By Debanjan Borthakur and Linda Crockett
Abuse and harassment in academic settings, or ‘Academic Bullying’, is an issue of critical importance both in terms of its prevalence as well as in the efforts increasingly required to identify, address, and mitigate its effects. A wide range of researchers in a variety of academic positions (e.g., PhD students, postdoctoral researchers, and junior faculties) are subjected to this abuse. The main factors working behind this abuse include the existence of immense power gaps between individuals in the system, along with the existence of longstanding hierarchical systems within universities. For example, these systems give a great deal of power to their professors. When toxic professors take advantage of this power, they will use a variety of covert or overt tactics to make PhD or MA graduate students feel vulnerable during their programs. Unfortunately, out of fear and confusion, most students silently endure this abuse of power under their supervisor. Fact is, when someone speaks up, the university system often produces the kind of stories we hear in toxic workplaces. The system most often tends to protect the respondents (bully or harasser).
This article is co-authored by Debanjan Borthakur, Doctoral candidate at UofT, and member of the Academic Parity Movement, andLinda Crockett, the founder of the Canadian Institute of Workplace Bullying Resources (CIWPBR), a for profit service offering services for all parties, and The Canadian Institute of Workplace Harassment and Violence (CIWHV), which raises funds to support those who are harmed re: legal or treatment fees. Linda is also a member of the Academic Parity Movement. We are providing this article to shine some light on this very difficult and currently silenced topic. We want to break this silence and help students who may be experiencing academic bullying. We want you to know that you are not alone, it is not your fault, there is nothing you have done to deserve this, and it is important for you to reach out for confidential support.
The concept of bullying is familiar to me (Debanjan), having worked as a researcher at IIT Guwahati, the University of Rhode Island, McMaster University, and the University of Toronto. During my time at one of the universities, one professor literally ridiculed me and belittled me when I requested assistance in managing a project. Another professor similarly disrespected me, and he refused to discuss the work I was doing for months, severely delaying my career advancement. As the list is endless, we can discuss such incidents elsewhere for brevity’s sake.
Academic Bullying has been gaining more awareness over the last years and as a specialist working in the area of workplace bullying over the past 12 years, CIWPBR observes many similarities, but one thing is for certain, the injuries are the same. Whether it is the workplace or academia, people are shocked, confused, afraid, worried that no one will believe them or support them, terrified about their future career, reputation, and livelihood. We invest so much into our careers and never expect that there would be danger lurking and aiming to sabotage us. All we want to do is go to school, start our careers, and enjoy doing the work we like to do.
To help bring more awareness to academic bullying, Morteza Mahmoudi of Michigan State University launched the ‘Academic Parity Movement’. This movement has increased awareness by offering research, conferences, and resources. Thanks to Morteza and his volunteers, more people have an understanding about exploitation, discrimination, and educational abuse in these institutes of higher education.
It is also important to mention systemic racism. Systemic racism includes the policies and practices entrenched in established institutions which result in the exclusion or promotion of designated groups. Unfortunately, this also acts as a catalyst in the abuse of international students. This issue is particularly important because many skilled researchers must give up their doctoral education because of the abuse they are experiencing.
For example, recently two students known to us from two North American universities resigned from their PhD programs because of the psychological harassment (bullying) they endured. Sadly, 40-70% of students who enroll in PhD programs do not complete their doctoral studies in the United States (Gardner, 2007) and supervisors of PhD researchers hold a significant responsibility for PhD attrition (Devos et al., 2017; Rigler et al., 2017).
A pattern we are seeing is that highly intelligent students are more vulnerable to being bullied in contexts where they are dependent on their supervisors for their monthly wage. This abuse defined as “academic bullying” is a sustained hostile behaviour from one’s academic superior including, but not limited to, ridiculing, threatening, blaming, invasion of privacy, putdowns in front of others as well as interference with matriculation and career progress including removing funding, writing falsely negative recommendation letters, taking credit for others work and threatening to cancel visa or fellowships (Moss & Mahmoudi, 2021)”.
Bullying can be a career tool for mediocre academics too. Tauber et al. (2022) states, ‘There are multiple, interrelated ways in which bullying can be a way to further one’s career and interests in academia. Bullying behaviours — including abuse of power, mobbing, and devaluing the achievements of others — sabotage the careers of their targets, effectively removing competition from the academic environment. Once they rise to the top, academics can use the same strategies to promote their ‘chosen ones and become untouchable.’ The significance of this issue is extremely high, and the scientific community should bring forward polices and/or enhance the existing ones with the goal of deterring psychological abuse and focus on protecting the psychological safety of all students and researchers.
