“PAYING IT FORWARD”:
RAISING CAMPUS AWARENESS ABOUT THE PROBLEM OF WORKPLACE MOBBING
Joan E. Friedenberg. Southern Illinois University — Carbondale
© Joan E. Friedenberg, all rights reserved; published here with the author's permission. Click here to email the author.
One of the most therapeutic activities a trauma victim can engage in is helping others who have endured similar traumas. I remember well sitting in a hospice bereavement group after the untimely death of my mother and hearing one of the counselors say, “After a death, you re-write your address book.” In other words, after one has endured the trauma of the death of a loved one, one’s life is not only changed by the terrible loss, but also by the individuals who end up coming through with concern and support. From the terrible loss of my mother, I learned the importance of coming through for others who have experienced similar losses.
Mobbing, which Westhues characterizes as a tornado, has led to destroyed careers, post-traumatic stress disorder, physical illness, and suicide. Although a few mobbing victims are vindicated through grievances or legal processes, most are not. Most shrink away, embarrassed, demeaned, defeated, shaken, and confused. Whether vindicated or not, probably the single best thing a mobbing victim can do to help him or herself is to begin a campaign to help other mobbing victims and prevent mobbing altogether. The first step to doing this is to set about informing others in the workplace about mobbing. Mobbings are said to be relatively rare, but since they mostly occur in organizations with flawed administrative cultures, a campus with one mobbing would likely have others. Therefore, I believe that mobbing victims should “come out,” if not for themselves then for others. This paper describes what some mobbing victims at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale did to raise awareness of the problem of mobbing on their campus.
As brief background, although certainly not the first mobbing victim at SIUC, Professor Elisabeth Reichert was the first on our campus to recognize that what had occurred to her (and would later occur to me and others) was called mobbing. Prof. Reichert, a foreign-born professor of Social Work in her 50’s, was mobbed by supporters of her department chair when she filed a grievance over his treatment of her. Her colleagues signed a petition requesting that she be physically removed from their midst and accusing her of causing a colleague’s seizures. I, a small Jewish professor of Linguistics also in my 50’s, voiced apparently controversial opinions about department and university policies and practices that resulted in my being labeled as dangerous, being physically removed from the department, and being singled out as destructive and in need of professional help by a psychologist hired by (now former) SIUC administrators. The psychologist’s report was sent to about 25 people on our campus and was actually used to initiate a plan for my termination by the university’s attorneys and administration. Prof. Jerry Becker, a nearly 70-year-old professor of mathematics education who disagreed with a former chairman, was physically removed from his department as a result of a petition implying Prof. Becker was dangerous, among other things, that was signed by the former chair’s supporters
Through mostly coincidental internal networks, we three mobbing victims found one another and decided that in addition to fighting our individual battles, we would attempt to raise awareness about mobbing on campus and in the community.
Raising Awareness Via an SIU Board of Trustees Meeting
The idea to organize a mobbing awareness event at a Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting came up when friends of mine had a reception for me, to which Professors Becker and Reichert were invited, in honor of the publication of my chapter in Kenneth Westhues’ 2004 volume, Workplace Mobbing in Academe.
The first step, about a month before the meeting, was for four of us (Reichert, Becker, me, and my colleague/husband Mark Schneider) to call the Board of Trustees secretary and get ourselves on the agenda, an opportunity afforded us by a recent State law. We were completely honest with the secretary and told her that the topic of our testimony was “academic mobbing.” We were each told that we had five minutes to speak. I then asked Profs. Reichert and Becker to prepare a five-minute, written account of their mobbing experiences. I asked Prof. Schneider to prepare a 2 1/2 minute introduction to the problem of mobbing and a 2 1/2 minute summarizing conclusion.
One week before the BOT meeting, Prof. Schneider and I invited Profs. Reichert and Becker and their spouses to our home for an informal dinner and practice session. After dinner, we each took turns reading our speeches while the others listened critically and timed us. We made polite suggestions to one another and then agreed to show up to the BOT meeting 30 minutes early with 50-100 copies of our speeches, which we planned to consolidate into a single packet to hand out. Additionally, I agreed to make 4 colorful anti-mobbing posters in hopes that this would attract more attention.
On the day of the meeting, all members of our group showed up on time and with the agreed-upon materials. We put together our packets and placed them in front of each Board member’s nameplate on the dais table and on the chairs of the audience. We then took seats and held up our anti-mobbing signs as people came in. When the first of our group was called up to speak, all four of us walked to the podium together, took turns reading our speeches, and stayed together at the podium until the last one finished. We were listened to respectfully by the Board and the audience. Although Prof. Schneider and I had had previous experience going before the BOT with contentious material, Profs. Reichert and Becker did not. I was particularly proud of the two of them because I sensed that going before the public in this way was likely more awkward for them.
Did our low-key protest make a difference? The day after the meeting, an article about our mobbing protest at the BOT meeting appeared on the front page of the local daily newspaper, the Southern Illinoisan (March 11, 2005). Additionally, the transcripts of our speeches appeared in the permanent minutes of that BOT meeting. No member of our group has suffered from additional hostilities as a consequence of this activity, and subsequent mobbing victims have been able to immediately label what they were going through and act more quickly, bravely, and publicly to rally support. Mobbing is still a significant problem on our campus, with new cases, sadly, still cropping up. However, through our own collective actions, we victims have gained further confidence to publicize our cases and to continue to rally against mobbing. One year later, the three of us and two recent mobbing victims organized a campus visit and talk by mobbing expert Kenneth Westhues and all of us had the courage, recently, to relate our experiences to John Gravois, a reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Although I feel some personal satisfaction each time I throw my arms around a mobbing victim at SIUC, I receive even more satisfaction seeing these colleagues, in turn, reaching out to new mobbing victims, themselves “paying it forward.” Hopefully, through our continued efforts to raise awareness, the need to “pay it forward” will one day diminish.