Epilogue Gathering Voices for a Better Academic Workplace

In: Critical Storytelling: Experiences of Power Abuse in Academia
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Julie Hansen
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Academic life, then, is a wild venture.

Max Weber (“Wissenschaft als Beruf,” 1917/2008, p. 30)

What conclusions can be drawn from the stories in this book? Are they just a handful of exceptional cases, or the tip of an iceberg? It is difficult to generalize about the academic workplace. The opening dictum in Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina—each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way—arguably holds true for university departments, too. Happy departments are characterized by transparency, constructive leadership and what organizational researchers call “psychological safety.” Amy C. Edmondson (2019) defines psychological safety as

a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. […] they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident that they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored, or blamed. […] They tend to trust and respect their colleagues. (“Introduction,” e-book, n.p.)

By contrast, the symptoms of unhappy departments can be hard to diagnose and even harder to treat. If, as David Damrosch (1995) posits, “the modern university is built upon alienation and aggression” (p. 78), then those of us who inhabit it risk becoming blind to these qualities. After all, stereotypes of academia encourage us to tolerate divergent behavior. As Darla Twale and Barbara De Luca (2008) observe, “College faculty have been characterized as quirky, eccentric, and absent-minded. Unexpected behaviors are considered normal to the insider in addition to being thought simply odd to any outsider” (p. 101).1 Reputation-conscious university administrations have been known to go to great lengths to cover up power abuse. Academics, for their part, are often poorly equipped to recognize it when it occurs.

Fortunately, academics seeking to better understand the psychosocial dynamics of their profession will now find a growing body of scholarship devoted to work environment issues in higher education. Other sectors were the focus of the earliest research on adult bullying that came out of Scandinavia in the 1990s, but since the turn of the millennium, behavioral scientists in Australia, Europe and North America have begun to focus more on academia.2 A number of recent studies indicate that academic work environments are particularly susceptible to bullying, harassment and power abuse.3 As Kenneth Westhues (2004) notes, “a university is a complex maze of overlapping rules, purposes, positions, committees, and codes,” and thus the mechanisms of power abuse are also complex (p. vi). Twale and De Luca (2008) observe that the “unique organization structure of the university supports an equally unique academic culture,” which in turn provides “a breeding ground for incivility, bullying, and mobbing” (p. 93). Loraleigh Keashly and Joel H. Neuman (2010) maintain that “the academic environment has a number of organizational and work features that increase the likelihood of hostile interpersonal behaviors” (p. 49).

As the stories in this book show, power abuse looks different from different positions in the academic hierarchy (see Chapter 10 by Hanna McGinnis, Ana C. Núñez and Anonymous 4 for a discussion of this point). Culture-specific dimensions can be discerned within this global problem, as the anonymous author of Chapter 17 shows. Power abuse can also play out differently in different educational, economic and political systems, with harsher instruments of abuse occurring in authoritarian regimes. Nevertheless, organizational psychologists and sociologists have identified a number of factors associated with power abuse in academia. These include (but are not limited to) low job security, institutional structures, organizational culture and a disconnect between academics’ own ideals of their profession, on the one hand, and real working conditions, on the other.

1 Peculiarities of the Academic Workplace

Already in 1917, the German sociologist and political economist Max Weber devoted a lecture entitled “Wissenschaft als Beruf” to a consideration of factors that influence scholarly careers.4 One of these is sheer luck. Whether an academic achieves promotion is, according to Weber, “a matter of pure chance.” This observation is worth quoting at length:

Of course, chance is not the only factor, but it is an unusually powerful factor. I can think of almost no other career on earth in which it has such a large part to play. I am especially well placed to say this, as I personally owe it to a few instances of sheer chance that at a very early age I was appointed to a full professorship in a discipline in which at that time my contemporaries had undoubtedly achieved more than I had. And I feel that this experience has given me a keener awareness of the undeserved fate of those many others whom chance has treated unkindly and still does, and who despite all their ability failed to reach the position they merited as a result of this mechanism of selection. (Weber, 1917/2008, p. 28)

A century later, journalist Sarah Jaffe argues that in contemporary American academia, “the distinction between tenure track and adjunct track is an accident of timing” (2021, p. 163). Those lucky to be hired into a tenure-track position must cope with years of pressure to impress the senior colleagues who will ultimately decide whether tenure is granted (for more on this, see the chapters by Antony T. Smith and Ken Robertson). Those hired as adjuncts on part-time or short-term contracts comprise a growing “untenured underclass” lacking job security and decent working conditions (Fleming, 2021, p. 94; Jaffe, 2021, pp. 161–181).

