The infographic shows the relationship between measured absence of bullying, by university, in the 2012 UCU survey, against REF performance (% 4-star publication submissions) in 2021. Points are weighted by sample size. Red are Russell group, blue are post-92 UK universities. Grey band is 95 % confidence limits.

It is a simple story.

Even today, there is a widespread fallacy, in particular among leading universities & their administrators,  that bullying is the unfortunate price to be paid for achieving and maintaining top performance. Overbearing heads of department justify their behaviour as a part of their university’s success, without which its top place would never have been attained.

However, the true story is exactly the opposite. If we examine data from  the UCU 2012 survey, which shows the rate of staff at each university who reported being “bullied” at their institution, and REF research results a decade later, the implication is clear. Universities that are tolerant of bullying deliver bad research results, and the worse the bullying problem, the worse their performance.

The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. Many scholars choose academia because it is a profession which respects their dignity and  autonomy, leaving them free to engage their research interests. Thus a department in which scholars are obstructed, demeaned and harassed is not a place where good scholars are likely to want to remain – and the better an academic’s career profile, the sooner they will be able to exit. The “bullying produces results” argument assumes that heads of department are top scholars guiding the way – when, more often, they are mediocre and petty scholars who target those whose success they perceive as a threat.

Also interesting is that the effect is perceptible in the data years later. It can take a department many years to recover from an abusive and bullying Head.

Categories: Blog

1 Comment

Anon · 29 January 2024 at 23:17

For too long, many institutions have been allowed to get away with murder—both figuratively and literally, and, of course, at the cost of the taxpayer, because of their research performance reputations.

One of the most compelling arguments I’ve heard of on how to tackle this problem is to make reports on the prevalence of bullying and complaints within institutions publicly accessible and to tie an institution’s reputation to its record in handling complaints. Another strategy that could work wonders is to deny grant funding to institutions and researchers who are serial offenders (though they’ll invariably find ways around that through the old boy’s network).

Also, it logically follows that if a toxic organizational culture—one that condones and enables vicious levels of bullying right from the top down—is considered the price to pay for ‘top performance’ by universities, then these institutions should also be prepared to pay a steep price.

They should be willing to accept the bad publicity and massive reputational costs that come in the wake of the press generated by the suicides of those they have targeted and stories emerging from former students and staff who have been targeted (and likewise deal with the fallout when and if institutional retaliation against whistleblowers is made public).

They should be ready to concede the loss of footfall of students and a tarnished reputation in the academic community as word travels and people begin to wake up to the reality that exists behind the facade.

They should realize that their settlements and NDAs in the wake of lawsuits, as well as tactics designed to silence whistleblowers like blacklisting, may be enough to muzzle some people into silence but that they cannot and will not silence everyone.

They should be fully prepared to face the increase in attention, criticism, and scrutiny from advocacy groups, investigative journalists, and policymakers.

But, of course, many universities—perhaps the majority—just want to have their cake and eat it. That’s why we see things such as ‘dignity at work’ and ‘zero tolerance for bullying,’ which are typically just hollow platitudes and window dressing to disguise the ugly reality of institutions that couldn’t care less and will even push people to their deaths.

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