Mainpage: Workplace Mobbing in Academe
Report on the session, Chronicle of Higher Education
In order, the five parts of the presentation:
(1) Friedenberg: Composite Story of a Mobbing
(2) Westhues: Workplace Mobbing, Ten Years after Leymann's Death
(3) Schneider: Mobbing as a Challenge to Administrators and Faculty Associations
(4) Friedenberg: Blowback from Mobbing as a Stimulus to Administrative Concern
(5) Westhues: Correction of Mobbing Episodes in Higher Education
Mobbing as a factor in faculty work life
Joint presentation to the International
Conference on Globalization, Shared Governance, and Academic Freedom,
sponsored by the American Association of University Professors, Omni Shoreham
Hotel, Washington, DC, 11-13 June 2009,
Joan E. Friedenberg, Professor of Bilingual Education, Florida Atlantic University,
Mark A. Schneider, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Southern Illinois University—Carbondale, and
Kenneth Westhues, Professor of Sociology, University of Waterloo.
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Joan E. Friedenberg
Composite Story of a Mobbing
(Drawn from the author's Hammerly Memorial Lecture, 2008, published by Mellen Press in K. Westhues, ed., The Anatomy of an Academic Mobbing, pp. 23-59.)
Imagine yourself in these circumstances: You are born in South America of immigrant parents. You go to school each day and, with your parents, attend church regularly where you learn the importance of truth, justice and faith. You do well in school, making your parents, and your grandparents, who live with you, as well as your many aunts and uncles, proud. You graduate and attend college near your hometown on a scholarship, being the first in your family to do so. You feel a little awkward in college because most of your classmates come from homes with college-educated parents. You manage to make a few friends – who, not by coincidence, also come from working class backgrounds – and you do fine academically. You get married. Then, unhappy with social injustice and the lack of freedom in your country, you work hard to save up money to go to graduate school in North America. You spend several years in North America with your spouse and complete a Ph.D. in linguistics. You then land a dream academic position in a university in North America. It’s a tenure-earning position in linguistics at a respected institution. You teach classes and, despite having higher standards than some of your colleagues, having a foreign accent, and refusing to teach on your religious holidays, you earn the respect of your students. You publish books, chapters, and articles in your adopted language; you land several grants; you are a sought-after speaker at top academic meetings worldwide; you develop two new degree programs in your department, doubling its enrollments, and you participate in other service activities both inside and outside your university. Your research focuses on language immersion and bilingual education, areas that many linguists and foreign language educators frown upon as non-traditional. But you thrive in academe. You and your spouse raise a child and stress the importance of truth, justice, faith, and learning. You are awarded tenure, are twice promoted, and now occupy the coveted and apparently “safe” position of tenured full professor. Unlike some of your colleagues in that position, you continue to be a productive scholar. Your achievements are more than you ever imagined for yourself and your life is pretty good.
As a tenured senior faculty member and a moral and religious person, you speak up when staff, junior faculty, and students are treated unjustly. For example, when your colleague Pat is charged with sexual harassment by the department chair and suspended after a detractor produced 20 vague complaints from students – all unsigned – you fought for and helped Pat get “due process,” which, when respected, resulted in Pat’s complete exoneration and reinstatement. You support the creation of unions on campus and write letters to the editor and guest columns for the campus newspaper criticizing some of the university’s administrative policies and procedures in hopes of making the university a better place. When 50 university secretaries are laid off, supposedly for financial exigency, you notice that those receiving pink slips had the most seniority and had filed grievances in the past. So you help expose this in the campus newspaper, whereupon several secretaries are called back to work, including your department’s.
Your campus activism makes you stand out from colleagues. You’re also aware that your working class roots encourage a directness and bluntness in your communications that more refined colleagues find annoying. And you exercise your religious freedom by not teaching on important religious holidays.
Then, the birthday card the department chair gets for the department secretary (whose job you helped save) somehow never makes it to you to sign and this makes you worry that the secretary may think you failed to sign on purpose. After that, you begin to suspect that some of your mail is missing and your copying and office supply requests are ignored. You hear about a department party that you weren’t invited to, and wonder if it really occurred. But your incipient paranoia is supported when, as you walk down the hall, you think you hear colleagues mockingly imitating a foreign accent before they scuttle into their offices and close their doors upon your approach. Sensing you may be the object of their scorn, your heart begins to pound, your mouth gets suddenly dry and you feel nauseous. You wonder: “Is it me they are mocking?”
Next, the department chair calls you in to inform you that there is a vague complaint about you by a student. You are never told the specific nature of the complaint, who the student is, or whether anything will become of it. You have also seen your chair entering your colleagues’ offices from time to time and closing the door upon spying you. You grow more paranoid. You perspire and your hands visibly tremble in the presence of your colleagues. You then receive a letter informing you that, because of supposed departmental space needs, you must vacate your office for one that is far from your colleagues and that lacks access to a printer, fax, and photocopy machine. Later you discover that your colleagues had signed a petition requesting your physical removal from the department on the grounds that your presence makes them not only uncomfortable but actually fearful. You cannot imagine why anyone would be afraid of you, especially because you are not physically imposing. Your heart sinks when you learn that even Pat, who has been avoiding you lately, has signed the complaint. By design, it seems, your office move is scheduled on one of your most important religious holidays, but you are able to delay it a few days. Nevertheless, you spend most of that religious holiday packing your belongings. On the second day in your new office, you find garbage dumped in front of your door and graffiti by the nameplate on your office door indicating that you are crazy. You grow confused and more paranoid. You are now more comfortable coming to work on weekends but must keep some normal office hours and attend meetings during the week, despite feeling nauseous and now having diarrhea with almost each weekday visit to campus.
