Disrupting Academic Bullying
"To maintain a culture of civility throughout the graduate education experience, academic bullying is unacceptable and should not be tolerated."
-Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education Karen DePauw
We recognize that academic bullying is a problem on college campuses worldwide. This website provides information and resources for members of the Virginia Tech community so they can disrupt academic bullying. Effectively disrupting academic bullying is an important element of a university community where everyone thrives and is successful in the pursuit of their professional and academic goals.
Below you will find some basic information about what academic bullying is. You also will find links on this page to resources and more in-depth information.
If you are being bullied, our Support Resources page lists people and/or offices you can contact for assistance. Strategies For People Experiencing Bullying contains some short term and longer term strategies to help improve your situation.
What is Academic Bullying?
As Dean Karen DePauw states in her Transforming Graduate Education Blogpost, "Academic bullying manifests itself in many different ways and can include intimidation, humiliation, belittlement, embarrassment and undermining one’s authority."
If you are unsure what constitutes academic bullying, there are definitions below and in the video. This website also contains case studies that show some of the multiple ways bullying can occur in an academic environment.
A task force at Eastern Washington University defines bullying as: Intentional behavior targeted at an individual or group that is repeated, hostile or offensive, and creates an intimidating and/or threatening environment which produces a risk of psychological and/or physical harm.
Academic bullying shares many similarities with workplace bullying, but the power differentials and the formal levels of protection found in academic environments make addressing bullying a complex issue.
Academic bullying occurs throughout the academic or professional space: in the classroom, in meetings, at conferences, in the laboratory setting, in face-to-face interactions, and of course through email and social media.
Bullying may take many forms including but not limited to physical, verbal, or written acts or behavior. It may also manifest as excluding behavior such as ignoring or dismissing individuals or groups.
- Hostile behaviors include but are not limited to behaviors that are harmful or damaging to individuals and/or property. Behaviors that are intimidating , threatening, disruptive, humiliating, sarcastic, or vicious may also constitute hostile behavior.
- Offensive behaviors may include, but are not limited to, inappropriate behaviors such as abusive language, derogatory remarks, insults, or epithets. Other offensive behaviors may include the use of condescending, humiliating, or vulgar language, swearing, shouting or use of unsuitable language, use of obscene gestures or mocking.
Academic bullying also includes behaviors or comments that indicate disregard of one’s concerns, ignore contributions, or minimize one’s efforts in the eyes of colleagues. Other means of exclusion or withholding information also may constitute bullying.
Expectations of unreasonable workload, limiting earned vacation and prohibiting a graduate student’s own agency for professional choices and personal decisions also may be inappropriate.
As is well known, comments or behaviors that are sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic and more are unacceptable and can fall under the umbrella of academic bullying and should not be tolerated.
- Continual threats of dismissal or intimidation.
- Attempts to destroy or harm the person’s self-esteem or confidence.
- Constant negative remarks or repeated criticism or sarcasm.
- Consistent over time, unrealistic work demands, or work overloading.
- Isolating or systematically isolating the person.
- Spreading false information or rumors.
- Tasks that are ambiguous, contradictory, or that are deprived of purpose.
- False insinuations, attacks to the individual's dignity, integrity, or self-image.
- Attempts to humiliate or public humiliation.
The following examples share experiences that depict several of the types of bullying described above. If you experience or observe these types of behaviors, it is important that you do not dismiss the discomfort caused by these behaviors and consider what next steps may be appropriate.
- Aggressor: Someone who consistently and repeatedly says or does something harmful or malicious to another person.
- Target: Someone against whom mistreatment is directed.
- Passive Bystander: Someone who sees something happening and does not say or do anything.
- Active Bystander/Upstander: Someone who speaks out on behalf of someone else or takes actions that are supportive of someone else.
General types of Bullying:
- Predatory Bullying occurs when the target has done nothing to provoke the bully. This type tends to be more prevalent in organizations that reinforce bullying like government and academia.
- Dispute related bullying occurs as the result of escalated conflict. Coercive or aggressive strategies are used to resolve an ongoing dispute.
