Turning Down the Heat in the Kitchen

So I wrote this post a month or so ago, tried to find a venue for it, but nobody bit.  The issues it examines have continued to weigh on me, however, and I wanted to get it “out there.”  So I give it to you here instead.


I recently attended a conference where a plenary discussion wound up focusing on the challenges faced by junior faculty who had to contend with difficult and even abusive colleagues. Not surprisingly, these individuals had struggled, due to the precariousness of their status, to find satisfactory solutions. What was especially troubling, however, were tales of senior colleagues who essentially told them to suck it up and move on. Then a few weeks later a piece appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education that highlighted the dilemma of verbal abuse in the academic workplace.  I dove in with heightened interest since the conference’s discussions still weighed heavily on me.  Sadly, I was disappointed.  The article was problematic in a host of ways, but two in particular stood out to me: the author’s assumption that verbal abuse was a normal part of life in the academy, and the complete absence of any engagement with issues of power relations in the workplace and how these inevitably constrain individuals coping with combative behavior. And although a month or more has passed that since that article first appeared, it has stuck with me, because I think it expresses all-too-common-within-the-academy sentiments.


The author contends that we should view “occasional abuse as just a cost of doing business.”  He seems content to live in a rough and tumble world where academics rant at one another, hurl acerbic critiques, yell, and even throw things.  Apparently, when these things happen it’s an opportunity to teach the abuser how to behave better—a bizarre twist on teachable moments if there ever was one. The author even proposes that one strategy is to critically examine ourselves to make sure we were not provoking the abuse with our own attitudes and actions—an academic workplace variation on “she was asking for it because she dressed a certain way.” Failing success with any of these strategies we can turn the other cheek or ignore them.  Overall his approach suggests yet another variation on the theme of “being an academic is tough and full of hard knocks and harsh words; get used to it, or get out.”  But be careful, because if you do leave you are the one who has failed for not being able to take it.  This has got to stop.  I do not want to work in this world and we all have a responsibility to make sure that no one has to.

Which brings me to my second critique.  The author completely ignores the power dynamics that adhere to all workplace relationships; and academe, of course, is no exception.  All of his proposed strategies are compromised, if not completely ineffectual, if the person doling out abuse is your senior faculty colleague, or the provost you report to as dean, or the person who supervises adjuncts, or any number of variations on this scenario.  Add in other factors such as race or gender and you have the making of a particularly fraught situation.  Ironically, the stock photo illustration for this piece makes this point all-too-vividly, even when the author’s words don’t. A woman is being verbally attacked by not just one, but two, male colleagues. And yet her calm, neutral expression suggests, erroneously, that she can, through sheer force of will, transcend the situation.

But because power is a factor in these interactions those of us who are senior, who are department chairs, who are deans, have a responsibility to make things better.  To change a culture that suggests a certain level of abuse is normative.  To be the visible and accessible advocates and mentors for those who are being abused and may not be able to employ strategies like ignoring the abuser or using the interaction as a teachable moment.

Overall, the advice in this article puts the burden on the abused to remedy the situation, suggesting that if you can’t stand the heat you should get out of the kitchen–and that clearly, you weren’t meant to be a chef in the first place.  This is irresponsible and potentially harmful advice.  As suggested above it may be difficult, if not impossible, to push back against this kind of behavior if this person is in a position of authority over you.  But for those of us who can do something, we need to act. The first something we need to do is hold the abuser accountable and indicate that such bullying behavior will not be tolerated.  These bullies probably don’t limit their unacceptable behavior to certain individuals, so when they treat us this way we need to call them on it. Or perhaps they are a classic bully and they only pick on the weak. There, too, we need to hold them accountable when we see them behaving this way. We also need to make ourselves available as allies. Junior faculty or adjuncts or others in compromised positions don’t always know where they can turn. And if the experiences I heard about at the conference are any indication, it’s not always clear that you can trust or rely on senior colleagues. Rather than wait for these individuals to seek us out, we need to make clear our receptivity and accessibility.

For too long we have accepted certain verbally abusive behaviors as the cost of doing business in the academy. Overall, it’s time to turn the temperature down in the kitchen and make it a place where everyone can work peaceably and productively.


14 thoughts on “Turning Down the Heat in the Kitchen

  1. I like how you’ve correctly framed this as “abuse” — it makes it oh so clear how we’re strangely comfortable giving junior people advice that we’d never give, say, an abused spouse or child. Along those lines, I’d like to add one more point: studies of perpetrators of domestic abuse consistently find that current abusers were themselves abused. “Cycle of violence” is the phrase we hear most often.

    This is NOT to excuse the behavior of abusive colleagues; it’s to point out that, if we don’t do something to protect their victims, we’re complicit in setting up the next generation of academic bullies.


  2. I agree. Bullying and verbal abuse should not be tolerated, and the chair should be informed immediately if this happens. My university assigns an extra-departmental mentor to each new faculty member, and this person might well have some helpful information about dealing with these situations. Bullying does happen, and it is reprehensible and should be stopped. But I also would advise new faculty members to try to get a feel for the communicative culture of her or his department. Some departments and some disciplines have a more combative conversational style. Ask yourself if the behavior is bullying or something else–bad manners, insensitivity, social ineptitude, a weird sense of humor, and so forth. Don’t expect people to read your mind. You can ask for an appointment with the offending person–or invite him or her for coffee! You might say, “I found your response to my comment in the faculty meeting disrespectful (or rude, or unfunny). We are colleagues and I would like us to be able to work together constructively. Can you help me make this happen?” There are power disparities in academia but compared to the corporate world, academia is pretty egalitarian. That’s why we call each other colleagues. The chair should model collegiality, and if he/she doesn’t, ask for an appointment (or extend an invitation for coffee) and share your concerns.


