K. Westhues Homepage

Workplace Mobbing in Academe

Targets of Annoyed Capitalists

Kenneth Westhues, University of Waterloo, 2007

Academic mobbing cases can be sorted in different ways. Categorization by discipline is one way; see my webpage on mobbed mathematicians. Cases can be classified by outcome — with a focus, for instance, on targets who commit suicide or on the tiny fraction who go postal. Another useful way of grouping cases is by the main source of the collective aggression. It may be colleagues on a politically correct crusade, a religious body with which the institution is affiliated, or a social movement outside the university. The term administrative mobbing refers to cases where the institution's bureaucratic hierarchy is not just a powerhouse marshalled by zealous professors, students, or outsiders, but is itself the driving force.

This webpage focusses on a classic category of mobbing cases, those in which a professor is targeted by capitalist interests on which the university depends for financial support. In the typical case, the professor says something that he or she believes is true, but that is contrary to a donor's or sponsor's economic interests. The latter does not take this ingratitude sitting down but instead retailiates, sometimes going after the professor directly in mass media and the courts, more often pressuring the university administration to go after the professor through internal disciplinary channels. If the professor has tenure or some other kind of job security, the eliminative campaign may last for years and involve numerous charges of misconduct, multiple harassments, denunciations, adjudications, and punishments — the measures by which mobbing is defined.

My purpose here is modest: to identify this type of academic mobbing, illustrate it with two recent examples, and summarize the insightful analysis of it offered almost a century ago by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning essayist, Upton Sinclair, in his book, The Goose-Step, a Study of American Education.

Why Professors Get in Trouble with Capitalists

Universities are in but not of the capitalist society. As nonprofit corporations, they do not generate wealth of their own, instead depend for survival on transfers of wealth generated in the market economy. These transfers may be indirect, as when a government assigns to a university some share of the taxes it collects from the private sector. Transfers may also be direct, as when an individual or corporation pays money to a university in the form of tuition, gifts, grants, bequests, or as payment for research done on contract. Not surprisingly, those who foot a university's bills want some control over what the university does. Moneyed interests usually predominate on university governing boards, and specify the terms and conditions of gifts, grants and research contracts.

Therein lies the rub. Governments, individuals, and corporations hand money over to universities only because the latter claim to be engaged in an independent, disinterested pursuit of truth. Universities claim to be preserving, advancing, and teaching true knowledge of what life on this planet is about. This is why a professor's word is respected more than a lobbyist's, and why a refereed journal article is trusted more than a paid political announcement. The only reason


Apologies! This page is still in preparation.

An important category of academic mobbings in the early 21st century is defined by efforts to eliminate professors who insist on more autonomy in their work than corporate sponsors and university administrations allied with them are willing to tolerate. The webpage about professors targeted for this reason is not yet finished. For now, visitors are referred to Aubrey Blumsohn's Scientific Misconduct Blog and the online documents about Nancy Olivieri maintained by the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

The phenomenon is hardly without precedent. Upton Sinclair published in 1922, a 500-page book entitled The Goose-Step: a Study of American Education, which described dozens of cases of professors run out of their jobs because they were not sufficiently respectful of private capital. The tactics then were less sophisticated than now, The webpage being planned will compare the cases Sinclair wrote about with more recent cases, as a way of illuminating today's political economy of science and scholarship.