Sadly, the stress of suffering the abuse of psychological harassment (bullying and/or discrimination), can cause those who are harmed to begin harming others. This is called the ‘Trickle-down effect.’ Such abuse has the potential to wound the student’s mind and put them into a state of depression. One can gauge how severe bullying is by looking at John Brady, a doctoral candidate in engineering at the University of Wisconsin Madison who received his degree in 2017. Regrettably for all of us, John Brady committed suicide a year after he tried to bring awareness about the abuse by his lab professor.
In a survey conducted in 2019 (Moss & Mahmoudi, 2021), 84% of the students said that they were targets of academic abuse and 59% found others to be targets of it. This illustrates the prevalence of the situation and is suggestive of how terrifying it may be for students. As a result, it may be extremely difficult for non-conformist free thinkers to succeed in this abusive hierarchal system. We are losing brilliant minds because of this toxic abusive academic system as this abuse and exploitation can also cause strong academics to quit (Kossek, Su, & Wu, 2017). Considering the seriousness of the endemic of bullying, it is important to consider how we might reduce the targets dependencies on the bully. Tauber et al. (2022) provides some recommendations such as Institutions prohibiting the perpetrators from submitting letters of recommendation for students they have bullied and having others, such as department chairs, write such letters instead. Moreover, they recommended that PhD and postdoctoral students be allowed to independently pursue research and publication projects when supervisors are known to engage in bullying behaviors. Ironically, none of these recommendations are applicable where I (Debanjan) studied – at least not as far as I was informed.
Students often find it hard to speak up as it can adversely impact their career progress. I (Debanjan) would like to share my own experience as a researcher. I felt it was impossible for me to file a complaint as I needed the degree. Additionally, I was vulnerable, confused, and afraid. My decision to speak up was prompted by the same circumstances occurring again. Over time this led to a deterioration of the relationship between me and the professor, which culminated in my termination from the lab without any proper explanation.
I (Debanjan) paid a heavy price for being the whistleblower. Despite my repeated requests to have a polite discussion – the professor decided to threaten me and interfere with my career progress. Removed funding and then removed me from the lab for whistleblowing, also retracted recommendation letters to prevent me from getting a scholarship, changed the order of authorship for a published article without notifying me, and more.
All of these acts are by definition academic bullying, (see : Moss & Mahmoudi, (2021)). Both Linda and I have talked to many student targets of bullying from different universities and their stories are heart wrenching. In fact, the Canadian Institute of Workplace Bullying Resources has worked with professors who were also bullied by other professors, or board members. I began to realize how misguided and misinformed I had been. My authorship position in a recently published paper had been changed without my consent. This is not a new phenomenon. Ghost and gift writing is common in academia. In my case, there was no expert advice available from the Racism Centre, and departments did not seem to understand what academic bullying is. Many people either do not recognize discrimination, or they pretend that it does not exist. Everyone is fearful to speak up in case they become the next target. In particular, awareness is needed in order to ensure that doctoral supervisors do not misuse the immense power they have in universities and do not treat students as cheap labour (Slaughter, Archerd, & Campbell, 2004). It is common for us to ignore the plight of those who are less fortunate. The Mahatma (great soul) we know today would not have existed if Gandhi had not been taken off the train in South Africa by someone who wanted to uphold racial superiority, if he had not been humiliated.
Building awareness and creating solutions for the prevention of academic bullying must be taken seriously. There will be very few individuals who will have the courage to speak out against academic bullying if the targeted individuals do not receive support or validation or justice. We will continue to see more bright students being forced to quit just to save their own health and sanity. The institutional support must improve and increase. We must make it mandatory to teach students at entry level about their rights, resources, and help them identify this abuse before they are harmed. It is imperative that the educational abuse of all students at all levels ceases. Mandatory training for instructors and professors at all levels is imperative to ensure that no one with power can misuse it. Polices must outline definitions, consequences, and examples of covert and overt tactics being used. In addition, protection against retaliation and examples of covert and overt tactics of retaliation needs to be included.
As the founder of the first one stop resource in Canada, CIWPBR has been advocating, building awareness, and offering specialized services to employers and employees in Canada from all industries and professions for over 12 years. Over the past 3 year more resources are being created and evolving and the Academic Parity Movement founded by Morteza Mahmoudi, PhD – is a resource that all academic students need to become familiar with. You can find it here www.paritymovement.org
This site will provide you with further information to help you identify if you are a target of academic bullying, share examples from other students and the challenges they face, and it will offer you some useful solutions. When I (Linda) was in university doing my master’s degree specializing in workplace bullying, I was laughed at, made fun of, dismissed, and told by my professors that workplace bullying was ‘not an actual thing’. They said this topic will go nowhere for me. In fact, my pattern of A and A+ papers turned to B- papers as soon as one rather abrasive, dominating and controlling instructor took exception to my topic area. She even admitted to me, behind closed doors of course, that these lower marks would continue until I considered another topic. To add further insult, before I graduated, a PhD student stole my topic for her own thesis and took credit for it right in front of me. Not an uncommon tactic in academia.
