How to Avoid Joining a Campus Bullying Culture

in which bullying
cultures are the status
quo are not the best
places to begin or grow
your career.

Dr. Michelle MaherDr. Michelle Maher

By Dr. Michelle A. Maher, associate professor in the college of education, University of South Carolina

It is with the greatest trepidation that I write this. After several months of thinking about it and several false starts writing about it, I’ve decided to do it: I’m coming out.

I’m inspired by those who have come out of their closets: the LGBTQ closet, the violence against women and sexual harassment closet or the discrimination closet. I’m coming out of the bullied closet.

My closet may appear to be small, even trite, in comparison to other closets. Toughen up or walk away.

For a decade, I did toughen up. On my campus, lots of us toughened up in order to survive.

So it came as no surprise when our faculty welfare committee put the obvious in writing this past summer: On our campus, workplace bullying is a serious issue that affects faculty members (and many others). Toughen up, walk away or come out? Why risk damaging your professional career over something as trite as being bullied?

My story

Joining the college of education in 2001 as an assistant professor of higher education administration, I had heard rumors of alleged problems in the education leadership program including backstabbing, embezzlement and even physical abuse. “The department made me sick,” a retiring professor told me, describing his heart attack while department chair.

The rumors didn’t greatly bother me, not because I felt invincible, but because I was naïve.

Characterized as someone who “quietly carries on” by my former chair, I found keeping my head down and doing my job became more challenging after I earned tenure in 2007.

My becoming director of our doctoral program was at first invigorating, then exhausting. As long as everything stayed exactly the same and no one was held accountable within our entrenched bullying culture, everyone was more or less happy. When I questioned that unspoken social contract of bullying, at first gently and then more persistently, all hell broke loose.

At the end of a recent spring semester, out of the blue, the academic chain of command at my institution identified me as a physical threat, someone who made others “concerned for their personal safety.”

I was stripped of my leadership positions and removed as instructor of my scheduled classes. While my job was in the process of being “modified,” faculty in my program, including one with whom I was in a research collaboration, were instructed to stay away from our college’s building.

My office and personal belongings were taken for others’ use, and my university-issued computer was confiscated. It reads like a really bad script from an academic horror movie. But it was—and is—my life.

I hired a lawyer, who contacted my employer, expressing concern on my behalf. ‘”She’d like to get this resolved without resort to litigation,” he wrote.

Within 24 hours, I received an email from my chair stating that nobody had proven anything or agreed that there was proof that I was a physical threat, and oh, my job remained unchanged as no agreement had been made on modifications.

I called my chair and asked, “Because I retained a lawyer, the university now says, ‘Oops, sorry, get back to work and forget about it?’”

She corrected me: “No one is saying they are sorry.“

I contacted our provost, and his response echoed hers. I contacted our president, whose response was the same, along with his avuncular advice: “It is my hope you will put this situation behind you and focus on continuing your important role within the university of teaching, research and service.“

In other words, toughen up. Nothing of any great importance happened to you. Now get back to work and forget about it. Unspoken but implicit was his invitation to walk away. Bullying is the status quo here. If you don’t like the status quo, go away.

Neither option seemed realistic. How do you simply forget about the horrendous emotional burden of the accusation of being a physical threat? How do you forget about an accusation that has deeply scarred you, marking you on the inside as deformed and on the outside as a social pariah? How do you get back to work with the knowledge that anyone, at any time, can accuse you of anything, and the university can, and likely will, act on it—and not in your defense?

But then, how do you walk away from more than a decade of service to the professoriate, a career you deeply love and one in which you spent a large chunk of your life and finances preparing to enter?

Perhaps you could walk away to another campus, but you know that academia is a really small place and past accusations will inevitably follow you. And how does something this extreme, this unbelievable, happen to someone? How did it happen to me?

A physical threat?

The complaint against me originated from a faculty “colleague” who had previously served as associate provost. An email exchange between my then-chair and then-dean portrays him and our workplace climate.

The chair wrote to the dean:

You and I talked about what to do (if anything) about him during his next and final year, since we’ve all known about his bullying for some time. When we spoke, I was okay with very little change given his upcoming retirement. BUT, after revisiting these emails [reports of his physical intimidation of a college staff person as well as reports from a recent college retiree], I’m not sure I want to be a leader who didn’t addressa long and scary pattern. Do you advise any action at all?

The dean’s response included:

… apprised me of this interchange as soon as it happened. It is one of a vast number of incidents that have been allowed to go unchecked. …if there is ANY report from ANYONE that speaks to this type of bullying or intimidating behavior occurring again, I want it first chronicled so that you (and I, if you prefer) can take the opportunity to confront him.