You awake one morning and come to the conclusion that the office change was retaliation by the department chair for supporting Pat. You file a grievance, and, miraculously, prevail! In an interview with the campus newspaper, you liken the outcome in your grievance to David’s victory over Goliath in the Bible.
After winning the grievance and returning to your original office, you feel hopeful that things will improve, and, although you still feel queasy each time you come to work, you do your best to continue to be a productive scholar and effective instructor.
But despite your hopes, things do not improve. You are no longer chosen for committees. The department chair neglects to call on you when your hand is raised in meetings. And when you attempt to offer comments without raising your hand, you are called out of order. When you offer suggestions, your colleagues roll their eyes. If you disagree with the prevailing departmental view, even politely, you are shouted down. This explains why, during department meetings, your heart pounds, your hands tremble, and sweat runs down your back.
You have trouble sleeping, your stomach burns with acid, and you notice that your hands are beginning to shake persistently. Your physician informs you that your blood pressure is dangerously high and your heart has an irregular beat. Embarrassed, you mention some vague problems at work. The doctor recommends that you not attend meetings and you, reluctantly, follow the suggestion – on the assumption that when things improve, you will attend again.
But things still do not improve. You sometimes have the vague feeling that you are being followed, but your family thinks this is only more evidence of your paranoia. Luckily, your family does not suspect you when two of your auto tires are slashed in the university parking lot. They grow concerned themselves when, a few weeks later, your home is vandalized. You begin to suffer nightmares about intruders breaking in and sometimes about being chased. You become clumsy and forgetful, dropping and losing things like your eyeglasses and keys. At work, you receive a disciplinary letter for not attending meetings. When you return to the meetings, you request that they be taped or video recorded in hopes that your colleagues will behave better, but your requests are ignored. After your raised hand is ignored and you are, essentially, prevented from participating in one meeting, you raise your voice and say you are entitled to your opinions – “after all, isn’t this what higher education is supposed to be about, the free flow of ideas?” A week later, you receive a letter from the department chair indicating that your colleagues have found you to be disruptive, dangerously out of control, and the source of departmental paralysis. Your behavior, it is claimed, has caused one colleague to have high blood pressure and another to have a seizure. A day later, another letter arrives from HR (Human Resources) indicating that a consulting psychologist engaged by the university, having met with your colleagues but not with you, has assessed you and concluded that you are mentally unstable and in need of professional counseling to control your anger and violent tendencies. Copies of both letters enter your personnel file – and also manage somehow to make their way around the department. Shaken, you rush off to class, and, on your way, are startled when a Lexus swerves out of nowhere and heads for you. You jump out of the way and realize … that the driver is your department chair. Upon being recognized, the chair smiles and waves enthusiastically to you. You are confused. Was it your imagination that the car was headed for you? Given all the other problems, you decide to report it to campus police – just in case. A week later, police show up and arrest you for trying to run down the department chair. “But the chair was the one trying to run me down; you have it backwards! I don’t even drive a car to work; I ride a bicycle!” you exclaim. Nevertheless you are taken away to jail. The next morning, your family awakens to the newspaper headlines “Mentally Unstable Professor tries to Murder Boss.” You learn the evidence alleging that “your” auto attack was intentional lay in the David and Goliath “death threat” you made months earlier to the campus newspaper after winning your office grievance, as well as in the letters from the department chair and HR complaining about your supposed violent disruptions in meetings, the consulting psychologist’s assessment of you, and the petition by the faculty claiming to feel uncomfortable and fearful around you. You are utterly baffled at any suggestion that you have or could behave violently. Your family lawyer gets you out of jail and a preliminary hearing finds you not guilty of trying to murder your department chair, but the judge, whose child attends your university’s law school on a scholarship, finds you guilty of the lesser charge of disorderly conduct and warns you to control your violent tendencies and to get help. The newspaper does not report the not guilty finding. Defeated and shaken, you ask for and receive a medical leave for the rest of the semester.
While on leave, you attempt to do some writing and to work on healing both your mind and body. You have stomach, heart, and sleep problems and are easily startled. Your mind obsessively plays over the psychologist’s report, the swerving car, and your arrest. You need desperately to heal. But your department chair sends you an annual evaluation of your work that states, incorrectly, that you are the worst instructor and the least productive scholar in the department. It also indicates that your service to the department is lacking in that you do not serve on any committees and do not even bother to attend department meetings. You have a decision to make. Should you focus your energy collecting evidence and responding to the untrue and politically motivated allegations on your annual evaluation or should you work on “letting go” of this hostile workplace for now and just healing? A week later, you receive a letter from HR accusing you of working for another employer while on medical leave. Of course you are not working anywhere else, but how can you prove it? You abandon your writing and healing to focus your attention on this new barrage of accusations. Then your spouse receives an anonymous letter suggesting that you may be having an affair with a graduate student. Your spouse cannot help but wonder whether this presumed affair is really behind all your problems at work and all your anxiety. After all, you have not been in the mood for sex in a long time. More anonymous letters come. To your horror, you awaken in the middle of the night to discover that you have wet the bed.
Your spouse decides to spend some time with relatives. Concerned more about what the situation is doing to your spouse than what the potential loss of your spouse would do to you, you begin to write a letter proclaiming your faithfulness and apologizing for what your work circumstances have done to your family. Your letter writing, however, is interrupted and you leave the partly written letter on the end table next to your favorite chair. Your department secretary has called to indicate that your department chair requests that you come to campus for a brief meeting to discuss your annual evaluation. Anxious to respond to the bad evaluation, you collect several documents demonstrating your excellent teaching and latest publications and go to see your chair. After taking a seat, the chair informs you that you have plagiarized a paragraph on your web site from the bible and that your employment is terminated, effective immediately. At that moment, campus police enter and you are escorted to your office to collect your personal belongings and books, which will be kept for you in boxes until you can return with a car. You are told that you may not come to campus other than to collect your belongings.
