November 29, 2014

Imperial College London to ‘review procedures’ after death of academic - A matter for his family?

Imperial College London is to examine its staff policies after the death of an academic who was believed to have been placed under a performance review.

Stefan Grimm, professor of toxicology in the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial, was found dead in Northwood, Middlesex, in September. An inquest was opened and adjourned at the West London District Coroner’s Court on 8 October.

Speaking to Times Higher Education on condition of anonymity, two academics who knew Professor Grimm, who was 51, said that he had complained of being placed under undue pressure by the university in the months leading up to his death, and that he had been placed on performance review.

He is understood to have been unsuccessful in a number of grant applications, and to have been told that if he continued to struggle in this regard his job would be at risk.

The academics said Professor Grimm had felt let down by Imperial and did not feel he was given sufficient support in the months leading up to his death.

THE understands that shortly before he died, Professor Grimm asked not be named as the corresponding author on one of his recently published papers, and one of his colleagues took on the role instead.

A spokeswoman for Imperial said that the college would provide “all the assistance it can” as the statutory authorities conduct their investigation, and that the university was to conduct its own review.

“Following Professor Grimm’s death, Imperial’s provost has tasked the director of human resources and one of the college’s senior elected academic representatives to review the relevant college policies and procedures,” she said.

“Their report will be considered by a senior group led by the provost, and the college will move swiftly to implement any recommendations.”

Her statement also says: “Imperial College London seeks to give every member of its community the opportunity to excel and to create a supportive environment in which their careers may flourish.
“As with all serious and tragic events involving the loss of life of serving staff or current students, the college conducts appropriate reviews of the circumstances in order to see whether wider lessons may be drawn.

“At a time when family, friends, colleagues and students are still coming to terms with a death, it is important to undertake any reviews in a manner that respects these sensitivities, and that does not create a more difficult or challenging environment for those people.”

In response to claims that the university had not circulated information to colleagues of Professor Grimm, other than a short announcement of his death, the spokeswoman said she was “aware that a number of Stefan’s former colleagues and students have written an obituary and have submitted it to one of Nature’s publications”. She said that Imperial was “planning to republish this, with permission, when it appears”.

Details of Professor Grimm’s funeral, she added, were “a matter for the family”.


