toll, the real and potential consequences for promotion and progression in one’s success, or both.


Academia must take professional bullying very seriously and ensure that there are meaningful and effective supports for those who experience it. I have no doubt that there was a gendered component to my own experience. But I’m also a White, cisgender, not young woman, who has (and had at the time) tenure and seniority in my field. I’ve heard about and read countless stories of BIPOC, LGBTQ and gender non-conforming academics’ experiences of being bullied or harassed that are much more egregious than my own, with much more devastating consequences. I tell my story only to illustrate how even one episode of victimization by a bully can have an enormous impact, and to stress the importance of collegial support when bullying occurs.


My mother used to say, “Be part of the solution, not the problem”. I’ve made this part of my own lexicon as a parent. It has been said frequently enough in my household that the reaction from my kids is now exasperated groaning. Now that they are a bit older, I’ve taken to using another version of it: “Don’t be an asshole, and don’t let others be an asshole either.” I think this transfers to academia quite seamlessly.


Image: @ a-poselenov

Robotic figure of a person using a bullhorn to yell at another person.