You can hardly breathe. You walk your bike home, too stunned, dizzy, and shaken to ride it. You arrive at your empty home, sit in your favorite chair and stare. You have trouble breathing and feel excruciating pressure in your chest. With one hand on your chest and the other on the arm of the chair, you try to get up, but fall back into the chair, dizzy and gasping for breath.
For days your spouse tries to call, but no one answers the
phone. The department secretary calls and sends letters asking when you plan
to pick up your belongings. The messages and mail pile up. Furious that you
never seem to be home in the evenings and wondering if you are with the graduate
student, your spouse returns home expecting to catch you in a compromising position.
But your spouse only finds your still body in the chair, and next to it, what
appears to be an unfinished letter:
“I have never, ever taken a romantic interest in anyone but you; you have always been my only love. I am guilty only of expressing myself at work too bluntly, but good causes for which millions of people have been willing to die are worth fighting for, especially when we see others being mistreated. I am terribly s…..”
Was this a story or a history? The events I have described seem so extreme that you must suspect the former. But I can assure you that I have no talent for fiction. This was the composite story of Hector (a highly productive immigrant full professor arrested on trumped up charges who suffered a stroke after being forced into early retirement for speaking out), Chris (son of a union mechanic, tenure-track assistant professor, 33 years old, fired on the spot for plagiarizing, with no due process, but with the campus police present), Elisabeth (daughter of a carpenter, full professor whose colleagues claimed she caused seizures in a colleague by expressing heterodox opinions in faculty meetings and whose colleagues petitioned the administration to have her removed from the department), Maureen (daughter of immigrants, highly productive full professor who was falsely accused of working elsewhere during a medical leave pursuant to being mobbed for supporting a colleague who had been wrongly accused of sexual harassment – a colleague who then distanced himself from her during her mobbing), Jerry (son of a livestock and cement block trucker, a highly productive, 70-year-old full professor whose office was moved to another building after a petition drive by less productive junior colleagues and who endured garbage dumped in front of his new office), Jon (highly productive, libertarian, religious full professor whose colleagues accused him of racism in an ad in the campus newspaper), Herb (highly productive full professor, observer of the “wrong” religion, accused of violating sick leave and forced into early retirement), David (full professor who took his own life after being accused of racism and terminated), Lionel (full professor who passed away last month after a long illness that began shortly after his forced early retirement), Joan (productive full professor, union activist and grievant, whose employer engaged a consulting psychologist and private detective to target her), George (whose tenure-track contract was not renewed and who is trying to make it as an independent scholar and by selling TVs while also suing his former employer using his meager future pension funds), and a few others.
Collapsing their cases into one perhaps exaggerates the array of tactics by which individual victims of mobbing are stigmatized and harassed in hopes of driving them from the workplace, but only through such exaggeration could I hope in the circumstances of a lecture to communicate the feelings of bewilderment and dread that victims of mobbing feel, as well as to motivate the somatic consequences of nausea, palpitations, diarrhea and so on that often leave their trace in post-traumatic stress disorders. What I further hope the composite story underscores is the willingness of colleagues and bosses to employ patently dishonest schemes to hound targeted individuals from the workplace. The moral compromises that mobbers countenance are serious enough that you must surely suspect they face, without legitimate defenses, an insidious enemy, and so are compelled to adopt dubious strategies. In reality, however, the “enemy” merits no stronger characterization than, perhaps, “pain in the ass” (K. Westhues, 1998). The contrast between the routine annoyances that targets of mobbing are seen as visiting upon their colleagues and superiors and the extremity of the latter’s response is one of the enduring psychological puzzles in mobbing. I know I cannot make it more intelligible for you. Indeed, as we proceed from the drama of our composite case to a brief overview of the characteristics of mobbings, your curiosity over this issue of proportion is apt only to grow.
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Back to TOP, or continue to Part 2.
Workplace Mobbing, Ten Years after Leymann’s Death
Joan Friedenberg’s ingenious composite case of mobbing in academe has started this session off on exactly the right foot, even for those of us steeped in research on this subject matter, all the more for those making initial acquaintance with it. Mobbing in any workplace, let alone an academic one, is not the easiest phenomenon to wrap one’s mind around. If our conversation here today is to go anywhere, the best point of departure is shared focus on the social process at issue and its astounding grip on those involved, target and mobbers alike.
The Edwin Mellen Press, publisher of at least seven books
on academic mobbing, has graciously provided participants in this session with
free copies of Friedenberg’s Hammerly Memorial Lecture last year, from
which much of her talk here today is drawn. Let me distribute those copies now,
so that if you find my talk boring you can unobtrusively read more of Friedenberg,
I have been living a scholar’s dream these past ten years, as one of those who took up Heinz Leymann’s legacy when he died in 1999: his coinage of the term, “workplace mobbing,” and his foundational analyses of it. Three interrelated movements have burgeoned since his death.
First is the scientific one, advancing the systematic, empirical study of the social process Leymann identified, theorizing about its nature, correlates, antecedents and effects, then pitting theoretical ideas against available evidence and publishing the results.
The second movement is political, its object being laws and policies that make mobbing a punishable offense. Such laws are now in place in most European jurisdictions, also in Quebec, and anti-mobbing bills are pending in the legislatures of several American states, notably California and Massachusetts.
