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Academic Bullying: A Problem on College Campuses

WASHINGTON – When Dr. Faith Edwards found herself facing false accusations that she had tampered with her superior’s car in an attempt to harm him, it became the latest bizarre episode in what she described as a harassment campaign against her. Eventually winning a wrongful termination lawsuit against the Michigan higher education institution where she had been harassed, Edwards, a nursing professor, took her story Thursday to the annual meeting of one of the nation’s largest faculty organizations to spread awareness of “academic bullying” and campus workplace violence.

“It was like drowning and no one sending you a buoy,” said Edwards, who told her story during a session at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) conference in Washington, D.C.

The disintegration of civility in higher education is a growing concern for university faculty who say the disrespect has reached epic levels not only between professors and students but also among colleagues. Women and faculty of color are often the targets of mistreatment, but increased competition and societal shifts have demonstrated that no higher education professional is immune. In addition to academic bullying, the incidence of workplace violence is no longer rare in higher education. High-profile cases, such as the February killings of three University of Alabama-Huntsville professors allegedly by a co-worker, were prominent in higher education news this past academic year.

“It’s coming up in many of our sessions,” said AAUP director of communications Robin Burns. “It’s always been a problem, but people are really talking about it now.”

“It’s becoming a more prominent issue,” said Janet Tompkins McMahon, a conference presenter and an assistant professor of nursing who is moving to Towson University from Francis Marion University. “We need to be prepared to deal with this and avoid detrimental consequences that could harm everyone.”

Edwards said she believes the bullying she experienced stemmed from a number of reasons. Prior to the car tampering accusations and other incidents, Edwards had been unexpectedly away eight weeks from her job as an assistant professor at her school’s nursing department after suffering a medical emergency. Her absence had put a strain on the department, requiring five different faculty members to cover her classes, she said. But, as soon as she was able, Edwards returned to teaching.

But things had changed. The once popular Edwards was quickly ostracized by her colleagues and pressured by her supervisor to resign. Edwards, who was on track for tenure and held the only doctorate in the department, was berated in faculty meetings, attacked in evaluations, and publicly denigrated in e-mails, she said.

Matters worsened for her, but Edwards battled the offensive that led to her dismissal from the university. A lawyer, an ulcer, and thousands of dollars later, she won her case in court but was not entirely vindicated. 

“Your parents always tell you to fight for what you believe is right,” she said, adding that she has decided to use her experience as a case study for academic bullying and to advise others about analyzing the health of institutions. “But it’s damn hard.”

And for professors teaching the millennial generation, good manners are no longer the norm among students, McMahon said, adding that young people today feel entitled to everything—even grades they don’t deserve. Asking for extra credit, complaining about assignment deadlines, making excuses for incomplete work are characteristic of modern students, she added.

To adjust to her students’ learning styles and remain sensitive to their needs, McMahon characterized them as Wizard of Oz archetypes, which are the confused scarecrow, the insecure Tin Man, the cowardly lion, and the focused Dorothy. Understanding student personalities, she said, helps professors avoid triggering behaviors that could lead to potentially dangerous stress in the classroom.

“Be careful. A house could fall on you,” McMahon said, alluding to the fate of the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz.

In a 2005 study published in the Journal of Nursing Education, researchers reported examples of increased problematic behavior, everything from leaving class early or sleeping in class to verbal abuse and plagiarism.

Presenters at the AAUP sessions on academic bullying suggested instructors develop standards of practices that are consistent and published clearly in course syllabi with explicit wording that emphasizes strict adherence. If the behavior is not immediately confronted and reported, the incivility could escalate, presenters said.

Paul Howe, a conference presenter and business instructor at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute in North Carolina, said he believes the audacity of his students’ excuses and classroom behavior is tied to the societal emphasis on consumerism.

“Students often ask me why they aren’t passing if they pay for classes and come every day,” Howe said. “They actually think, since they pay, they should get good grades without doing the work.”

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