'Mobbing' Can Damage More Than Careers, Professors Are Told at Conference

Washington — It probably wouldn’t be that hard for faculty members to imagine that academic mobbing — a form of bullying in which members of a department gang up to isolate or humiliate a colleague — could derail their careers. But a discussion of the phenomenon today at the American Association of University Professors’ international conference on globalization, shared governance, and academic freedom illustrated that the consequences can be much worse.
The session, based on a paper titled “Mobbing as a Factor in Faculty Work Life,” began with a gripping story about how colleagues and administrators had ganged up on a highly productive tenured professor — think of being subjected to a stream of trumped-up complaints, ousted from an office, shut out of departmental meetings and committees, accused of an affair with a graduate student, and more. The professor was eventually fired and almost immediately afterward died of a stroke brought on by the stress of it all.
The story, actually a composite of the real-life experiences of several professors who were victims of mobbing, was written by Joan E. Friedenberg, a professor of bilingual education at Florida Atlantic University who herself has experienced academic mobbing. Collapsing many stories into one, she said, allows her to better communicate “the feelings of bewilderment and dread that victims of mobbing feel.”
Ms. Friedenberg and the paper’s co-authors, Mark Schneider, an associate professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and Kenneth Westhues, a professor of sociology at the University of Waterloo, presented their research at today’s session. Mr. Westhues, who discussed his studies of academic mobbing with The Chronicle in 2006, also offered a handout that included a list of 16 indicators of mobbing. Among them: If rumors are circulating about the target’s supposed misdeeds, if the target is excluded from meetings or not named to committees, or if people are saying the target needs to be punished formally “to be taught a lesson,” it’s likely that mobbing is under way.
But victims should not assume that notifying an administrator will help. Evidence suggests that administrators may find it easier to become part of a mob than to try to stop one, Mr. Schneider said. That’s because administrators are likely to think it’s better to have one person upset with them than a group. And faculty associations, he said, can’t really “confront and expose mobbing unless they are very strong.”
Ms. Friedenberg added that administrators should be forewarned that mobbing can have a boomerang effect on them: Some victims are “driven by detail and an intense need for justice,” she said, and may launch a “significant counterattack.” —Audrey Williams June