To offer another example, I was also shocked when nine years later, keeping in mind we would now have legislation in my province to protect people at work from psychological harassment, and thousands of research papers have been written over decades for academics to read, when I crossed paths with yet another former professor of mine. In fact, she was one person who led me to believe that she fully supported my goal of creating CIWPBR. Her shocking words to me were, “I think this bullying thing might be about people who feel sorry for themselves.” This type of response from a highly educated person, working in human services, and influencing generations of scholars coming up the ranks, speaks to the depth of the problem in universities today. To be honest, I was staggered obtuseness. It is obvious that a lot of work needs to be done just in bringing simple awareness of the issue to professional educators and their university administrations (these attitudes can only exist in university systems that are designed to tolerate them).
CIWBR has worked with thousands of adults (students and employees), who have suffered from these abuses of power which includes the shame and silence it causes for fear of damaging their reputations, careers, and losing the jobs for which they went to university. They have families to care for, mortgages to pay, retirements to plan and often a loved one who needs the health benefits earned through their work. Adult bullying is far more sophisticated and insidious than childhood bullying. No one deserves this abuse at any age.
“Bullying fundamentally disrupts the trust and nurturing relationships necessary to achieve any school’s mission. Most observers within and outside education would agree that fair and civil treatment of students is—or at least should be—embedded in the ecology of academic work. However, the opposite seems to be true: The problem of educator-student bullying is compounded by a general absence of institutional policies and procedures written to handle allegations of abusive conduct- ‘Abuse of power’ by Alan McEvoy”.
The following is a basic overview of the psychological and physical injuries of adult bullying:
- Insomnia, fatigue, loss of focus/concentration, and memory.
- Increased fear, isolation, anxiety, panic attacks.
- Hypervigilance weakened immune system, frequent illnesses (e.g., cold, flus, viruses, infections).
- Loss of trust, safety, respect and commitment or motivation.
- Loss of appetite, increasing headaches, body pain, gastrointestinal issues, blood pressure.
- Depression, Adjustment Disorders, PTSD, Burn Out, suicidal ideation, feeling trapped, stuck, helpless/hopeless, paranoid.
“It is important for audiences of many kinds to understand that psychological trauma, the type most noticeable in bullying, produces biologically measurable damage to specific regions of the developing brain.” Dr. John MedinaNeurobiologist, author of Brain Rules 2nd ed. 2014
Unfortunately, the silence and shame that people feel will always feed those who are toxic and enable this abuse to continue. “Many people do not know that all forms of bullying and abuse can do significant and lasting harm to both the perpetrator and targets brains”- Jennifer Fraser.
As a therapist, advocate, and coach, I have been noticing over the past 12 years that this abuse (in the workplace), is now coming out of the closet. More people are talking about it. More resources are becoming available. This is not going away, and the day is coming when more universities will be exposed for the psychological hazards of psychological harassment, sexual harassment, and psychological violence (bullying and racism). The following are a few tips on how to deal with academic bullying and discrimination. Mahmoudi, M. (2020) also provides some useful tips that targets of academic bullying can employ to protect themselves and fight back.
Steps to take as soon as you sense, or are certain, something is not right!
Document and record any interactions that involve situations that make you feel uncomfortable, or that become abusive behaviour. Simply print off and save emails and memos in a binder “at home.” Document verbal conversations or make sure to have conversations in the presence of a trusted ally. If you just cannot write anymore, talk to your phone recorder, date it, and keep it safe. Download this to your home computer whenever possible. Documentation is critical for several reasons!
“The Six Cs of Documentation” clarity, confidence, courage, complaint, consistency, and credibility. This is what you will need to win your case and protect your mental health (Crockett).
Documentation will also help you maintain your mental health. This type of abuse does not cause an injury overnight. It is an accumulation of many insults over time, often months to years. With that in mind you will become fatigued, forgetful, and when that happens, self-doubt, loss of self-confidence, loss of self-worth all creep in. Self-doubt can be debilitating.
Documentation maintains your clarity. Clarity maintains your confidence. Confidence maintains your courage to address this abuse in some form. Clarity, confidence, and courage will help you file a complaint. With clarity, confidence, courage, and a complaint, you will have consistency which gives you credibly.
