I define a serial bully as somebody who repeatedly bullies new victims and never gets caught or stopped*. I don’t have exact statistics at my fingertips, but it is a definite 90/10 scenario (90% of the bullying is done by 10% of the people) – and it is that small fraction that are the serial bullies. Every campus has a PhD adviser (or three) who repeatedly abuses and victimizes his/her students. And you might have a senior colleague in your department who bullies everybody junior to her/him just because they can. Or you may have met a researcher who will do anything, ethical or not, to “win” at research, leaving behind a trail of people feeling used or abused. And although there are many unique aspects to sexual harassment, it most certainly involves bullying-like abuse of power against someone and it most certainly shares the trait that most offenders repeat over and over without getting called on it (as recent shameful cases to make the news show – just e.g. the Marcy case).You may or may not apply the word bully to all of these cases. But what all these have in common is somebody who is harming other people over and over again with little regard for the consequences, because, well, there usually are no consequences. And that is what I want to talk about.
I suggest academia is unfortunately but incredibly well-designed to allow serial bullies to thrive. These conditions have to be understood to design an effective response strategy. Why is academia friendly two serial bullies? Two main ingredients:
- Severe power imbalances. Although serial bullying (and sexual harassment) can and does occur among peers, it is much more common when somebody has the ability to substantially negatively impact somebody’s life if they are “uncooperative” or threaten to report. The ability to flunk somebody out of their PhD program or write a negative review for a tenure dossier clearly qualify. Although less powerful, the ability to write a negative review on a paper, a grant, or an application for sabbatical or even a small travel grant give enough license of power for some to feel safe abusing.
- Peer governance at the top. Academia is a weird place. It is extremely hierarchical up to a point, and then bang it goes completely flat. By the very nature of self-governance, all the full professors in a department (or across a campus) sit on each others peer assessment committees (even after tenure is granted raises still have to be given). And they sit on each others graduate student committees etc. And across institutions, we evaluate each others papers and grants, write tenure letters, hire each others graduate students etc. All of this makes us afraid to speak up against each other. Bullies by definition are likely to retaliate. And peer governance makes it likely they will have the capacity to do so.
I suggest it is this weird combination that makes academia so friendly to serial bullies and harassers. The power imbalance opens up the potential, and then the flat governance removes the likelihood of accountability. Thus in a weird way, places like business, while certainly having many cases due to the power imbalances (witness the recent Gretchen Carlson – Roger Aisles disgrace), also have more hope of fixing these because everybody has a boss who is not afraid of them (again witness the Roger Aisles case). The problem with serial bullies in academia is they don’t have anybody “who is not afraid of them”. Their peers are all afraid of them. In principle the higher ups like deans have no cause to be afraid, but in the modern university with tenure, etc it is very hard to create consequences for somebody with tenure and it seems the main concern as one gets more removed from the people involved is avoiding a lawsuit which is often antithetical to stopping the bully. So it is this weird combination of strong dominance hierarchies but with equality at the top that creates this potential. It is probably not a coincidence that the medical profession is another field with real problems with serial bullies.
So what to do about it? How to change it? I’m hardly the first person to write about this, nor even to make this specific suggestion. But the answer is we have to take the risk of naming and calling out serial bullies (or serial harassers). Sunlight and information are the antidote to serial bullying. This is pretty obvious, even cliched as advice. But it is advice that is rarely followed – clearly it is not happening often enough.
As somebody with whom I discussed the issue of serial bullies said, “it’s scary” to speak up. And there can be real consequences. If it ever gets back to the bully that you spoke up about them, they’re likely to turn their attention on you for years. Its really a tragedy of the commons problem – the cost to me of calling out somebody publicly is potentially quite high, while the benefit to me (who is already alerted to the dangerous person) is quite low, even if the communal benefit is substantial.
So what I want to do is to spend some time on the “it’s scary” or the its risky to me concerns which are 100% real and valid and think through how to get past this. I think the key point is its not a black-or-white act. Speaking up does not have to mean sending out an email to every colleague you know! In fact that is almost always a bad idea. Moreover, often there is no decisive moment, and no decisive institution or power who can put an end to a serial bully. Its lots of individual acts of risky speaking up. What can speaking up look like (in increasing order of scariness)?:
- Mentioning something to one or two colleagues over coffee or a meal. Enough of these conversations can spread the word quite widely quite quickly.
- Mentioning something every time somebody brings up the bully’s name in the context of a student going to work for them.
- Mentioning something indirectly – “I’ve heard stories about so and so – ask me in private if you want more details”.
