Friday, June 12, 2009

Academic Mobbing: Dirty Politics or Animal Instincts?

An article entitled "Mobbing' Can Damage More Than Careers, Professors Are Told at Conference" appeared in the June 12th e-edition Chronicle of Higher Education. By the title alone, I thought the article was going to be about flash mobs. I became very curious how they could affect a professor's career.

In fact, what the article was about was the phenomenon of 'academic' mobbing. Mobbing in this sense refers to members of a department gang up to isolate or embarrass a colleague. I was able to uncover web sites, blogs, various articles, and books on the topic. Yes, mobbing also happens in libraries.

The practice of mobbing was recently reported in the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Ed of how Oxford professor Ruth Padel effectively engineered the mobbing of Nobel laureate Derek Walcott when they were competing for a coveted Oxford poetry professorship. Southern Illinois University Carbondale has been criticized in the past for having a culture where academic mobbing occurs.

From my perspective, academic mobbing is simply intelligent academics playing dirty politics or being reduced down to their animal instincts:
When songbirds perceive some sign of danger — a roosting owl, a hawk, a neighborhood cat — a group of them will often do something bizarre: fly toward the threat. When they reach the enemy, they will swoop down on it again and again, jeering and making a racket, which draws still more birds to the assault. The birds seldom actually touch their target ... The barrage simply continues until the intruder sulks away. Scientists call this behavior "mobbing."
The June 12th Chronicle article highlights the work of Kenneth Westhues a professor of sociology at the University of Waterloo, who discussed his studies of academic mobbing with The Chronicle in 2006, and created on the 16 indicators of mobbing.
  • The first stage of a mobbing is a period of increasing social isolation. At this point the 'target' is left off of committees or not invited to certain meetings. Colleagues begin to roll their eyes at them during meetings and there is a growing sense that more people dislike them than they once thought.
  • The next stage is one of petty harassment. Administrative requests are delayed or misplaced. They are made to follow the rules and processes while others are able to get around them. A research grant is squelch.
  • The third stage is the "critical incident." It is when significant accusations are made; a charge of plagiarism, a surprise audit. In the eyes of the mob, the critical incident demands swift administrative action and it is use to reinforce what they have always suspected.
  • The next stage is adjudication. At this point, the mobbing escalates to the administrative level, where it is either legitimized or stopped short.

And then, Mr. Westhues says, chances are the 'target' leaves. Whether they are dismissed or fully reinstated, whether it is due to exhaustion, or illness they cut their losses and get out.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why are students protected from bullies by bullying laws but faculty are not protected from mobbing by mobbing laws?