The third movement is cultural, popularizing knowledge of workplace mobbing through trade books, magazines, TV, radio, and especially the internet, with a view to reducing its incidence and helping people harmed by it.
In keeping with my vocation as a sociologist, the scientific development is my main priority. I cannot muster enthusiasm for campaigns to outlaw mobbing, except as a way to promote public awareness, because I doubt the practicality of anti-mobbing laws. One might as well outlaw betrayal of love, or headaches. On the other hand, I am part of the cultural movement, the popularization of knowledge about mobbing for personal and social amelioration. But for me, the science still comes first.
Three years ago, an able journalist named John Gravois accompanied me on a research trip and then published a long, cogent article on my and others’ studies of mobbing. My delight with the article was tempered by distress that Gravois portrayed me as a kindly man with “smiling eyes” and “something almost pastoral” in my demeanor. I’m similarly distressed when my students, on course evaluations, say I’m a nice guy. I do try to be kind and nice. I try not to repress normal empathic impulses – which would anyway be hard to do when faced with people whose names and dignity have been stolen and whose spirit has been crushed by extreme hostility from their peers. Like Bill Clinton, I can feel other people’s pain. But that’s not the job I’m paid to do. As a professor of social science, my job is to subject social action to disciplined, reasoned analysis and to produce true explanations of what happens in human affairs. Not truthy explanations (to borrow Stephen Colbert’s delicious, postmodern term), but true explanations. That has been my objective since I got into this research area 15 years ago. Your feedback on Friedenberg’s, Schneider’s, and my papers today will, with luck, amount to a further step on that scientific path.
The foundation of any scientific field is the discernment of a certain commonality in diverse phenomena, the placing of a name on that commonality, then defining that name by measurable essential attributes.
Here is a homespun example. When I was 13, I came down with daily headaches that hurt worse than anything I had yet felt, to the point of disabling me. A doctor diagnosed sinusitis and prescribed nosedrops. These did no good, but the headaches went away on their own after a few weeks. The next year they came back, lasted one miserable month, then went away again. So it went for the next 20 years. The four-to-six-week headache spells were a more or less annual scourge on my otherwise healthy life, to the point of making me doubt my sanity. I tried everything to no avail: allergy shots, chiropractic, acupuncture, even the homeopathic remedy of iris root, which added a different kind of headache to the ones I already had.
After 20 years, when I was 33 years old, a neurologist told me simply, “You have cluster headaches.” He listed the standard symptoms and correlates, telling the story of my life. For the first time I had a name for what ailed me, an accurate name. I found a book in the library on cluster headaches by an Australian professor named James Lance, was so impressed I wrote Lance a letter of heartfelt thanks for his research. I did not learn from his book any cure for the ailment, nor even reliable ways to ease the pain. What I was and am grateful to him for was the name, because it solved the mystery, enlarged the intelligibility of my own experience.
As is the common pattern, my cluster headaches disappeared by my fiftieth birthday, but I have remembered my letter to James Lance often during recent years, because every few days I get an email from somebody somewhere thanking me for my research on workplace mobbing. This is a scientist’s dream. Typically, the email says something like: “At last I have a name for what happened to me [or to my wife, husband, mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, colleague or friend]. It was just as you describe, and the reasons for it seem to fit this or that pattern identified in the literature. It helps so much just to know that I’m not alone, that this is a distinct social phenomenon many people have gone through.”
Violent forms of mobbing have long been recognized by observers of animal and human behavior: the coalescence of chimpanzees against one of their number, for instance, killing the target, or lynching in the Old South or on the American frontier, or swarming among adolescents, when peers gang up on an age-mate and beat him or her up, sometimes mortally. It was to collective physical aggression by many birds against one that Konrad Lorenz, Nobel laureate in 1973, first applied the word mobbing in a systematic, scientific way, entering this word into the lexicon of the new field of ethology.
Heinz Leymann then adapted Lorenz’s conceptualization to the human workplace, but with an important twist. In today’s workplaces, Leymann observed, mobbing is usually carried out nonviolently, even politely, without any physical attack on the target. The collective aggression, the hostile communications, the social contagion, the fanatic surrender of selves to common cause, the objective of the target’s punishment, humiliation, and elimination – all these are the same as in Lorenz’s sense of the term. What is different is the greater sophistication of mobbing techniques: rarely assault, more often just glances, gestures, tone of voice, and above all words on paper, toward emptying the target’s life of social significance and worth – in effect, killing the target. Leymann understood that workplace mobbing, although conducted in symbolic rather than physical ways, often has the same physical effect as violent attack: the target’s disability or death, in this case by stress-induced illness or suicide.
Much of the development of the study of workplace mobbing since Leymann’s death in 1999 has consisted of further fleshing out of the basic concept. To Leymann’s Inventory of Psychological Terror have been added numerous other instruments of measurement, including the several versions of my own Checklist of Indicators. For conveying what mobbing means, many researchers have discussed it in relation to other eliminative social processes, ranging from the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the Star Chamber, witch hunts, human sacrifice, the trial of Socrates and the crucifixion of Jesus, to popular current TV shows like Survivor, The Weakest Link, and the newest one now in production at Fox, Someone’s Gotta Go, in which employees vote on who should be laid off.