You always carry your cell phone so find an app that protects texting your documentation!
- Consult your institution’s ombudsperson or mediation office. Be sure to ask if they have experience in this area and keep your expectations realistic. The ombudsman is not helpful when the university does not have clear policies on academic bullying.
- Resist isolating. Stay safe but look for others who might be experiencing the same situation and are afraid of speaking up. Peer support is needed and valuable. When you have allies, it gives you courage and compels the institution to take you seriously. We find far more strength in numbers.
- Each case will be unique. You need to talk to someone to develop strategies to cope, maintain your psychological and physical health, stay grounded in your own truth, feel heard and validated by others, and have an exit strategy just in case.
- Remind yourself that you are human and that you do not deserve this abuse. We highly recommend you talk to a coach/counsellor who is experienced in this area. Have a safe space to vent, process, and gain guidance and support. Remind yourself that you are a target, not a victim. Resources are listed throughout this guide.
- Know that you have a right to report abuse without being retaliated against. However, it happens with or without legislation in place. Toxic people find their ways to get back. Therefore documentation, having paper trails, and keeping recordings will be essential to you. This is how you can prepare for subtle, passive and/or micro aggressive acts of retaliation—and it might come from unexpected sources and colleagues. Protect yourself.
- Reach out to your student’s union and Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). They will be of immense help.
- It is important not to be naïve. Sometimes the institution or Departmental responses might be biased. To avoid these mistakes, mistakes which cause additional harm to students, and targeted staff members, training on this topic needs to be mandatory for all staff and students!
- Learn about gaslighting so you can recognize it before it causes you serious harm. Read more about gaslighting here https://www.verywellmind.com/is-someone-gaslighting-you-4147470.
- Become informed of your rights and if you find the courage, take a stand. If you do not have the courage, talk to someone!
- If you are an international student, it is also prudent to reach out to the embassy or consulate of your country as well as international office.
- Equity-denied people, neuro-diverse people and international students are often the targets of bullying. Introverts and Highly Sensitive People are more prone to be bullied.
- When your psychological and/or physical health has become so impacted that you are chronically ill, depressed, or having suicidal ideation, it is time for you to consider leaving the toxicity and saving your life. Nothing can be more important than your health. You must come first.
“Your recovery must be a priority, with or without justice” Linda Crockett.
Stay close to your loved ones, talk to them. Cultivating healthy habits or hobbies, walking, running, biking, swimming, meditation, yoga, any of these will help improve your mood and capacity to cope.
|Did you know that employees who are federally employed have legislation to protect them in the workplace? And that most of our Canadian provinces have provincial law to protect employees? How is that Universities get away with no policies?|
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” By George Bernard Shaw.
Read the research, spread your awareness, author some research, make allies, educate others, validate those going through this, offer support, advocate for policies, and keep your eye on the goal. You are there to get your degree and get out. Brighter days will come. You are not alone.
Guidelines for Academic Officials:
- Update your policies to explicitly address the conduct of both students and staff. Define academic bullying in your policies, offer examples, and inform that tolerance at any level is your policy. Use information from legislation and research.
Examples of policies:
- Protection against retaliation.
- Protection against malicious complaints.
- Protection against racism, discrimination, and sexual harassment.
- Examples of consequences for the above.
- Provide mandatory trauma informed training to all University staff, CUPE, legal services, student services, counselling services, unions, ombudsman, and all entry level students. Empower each with knowledge of early warning signs, risk factors, their rights, and resources. Training is mandatory in our legislation, and the best source of prevention.
Policies and training will include:
- Strategies for protecting oneself, resources available, and processes or options for reporting abuse.
- Detail the responsibilities and expectations of leaders, employees, and students. Every person should have access to learn what is expected of them, and what they can expect of others.
- Offer alternative processes for complaints. What if the person causing harm is the Dean, Professor, Sessional Instructor, HR, Safety, or a student. Each will require a safe process.
- Have trauma informed trained and experienced investigators to access when complaints occur. Avoid further harm by ensuring there is no risk of bias, conflict of interest, or lack of skill set. If you utilize experienced third-party investigators, you expedite recovery and repair e.g., rebuild trust and safety. Know that there are alternatives that need to be considered before doing an investigation. Also, please note that an investigation with the outcome of “unsubstantiated,” does not mean that the concern is resolved. Something happened. Either there was not enough information to substantiate a complaint, a problem occurred (e.g., incivility, abrasiveness, miscommunication, lack of knowledge, or a cultural difference), and this needs to be resolved, or someone made a malicious complaint.
- Offer the right to appeal. Create a process by which grievances can be heard and settled. This is a basic civil right.
