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Chronicle of Higher Education
April 14, 2006

Mob Rule

In departmental disputes, professors can act just like animals


When songbirds perceive some sign of danger — a roosting owl, a hawk, a neighborhood cat — a group of them will often do something bizarre: fly toward the threat. When they reach the enemy, they will swoop down on it again and again, jeering and making a racket, which draws still more birds to the assault. The birds seldom actually touch their target (though reports from the field have it that some species can defecate or vomit on the predator with "amazing accuracy"). The barrage simply continues until the intruder sulks away. Scientists call this behavior "mobbing."

The impulse to mob is so strong in some birds that humans have learned to use predators as lures. Birders play recordings of screech owls to attract shy songbirds. In England, an ancient duck-hunting technique involved stationing a trained dog at the edge of a pond: First the dog got the ducks' attention, and then it fled down the mouth of a giant, narrowing wickerwork trap, with the mob of waterfowl hot in pursuit all the way.

Birds mob for a couple of reasons. One of them is educational: Youngsters learn whom to mob, and whom to fear, by watching others do it. But the more immediate purpose of mobbing is to drive the predator away — or, in the words of the eminent Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz, to make "the enemy's life a burden."

Sometimes, especially in winter, Kenneth Westhues can hear a flock of crows tormenting a great horned owl outside his study in Waterloo, Ontario. It is a fitting soundtrack for his work. Mr. Westhues has made a career out of the study of mobbing. Since the late 1990s, he has written or edited five volumes on the topic. However, the mobbers that most captivate him are not sparrows, fieldfares, or jackdaws. They are modern-day college professors.

Social Syndrome

In the early 1980s, Heinz Leymann, a German psychologist working in Sweden, was conducting clinical studies of workers who had encountered violence on the job. At the time, plenty of research had already been done on the "mental insufficiency" experienced by soldiers after wartime and the survivors of major industrial disasters. So Leymann set out to study some of the less obvious cases of post-traumatic stress. He carried out longitudinal studies of Stockholm subway drivers who had accidentally run over people with their trains. He studied the psychological effects of robberies on bank tellers. But he stumbled upon an even less obvious group that showed the most surprisingly acute measures of stress. These were people whose colleagues had ganged up on them at work.

Inspired by Lorenz's writings on animal mobbing, Leymann coined the term "workplace mobbing" to name the phenomenon. He defined it as "an impassioned, collective campaign by co-workers to exclude, punish, and humiliate a targeted worker."

To flesh out the concept, Leymann drew up a list of 45 mobbing indicators. It amounted to an impressive catalog of bureaucratic nastiness: "You are interrupted constantly"; "you are isolated in a room far from others"; "management gives you no possibility to communicate"; "you are given meaningless work tasks"; "you are given dangerous work tasks"; "you are treated as if you are mentally ill."

Before his own death in 1999, Leymann estimated that about 12 percent of people who committed suicide in Sweden had been mobbed recently at work. (He figured this out by surveying Lutheran pastors in the diocese of Stockholm, who interview bereaved families about the circumstances leading up to deaths.) Leymann and others who joined the study of mobbing estimated that between 2 percent and 5 percent of workers get mobbed some time in their careers.

Though Leymann is relatively unknown in North America, his research on mobbing has been remarkably influential in Europe. Das mobbing is a household term in Germany. France has even passed anti-mobbing laws.

Original Sin

In the thousands of mobbing case studies that Leymann carried out, universities were among the most highly represented workplaces. Mr. Westhues, a sociologist at the University of Waterloo, is not surprised.

Max Weber, a founding father of modern sociology, saw bureaucracy as the living embodiment of cool, procedural rationality. In Mr. Westhues's view, mobbing is a pathological undercurrent of irrationality in bureaucracies — a crabby ghost in the machine.

According to Mr. Westhues, mobbing occurs most in institutions where workers have high job security, where there are few objective measures of performance, and where there is frequent tension between loyalty to the institution and loyalty to some higher purpose. In other words, the ghost is alive and well in many academic departments.

Tenure is supposed to protect scholars from outside control, but it does a lousy job of protecting them from one another, Mr. Westhues says.

In the hothouse of a department, disputes can easily cascade from individual disagreement and disapproval to widespread revulsion to a concerted effort to get a colleague removed. "Mobbing is a turning inward," he says. "People lose a sense of purpose and they're at one another's throats."