  3. As ever Liz, thank you for stepping out and starting a needed discussion! Abuse in any form is never acceptable and in situation. Bullying is more than just bad manners. Bullying in any form, in any location is painful. What the situation the article you critique outlines is nothing more than hazing in a professional situation, taken it that light it becomes more than just simple bullying. We see constant examples of power abuse situations all over and currently academia is in the forefront with the way fraternities and sport programs treat women and young, new players. Professors are supposed to be the grownups, we need to treat each other with the respect and dignity as we would want to be treated.
    As historians we have the ability to show people how disrespect and bullying leads to tragedy. History give us the ability to make changes in the present to change the future


  4. Is it just me, or is it a little bit extra despicable when someone is a bully in a context where the people around them are, for the most part, polite, high-functioning people who are simply trying to do what they love? This makes me think that these are classic bullies, preying on those they perceive to be weak (who are ironically likely much stronger than the bully – strong enough to control themselves among colleagues).

    In higher education, have you seen any of the work that is being done on the K-12 level around bullying? There are a lot of anti-bullying programs and messages that weren’t there a couple of decades ago, and I wonder if part of the issue, even part of the ultimate solution, might be more and more people entering higher education who were never taught the toxic idea that bullying is something to expect and endure silently.

    That being said, the Spider Man Principle always applies. The person with the power is the person on whom responsibility rightfully rests. If authority figures in academia, or anywhere else, don’t want the responsibility for their actions and the impact they have on those under their authority, they don’t deserve the authority in the first place.

    A note on turning the other cheek – Jesus used that example as a way to resist abusive authority without retaliating. It would be interesting to think more about how that teaching, in Jesus’ context, could be applied in an academic context. How does a person experiencing abuse from an authority figure, or someone with more power than they have for reasons like gender or race, insist on their own dignity without retaliating?


  5. As you know, I have had my troubles with some senior academics. Inherently problematic is that the senior administrative leads (Chairs and Deans) want to play it safe. They are not willing to show leadership when real leadership is needed. I think we are ‘progressing’ through a new paradigm of the academy- it is no longer the the sacred space for misogynist nihilists (both men and women). Blustering and bullying behaviour is unacceptable and, in my opinion, down right anti-intellectual. Also unacceptable is workplace/career sabotage through deceitful power and control manipulations. Maligning and work disruptions are considered ‘constructive termination’ in ‘normal’ workplaces, while in academia its considered status quo? No longer! The most passionate and ardent arguments lose ground when they are illogical and disrespectful. For this change to take shape we need to champion respect for everyone in our workplaces. Students, admin staff and our fellow colleagues should expect to be treated fairly. “it has been shown that to injure anyone is never just anywhere”, Socrates


  6. You are certainly calling much needed attention to a very serious problem in academia. It seems to be the luck of the draw as to how things can be handled. I am familiar with cases where one faculty bullied her juniors, her staff, and her students. Because the president wouldn’t do anything about it, there’s no record. The bully is now being considered for an upper position “because she gets things done.” Ironically, she was sent to a conference on bullying.

    It is agonizing to decide what to do about these circumstances. For example, I know of one faculty who was so determined to bring down a dean that she accused him of having an affair with a junior faculty. The dean had on his own initiative had to threaten to sue for defamation because the university upper admins were too afraid to do anything.

    I’d also like to say that administrative assistants often get caught in the middle, or are subjected to bullying, too. In one situation, a VP was suspicious of his administrative assistant after she blew the whistle on him. She took a much needed vacation, and he immediately accused her of working a second job and being disloyal. Unfortunately, he was in charge of Human Rights complaints at his university, so she felt she had to resign.

    Sweeping it all under the carpet is the specialty of some places. It can come under the guise of “just doing business” or “we don’t have time to deal with this.”

    It’s time to peel back the skin and dig out the rot underneath.


  7. Granted, I am in a position of power as a senior admin, but I recently stood up to a bully by calling out the unprofessional behavior to them and to their supervisor and their supervisor’s supervisor. I won’t stand for that behavior directed at anyone who reports to me.

    Bully tried to “make nice” with me. My way of handling this is not to make nice. I am not going to coffee with you to discuss what happened or the details of the situation. Instead, I make the interaction into a very simple equation:

    1. This behavior is unacceptable;
    2. Stop the behavior.

    This is something I have arrived at only recently because I think women are socialized to worry about people’s feelings and want them to walk away from the interaction feeling “ok”. What I have observed is that this process just gives the bully more attention and influence — the things that they are seeking through their bullying behavior. Therefore, having the “make it ok” interaction feeds their psychological needs. Handling the interaction as an equation does not feed their needs or allow them to rehash why they were “wronged” and justified in behaving that way.

    So far (n=3) this generally establishes me as someone with whom they are not going to have a satisfying interaction.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Please define “verbal abuse”. Here in Germany, some academics see the tiniest (written) criticism of their work as abusive and react with legal proceedings. Can criticism, even polemical criticism, qualify as verbal abuse? If this is the case, I’d rather not like to see it banned.

    Liked by 1 person

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