- Keep track of formal and informal complaints. Watch for patterns and/or recurrences including student comments on course evaluation forms. Any allegations of bullying should be included in annual evaluations.
- Do not force anyone to confront the person they feel is causing them harm. This is an error placing the person feeling harmed at risk of further harm. Therefore, training is necessary.
- Do not force anyone into mediation. If an injury has occurred, this process will not be best practices. Best practice is to have a consultation with a specialist in this area to determine next steps. There are many other options.
- Consider creating a team for addressing complaints. This needs to include a several specialties e.g., leader, HR, Safety, Union, and most importantly, a counsellor (psychologist or clinical social worker), specifically trained in this area.
- All parties involved have the right to a safe and confidential space to process what is happening for them. Have resources available for coach/counselling services specifically trained in this area.
It is the collective responsibility of the institution, teachers, and students to create a safe and productive workplace. “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower”- Alexander Den Heijer.
Gardner, S. K. (2007). “I heard it through the grapevine”: Doctoral student socialization in chemistry and history. Higher education, 54(5), 723-740.
Devos, C., Boudrenghien, G., Van der Linden, N., Azzi, A., Frenay, M., Galand, B., & Klein, O. (2017). Doctoral students’ experiences leading to completion or attrition: A matter of sense, progress, and distress. European journal of psychology of education, 32(1), 61-77.
Rigler Jr, K. L., Bowlin, L. K., Sweat, K., Watts, S., & Throne, R. (2017). Agency, Socialization, and Support: A Critical Review of Doctoral Student Attrition. Online Submission.
Moss, S. E., & Mahmoudi, M. (2021). STEM the bullying: An empirical investigation of abusive supervision in academic science. EClinicalMedicine, 40, 101121.
Täuber, S., & Mahmoudi, M. (2022). How bullying becomes a career tool. Nature Human Behaviour, 6(4), 475-475.
Kossek, E. E., Su, R., & Wu, L. (2017). “Opting out” or “pushed out”? Integrating perspectives on women’s career equality for gender inclusion and interventions. Journal of Management, 43(1), 228-254.
Slaughter, S., Archerd, C. J., & Campbell, T. I. (2004). Boundaries and quandaries: How professors negotiate market relations. The review of higher education, 28(1), 129-165.
Susanne Tauber, Loraleigh Keashly, Sherry Moss, Jennifer Swann, Leah Hollis, Linda Crockett, Pooya Sareh, Morteza Mahmoudi (2022). Academic harassment: The need for interdependent actions of stakeholders.
Mahmoudi, M. (2020). A survivor’s guide to academic bullying. Nature human behaviour, 4(11), 1091-1091.
Abdelaziz, E. M., & Abu‐Snieneh, H. M. (2022). The impact of bullying on the mental health and academic achievement of nursing students. Perspectives in psychiatric care, 58(2), 623-634.
Rashidi, Z., & Rouhani, S. (2022). Study of Academic Bullying in educational departments; Case study (humanities and engineering departments). Iranian Journal of Engineering Education, 24(93), 105-132.
Bokek-Cohen, Y. A., Shkoler, O., & Meiri, E. (2022). The unique practices of workplace bullying in academe: An exploratory study. Current Psychology, 1-20.
Institutions and funding agencies:
Additional Recommended Research, Articles or Books
- Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Seattle: Pear Press, 2008. https://brainrules.net/
- Fraser, J. (2022). The Bullied Brain: heal your scars and restore your health. Prometheus Books. Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc. https://bulliedbrain.com/
We would like to extend an invitation to you. Please send us your short stories, ask your questions, offer answers, tips, or solutions, with or without your name being used. We will protect your confidentiality. Our goal is to offer a robust resource for all students and staff. These items can be email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
MS, Doctoral Candidate – University of Toronto
Debanjan Borthakur is a researcher in psychology and neuroscience with a master’s degree from McMaster University. His research explores the fascinating intersection of social and health psychology. But Debanjan isn’t just about academic rigour—he’s a passionate activist for psychological well-being in work environments. He’s a member of the academic parity movement. Partnered with The Canadian Institute of Workplace Harassment and Violence, Debanjan is on a mission to shed light on and combat academic bullying and discrimination. His research can be found here: Google Scholar Profile
Member of the www.paritymovement.org
Social media: Twitter @Deb_Borthakur
MSW, RSW, SEP, CCPA
Founder of The Canadian Institute of Workplace Harassment and Violence (not for profit), and The Canadian Institute of Workplace Bullying Resource Centre Inc. (for profit)
Edmonton, Alberta Canada.
Member of the www.paritymovement.org