Working Together to Prevent Academic Bullying

By Mark Velednitsky, 2020 INFORMS DEI Ambassador

“That is a stupid idea. You are stupid for even thinking it."

“How is your English so bad? This is what I would expect from a non-native speaker.”

 “If you don’t do this work for me, then you’re never going to graduate.” 

Workplace bullying in academia can be a complicated issue to discuss. In many academic departments, there is an unspoken knowledge that certain advisors mistreat their students, but there is a reluctance to label behaviors as “bullying.” After all, students work closely with their advisors… there is bound to be tension. When does uncivil behavior cross the line and become bullying? 

There is no singular definition of bullying, but there are common themes. Good advisors constructively criticize their students’ work. Bullies blame their students personally, with the intent to belittle or humiliate them. Good advisors help their students reach mutually agreed-upon goals. Bullies assert their power as faculty to strong-arm students for arbitrary or personal reasons. 

For several reasons, academia is particularly susceptible to bullying. There is a lack of mobility between supervisors, a lack of management training, and a de-centralized approach to administrative oversight. In a 2019 Nature survey, 21% of the 6,000+ graduate students surveyed reported experiencing some form of workplace bullying, including 25% of women and 16% of men. 57% of the students who were bullied reported feeling scared to raise their concerns for fear of repercussions. The comprehensive survey echoed past studies, which reported similar numbers: approximately 1 in 5 students are targets of bullying. 

This year, we participated in the inaugural INFORMS Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Ambassadors program. The outcome of our project is a new website addressing workplace bullying in academia. Our website aims to serve the whole academic community, not just those impacted by bullying. After all, most faculty, students, staff, and administrators ultimately want the same thing: happy and productive academic workplaces where everyone can realize their full potential. We offer strategies for creating workplaces that preclude bullying behaviors. 

On our website, you will find...

We sincerely hope that you will consider visiting our website and sharing it with your department and university. For further discussion, please feel free to contact us through the form on our website. We also hope you will consider applying to the next class of INFORMS DEI Ambassadors.