This situation has been exacerbated by academia’s adoption of neoliberal principles. New public management (examined in the chapters by Cecilia Mörner and Wim Verbaal) has been implemented differently in different places, but everywhere, academics report increased workloads and chronic stress, as well as subjection to what is termed “corrosive” or “destructive leadership” (Thornton, 2004; Einarsen et al., 2007).5 Many point out a fundamental incompatibility of the mission of higher education with neoliberal tendencies, such as quantification, commodification and commercialization (Davies, 2005; Fleming, 2021). Francesca Coin (2017) observes that in the wake of neoliberalized academia, “scholars have felt a growing conflict between their ethical ideals and the array of measured, meaningless and bureaucratized tasks that fill their lives” (p. 707). Neoliberal audit culture and top-heavy management clash with established traditions of collegial self-governance in academia (Jaffe, 2021, pp. 161–181). “Fear is now the go-to technique for motivating faculty and staff,” concludes Peter Fleming. “Managers choose this method since it’s far easier to issue orders fait accompli via email than talk with colleagues and build a consensus” (Fleming, 2021, p. 4). Bronwyn Davies (2005) asks, “What then can we say that academic work is? Within neoliberal regimes we can no longer say it is the life of the intellect and of the imagination” (p. 1).6 All this serves to create “conditions that incite incivility, workplace bullying, and other forms of employee abuse” (Zabrodska et al., 2011).

Jaffe discerns a downward trajectory in the conditions of academic work that is pushing more and more of the professoriate into the security-lacking precariat, depriving them at the same time of power and putting them at greater risk of exploitation.7 Jaffe describes “precarious academics” (along with artists, musicians, writers and athletes) as “workers who are expected to find the work itself rewarding, as a place to express their own unique selves, their particular genius. In these jobs, we’re likely to be told that we should be grateful to be able to work in the field at all, as there are hundreds of people who wish they had the opportunity to do jobs half as cool” (2021, p. 20).

Of course, work won’t love you back, as noted in the apt title of Jaffe’s recent book-length critique of this “labor-of-love ethic” (2021). The belief in a calling is a double-edged sword for academics, to whom it accords “a sense of purpose, meaning and satisfaction” (Barcan, 2018, p. 106), yet also renders them vulnerable to burnout and exploitation (Jaffe, 2021, pp. 161–181; Malesic, 2022).8 Academic culture encourages self-exploitation “as a meritorious form of conduct” (Coin, 2017, p. 711), manifest on the individual level in feelings of inadequacy and failure, as well as the belief that the solution lies in working ever harder and longer.9 In this way, academics are poorly served by their own devotion to their work. “The constant mis-match between organizational strain and personal values,” notes Coin, “produce[s] burn-out and ethical conflicts particularly in those individuals who perceive academic labor as a passion or a labor of love” (2017, pp. 712–713). Many academics identify closely with their chosen profession, which means their sense of self can be on the line when things go wrong with the work environment. “Rather than a labor of love, academic labor sometimes appears an abusive relationship, an exploitative system characterized by high expectations and uncertain prospects” (Coin, 2017, p. 713). In this respect, the view of academics taken by the burgeoning field of Critical University Studies—i.e. an unembellished understanding of them as workers performing labor—provides a necessary corrective to the prevalent (and often self-destructive) devotionalist approach.

