The following guest post was authored by David Rintoul, who is a biology professor and faculty senator at Kansas State University.
Universities have many policies and procedures for resolving disagreements that arise between faculty members, between faculty members and administration, between faculty members and students, etc. Many of these are carefully crafted in order to respect the freedom of speech that is prized by faculty members, and by other members of the university community. At the same time, it is also apparent that, at some universities at least, conflicts can arise that do not seem to fit into the categories for which we have conflict-resolution processes
Among the gaps that have been identified at my university is a lack of a policy that would allow action against what I call “equal opportunity workplace bullies”–those folks who are bullies, but who don’t manage to take out their aggression on a member of a protected class.
This university, like most others I know, is well endowed with policies and sanctions to deploy against someone who is a racist, a sexist, or some other kind of bigot, and who infringes on the rights of others as a result of those prejudices. However, if our experience is any guide, responsible individuals at many universities cannot readily respond in a situation where, say, a senior faculty member bullies a junior faculty member in his or her department, or an office manager bullies the office staff members in his or her department. The Faculty Senate leadership here has, over the last couple of years, been made aware of several situations like this, where the aggrieved party seems to have few effective options in seeking relief.
A search for such policies at other universities so far has failed to uncover anything that might serve as an example or template. Many institutions have anti-bullying policies that cover situations where students feel bullied, either by other students or by faculty members. But very few (none?) appear to have policies that would fit the situations that we have been made aware of here. Thus this is a request for dialogue on that topic, and hopefully some clarity. So let’s set some guidelines, and perhaps provide some definitions to keep us from getting too far off track.
First, what do we mean by the term “bullying”? The exact details of the situations that initiated this conversation here are not as important, to me at least, as the conceptual overview. In fact, providing the exact details might keep this conversation in the trees, rather than allowing us to view the forest. A good perspective on the forest might be this, from the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program website: “A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.”
This definition includes three important components:
1. Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.
2. Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.
3. Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.
Unfortunately, the very word “bullying” is enough to elicit antipathy among some faculty members, administrators, and university attorneys, simply because that word is associated with student behaviors in the K-12 realm of education (the focus of the aforementioned Olweus program, in fact). This association with lesser institutions seems problematic. So at the outset it should be stated that it really doesn’t matter, to me at least, what specific word is used. Bullying is a good description of the actions that have been described to me, but if that word is too fraught, we can probably find another word.
Second, it is obvious that policies will have to respect academic freedom and the free speech rights of the campus community. The uniqueness of universities rests on this bulwark, and any policy that is developed will have to ensure that such rights are well-protected. But it also needs to be clear that academic freedom should not protect those who engage in violation of the rights of others and who create a hostile work environment. Strict adherence to due process should be enough to protect free speech in an academic setting, and any policy regulating adjudication of conflicts involving faculty members would probably include some protocol whereby faculty peers were involved in the adjudication.
Third, it seems to me that many of these conflicts do not rise to the level where a full-fledged grievance process needs to be invoked. At this institution, the grievance process is thorough and strictly adheres to due process, but it also involves significant amounts of faculty and administrative time, as well as significant resource usage (e.g., lots of photocopies of lots of documents). That process has historically been used here for situations where tenure or employment decisions hinge on the outcome; those are higher stakes than are involved in many of the conflicts that are being discussed here.
Finally, in order to be effective, any process should include the possibility of some sort of sanction if the complaint is valid. Preferably, such sanctions would be well short of actions involving changes in tenure or employment. If a policy is created to cover both staff and faculty actions, the nature of those sanctions might vary between those two categories. It therefore might be important to split these two categories in the drafting of any policy, but the point remains that any effective policy has to include a range of possible sanctions. Empty threats carry little weight.
I know, from discussions with colleagues, that other universities are struggling with this issue. State legislatures have become involved in some cases, most notably New Jersey, where an anti-bullying law that extended to higher education institutions was recently invalidated. Legislative efforts to define and proscribe bullying at the K-12 level are underway in many states, including Kansas. That probably will not stop at the K-12 level, if history is any guide. It seems possible that if we fail to police ourselves, others would be willing to step in and do that to us. Since some of these others perhaps have less respect for academic freedom than we do, it behooves us to address this question sooner rather than later.
So that’s the background. Please give us your thoughts on how to address behavior that is best described as equal-opportunity workplace bullying, as defined above, in a public university setting.