Last fall, a student working with me, Shing Leung, wrote a paper comparing workplace mobbing to a specific kind of attack by dogs that the famous trainer, César Millan, calls “red-zone aggression.” Millan points out what all observers of dogs have noticed, that little growls and nips and bites are routine in the canine world, reminders of the pack hierarchy and reinforcers of its discipline. Red-zone aggression is in sharp contrast to this everyday mild violence. A dog in this state is unconcerned with discipline and order, aiming only to seize its victim by the throat and snuff the life out of it, without mercy. It has, so to speak, declared all-out war: “I want to kill you right now … I don’t want to smell you, I don’t want to play with you. I just want to kill you.” Leung insightfully drew a parallel to human behavior in workplaces. Workers routinely trade jibes, barbs, jokes, and reprimands as gentle and sometimes not-so-gentle reminders of the order and discipline to be maintained. Altogether in contrast to this everyday mild aggression is workplace mobbing, wherein a pack of red-zone aggressors goes after a workmate with one goal in mind: to be rid of him or her once and for all.
After reading Leung’s essay, I searched out material on the web about dog behavior, and was fascinated to read in the wikipedia entry that “puppies will intervene in play engaged by other pairs. In these situations, the puppies overwhelmingly aid the dominant dog.” I am led to wonder if there might be something instinctive in the human tendency to metaphorically “pile on” and “go for the throat” when a collective attack on a workmate is underway. Mobbing can be defined as the simultaneous arousal of two innate impulses, one to gang up and another to destroy.
Beyond continuing clarification and elucidation of the basic
concept and related ones, research on mobbing over the past decade has progressed
along much the same lines as in any other scientific field. Here are half a
dozen questions for which researchers of mobbing have advanced preliminary (and
in some cases) competing answers:
(1) How does mobbing differ from bullying, harassment, factional infighting, and other forms of workplace conflict?
(2) What is the incidence of mobbing, what are the odds of a given professor being mobbed sometime during his or her career?
(3) Does mobbing, as a social process, usually move through identifiable phases or stages, and if so, what are they?
(4) What kind of worker is more likely to lead a workplace mob, to join one being formed, to be the target of the mob’s eliminative lust, or to attempt to rescue the target?
(5) Under what organizational conditions are mobbings more and less likely to occur, what are their sources, their social origins?
(6) Which techniques of mobbing are most commonly employed, which ones work best, and what are the most effective techniques of fighting back?
7) What are the consequences of mobbing for the target, the mobbers, and the organization?
(8) Are there effective strategies of prevention and remedy?
We could spend hours reviewing research on each of these questions, and even then barely dip our toes into the ocean of relevant scholarship. In the final part of today’s session, Friedenberg and Schneider and I will be glad to let the questions you raise take our conversation in whatever direction you prefer.
For now, let me close my preliminary remarks by distributing copies of a the latest version of a cheesily-entitled handout: the WAMI, acronym for "Waterloo Anti-Mobbing Instruments," successive versions of which I have distributed at diverse conferences over the past decade. This handout summarizes research findings and points to where you can read more.
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Back to TOP, or continue to Part 3.
Mobbing as a Challenge to Administrators and Faculty Associations
The phenomenon of mobbing presents difficult challenges for university administrators and for faculty associations. After I’ve reviewed some of these challenges, I’ll ask my fellow panelists to briefly offer their own suggestions for coping with them.
As to the administrative challenges:
Mobbing involves true fear and loathing of the target – primordial emotions that administrators have no taste (and even less preparation) for addressing. Administrators have likely been informed that the target has behaved so unprofessionally as to undercut the unit’s mission, or misbehaved interpersonally so as to threaten colleagues sexually or existentially, and thus is destroying the conditions under which a unit is able to function. For this, the mobbers plead, the target should be fired or, at a minimum, be removed from the unit in a way that is clearly punitive.
Responsibly investigating such claims would take a great deal of time and energy in the face of a busy schedule. And the claims themselves are so dire and emotion-laden that sitting down with both sides in an effort to generate mutual understanding seems quixotic. So, what’s an administrator to do? At this point the challenge becomes to resist the easy way out, which I’ll describe.
Sizing up the politics of the situation, the administrator realizes that it’s better to have the single target aggrieved by one’s actions than the sizable group of mobbers. Perhaps the milder sanction against the victim – banishment rather than dismissal – can be put forward as a good way to, as one administrator put it, “restore peace” in the unit. The fact that this “solution” comes at the expense of the target alone can be accommodated upon reflecting that the target has, on quite other matters, been a major pain in the ass for the administrator.
A call to legal counsel reinforces the inclination to punish the target. Legal counsel may know the target is a reserved woman of small stature or a man well into his seventies, but buys into the claims of existential threat. Why? A successful Title 9 suit (for failure to protect staff in the workplace) would likely cost the university a good deal more than the damages the target could recover in a due-process suit or just-cause action. Legal counsel also knows that courts are stacked against faculty in faculty-versus-administration cases. Thus imposing a sanction could buffer against a suit from the mobbers without greatly increasing the chance of a successful suit from the target. So, why not sanction the target?
Also reinforcing the administrator’s inclination to sanction is the fact that the target has over his or her career avoided homage to various pieties, an avoidance that has contributed to his or her reputation as weird and uncollegial. This means that the wider community can be counted upon to view the sanction as somehow fitting, independent of the specifics presently at issue.
These factors mean that it is far easier for an administrator to become a participant in a mobbing than to oppose and try to defuse one. Further, on my experience, this inclination resists education. As a grievance committee member representing a target, I found that none of my efforts to inform administrators about the phenomenon of mobbing had any effect on their inclination to punish the target. One might conclude I’m simply not very persuasive, but I can report that a provost who attended a presentation on mobbing by Prof. Westhues and was in charge of a university somewhat unusually afflicted by the phenomenon informed me later that the problem would go away, and thus cease to trouble him, if targets would simply get the message and leave the university! Thus, the ineducability of administrators presents a challenge on its own, and one that starkly confronts faculty associations that must grapple with mobbing.