The above factors—job precarity, neoliberal transformations and academics’ high ideals of their own profession (the list is not exhaustive)—all increase the risk of power abuse. They also contribute to a culture of fear, shame and silence, which indirectly support power abuse by serving to isolate and alienate academics from one another, making it easier for department chairs, deans and other administrators to divide and conquer faculty.10 As Damrosch writes, “Alienation breeds a defensive aggressiveness; this aggression in turn magnifies the alienation, and the whole unhappy cycle begins again” (1995, p. 96). The question is how to break this cycle.

2 Where Do We Go from Here?

Although not all the stories in this book can be said to have happy endings, they illustrate various constructive responses to power abuse in academia. While some of the authors have chosen to leave academia, others remain within its walls (at least for the time being). It is a testament to the deep investment of academics’ identity in their profession that a decision to quit is often met with surprise and even disbelief on the part of colleagues. This kind of investment can make it hard to imagine alternatives to the status quo, rendering “the idea of leaving voluntarily inconceivable” (Barcan, 2018, p. 115).

Yet more and more academics who feel their working conditions to be untenable are taking this leap—at least if we are to judge from the new genre dubbed “quit lit.” These stories, told in blogs and columns of publications such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, “transform the act of quitting into a political process whereby the subject abdicates its competitive rationality to embrace a fundamental loyalty to different values and principles” (Coin, 2017, p. 707).11 If it is true, as Fleming suggests, that “everything about us that isn’t quantifiable is now desperately searching for a way out,” then an exodus is perhaps to be expected (2021, p. 81). Ruth Barcan sees “a grave risk that rather than merely fighting for survival in the academy, more and more people will choose to thrive outside it” (2017, n.p.).

Quit lit thus raises issues of crucial relevance for the future of academia and—not least of all—the well-being of academics. As Barcan argues in Academic Life and Labour in the New University: Hope and Other Choices (2013):

The serious questions raised by academics about how healthy, viable and prosperous a life a prospective academic might have within a university are […] grave interrogations of the intellectual and personal sustainability of a mass system organized around exploitative labour, whether that be the precarious labour of the ever-increasing casual staff or the overwork of the diminishing tenured staff. Such questions concern us doubly—as they bear on both the individual welfare of thousands of workers and the higher education system’s capacity to systematically, impartially and carefully generate knowledge into the future. (p. 217)

By publicly voicing discontent with the status quo, the authors of quit lit lay down a “stepping stone in a collective discourse that ought to transform an inner conflict into a political alternative” (Coin, 2017, p. 708). Collective is the operative word here, because no matter what solutions we may find for ourselves at the individual level, lasting change at the institutional level requires collective action.

It is indicative of a culture of silence that the salutary effects of quit lit are achieved only after individual academics have made an exit. Thus far, there has been less discussion of work environment problems from within universities (a kind of ‘stay lit,’ if you will), but this, too, is a conversation that we as a profession need to have.

3 Solidarity as an Antidote

Academic workers are “remarkably lousy at translating their frustration into a sustained movement,” as Fleming laments (2021, p. 9). Yet recent years have seen examples of successful collective action by academic workers in the United States and the United Kingdom. Some of these have taken a page from the playbooks of other professions. “The university’s culture of individualism […] mitigated against academics’ collective action for a while,” explains Jaffe, “but as the conditions of academic workers began more and more to resemble those of those other workers, academic workers began to reach for the tool of the working class: labor unions” (2021, p. 173).

A good example of the crucial role of collegial solidarity in the face of power abuse is found in a Swedish television documentary from 2021 about whistleblowers whose employers had retaliated against them. Train driver Ola Brunnström was threatened with termination after criticizing, in his role as union representative, the company for which he worked. We see him entering the meeting at which his future hangs in the balance, cheered on by co-workers protesting his firing by threatening to strike. Their message was heard by those in power, and Brunnström kept his job. “It’s an emotional roller-coaster to be fired one day and have your job saved by your colleagues the next,” he says in the documentary. “This show of solidarity also rescued me personally, my psyche and well-being. If you are alone and try to fight a battle without back-up, things can end badly. But sometimes you feel that you simply must fight” (Sveriges Television, 2021).12

Academic workers would do well to heed the wisdom of Ola Brunnström. Abuse of power in academia can be counteracted if we confront it collectively. “If we are even partly responsible for creating institutional dynamics,” as Parker J. Palmer argues, “we possess some degree of power to alter them” (2017, p. 206). It does not always have to be the same old story. By working to overcome the divisive effects of the individualistic, ego-driven and hyper-competitive academic workplace, by forming coalitions and community, we can build a kinder and more sustainable work environment. For the creation of such a movement, giving voice to our experiences in stories like these is just the first step.

