How to blow the whistle on an academic bully

Bullying is endemic in academia, an environment riddled with hierarchies and hyper-competition, exacerbated by an over-reliance on temporary contracts and the pressure to land highly coveted tenured positions

Here is a step-by-step approach to confronting an academic bully:

  • Step 1: Confirm that it is bullying
  • Step 2: Seek support
  • Step 3: Consider informal and formal complaint routes
  • Step 4: Know what to expect after filing a complaint

None of these responses fixes the culture that allows and rewards bullies… The longer-term proactive response is to marginalize assholes in your department, and stop hiring new ones :slight_smile: .


That’s a good point @brucecaron. This is good advice but it’s just useful for the individual and doesn’t fix the underlying cultural problems.

Nature has written about bullying previously:

But the approach they report on and seem to support is more about having policies that prohibit and punish bullying rather than incentivising better behaviour or promoting cultural change.

In general, having policies is not enough, says C. K. Gunsalus, a specialist in research integrity at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. To stamp out bad behaviour, leaders need to apply policies consistently and show that bullying has consequences, she says. “One of the worst things you can do is start the process and abandon it. It reinforces the problem.”

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I would argue that people can continue being assholes, without losing a job they’re good at, as long as they are being kept on an arm’s distance from other people. And that there’s an open dialogue in the workplace about it, like “ok now you can choose to work with this guy for a while, you should know that he’s generally not allowed to be in the same room as others because he has a tendency to hurt people; if you choose to work with him anyway, then you should know that we’re all here for you whenever you may need to vent”.

Bullying is perhaps most hurtful when others don’t care, when others are silent and venting is kept as whispers behind closed doors. Kicking out bullies will therefore only solve parts of the problem: the “let’s stay silent and not talk openly about issues or not standing up for eachother” culture remains a d will continue to enable growth of problematic behaviours.

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Good approach. But would you knowingly hire someone from another organization where they’ve identified this person as a jerk? … even if they have a lot of honors? (Honors can also be gamed, I guess)…

This reminds me of something I heard during the Y Combinator Startup School that is related to this. The background was basically that Y Combinator (the full program, not the startup school) doesn’t accept founders who they think are going to be jerks/annoying to work with.

About the somebody asked: Well how do you know that you won’t miss out on having the next Steve Jobs (despite his brilliance, he was apparently a jerk to work with), somebody who is brilliant but a jerk, in the program. You’re leaving money/talent on the table

The YC presenter’s response was: We want to enjoy working with our founders and we prioritise that over maximising our expected return.

I’d argue the stakes for YC are much higher than those for academic hiring committees (maybe tens of millions of dollars in expected equity per decision), and yet they do seem to be quite committed to creating a pleasant work environment.


An example of academic bullying that doesn’t really seem to have been dealt with very well.

The complaints that launched the investigations allege that the pair — Sofia Feltzing and Melvyn Davies — bullied colleagues using their positions of power, and that Lund University officials failed to act strongly enough following multiple reports over the years. Although bullying and harassment are rife in academia, this case is unusual because it pits many members of an academic division against two of its most senior professors, alleging long-lasting and widespread harm.

Because of the case, Davies moved to Lund’s mathematics department in January; Feltzing has been working from home, but is expected to be reintegrated into the observatory. The plan to bring Feltzing back has not gone down well with many there. Over the past year and a half, representatives of PhD and master’s student groups have sent letters to Lund’s dean of science and vice-chancellor, requesting that they take additional action. Faculty members have also weighed in: “Insisting on a reintegration plan of a factual harasser without taking the safety and concerns of victims seriously puts astronomy [at Lund] at risk of collapse,” reads a January 2021 protest letter signed by 11 senior staff members and addressed to Erik Renström, the university’s vice-chancellor.

Jesper Nielsen, a representative of the master’s students at the observatory, says that things might go relatively smoothly if Feltzing is brought back into the department in such a way as to avoid those in direct conflict with her. “But if it is being handled sloppily, and if her victims come into contact with her, then that’s where the big problems will arise,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s possible to reintegrate her nicely enough.”

Others say that the Lund Observatory experience is one that other institutions should not repeat. “If there is a zero-tolerance policy,” says Johansen, “there has to be some form of consequences or accountability.”