Let me turn to some further issues faculty associations face.
From a sociologist’s perspective, mobbers and their target are engaged in a “framing contest.” The target has behaved in a certain way, one which he or she believes to have been professionally or interpersonally responsible. A group of colleagues has organized to frame this behavior as irresponsible and threatening either to the profession or to themselves. Punishing the target vindicates the mobbers’ frame, and administrators are only too willing to oblige.
Though a faculty association may grieve the punishment for procedural reasons that are part of its raison d’être – discipline without cause, or violating the principles of progressive discipline or of due process, for instance – and do this without supporting one frame or the other, a grievance will inevitably be seen by the mobbers as siding with the target’s frame. In pique, dues-paying mobbers will cancel their memberships. They have put a good deal of work into constructing their frame and are troubled if it leads to no sanction. Some of them – if union officers or activists – will even forget they worked long and hard to get safeguards against the sort of punishment they are seeking into a contract. Thus a faculty association can support a target’s grievance over punishment only at a price, though rarely a steep one.
But a faculty association cannot deem the punishment to be part of a mobbing without siding with the target. “Mobbing” is a loaded characterization of an event, and “mobber” a stigmatizing term. Though the terminology is drawn from a context – ornithology – in which the mobbers are behaving defensively, human mobbing is accompanied by primordial emotions whose warrant is deeply suspect. The concerns and fears expressed by mobbers seem, to an external observer, entirely out of proportion to the target’s behavior. The bill of particulars mobbers present rarely warrants their contention that the target is toxic to the work environment or to the profession and thus deserves a drastic sanction. While this disproportion makes grievances against discipline comparatively easy to win, pointing out the disproportion publicly means the target has won the framing contest. And this causes the mobbers to perceive themselves as victimized. They, who had the courage and did the work to blow the whistle on the target, are now stigmatized for pursuing what they continue to see as a righteous cause. Victimized first by the target’s supposedly vicious or unprofessional behavior, they are now victimized again by being portrayed as an irrational mob. Thus they are apt to raise a ruckus with any faculty association that attempts to educate its members about mobbing as a factor in faculty work life in hopes that this would diminish mobbing or administrative support for it. So faculty associations need to approach the phenomenon of mobbing with some care.
The problems I have outlined – first, the inclination of administrators and legal counsel to support mobbing and their imperviousness to being educated about it, and, second, the penalties faculty associations can pay for addressing it – have no easy solutions. In an ideal organization, administrators would recognize that it is their responsibility to identify and effectively defuse instances of mobbing. This may occasionally happen, though we don’t hear about it because “non-events” do not appear in The Chronicle or in the courts. But experience suggests that administrators don’t see it in their interest, or within their comfort zone, to deal appropriately with mobbing.
Faculty associations, for their part, face handicaps in dealing with it. To forward just-cause or due-process grievances, they need a reasonably good contract with binding arbitration, since administrators will reject a target’s grievance routinely until reversed by an arbitrator’s decision. (In this regard, I suggest that having faculty members read Prof. Westhues' Eliminating Professors might garner as much support for good contracts as might the allure of better wages.) Further, to go beyond grievances to tackle mobbing directly, fair share is helpful. It can strengthen the resolve of faculty associations, since it minimizes the cost of the defections that supporting targets of mobbing is apt to cause. But this means that faculty associations can best confront mobbing where they are already strong. Doing so in weaker circumstances may prove further weakening.
To sum up: administrators have a small political incentive to support mobbings, and perceive no costs in doing so. Therefore they abet them. Faculty associations oppose them at some peril. They can explain away their support for grievances over discipline in terms of core principles like just cause and due process, but they cannot directly confront and expose mobbing unless they are very strong.
I apologize for arriving at this summary without telling any of the real-life stories that undergird my conclusions. Prof. Friedenberg has given you a taste of these. Many are so outlandish as to beg for disbelief. Just one story to conclude my presentation, then.
Chief legal counsel at a state university had conspired with administrators to lay the groundwork for firing an outspoken tenured faculty member targeted in a mobbing. Among many perceived offenses, this faculty member had, over chief counsel’s pleas, excoriated the latter’s Board of Trustees friends in a public meeting – for violating a state law in arriving at a particularly unpopular decision. When the faculty member sued some of the conspiring administrators for violating her First Amendment rights, the chief legal counsel was deposed in the case. Asked whether there was anything about the faculty member’s scholarship, teaching, or service that would merit dismissal, he said “Nothing at all.” Indeed, he admitted the mobbed professor was exemplary in all these regards. Was there any reason, then, that the professor should have been fired? Sitting bolt upright and ignoring the advice of his lawyer, chief legal counsel blurted out that indeed there was. The professor had made “intemperate remarks” before the Board of Trustees in public session and should have been fired for that! Had this First Amendment case gone to trial and his remark been publicized, it would, one hopes, have ended his career. Instead, the case was settled out of court and to the mobbed professor’s advantage. Yet chief legal counsel’s attitude nicely illustrates how myopic and emotion-driven individuals become in a mobbing – to the point of unthinkingly jeopardizing their careers. In a mobbing, people behave in such astonishing ways that the subject is equally grotesque and intriguing. It’s the academy’s Grand Guignol.
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Blowback from Mobbing as a Stimulus to Administrative Concern
Professor Schneider makes a compelling case for why it is often in their best interest for university administrators to support mobbers. Indeed, it is easier to support a group than an individual, especially an individual who has been difficult. However, there is sometimes a price to be paid. Mobbing victims can be a problem for administrators for exactly the reasons they became a problem for colleagues: some are obsessively tenacious and driven by detail and an intense need for fairness.
