Monthly Archives: September 2015

Kitchen Tales, part 2

This is the third installment (the first is here and the second is here) about the dilemma of verbal abuse and bullying in academe.  For this post I decided to test a hypothetical case: what if I chose to pursue a case against someone who I believed had verbally abused me?  Would there be colleagues I would be comfortable talking to about this?  Would it be evident from the university website and other resources what my options were?  Because I don’t want to actually alarm anyone here at my institution, this will be mostly a thought and research exercise, but all the same, let’s find out how it might go.


The harassment scenario (and let me be absolutely clear: this is a FICTIONAL scenario.  This did not happen!): Fellow administrator (let’s assume we’re of roughly equal rank–I’m a Dean, he’s a vice provost) who is male comes to my office  and confronts me about a decision I made that has resulted in a budget cut for his office.  He appears at my office door without an appointment and proceeds to launch into an expletive-laced tirade about the injustice of my decision, questioning my authority and my good sense.  I have the presence of mind to tell him that I won’t discuss this with him while he’s so upset, which only angers him more.  He finally storms off, slamming my door loudly behind him.   The next day I’m in a meeting with him and other administrative colleagues.  He makes disparaging remarks about my work and contributions to the group and brings up my decision that affected his budget, indicating his dissatisfaction.

What to do?  I talk to a few colleagues who are also close friends.  They agree that the behavior is unacceptable but, like me, are unsure what my recourse is.  I consider talking to the Provost, to whom both I and the abuser report.  Even though I suspect he would be sympathetic, I’m only in my first few months in this position, and I’m not sure how this would be interpreted, especially since the anger was prompted by a decision that I made.

Perhaps I need a more neutral sounding board or resource.  Does the university have a policy on these things?  After I plug “harassment” into website’s search engine, I get this:

And yes, I am linking to it here, because it is accessible from the university’s public site.

Okay, good.  There’s a policy.  But as I begin to read the policy, several things become apparent: (1) harassment and discrimination are often conflated in the policy and (2) the policy, as written, highlights sexual and racial harassment and discrimination in such a way to make other more generalized claims of harassment a bit more difficult to parse within the policy.  It is unclear to me, for example, why our Office for Institutional Equity (formerly the Office of Affirmative Action) would serve “as the recipient for any formal complaint or report of discrimination/harassment (344-2-03 D (2))” that was NOT based on “race, sex (including pregnancy), religion, color, age, national origin, veteran and/or military status, genetic information, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, marital status or parental status (344-2-03 A).”  I applaud the university’s comprehensive definition of categories of harassment and discrimination, but they don’t fit my scenario.  There is a more generalized section on “harassment” (344-2-03 B (4)) and it addresses the creation of a hostile work environment.  I guess that’s my entry point.

In the next installment I’ll continue this thought experiment and consider what the risks and consequences of taking action might be.

But for today these are the takeaways:

The good news?  The university has a policy on harassment.  The bad news?  It’s a bit difficult to work through.  What do things look like at your institution?  Is there a policy?  How clear is it?  Would you be comfortable using it?



Kitchen Tales, Part I

So…about a week ago I posted a blog entry about verbal abuse and bullying in academe.  I asked friends and colleagues to repost, tweet, and spread it.  The results were–by the usual measures of my small-time blog–rather astounding.  Since first going up the post has received over 1700 views.  My previous record was around 600.  I credit my generous and supportive colleagues with this result.  But the accompanying comments on my Facebook pages, on their Facebook pages, and on the blog itself, and the private messages I received would suggest that I tapped into a broader concern.  People shared stories of being on the receiving end of verbal abuse.  Others talked about trying to change departmental and campus cultures to  limit these behaviors.  Many expressed understandable frustration that more wasn’t being done on their campus and by their colleagues to root out this unacceptable behavior.

All of this seemed to me to warrant some follow-up posts: a series that I will call “Kitchen Tales” (since the original post talked about turning down the heat in the kitchen and as a play on the blog’s name).


So, today in Part One I offer some observations.

First observation: words matter.  People who verbally abuse others are not “blunt” or “speaking their mind” or “assertive” or “forthright.”  They are engaging in bad behavior and we need to name it appropriately.  We don’t need to be inflammatory, but we do need to call this behavior inappropriate and unacceptable.  We need to resist those who would dress it up or cover it up with a vocabulary that justifies or downplays it.

Second observation: Combating and resisting these behaviors will not be easy work and there will be risks.  Colleagues behave like this, in part, because they can get away with it and have been getting away with it.  Even if you are completely and totally in the right in calling this person out, be prepared for potential negative fallout.  Some will applaud you, but some may ask why you’re making such a fuss or picking on this person or suggest that you are the problem, not the person doling out the abuse.  I don’t say this to be discouraging.  I say it because–as with all whistle-blowing–it’s not guaranteed to go smoothly and you need to be prepared.

Third observation: Know your institution.  What kind of institutional support is there if you or someone else decides to stand up to verbal abuse or bullying?  Do you know what your institution’s anti-harassment policy is?  Or if there is one?  If there is, what does it look like?  The one at my university, for example, groups harassment with discrimination more broadly and sexual harassment more specifically.  While I am grateful that we have a policy that covers many possible unacceptable behaviors, the grouping of all of these categories makes the policy a bit opaque and the path for pursuing a complaint involving verbal abuse is muddled as a consequence.  Perhaps, then, this is an area that needs attention.

Which brings me to my fourth observation: Each campus culture and structure is distinctive and solutions will need to be local.  In a future post I will talk about some general precepts and principles, but implementing these will depend greatly on conditions and circumstances that are specific to your campus.

So your homework is this: start learning about your institution’s policies and procedures. Hypothetically, what would it look like–e.g.what office would you go through, who would you talk to, etc–if you wanted to file a complaint against someone?