- Report something anonymously to somebody who is senior and knows you well.
- Take advantage of your seniority when you have it and say something more publicly (at a lab reunion dinner at a conference with 20 people present, or at a working group of 20 people).**
- Filing a formal written complaint.
Or to summarize how speaking up is really a spectrum of scariness:
- Obviously the more people you tell at once, the more scary
- The less well you know the people you are telling, the more scary
- The more formal (written complaint vs over dinner), the more scary
- The more junior you are when telling or the more senior the bully is (i.e. the greater the power imbalance), the more scary
So if you finding yourself wanting to do something but it feels too scary, think consciously about how you can slide down one or more of these scales to make it less scary. But do take the risk and speak up somewhere, somehow. Don’t just say nothing.
Note that anonymity is not really a choice – reputation of person reporting the bully matters a lot – this is why if you absolutely have to remain anonymous it is important that you tell it to somebody who trusts you highly and also has the seniority to be able to act on it – but this is no guarantee of a positive outcome either. It is often hard for even a senior person to do something while keeping you anonymous. More than once, I have been in a position of power, received a complaint of bullying which I believed from somebody who insisted on staying anonymous and I cared about taking action, but none of them turned out well. Some of them turned out badly. Anonymity isn’t really possible. So it is better to focus on sliding down the scale on some other axes and forgoing anonymity. And of course, this job of telling the truth falls much more heavily on senior people, but it doesn’t release junior people of any responsibility. It just means junior people are more entitled to move further down the scale in what they are obligated to do.
It is probably also important to note that it can be a fine line between calling out a serial bully and being a bully yourself. Humility and motives matter a lot. It is possible to be too public and too negative about somebody – even a serial bully. That is why, for example, I would never name the serial bullies I know in this blog post. And it is definitely possible to err when sharing information that you are not certain about. I feel pretty strongly that if you’re not willing to be in the room with the person you’re telling about the serial bully, you’re probably not going to be incented to be careful enough for people to trust you about damaging somebody else’s reputation. How much faith would you put in a random claim on the internet? It is also very incumbent to be sure we really are calling out a serial bully and not just somebody who screwed up. That is why starting with those small 2-3 people whose opinion I really trust conversations is important. Then if I get the same feedback, I might expand the circle of who I talk to about it and then if I hear the same feedback, I might expand again. Shouting something to the world, and then saying oops is not really acceptable. This is why even though this journal article on Gossip as Social Control by Vaidyanathan et al doesn’t really cut it for me even though it is talking about exactly the same solution as I am. Even though they’re careful to qualify the term “gossip”, gossip is just the wrong framing for what I’m talking about. Truth is an absolute necessity. And I should reflect a lot about how what I say will reflect on me as well and I should have a whopping dose of humility. What I am talking about is a humble, carefully calculated transmission of facts which I am certain are true in a way that is very unfun to do. Not exactly gossip in my book.
One might question if something short of the full blown expose can work, but in the cases I know of, this is exactly how it has gone. People chat with their close colleagues about a serial bully over lunch. And get strong reinforcement that their impressions are right. Then they might mention it in slightly larger groups and in settings less close to home. And gradually momentum builds. And then everybody does know. I’ve seen it work multiple times. It is essentially like crowd-sourcing truth telling – lots of people telling the truth in small contexts instead of one person telling the truth in a mega-public context. The only difference is I have to do it in person with my reputation on the line too, not as an anonymous comment or personally distant tweet. But fortunately we don’t need the amplification of social media – we’re not trying to reach an entire nation – academic communities are very small and tight knit. It does work. Indeed all of the very small handful of people I think of as serial bullies have a very widespread reputation at this point, always built in this many small steps fashion.
The biggest challenge with this reputational-based approach is it doesn’t help newbies or outsiders to the system. If we mostly only tell people we know and trust, how is somebody new to the field (e.g. recently graduated) or considering somebody as an adviser going to find out? Obviously the newbie should tread carefully and do research. But if people won’t tell them the truth this is of limited value. I would appreciate any thoughts on this.
What do you think? Is academia a fertile ground for serial bullies? Is telling others the right response? How do you go about doing this and staying safe yourself (and not turning into a reputation damaging bullying yourself)? Can you rely on reputational information growing and spreading if you do your part? How do we protect newbies?
*This is slightly different than the definition in the bullying literature (which focuses on somebody bullying the same person over and over).
** in the vein of my comments about humility and caution, I don’t think I would ever make a general announcement to a group much larger than 20 or 30 people – certainly not at, say, a conference talk with 50-100 people present.