No to bullying sign
Dec. 3, 2023


Recently, UNLV’s Ombuds Office partnered with the Graduate College to provide resources for graduate and professional students (and others) who feel that they have been subject to academic bullying. I would like to briefly explore what academic bullying is and what we can do about it.

To sum up the definition on the Graduate College’s Stand Together Against Academic Bullying page, academic bullying happens when someone—usually someone with more real or perceived authority—makes life more difficult for someone else. I would say it’s distinguished from plain old bullying by the added element of intellectual and/or institutional power.

I don’t know if it will make you feel better or worse, but academic bullying isn’t unique to UNLV—it is all-too-common in academic settings around the world. But despite its global scope, academic bullying, as an intensely interpersonal interaction, can effectively be stopped at the local level. It won’t be a statement from the AAUP or an act of Congress that puts an end to the put-downs, but rather small moments of support and kindness, with a helping of self-reflection.

A whole range of behaviors can be classified as academic bullying, from shunning or ignoring someone to verbally abusing them, either alone or in front of an audience, either in person, via remote meeting, or even over email. Those with formal authority over their target may threaten to fire, isolate, speak ill of, or otherwise harm the professional status of their target. They might micromanage, give unclear or contradictory direction, or overwork those under them.

Academic bullying doesn’t manifest in helpful critical feedback, academic rigor, or adherence to consistent work standards. And it’s not present when someone disagrees, even passionately, with others within the bounds of academic discourse. Rather, it is the weaponization of those bounds against a target who has limited institutional options to rebuff the attack.

If academic bullying is so bad, why does it continue? The easiest answer would be to blame the problem on maladjusted individuals, those who are too weak, too petty to resist the temptation of bullying others. But that’s only half the story. Academic bullying is academic rather than personal because, as I mentioned above, it relies on the institutional structures of academia to bring it to menacing life. Try threatening the person waiting in front of you at WinCo with a between-the-lines negative letter of recommendation—odds are, if they don’t just avoid eye contact and finish their transaction, they would a) look at you in vague incomprehension b) laugh c) tell you, in varying shades of (im)politeness to get lost. But, one were to say the same thing to a graduate student whose dissertation committee they are chairing, the danger—and the hurt—is quite real.

Looking uncharitably at those who bully, it might be due to something missing inside of them—validation that they aren’t getting, or a need to assert their superiority and intellectual prowess. More charitably, it might be that they accept that what they are doing is unkinder than necessary, but see their behavior as a rite of passage or even “tough love.” Because they suffered through a slice of similar  (or worse—it’s usually much worse in the retelling) misery, those coming after them must as well. Or they don’t perceive what they are doing as bullying at all. Maybe they just think they have forceful personalities. Maybe they don’t know what they’re doing and are desperately hoping that no one finds them out.

What can be done about academic bullying? One “survivor’s guide” recommends a four-step approach: first, document any questionable interactions. Then, speak with the ombuds, in order to get perspective on all available avenues of resolution. Third, reach out to others who may be going through academic bullying but are afraid to speak out. There may be safety in numbers. Finally (and this is specific to graduate students, post docs, and other early-career academics), have an exit strategy, which includes cultivating other potential mentors and lab groups, or seeking other departments or institutions.

That advice tracks with the options that I usually discuss with those who are facing academic bullying, or in truth any adverse work or learning conditions. Documenting your situation—whether it is saving emails or simply writing up what is happening and how it makes you feel—helps for two reasons: it gives you a record of what happened, before time has dulled or warped your perceptions, and it gives you a chance to assert a measure of agency by getting your narrative down on paper. And, as I never tire of saying, talking with the ombuds is never a bad idea, since you risk nothing and have the chance of learning about new options, or at the very least bouncing around your ideas and frustrations with someone who knows the institution but is not immediately involved with your group.

So please hear me—if you believe you are the victim of academic bullying, the one thing you can do today is make an appointment to speak with the ombuds. To temper expectations, this is not a guaranteed quick panacea, as an hour-long conversation will probably not lead to an immediate resolution of your concerns. But it is a necessary first step. If you’re been waiting to do something, anything to make things better, well, this is the one thing you can do. Today.

If you fear that your conduct might be sneaking into the realm of academic bullying and aren’t sure what you should do (if anything at all), you can also benefit from talking with the Ombuds. We can put what’s happening into context and consider all of your options. The same is true if you are suspecting academic bullying behavior from others that doesn’t personally impact you, but you have witnessed.

And while this latest initiative is putting an emphasis on academic bullying, the Ombuds Office still has many resources available to help those going through any conflict or communication concern, whether they are academic or not and whether they are being bullied or not. If you are having an issue and are uncertain where to go, it is an excellent zero-barrier first stop. You have nothing to lose and quite a bit to gain.

If you would like to talk off-the-record and confidentially about any work- or campus-related concern, please make an appointment with the Ombuds. Our door is always open.


And for more information on our Stand Together Against Academic Bullying, please visit the Graduate College’s page.


David G. Schwartz

UNLV Ombuds