The purpose of a university, Mr. Westhues contends, is to maintain a spirit of openness, independence of mind, and civil debate. "A university cannot achieve its purpose as a tight ship," he says. When a mobbing occurs, that spirit of openness gets strangled by groupthink, bent on someone's elimination.

The Law of Group Polarization, formulated by Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago, says that a bunch of people who agree with each other on some point will, given the chance to get together and talk, come away agreeing more strenuously on a more extreme point. If this tendency has a curdling effect on intellectual debates, it can have a downright menacing effect when the point of agreement is that a particular colleague is a repugnant nutjob.

Calling some departmental mess a mobbing does not imply that the victim is wholly innocent, Mr. Westhues says. But it does imply that the campaign against the target has probably been based on fuzzy and unspecific charges, that it has proceeded with a degree of secrecy, that its timing has been hasty, that its rhetoric has been overheated and overwrought, and that it has been backed by an eerie unanimity.

"One of the most painful experiences in my life," Mr. Westhues says, "has been to go to dismissal hearings where everybody is sitting around a table as if they were embodiments of pure reason." What's really going on in many of those settings, he thinks, is just brutish behavior ratified by procedure.

"What we've got to do is cultivate an academic culture that is aware of the tendencies in us, of the herd instincts inside of us," he says. "We have a tendency, especially us pompous academics, to think we're above all that."

With his mobbing research, Mr. Westhues joins a tradition of thinkers who present an account of some deep-seated impulse as a plea for pluralism and restraint. And while he says it is possible to take mobbing seriously without believing we all have those herd instincts, that belief helps.

"I have a friend who says that there's only two kinds of people in the world," Mr. Westhues says, "those who believe that there's original sin and those who don't."

"I think probably mobbing research as a whole is more on the side of the original-sin folks," he says.

Panorama of Targets

Mr. Westhues is a solidly built man, a smoker (Benson & Hedges) whose his natural habitat is corduroy.

In his classes at Waterloo, Mr. Westhues addresses his students as Mr. and Ms. and urges them to address him in kind — not as "Dr. Westhues" and, just as importantly, not as "Ken." He explains to them that he is not there to lord over them, nor to be their friend (friendship being the flip side of enmity), but to engage with them professionally as fellow citizens in the pursuit of truth.

This is an earnest attempt to foster the kind of atmosphere that Mr. Westhues believes is relatively safe from mobbing — one where there is not too much authority, but also not too much familiarity.

Mr. Westhues conducts his research on mobbing mainly by doing case studies — by studying official documentation of disputes and by interviewing people. By now, he has conducted just under 150 full case studies, but he is contacted all the time by people who believe they have been mobbed. The view he has acquired of higher education is a panorama of the academic down and out.

It includes a professor from South Asia working in Texas who, after years of getting sniped at by his colleagues, was eventually drummed out of his position for careless accounting and unauthorized use of a photocopier. It includes a German-accented professor who so unnerved fellow faculty members that during a tirade against her one of them actually had a seizure. (She was soon after served with a petition demanding her physical removal from the department for charges of "creating a hostile work environment" and "unethical behavior.")

His view includes a brassy New Yorker working in the Midwest who urged her department to hire a consulting psychologist to help resolve years of infighting, only to have the psychologist report that most of her colleagues blamed her for all the trouble. And every now and then, the panorama includes someone whose story about being mobbed fades into an account of life in a mental institution.

Before settling on life as an academic, Mr. Westhues studied for the priesthood. Though he has long since left the church, there is still something almost pastoral in his demeanor. Often, when he interviews people who believe they have been mobbed, he concludes the meeting by looking fixedly at them with smiling eyes, holding their hand in midshake, and saying something like, "I wish you the ability to put your mind back to your research. Thanks for hanging tough."

A few times a year, Mr. Westhues embarks on research trips to campuses where he has gotten wind of a mobbing. He sometimes combines his research missions with lectures or panels on mobbing, to bring the idea out into the open. Last month one such trip took him to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, just as spring was showing on the trees.

Pattern Recognition

Like the weather, conflict in a well-functioning academic department comes and goes. "People's stock rises and falls over time," Mr. Westhues says. "The different factions in departmental politics rearrange themselves over time. That's healthy."

A mobbing, he often says, is like a tornado spun off from a spring rainstorm — a fervent collective assault that escalates from an ordinary conflict.

"What happens in a mobbing is that everybody gets lined up on one side," he says, "with one or a few targets on the other side who are demonized as being beyond the pale."