Australian physicist Brian Martin (2004) was the first to write about mobbing’s potential boomerang effects. Martin describes ways mobbers and administrators may attempt to minimize this potential through cover-ups, successful public devaluing of the target, reinterpreting the facts, using legitimate-appearing procedures, and intimidation and bribery. However, in my experience, few anticipate significant blow-back and only resort to these tactics after the mobbing victim has launched a significant defensive, often too late for these attempts to be credible.
For example, several tenured professors were mobbed and ousted from Virginia State University for political reasons resulting in nearly $3 million in settlement fees from 2001- 2007, in addition to bad press.
But even when the local courts and media “come through” for the administrator, a likely occurrence, a boomerang effect can still occur.
The best example is probably that of Business Professor Dussold who was a mobbing target at Southern Illinois University (and whose case was reported by The Chronicle for Higher Education). According to accounts of the case, detractors filed a sexual harassment complaint against Prof. Dussold on behalf of an unnamed third party – an oh-so-common stunt. Prof. Dussold was investigated, without his knowledge, and found to be innocent. Business School Dean Gary A. Giamartino apparently called Dussold in and said he had been investigated for sexual harassment and found innocent but he (the dean) was going to conduct his own investigation. Shortly after, Prof. Dussold was fired on the spot for plagiarizing the teaching philosophy statement in his pre-tenure review. He was escorted by police to his office and then off the campus. There was no due process. Although Prof. Dussold lost his job and was seriously traumatized, this incident led to the most exquisite series of boomerangs imaginable. Prof. Dussold filed suit against the university. Then a group of his supporters, mostly students, created an organization to specifically look for other plagiarizing at the university, including plagiarism by the administrators and trustees involved in Prof. Dussold’s termination.
Shortly after his termination, The Chronicle reported that both chancellors at Prof. Dussold’s system had recently plagiarized parts of speeches and that another professor had plagiarized her teaching philosophy, one that was the basis for her receiving a teaching award. The chancellors both blamed their secretaries (apparently only faculty are expected to write their own keynotes). Although the university took no action against the other professor, her name was mentioned in several news accounts, including in The Chronicle.
Unsatisfied with that result, the group then looked into the strategic plan of Southern Illinois University – Carbondale, upon which the entire capital campaign had been based. The university had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the development of this strategic plan – on regional focus groups, lavish dinners, and publicity events. It was published as a highly produced glossy book and disseminated extensively. All press releases from the university had to be tied in some way to this strategic plan. However, the plagiarism group discovered and leaked to the press that despite holding extensive focus groups for its development, significant parts of the strategic plan had been plagiarized by the Carbondale chancellor from the plan where he had worked previously (Texas A&M). Many of the reports kept the same font and charts and changed only the words “Texas” for “Illinois.” The chancellor was reassigned to faculty status within weeks. But the system president, Glenn Poshard, not only denied that the chancellor’s removal had anything to do with plagiarism, he referred to the group of plagiarism hunters as “academic terrorists who lay in the weeds and throw bombs” and appointed a “blue ribbon” committee to formulate a plagiarism definition and policy for the university. The “terrorist” comment was reported in the national media.
Angered by the “terrorist” characterization, the group then looked into the dissertation and masters thesis of system President Poshard, who was also a former US congressman. The group of plagiarism hunters found and leaked to media the fact that the president had plagiarized significant portions of his dissertation and thesis literature reviews. This made news all over the nation. The president appointed another “blue ribbon” committee consisting of his own subordinates (some of whom were on the previous committee that was formulating the definition and policy) to adjudicate the situation. The committee concluded that Poshard’s plagiarism was “unintentional” and might have followed standards that were acceptable for the 1980’s, but that he should, nevertheless, correct the errors.
Then the group of plagiarism hunters discovered and leaked to the media the fact that that the blue ribbon plagiarism committee had itself plagiarized the definition of “plagiarism” from another university. Despite it being over a year old and posted as a final report, the group (and Poshard) claimed that not only was their report still in draft form, but that the similarities in definition were purely coincidental. Later, they referenced the definition.
Last month, the University Board of Trustees officially adopted the policy, which contains a harsh warning that if the intentions of individuals who make charges of plagiarism are found to be suspect – whether or not the charges are founded – the university will take legal action against those making charges, thus ensuring that all future charges will be made via media leaks as they had been before.
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Correction of Mobbing Episodes in Higher Education
The insight in Schneider’s analysis of the “ineducability of administrators,” their common reluctance to rescue mobbing targets or even to grasp the concept, derives from his use of Max Weber’s favoured method of social research, verstehen, his stepping into administrators’ shoes and looking at things from their point of view. Schneider’s similar insight into the peril faculty associations put themselves in if they support the target has the same origin: understanding from the inside the political constraints on the association leadership.
Schneider is right that mobbing is a “loaded characterization” and mobber a “stigmatizing term.” By definition, the mere application of the term mobbing to a sequence of events in a university (or any other organization) is going to be contested by the instigators and the main participants, since it implies that reason and evidence do not support what they are doing, that in mobilizing for a colleague’s humiliation and eventual elimination, they have been “carried away” by collective passion into wreaking unwarranted harm on their scapegoat (another loaded term), as well as on the values underlying academic life.
