Worlds of Education

McGill University, Montréal. Photo: Mathieu Thouvenin/Flickr
McGill University, Montréal. Photo: Mathieu Thouvenin/Flickr

“Trade union research and action: an exchange of views on academic mobbing”, by Jean-Marie Lafortune and Eve Seguin.

published 9 May 2019 updated 15 May 2019
written by:

In October 2018, the Quebec Federation of University Professors (FQPPU), affiliated to Education International, published a report entitled “Le mobbing en milieu académique : mieux comprendre le phénomène pour mieux l’enrayer” (“Mobbing in an academic environment: understanding the phenomenon better in order to eradicate it better”). Jean-Marie Lafortune, president of the Federation, and Eve Seguin, a professor at UQAM who oversaw the research, agreed to answer our questions.

Worlds of Education: Can you briefly explain how this initiative came about?

Workplace mobbing is a concerted process of forcing out a person – called the “target” – employed in an organization; it involves both colleagues and the employer. Mobbing affects many organizations, but some much more severely than others. Hospitals, government agencies and universities are real hotbeds for this serious organizational pathology. Quebec experienced a widely publicized instance of academic mobbing – that is, mobbing initiated by university professors against other professors. In 1994, researcher Justine Sergent committed suicide with her husband following a mobbing campaign that had begun as soon as she arrived at McGill University. She left a note explaining that she no longer had the strength to fight. It has been estimated that 12% of academic mobbing targets end up committing suicide, a figure similar to that found by pioneering researcher Heinz Leymann on workers in general. Another likely case is that of researcher Valéry Fabrikant of Concordia University, who murdered four of his colleagues in 1992. The official accounts attribute his actions to his paranoia but there is some evidence that a mobbing campaign may have been conducted against him. The phenomenon that experts call “going postal”, following numerous murders of mobbers in the US postal service, consists of a target turning against his or her abusers the violence he or she has experienced. The dramatic cases of Justine Sergent and Valéry Fabrikant should have sparked a wide-ranging debate among all those involved in higher education in Quebec: first and foremost, university teachers, but also their unions, university administrations, the conference of rectors, scientific institutions and learned societies such as ACFAS, as well as the Ministries of Higher Education and Labour. No such debate has occurred, and the situation has not changed. This is not just a case of omerta: academic mobbing seems to be the subject of collective denial. In 2017, at the instigation of Professor Eve Seguin, the FQPPU decided to conduct research into this very serious problem.

Worlds of Education: What work has your union been doing on this issue, and what do you hope to achieve through this research?

In the mid-2000s, the FQPPU funded qualitative research into academics who suffered psychological harassment. This was done in the wake of the amendment of the Labour Standards Act in 2004. Quebec had added an Article 81.18 to the Act, prohibiting “psychological harassment”. However, many people believe that this law is not up to the task of identifying and punishing mobbing, which is a particularly serious and pernicious form of harassment. In 2017, the work began with an extensive review of the scientific literature, the main objective being to distinguish mobbing from related phenomena such as harassment and bullying. The concepts needed to be refined in many ways, because the literature is sometimes confused. Three problems are particularly acute. The first is the problem of naming: mobbing is referred to with a range of terms, including workplace bullying, harassment and emotional abuse. The second is the problem of definition: the specific characteristics of mobbing can vary between different studies. The third is the problem of lack of distinctness: many studies, especially the quantitative ones, include all forms of harassment in the same category. The second objective of our literature review was to survey the different methodological approaches used by researchers in order to identify those likely to delineate mobbing in academia effectively.

Worlds of Education: At the end of this research, did you identify one or more specific characteristics of the phenomenon of mobbing in an academic setting as opposed to other sectors?

Yes. Although the dynamics of mobbing are the same everywhere, there are causes, humiliation techniques and a process of victim-blaming that are specific to academic mobbing. As regards causes, it should be mentioned that the corollary of university professor status is a very high expectation in terms of performance. A professor is expected to achieve nothing less than “excellence” in research, teaching and service to the community. This imperative of excellence generates a phenomenon of widespread envy among colleagues and increases the risk that high-performing professors will find themselves targeted. This factor played a decisive role in the mobbing at McGill Universityof the outstanding researcher Justine Sergent. Likewise, the research community is extremely competitive. For example, professors need to obtain research grants, which are awarded on the basis of the scores they receive in competitions organized by the various donors. These scores are detailed to the second decimal place, so it can be tempting to take the view that any means of eliminating competitors is justified. Some analysts believe that the decline in state funding of universities has led to fiercer competition for resources. Academic mobbing may therefore have increased over the last 40 years, although unfortunately this cannot be verified since no research was conducted into mobbing before this funding decline occurred. Another very important cause of academic mobbing is the profound power imbalance between tenured and untenured professors. The latter are at great risk of being targeted, especially if they exercise their academic freedom. In fact, refusal to grant tenure is one of the key techniques for forcing out targets, as evidenced by the recent, highly publicized case of the brilliant McGill professor, Ahmed Ibrahim, whose career has now been destroyed. Some authors also point out the solitary nature of professors’ work, which leads to lack of solidarity and the mentality of “looking out for number one”. Finally, there are divisions within academic departments, with professors grouping together according to their research interests and/or ideological position. This situation promotes conflict, and we know that conflict often represents Act I of a mobbing campaign. In this respect, and although the scientific literature doesn’t mention it, it would be interesting to know whether professors who study less conventional subjects or are ideologically isolated represent natural targets.