The chair replied:

I’ve now had such reports of such from [names of five women including Maher]. I will let you know if I observe a sixth such intimidation.

The sixth such intimidation was the bully’s allegation that I had physically threatened him. With panicked anticipation I awaited his response under oath after he was asked, “Were you ever threatened by her?”

“Yes,” he replied. “The one time that she said that she takes every opportunity to squash good old boys. That’s a threat.”

“Well, did you think you were a good old boy?” “Everyone—every male in the department was considered a good old boy.”

“Is that because they acted like good old boys?”


Was that a joke? I do distinctly remember asking another male faculty member to please refrain from calling a female doctoral applicant a “little girl” because it is tantamount to calling a male applicant a “good old boy.”

Neither moniker seemed appropriate within the context of a faculty meeting to review material from doctoral applicants. However, I stood corrected.

But if asking a faculty member to refrain from calling doctoral applicants “little girls” constitutes a physical threat, perhaps before exiting the bullied closet I should reconsider what constitutes bullying in higher education.

Bullying in higher education

“Defining workplace bullying is like defining beauty or pornography—you know it when you see it—” according to professor and HR specialist Lamont Stallworth at Loyola University Chicago, quoted in a WIHE article in March 2010. He defined it as “behavior that threatens, intimidates, humiliates or isolates people at work, or undermines their reputation or job performance.”

I sent our faculty welfare committee’s call for a workplace bullying policy to a recent doctoral recipient.

“Bold of them to put that into writing,” she replied. “But I’m not even sure what workplace bullying would look like. Is it simply when one person constantly dominates the conversation?”

“Sometimes my ideas get rejected too early because I am not vocal enough to push past a more dominant personality,” she continued. “So what kind of bullying are we talking about? Are these dominant folks bullies? Or is it more like sexual harassment or name-calling type bullying?”

“Good questions” I replied. “In my book, being persistent and standing up for your ideas is not bullying, as long as when you do so, you don’t demean other people personally or demean their ideas. Bullying is a pattern; it’s not a bad day or a thoughtless comment for which you later apologize.”

I mentioned a May USA Today article in which Dorothy Espelage of the University of Illinois observed that the term “bullying” is “being used for everything from rolling eyes to ‘not wanting to be your friend’ to sexual assault.”

In reviewing the myriad definitions available, I suggest that pattern or repetition of behavior is an essential marker of bullying, as is the intentionality of the behavior. Short-term, the goal of workplace bullying is to threaten, intimidate, humiliate or isolate. Longterm, the goal is to undermine reputation or job performance, and in some cases, to drive the person from the organization.

This behavioral pattern is unable to exist without external support. It requires a workplace culture that permits and even promotes it. Once that culture is in place, it sticks. Workplace bullies come and go; the cultures in which they thrive are rooted in place, ready to host the next pattern of bullying.

Organizations in which bullying cultures are the status quo are not the best places to begin or grow your career.

How to identify a bully culture

I wish identifying—and being able to avoid— academic organizations with bullying cultures was as easy as finding consumer report information to help you buy your next car. Maybe one day it will be that easy.

In the meantime, here are a few ideas to help find and support the academic workplaces in which individuals treat each other with civility and respect:

Make it a priority: You wouldn’t accept a job with compensation far below what can support you and your family. Don’t accept a job in an organization with a bullying culture that won’t support you or your career. Regardless of the compensation, location or prestige, make a commitment to yourself and your family to work for only organizations that treat employees with civility and respect.

Listen to the grapevine: Academicians love to talk, even more than they love to write. They’ll talk if you ask. Take every opportunity to talk with those who are or have been employed by an organization to ask about its workplace culture. Ask a lot, so you can get a more accurate picture. Just reach out and ask.

Find out what collegiality means to them: Everyone want collegial colleagues, but be cautious of organizations in which collegiality means no conflict is allowed. Cultures that avoid conflict and promote group-think never wind up as great successes.

Investigate previous complaints against the organization: Before accepting employment, ascertain if employees past or present have filed federal or civil complaints or lawsuits against the organization. If so, and issues of bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment are at play, run the other way as fast as you can.

Trust your instinct: You instinctively know when it’s a good fit and when it’s not. Trust that little voice inside you. You’re not going to change an organizational culture, but it can and will change you, and not for the better.

I’m out of the bullying closet. Perhaps this cautionary tale can help you to avoid being in or near it.


Contact her at: 



Maher, Michelle Anne. (2013, September). IN HER OWN WORDS: How to Avoid Joining a Campus Bullying Culture. Women in Higher Education, 22(9), 20-21.




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