Notes

1

Damrosch (1995) also notes the normalization of deviant behavior within academia: “The sociologists who discuss behavioral patterns among academics speak quite directly about the unusual—or even deviant—nature of the contemporary academic personality. Thus, Michael Cohen and James March describe academic modes of decisionmaking as ‘pathological’; but this is not a criticism, for they simply see such pathologies as the norms of an abnormal world […] Seeking an analogy to campus patterns of interaction, another sociologist refers matter-of-factly to prisons” (p. 105). Damrosch concludes: “We should not remain content with a state of affairs that leads sociologists to compare universities as a matter of course to prisons and mental asylums” (p. 107).

2
The phenomenon of workplace bullying was first studied by the Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann (1992). For recent research on workplace bullying, see Einarsen et al. (2020), which defines it in the following way:

Bullying at work means harassing, offending, socially excluding someone or negatively affecting someone’s work. In order for the label bullying (or mobbing) to be applied to a particular activity, interaction or process it has to occur repeatedly and regularly […] and over a period of time […]. Bullying is an escalating process in the course of which the person confronted may end up in an inferior position becoming the target of systematic negative social acts. A conflict cannot be called bullying if the incident is an isolated event or if two parties of approximately equal “strength” are in conflict. (p. 26)

3

For statistics on the prevalence of bullying in higher education, see Keashley and Neuman (2010); Zabrodska and Kveton (2013).

4

Translated into English as “Science as a Vocation.” I cite here Gordon C. Wells’ translation.

5

Einarsen et al. (2007) identify three categories of destructive leadership: tyrannical, derailed and supportive–disloyal. The first two are associated with abusive behavior toward subordinates, while the third shows concern about “the welfare of subordinates while violating the legitimate interest of the organization” (p. 213).

6

Davies (2005) summarizes the effects of neoliberalism in the following way: “a move from social conscience and responsibility towards an individualism in which the individual is cut loose from the social; from morality to moralistic audit-driven surveillance; from critique to mindless criticism in terms of rules and regulations combined with individual vulnerability to those new rules and regulations, which in turn press towards conformity to the group” (p. 12).

7
For a definition of the precariat, see Standing (2011). Jaffe writes:

Increasing enrollment has not come along with increased full-time staffing, and salaries have stagnated as class sizes have increased. While European universities still offer more security than many US institutions, the situation of part-time faculty in the Americas […] is a bellwether for the rest of the world. By 1999, an estimated one-fifth to one-half of European countries’ academic staff were “nonpermanent.” In the United States between 1975 and 2003, according to the AAUP, “full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members fell from 57 percent of the nation’s teaching staffs to 35 percent, with an actual loss of some two thousand tenured positions.” (2021, p. 171)

8

Jonathan Malesic (2022) defines burnout as “the experience of being pulled between expectation and reality at work” (p. 12). His own experience as a tenured professor prompted him to write the book entitled The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives.

9

On the topic of academic imposter syndrome, see the chapter “Feeling Like a Fraud: Or, the Upside of Knowing You Can Never Be Good Enough” in Barcan (2013). Chapter 10 in the current book, by McGinnis, Núñez and Anonymous 4, touches on imposter syndrome and academia’s “expectation of unfaltering passion.”

10

On the role of shame in power abuse, see Lewis 2004. On the risks associated with a culture of silence in the workplace, see Edmondson (2019).

11

For a study of quitting as a response to workplace bullying, see Lutgen-Sandvik (2006).

12

My own translation of the Swedish transcript, which is available here: https://www.svt.se/nyheter/granskning/ug/ug-referens-hall-kaften-och-lyd

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