Though no two mobbings are alike, Mr. Westhues often describes a kind of stereotypical pattern for the escalation from storm to full-bore twister.

The first stage of a mobbing, as he outlines it, is a period of increasing social isolation. At this point, if you are the target, you might get left off certain guest lists. Colleagues begin to roll their eyes at you during meetings. You get the sense that more people dislike you than you once thought.

The next stage is one of petty harassment. Your administrative requests are repeatedly delayed or misplaced. Your parking space is moved to the outer reaches of the lot. Your classes or meetings get scheduled at odd times.

Then matters come to a head — to a "critical incident," as Mr. Westhues calls the third stage. You are accused of making racially or sexually insensitive remarks. A minor charge of plagiarism surfaces against you. A surprise audit shows you have been careless with expense reports. You have an angry outburst in class (perhaps catalyzed by your long walk across the parking lot, your misplaced request, the insanely early/late time of day). A rumor of some impropriety with a student gets traction.

In the eyes of your colleagues, this "critical incident" demands swift administrative action — and many of them may sign a petition saying so. They may say that the incident confirms what they have always suspected about you. What's more, it makes them wonder aloud what you're really capable of.

The next stage is one of adjudication. At this point, the mobbing escalates to the administrative level, where it is either legitimized or stopped short. You may be brought before an ethics tribunal, an ad hoc disciplinary committee, or one of academe's myriad other quasi-judicial bodies. An outside arbitrator may be brought in. Months pass. A decision is handed down.

And then, Mr. Westhues says, chances are, you leave. Whether you win or lose the proceeding, whether you are dismissed or fully reinstated, whether it is due to exhaustion, disgust, illness, or (God forbid) suicide, you cut your losses and get out.

Who Gets Mobbed?

Jerry Becker, a 69-year-old professor of mathematics education at Carbondale, is the son of a Minnesota truck driver and holds a doctorate from Stanford University. He is a workaholic. In 27 years of teaching at Carbondale, he has never taken a sabbatical, he says. By his estimate, he brings in "hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars" in grant money to the university, and often gets the highest marks on performance evaluations.

In November 2003, 15 of Mr. Becker's colleagues signed a 12-page complaint against him, charging him with bullying, buttonholing professors to talk about union issues, and multiple other offenses, as well as calling him "toxic" to the work environment. They said they wanted him removed "physically and professionally" from their midst. In response, Mr. Becker spent nearly every evening for more than two months writing a point-by-point rebuttal. The rebuttal persuaded the administration to clear him of all charges. However, just a few months later, Mr. Becker's colleagues submitted yet another complaint, this one containing several charges of sexual harassment. Once again, Mr. Becker successfully rebutted the charges and was exonerated.

But his colleagues still scored a victory: Mr. Becker's office was moved far away from theirs, to a part of campus where no other professors work.

Essentially, Mr. Westhues says, anything that can be a basis for bickering can be a basis for mobbing: race, sex, political difference, cultural difference, intellectual style. Professors with foreign accents, he says, often get mobbed, as do professors who frequently file grievances and "make noise." But perhaps the most common single trait of mobbing targets, he says, is that they excel.

"To calculate the odds of your being mobbed," Mr. Westhues writes in his most comprehensive book on mobbing, The Envy of Excellence: Administrative Mobbing of High-Achieving Professors, "count the ways you show your workmates up: fame, publications, teaching scores, connections, eloquence, wit, writing skills, athletic ability, computer skills, salary, family money, age, class, pedigree, looks, house, clothes, spouse, children, sex appeal. Any one of these will do."

In April 2005, Mr. Becker and three other professors at Southern Illinois made a presentation to the Board of Trustees on the problem of faculty mobbing.

Mobbing the Mobbers

With a history of consulting for the tobacco industry, a prominent critique of affirmative action to his name, and a poster that says "I Love Capitalism" hanging over his desk, Jonathan J. Bean is not exactly a shy Republican.

A square-jawed, youthful-looking man in his 40s, Mr. Bean is a professor of history at Carbondale. Last April, during a freshman-level American-history course, he gave his teaching assistants a text he wanted them to use in a discussion section on the aftermath of the civil-rights movement. The text came from FrontPage Magazine, the aggressively conservative online publication run by David Horowitz, and it gave an account of a string of black-on-white murders in San Francisco during the 1970s called the Zebra Killings. Its central argument was that cultural taboos on discussing black-on-white racism had made the murders all but vanish from public memory.