November 22, 2014

Bullying at the Democratic Republic of bULlySTER University - An Introduction

In this first of an occasional series on the most despotic university in these islands, we would like to introduce you to the university's current dictator, President (definitely-not-for-life) Pritchard Farnett and his “Cabinet of Horrors”... sorry, I mean senior management team... Like many a uni expansionist Pritch interpreted BU's old motto "to build anew" rather too literally and has reduced both his finances and a big district of Belslow, literally to rubble. Possessed with unhealthy ambitions of college lebensraum "Bully Farnett" came unstuck with his central Belslow campus vision. In fact unlike the Pyongyang based Mr. Kim, Pritch met the fate of many erstwhile uni super-thugs, known in the murky trade of college politics as "Gadaffi's end". Pritch is now on life-support having recently been shafted by his University Council, and will not remain dictator indefinitely. Like the late Libyan Colonel, BU's “lame-duck” President finally got a touch of his own unpleasant medicine as the uni Council forgiving the concurrence of any two (but not three) Presidential neuroses, ultimately deduced their strong man possessed a super-abundance of them all-myopia, incompetence and odiousness. Slightly more reticent than his immediate predecessor, the ousted Gerry "Black Bush" McKenna (a BU despot famed for outrageous drunkenness at University Senate) Farnett prefers “delegated genocide", never wishing to get professorial blood on his decidedly off-the-peg suits. But like Gerry, Pritchy also espoused too literally the word "Vice" in "University Vice-Chancellorship" until his campus "killing fields" finally caught up with him.
There comes a time in every dictatorship when cupboards are just too full of academic corruption, closets unhealthily brimful of skeletons, and college basements overrun with the putrefying corpses of sacked lecturers. And so it came to pass that after almost a decade of staff harassment, financial mismanagement, dismal planning and ungodly governance, Pritch finally got it in his own nuts. So indeed even now Pritchard is busily packing his suitcases with his ill-gotten gains of college dictatorship, including his proudly sported Rolex - sorry name drop - , a bribe for passing all those illiterate students his university loves to recruit from the Middle East. Some would say that he single-handedly brought BU to its knees, but that would mean air-brushing out the rest of the college mafia, the top uni managers who collectively sunk the “good ship bULlySTER”. So with displeasure, I solemnly introduce to you Pritch's evil horrible in appearance as they are singularly heartless. This is a university "A Team" which makes Capone's gangsters look like an ensemble of choir-boys.
Let’s start with a vulgar creature who might seem more lion-tamer than human resources gopher in BU's grisly Zoo, one Ronald MacDonald, the university's Chief Torturer and Executioner. This is a ghoulish man allegedly responsible for scores of destroyed careers, several staff suicides, numerous forced redundancies and whose very presence is enough to panic the university's immiserated working population. Ronald who allegedly found "student love" is to inter-personal relationships what Hannibal Letcher is to dinner-time entertainment. This self-confessed socio-path  particularly enjoys his job portfolio of "discipline" but rumours are his days are numbered. Having already been formally suspended, his sojourn as BU arch henchman may expire with his master's departure.
Also introducing Deborah Keenan, Minister of Mis - communication, a lady with a penchant for self-promotion, TV cameras and conjugating in uniform, and who at an early point in her career realized the best route to promotion was not a vertical trajectory but horizontal conviviality. "All frock and no filo-facts" Deborah had a brief career as a telly don until the questions finally proved too difficult under the glare of live TV. Intensely grilled by BBC bULlySTER journalists her sickly smile could no longer disguise her intellectual emptiness and she vanished amidst vapors of Austin's couture and cheap perfume.
Pugh Antenna is Chief of Research and Innovation, sometime country and western crooner and defrocked nurse with all the comforting manners of a pedophile priest. Always a bit crazy, Pugh’s start in mental health nursing was a good preparation for the mad-house of BU. It's oft said in health-care a good bed-side manner is critical but Pugh quickly became known in the uni as "`Nurse Death", harkening back to  his days as Southern Board’s cruel matron espousing the doctrine of "cure or kill". He's put those instincts to use flogging the university’s research arm.
Our Finance Chief (appropriately named) Pete Despair, has labored for years imaginatively mis-juggling the finances of a “no hope" uni. While employed to cook the university books, Pete is a discreet specimen who is actually better known for having almost lost his wife to the uni's former HR director, Brendan “Halifax" Hamilton. Brendan started off his career threatening trainee bank clerks! The latter's liaison with (and unlucky gift of a watch to) Mr. Despair's wife (dishonestly purloined with a university credit card) persuaded BU to call time on Hamilton’s job. Our friend "Axe man" Ronald MacDonald was instrumental in his former boss's demise! That left the Despair couple intact and despite the bad times for university finance, the name-card on Pete's door remains the only "hope" left in the entire campus.
We would also like to mention Fred Astaire, perhaps a reluctant thug, who asks forgiveness to his God at night for every poor soul he persecutes. Professor of Property Investment and an expert on the Built Environment, Fred may just be a little too principled for the rest of the management team. Not keen on the university's expansion plan he may survive Farnett's departure but somehow lacks the unwavering ruthlesness needed for the BU "killing machine". It remains to be seen whether he will suffer the fate of another college "year zero" or may yet be the liberator after years of oppression.
Then we have Richie Killar in Planning & Partnerships whose former department accidentally admitted scores of failed students. A man with a mission, this muscular (or maybe just overweight) Christian is proud to be a leading light of British Computing and can rugby-tackle the scrum of bULlySTER university politics. Indeed his rise was achieved at the expense of BU strong-woman Anne Moran. A former school teacher, Anne was dubbed “Miss Moron" but her sharpened stilettos bludgeoned their way to university power despite her impressive ignorance. Finally Prof Killar slew this she-dragon in a manner that would have made St George proud.
It is hard to find anything interesting to say about Davina MacBribster, Teaching and Learning Supremo except that like many health academics if you linger too long around her she is decidedly "bad for your health". Leading “Quality Assurance and Enhancement”, Davina would hardly recognize quality if it hit her with a rock.
Finally, Estates Director Faddy Donut the "man without a plan”. Trusted  to spin the uni's expansion and collect back-handers from property moguls, Faddy was almost sacked for being caught in coition with a former lady dean in a college store-room. Unlucky enough to be discovered by an evangelical security guard the latter's complaints about Faddy's impropriety could not be silenced. BU took the predicable decision to lance the boil. They promptly made the poor Christian security man forcibly redundant and let Faddy letch on.
That's all for now from the Democratic Republic of bULlySTER University. You've met the entire kitchen cabinet, the whole hellish rogue’s gallery. Next time we'll introduce you to the university deanship, known popularly as "Prich’s dunderheads" at least one of whom does not even possess an undergraduate degree. With such an august team of over-promoted dunces it is hardly surprising that some BU boffins think a "Dean's List" is something you'd find in a posh restaurant. So bon appétit from the cannibals of bULlySTER University!

November 08, 2014


During one of the many times I was bullied by my last department head while I was teaching, I suggested that we go to mediation. I thought that since we couldn't arrive at a resolution that we both could agree to by ourselves, perhaps a third party could help. Maybe there was something at least one of us were missing.