As for humiliation techniques, there are two that are specific to the academic environment. The first is for the employer – the university authorities – to formally accuse the target of having committed one or more unacceptable violations that go to the very essence of academic work. Traditionally, these violations are plagiarism, breach of safety or ethical rules in research and academic fraud. To these three accusations have recently been added two others, which have the advantage of resonating outside the universities and thus ensure mobbers the support of a section of the media and public opinion. These are accusations of sexual harassment and bullying, particularly against students. Even women are now being depicted as sexual predators. The case of Professor Teresa Buchanan, dismissed by Louisiana State University for “collective sexual harassment”, demonstrates the particularly chilling effect of the new sexual moralism on freedom of speech. The second typical technique of academic mobbing is for professors to join forces with students in the campaign they conduct against the target. The mobbers thus benefit from greater strength of numbers and increase their capacity to cause harm. Students are used as a vehicle to spread defamatory rumors, write negative teaching assessments, intimidate the target in class, file anonymous complaints, and so on. Over the last twenty years, the staggering infantile (and indeed self-infantile) behaviour of students that has taken place on campuses has led to them becoming excellent mobbing instigators: they are able to initiate mobbing campaigns themselves against the professors who don’t give them what they want. They find objective allies in university administrators. It’s not hard to foresee that recent developments in the two typical university mobbing techniques will be increasingly combined in the future. Discontented students will accuse professors of bullying, sexual harassment, or both, and will be supported by administrators who will organize witch hunts, so that their targets are eventually destroyed. The case of Professor Marcella Carollo, who is facing a dismissal procedure at ETH Zurich, is an object lesson in this respect. It should be remembered that professors – even tenured professors – can be dismissed for “just cause”.

Finally, while the most common victim-blaming process is allegations of personality disorder or mental imbalance, which are always used to pin responsibility on the target for the violence inflicted upon him or her, in academic mobbing this is systematically replaced or supplemented by allegations of lack of collegiality. The effectiveness of this process lies in the fact that collegiality is a much-touted value at universities, where it can even become something of a mantra, while remaining an eminently vague concept. “Lack of collegiality” therefore strikes a sensitive chord with professors, like the magic bullet in media theory, and thus provides an excellent justification for mobbing.

Worlds of Education: What does this imply regarding possible interventions to prevent or put a stop to the phenomenon of mobbing in an academic setting? What possible ways forward have been identified through this research?

The research has not identified any solutions specifically adapted to academic mobbing. What it has shown, though, is that the existing measures are completely ineffective. Universities have policies to combat psychological harassment. However, the structures and procedures put in place under these policies, such as offices for the prevention of harassment and mediation between victims and harassers, are ineffective where mobbing is concerned. First, these measures are generally turned against the target, because he or she is isolated and powerless, whereas the mobbers are numerous and have a lot of power, by virtue of their numbers but also because they often hold positions of responsibility such as head of department or dean. Second, the dynamics of mobbing are insidious and grow worse over time. It takes extensive analytical work to identify them clearly in all their complexity, and the bodies and staff responsible for policies to combat psychological harassment have neither the mandate nor the resources to carry out such work. As for university administrators, like all employers they prefer to side with power and numbers.

Worlds of Education: How do you plan to follow up on the report’s recommendations, which are addressed to the unions in particular?

The literature review resulted in a research report posted on the FQPPU website, which was first circulated among the FQPPU member unions that met in October 2018. On that occasion, the union representatives were invited to take note of the problem and to indicate whether they were interested in learning more about its scale, possibly by conducting a broad investigation within the Quebec university network. We know that academic mobbing is widespread and part of the culture of universities, but we do not have reliable figures on its prevalence, either in Quebec or elsewhere. If union representatives so wish, the next step should be to equip the FQPPU member unions to deal appropriately with this scourge, and above all to prevent it through various awareness-raising actions.

The full report can be downloaded here(in french).

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.