Kenneth Westhues, Correction of Mobbing Episodes in Higher Education (2009; posted 3 December 2012)

From Mobbing as a factor in faculty work life, a joint presentation to the International Conference on Globalization, Shared Governance, and Academic Freedom, sponsored by the American Association of University Professors,  Washington, DC, 11-13 June 2009; as posted on Prof. Westhues’ website, Workplace Mobbing in Academe.

The insight in Schneider’s analysis [q.v.] of the “ineducability of administrators,” their common reluctance to rescue mobbing targets or even to grasp the concept, derives from his use of Max Weber’s favoured method of social research, verstehen, his stepping into administrators’ shoes and looking at things from their point of view. Schneider’s similar insight into the peril faculty associations put themselves in if they support the target has the same origin: understanding from the inside the political constraints on the association leadership.

Schneider is right that mobbing is a “loaded characterization” and mobber a “stigmatizing term.” By definition, the mere application of the term mobbing to a sequence of events in a university (or any other organization) is going to be contested by the instigators and the main participants, since it implies that reason and evidence do not support what they are doing, that in mobilizing for a colleague’s humiliation and eventual elimination, they have been “carried away” by collective passion into wreaking unwarranted harm on their scapegoat (another loaded term), as well as on the values underlying academic life.

This problem in the scientific study of mobbing is so fundamental one is tempted to switch to some other specialty. Why make trouble for yourself? All the social scientist has to say is, “By standard measures, it looks to me that so-and-so has been mobbed.” The beleaguered target may say thanks, but the great majority of those involved will do all in their power to keep this diagnosis off the table, and if they feel obliged to respond, they may well ratchet up their attack on the target, or even broaden it to include the scholar who has called it mobbing.

To whom, then, can one look for acknowledgement that a mobbing has indeed occurred, and for action toward turning back the mob and rescuing its target? Who will take the risk of disagreeing with an angry crowd?

There is no formulaic answer. A mob is sometimes stopped by a single person – a dean, a professor, maybe a secretary – with strength of character enough to stand up and say, “Cut it out. Lay off. There will be no ganging up in this workplace.” Far more mobbings than ever make the news are nipped in the bud by one man or woman who has guts. A famous example occurred long ago in the Middle East. A brave, charismatic rescuer shamed mobbers into slinking away by saying, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” That rescuer, of course, was himself mobbed sometime later, fatally.

To the question of how to correct a mobbing, a further answer is that if the mobbing has reached an advanced stage, the odds of full correction are close to nil. Leymann could not cite a single case from all his years of research, in which the mobbing target was given an apology and fully reintegrated into the workgroup. Once you’ve been collectively expelled, you can never quite go home again. The most one can hope for is mitigation of the target’s losses, in terms of reputation, respect, position, income, health, friendships, family. The realistic question is how to achieve as much mitigation as possible – the difference, for instance, between departing with a large buyout or with nothing but life and the chance to start over somewhere else.

Regardless of how much correction is won, the correcting agent is generally from outside the organization in which the conflict has occurred. Mobbing comes into clearest focus at a certain distance. Outsiders’ vision is less clouded by mobbers’ passion. Once informed of the evidence, outsiders can more easily see what has gone on and label it accurately. Further, outsiders are less vulnerable to the mobbers’ wrath. They face fewer penalties than insiders do for framing the events (to use Schneider’s term) in a way that transfers some blame from the target to the righteous enforcers of virtue.

Here are four examples of outsiders who have played in some cases a corrective role.

First, the courts, which are sometimes helpful if the mobbers have been clumsy enough to commit a clear violation of the target’s rights as an employee or citizen. An example this spring was a jury’s finding for Ward Churchill, in the latter’s suit against the University of Colorado for wrongful dismissal. This verdict did not exonerate Churchill and he will not likely get his job back, but clearly, it restored a fair bit of what his adversaries had robbed him of.

Second, arbitrators and other outside adjudicators established for dispute resolution by university policies and collective agreements. Like courts, these quasi-judicial bodies sometimes rescue mobbing targets, depending on how flagrant are violations of the relevant terms and conditions of employment. The rescue is partial at best. In a case of administrative mobbing at Waterloo, where the target had been formally dismissed on trumped up grounds of sexual harassment, the arbitrator overturned the dismissal and ordered reinstatement. But by the time judgment was handed down, the target had been suspended for two years, his lab had been dismantled, his nerves were shot. He eagerly accepted the university’s offer of a buyout.

Third, the media. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s relentless exposure of mobbings at Southern Illinois University over the past five years is a good example of the limits of the press’s power. Despite national embarrassment in this prestigious medium, the lethal regime of President Glenn Poshard is still in place. But this is also an example of the power of the press. Mobbers’ victory is total, and so is the target’s defeat, if the facts of a case are never even exposed to public view. The Chronicle’s stories have scraped a little of the dirt from the names of professors besmirched at SIU, and to that extent, lessened the extent of their social elimination.

Fourth, organizations like the AAUPFIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), and NAS (The National Association of Scholars), for which academic freedom is a core value, and to which professors routinely appeal, if their freedom is infringed upon. I devote half of my book,The Remedy and Prevention of Mobbing in Higher Education, to two mobbing cases at Medaille College in Buffalo, New York, which were in great part corrected by the administration there, once AAUP exposed them in a report and threatened the college publicly with censure. FIRE has had many similarly dramatic successes, which it customarily trumpets on its website.

Among other outside organizations that may play a corrective role in academic mobbing are professional and learned societies, accrediting bodies, churches, granting agencies, student organizations, and interest groups that agitate on behalf of whatever social category (women, gays, Jews, blacks, Evangelicals, Palestinians, or whoever else) the mobbing target belongs to.

To the many targets of academic mobbing who write to me, I routinely suggest taking pen or pencil and listing on a sheet of paper every outside body that might conceivably be helpful if called upon (then to weigh this list soberly against a list of all the outside bodies the mobbers might be able to recruit on their side).

Our session today at this AAUP conference is, for me, a very happy occasion, and I’m grateful to Mark Schneider for organizing it, because knowledge of the research literature on academic mobbing will enable AAUP officials, in particular those on Committee A and everyone concerned with academic freedom and tenure, to understand more fully many of the complaints brought to AAUP, and intervene more effectively on behalf of professors being wrongly driven out of their institutions.

Freedom of expression is a core value not just of academic life but of American life, guaranteed by the First Amendment. The success of an academic mobbing therefore depends in great part on subterfuge: on making it seem that academic freedom has nothing to do with it, that it’s about the unacceptability in a university of hate, sexual harassment, bullying, breach of confidence, failure to disclose, intimidation, plagiarism, racism, fraud, or some other kind of ethical misconduct. Professor X must be ostracized and punished, the mobbers insist, not because we find his dissent intolerable, not because she attracts so many students she makes the rest of us look bad, but because of serious offenses against collegiality and ethics. Acquaintance with the literature on mobbing will help AAUP officials see through subterfuge to the nub of what is going on, be more intellectually equipped to grasp the conflict and point the way to a fair resolution.


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