This problem in the scientific study of mobbing is so fundamental one is tempted to switch to some other specialty. Why make trouble for yourself? All the social scientist has to say is, “By standard measures, it looks to me that so-and-so has been mobbed.” The beleaguered target may say thanks, but the great majority of those involved will do all in their power to keep this diagnosis off the table, and if they feel obliged to respond, they may well ratchet up their attack on the target, or even broaden it to include the scholar who has called it mobbing.
To whom, then, can one look for acknowledgement that a mobbing has indeed occurred, and for action toward turning back the mob and rescuing its target? Who will take the risk of disagreeing with an angry crowd?
There is no formulaic answer. A mob is sometimes stopped by a single person – a dean, a professor, maybe a secretary – with strength of character enough to stand up and say, “Cut it out. Lay off. There will be no ganging up in this workplace.” Far more mobbings than ever make the news are nipped in the bud by one man or woman who has guts. A famous example occurred long ago in the Middle East. A brave, charismatic rescuer shamed mobbers into slinking away by saying, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” That rescuer, of course, was himself mobbed sometime later, fatally.
To the question of how to correct a mobbing, a further answer is that if the mobbing has reached an advanced stage, the odds of full correction are close to nil. Leymann could not cite a single case from all his years of research, in which the mobbing target was given an apology and fully reintegrated into the workgroup. Once you’ve been collectively expelled, you can never quite go home again. The most one can hope for is mitigation of the target’s losses, in terms of reputation, respect, position, income, health, friendships, family. The realistic question is how to achieve as much mitigation as possible – the difference, for instance, between departing with a large buyout or with nothing but life and the chance to start over somewhere else.
Regardless of how much correction is won, the correcting agent is generally from outside the organization in which the conflict has occurred. Mobbing comes into clearest focus at a certain distance. Outsiders’ vision is less clouded by mobbers’ passion. Once informed of the evidence, outsiders can more easily see what has gone on and label it accurately. Further, outsiders are less vulnerable to the mobbers’ wrath. They face fewer penalties than insiders do for framing the events (to use Schneider’s term) in a way that transfers some blame from the target to the righteous enforcers of virtue.
Here are four examples of outsiders who have played in some cases a corrective role.
First, the courts, which are sometimes helpful if the mobbers have been clumsy enough to commit a clear violation of the target’s rights as an employee or citizen. An example this spring was a jury’s finding for Ward Churchill, in the latter’s suit against the University of Colorado for wrongful dismissal. This verdict did not exonerate Churchill and he will not likely get his job back, but clearly, it restored a fair bit of what his adversaries had robbed him of.
Second, arbitrators and other outside adjudicators established for dispute resolution by university policies and collective agreements. Like courts, these quasi-judicial bodies sometimes rescue mobbing targets, depending on how flagrant are violations of the relevant terms and conditions of employment. The rescue is partial at best. In a case of administrative mobbing at Waterloo, where the target had been formally dismissed on trumped up grounds of sexual harassment, the arbitrator overturned the dismissal and ordered reinstatement. But by the time judgment was handed down, the target had been suspended for two years, his lab had been dismantled, his nerves were shot. He eagerly accepted the university’s offer of a buyout.
Third, the media. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s relentless exposure of mobbings at Southern Illinois University over the past five years is a good example of the limits of the press’s power. Despite national embarrassment in this prestigious medium, the lethal regime of President Glenn Poshard is still in place. But this is also an example of the power of the press. Mobbers’ victory is total, and so is the target’s defeat, if the facts of a case are never even exposed to public view. The Chronicle’s stories have scraped a little of the dirt from the names of professors besmirched at SIU, and to that extent, lessened the extent of their social elimination.
Fourth, organizations like the AAUP, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), and NAS (The National Association of Scholars), for which academic freedom is a core value, and to which professors routinely appeal, if their freedom is infringed upon. I devote half of my book,The Remedy and Prevention of Mobbing in Higher Education, to two mobbing cases at Medaille College in Buffalo, New York, which were in great part corrected by the administration there, once AAUP exposed them in a report and threatened the college publicly with censure. FIRE has had many similarly dramatic successes, which it customarily trumpets on its website.
Among other outside organizations that may play a corrective role in academic mobbing are professional and learned societies, accrediting bodies, churches, granting agencies, student organizations, and interest groups that agitate on behalf of whatever social category (women, gays, Jews, blacks, Evangelicals, Palestinians, or whoever else) the mobbing target belongs to.
To the many targets of academic mobbing who write to me, I routinely suggest taking pen or pencil and listing on a sheet of paper every outside body that might conceivably be helpful if called upon (then to weigh this list soberly against a list of all the outside bodies the mobbers might be able to recruit on their side).
Our session today at this AAUP conference is, for me, a very happy occasion, and I’m grateful to Mark Schneider for organizing it, because knowledge of the research literature on academic mobbing will enable AAUP officials, in particular those on Committee A and everyone concerned with academic freedom and tenure, to understand more fully many of the complaints brought to AAUP, and intervene more effectively on behalf of professors being wrongly driven out of their institutions.
Freedom of expression is a core value not just of academic life but of American life, guaranteed by the First Amendment. The success of an academic mobbing therefore depends in great part on subterfuge: on making it seem that academic freedom has nothing to do with it, that it’s about the unacceptability in a university of hate, sexual harassment, bullying, breach of confidence, failure to disclose, intimidation, plagiarism, racism, fraud, or some other kind of ethical misconduct. Professor X must be ostracized and punished, the mobbers insist, not because we find his dissent intolerable, not because she attracts so many students she makes the rest of us look bad, but because of serious offenses against collegiality and ethics. Acquaintance with the literature on mobbing will help AAUP officials see through subterfuge to the nub of what is going on, be more intellectually equipped to grasp the conflict and point the way to a fair resolution.
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