Four types of Bullies:
- Chronic- Those who use aggressive, dominating, and coercive strategies in nearly every encounter in and out of work/classroom.
- Opportunist- Those who suspend their aggressive behavior outside of work but believe ‘careers are built with political gamemanship’.
- Accidental- Those who unknowingly take actions that victimize recipients, and may retreat/apologize when confronted about the behaviors.
- Substance-Abusing- Those bullying behaviors initiated by substance abusers where ‘rationality and logic are tossed out the window’.
From “Bullying in Academia: What’s an Ombudsman to do?” by Sue Theiss
Bullying can be indirect. Indirect aggression can make it hard to identify the bully or lead instigator. Here is more information regarding different forms of bullying:
- Indirect manipulative aggression refers to aggressive acts involving a peer group such as spreading rumors or isolating someone from their group.
- Covert insinuative aggression is when the aggressive act is disguised in the form of malicious insinuations and suggestions such as imitating the person in an insulting manner.
- Rational–appearing aggression is characterized by the bully’s attempt to conceal their intention to hurt the victim by shrouding their aggressive acts in seemingly rational actions. Often these acts appear to others as everyday communication and not as targeted attempts at aggression.
- Relational Aggression- The point of relational aggression is to manipulate or disrupt relationships and friendships.
- Mobbing- Gang bullying or group bullying is often called mobbing and usually involves scapegoating and victimisation.
Intentions for the Disrupting Academic Bullying Initiative
A key intention of the disrupting academic bullying initiative involves encouraging all stakeholders in the Graduate School community to support and promote an affirming environment. Preventing academic bullying requires members of our community to discourage bullying behaviors and actively work to disrupt academic bullying when it is observed or experienced. Through increased awareness of academic bullying, commitments to act as active bystanders, and consistent responses to behaviors that degrade affirming learning environments, we can start to diminish the frequency of academic bullying.
There are multiple dynamics within higher education institutions that make academic bullying a complex issue to tackle. Major forces influencing these dynamics include the hierarchical nature of academia, competitive environments with limited resources, and perceptions that there are insurmountable barriers for discouraging toxic behavior. We acknowledge these influencing forces present challenges, but we believe that we can manage these forces as we work to disrupt academic bullying and fulfill our intentions to promote affirming environments within academia.
What are we doing?
We are engaged in conversations with program leaders, graduate students, and staff to raise awareness of what academic bullying is, how it manifests itself, and why we need to disrupt academic bullying.
We provide training to build skills to disrupt academic bullying whether it is happening to you or you see it happening to others. If you would like to have a training in your department, program, or group, please contact Ombudsperson Bryan Hanson (firstname.lastname@example.org).
We are asking program leaders throughout the Graduate School to create statements of support or action plans for establishing affirming communities that are committed to disrupting academic bullying.
Creating affirming environments where graduate students thrive involves encouraging positive behaviors and discouraging ones that promote or condone bullying. This is often best done by shifting focus from formal, punitive approaches to informal, restorative approaches to addressing hostile behaviors. Restorative methods focus on repairing damage to relationships over assigning blame and dispensing punishment. Our society is geared towards punitive methods of dealing with conflict i.e. we tend to want individuals punished or to ‘pay’ for their behavior. In academia punitive options may have perceived limitations, therefore we must put forward considerable attention to support the targets of academic bullying and attempt to improve the situation they are experiencing at the moment.
The tools that we have to improve the situations for the targets include bringing parties together via mediated conversations, increasing constructive communication skills, helping the target change the environment, identifying appropriate allies for the target, and/or working with the aggressor to make sure they understand their impact on people and guiding them to available resources to help them change their behavior. We also provide people a space to speak up about bullying they witness or experience, help empower bystanders to support targets, and encourage leaders at various levels to create an environment where bullying is not acceptable within their group, organization, department, or program. This feeds into the long term goal of fostering an environment where bullying has no place. Humans are very susceptible to group action and the strictures of culture. We want to create a culture where community members look out for each other, and speak up if they see someone being bullied. By shifting the academic culture to one where all members feel supported and academic bullying is unacceptable, we hope to make Virginia Tech a place where our community members can thrive.