Within days, Mr. Bean discovered that the reading had caused a stir among his teaching assistants and among professors in the department. In response, he first issued a rather sarcastic apology impugning the "timidity" of acceptable debate on campus, but soon after wrote a more straightforward "I'm sorry" and canceled the reading assignment.

A few days later, six of Mr. Bean's colleagues in the history department published an open letter in the campus newspaper.

"Academic responsibility," they wrote, "demands that professors promote the free exchange of ideas without creating a hostile environment, running the risk of nurturing racist attitudes among their students, and putting their teaching assistants in an untenable position.

"Moreover," they continued, "it is our academic responsibility as history professors to disassociate ourselves from this irresponsible use of objectionable and inflammatory material."

Mr. Bean happened to own a copy of Mr. Westhues's book, Workplace Mobbing in Academe. When he looked at Mr. Westhues's indicators of a mobbing, he said to himself, "That's me all over."

But then something strange happened: People outside the department turned against the letter signers. FrontPage Magazine published a long, vitriolic article on the incident under the headline "Academic Witch-Hunt." The campus newspaper also published a story that was largely sympathetic to Mr. Bean. "I had two direct ancestors hung as witches at Salem," Mr. Bean was prominently quoted as saying. "I don't plan to be the third." In the same article, another professor was quoted describing Mr. Bean's troubles as "a classic case of mobbing."

Before long, the e-mail in boxes of the letter signers were crammed with hate mail.

Not surprisingly, Robbie Lieberman, one of the letter signers, is not a fan of mobbing rhetoric. "I don't think it's accidental that it evokes lynch mobs," says Ms. Lieberman. "Blaming a lynch mob is one thing. Blaming a department for criticizing a colleague is another."

"Mobbing is such a colorful term that it tends to pre-empt debate," says Rich Fedder, Ms. Lieberman's husband and the chairman of the Southern Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It plays into an American love of talking about victims."

Mr. Fedder and Ms. Lieberman do have a point: Leveling the charge of mobbing can be a quick and easy way to seize the moral high ground in a dispute. And while Mr. Westhues does, in fact, see Mr. Bean's case as a mobbing, he largely agrees with this argument. "There's a tendency for anybody who wants some leverage in campus politics to say, You know, I'm being mobbed," he says, "and the whole thing becomes quite meaningless." This is one reason why Mr. Westhues, unlike many mobbing researchers, is dead set against anti-mobbing legislation.

At his lecture on mobbing in Carbondale, Mr. Westhues told an audience of about 50 people that, in fact, his best hope for his work on mobbing is that it might have an impact on administrators. (The provost of Southern Illinois sat in the back row, scribbling notes.)

Professors seeking to eliminate one of their colleagues cannot get very far without the backing of the administration, he said. And in cases where many professors are pitted against one, administrators' first instinct will often be to side with the majority.

But because mobbers tend to be so impassioned and sloppy in their reasoning, Mr. Westhues argued, administrators who side with them may suffer for it later. Mr. Westhues's research provides numerous examples of mobbing victims who have walked away with fat court settlements, and of administrators who have walked away without their jobs.

"Administrators need to know that it's in their interests to prevent this," Mr. Westhues said. "They take a big risk when they encourage the mobbing of a professor."

He said that universities should wean themselves of the quasi-judicial bodies, like ethics committees, that, in his opinion, simply dignify pettiness and give professors a chance to have power over one another. At his own university, he said, after having been the subject of several ethics committee proceedings himself (of course, he has what he considers to be his own history with mobbing), he worked to persuade the Board of Governors to abolish the committee.

He argued that an ethics committee "lets people play judge" and "brings out the worst in good people." His arguments succeeded. "If you ask me," Mr. Westhues told the audience in Carbondale, "we've been more ethical without the ethics committee."

Beyond that, Mr. Westhues said, administrators also have more power to halt a mobbing in its tracks.

"You know what stops mobbings?" he asked. "Somebody saying, 'Cut it out. Enough of this!'"

Two days after his lecture, Mr. Westhues left town, driving East to catch a flight back to Canada out of Evansville, Ind. Several miles outside of Carbondale, in open country, he passed a farm whose fields were littered with 10-foot sheets of corrugated roofing tin. The top half of the farm's silo had been sheared off and was lying a stone's throw from its base, and the barn's wooden gable sat crumpled in the dirt driveway.

A tornado had blown through two weeks before. Elsewhere on the horizon, the landscape was peaceful.

Section: The Faculty
Volume 52, Issue 32, Page A10