Did it help? Of course not. I only succeeded in making him mad. He pounded his fist on the table, said he wanted nothing to do with that "mediation BS" (or words to that effect) and added: "I will deal with you as your supervisor!" The fact that I suggested mediation, which he refused, meant nothing to the dean. He himself was only to glad to be rid of me and I'm sure my telling him that only made him more determined.

One word of advice. NEVER rely on your staff association or union. It may be working with the management as collaborators and, yes, it happened to me. My department head put all sorts of defamatory material in my personnel file without my knowledge. This was contrary to regulations as not only was I to receive copies of such submissions, I had the right to offer a rebuttal. The president of our staff association at the time received copies of that material, as did the dean. For some mysterious reason, not only was my name left off the circulation list, I had no knowledge of it.


November 05, 2014

Culture of cruelty: why bullying thrives in higher education

Why employees bully other employees is a question academics have sought to answer since the 1990s.

The perspective proposed by Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann, father of workplace bullying research, is that we bully one another because of factors within our work environment, including the nature of our work and organisational culture.

Characteristics of our jobs, such as low autonomy, boring tasks, unclear roles and high workload have all been implicated as possible causes of bullying. Employees working in uninspiring jobs may be tempted to enact destructive behaviour as a source of stimulation, whereas individuals stressed out by heavy workloads may perpetrate bullying to cope with frustration or to assert personal control.

What causes bullying: personality or environment?

Bullying may be further facilitated by organisational cultures and structures that permit it. In certain organisational cultures, bullying is a means of achieving goals, and in cultures characterised by high internal competition, it may be the most effective way of improving reputation and climbing the latter. Reward systems can sometimes provoke bullying as aggressive tactics could be thought the best way to rid supervisors of either underperforming, or overperforming subordinates.

The other perspective on why adults bully concerns personality factors. An overarching personality profile cannot be applied to bullies or victims, however some consistent themes are apparent.

Traits associated with bullies include narcissism, unstable self-esteem, anxiety and a lack of social competence, likewise traits linked to victims are vulnerability, low self-esteem and a propensity to experience negative emotion.

The vulnerable victim is one typology associated with victimised individuals, but there is a growing body of evidence which suggests that victims share the same personality traits as perpetrators, leading to suggestions that perpetrators and victims can hold both roles.

Another view concerns interpersonal differences, as individuals who possess traits that differentiate them from the rest of the workgroup can make them vulnerable to bullying. For instance, in workplaces dominated by men, woman are more likely to be bullied and vice versa.

Research continues to address the causes of bullying, but perhaps surprisingly those investigating it are themselves operating in a risk sector as high levels of bullying are consistently reported in higher education.

In the UK, the overall prevalence of workplace bullying – based on the proportion of working people who have experienced it – across all working sectors is usually estimated at between 10-20%.

However the percentage of people who have experienced bullying within academic settings is higher than the national average. UK higher education studies have found the percentage of people experiencing it ranges between 18% to 42%.

Undermining behaviour: part of the job for academics?

Initially, it seems strange that more bullying occurs in higher education, as academic jobs are still characterised by large amounts of personal autonomy and the academy promotes values of collegiality and civility. However, a closer inspection can provide clues as to why bullying occurs in this context.

Cultures where bullying flourishes have been characterised as competitive, adversarial and politicised. While academia can be on occasion adversarial, it is more commonly competitive and political. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the bullying behaviours most cited within academic contexts – threats to professional status and obstructive behaviours, designed to inhibit employees achieving their goals.

A Canadian study explored academic bullying behaviours in more depth, finding that having your contributions ignored, being the subject of gossip and being undermined and belittled in front of others were the behaviours most commonly experienced.

In the higher education context where discussion, debate and criticism are encouraged, behaviours directed at undermining another individual can be more easily justified as part of the job. While competition for limited research resources may lead to displays of power and hidden agendas that can make the wider academic context even more toxic.

Furthermore, the “publish or perish” mentality, combined with teaching students and grant submission targets contribute to inherent role conflict. Such daily demands inhibit the ability of some academics to cope with bullying, and demands cause stress which may lead otherwise rational people to engage in bullying as the spiral of work pressure increases.

Due to a lack of available research, it is unclear whether bullying is getting worse in academia, although Jamie Lester, author of the book Workplace bullying in higher education feels it is on the rise. It has been noted that higher education has become more competitive and hierarchical which may facilitate greater levels of bullying.

However without documenting the rates of bullying in academic contexts over time it is impossible to discern whether the problem is getting worse. For this reason it has been suggested that academic institutions benchmark the nature and prevalence of bullying behaviours, while providing education and guidelines designed to reinstate the more collegial culture that academia may have lost.

So how can employees beat bullying? Here’s what to do if you are facing bullying at work:

• Firstly, don’t blame yourself – this will only make you feel worse.
• Keep a written record of events, along with any evidence of negative acts (eg emails, written correspondence).
• Seek informal resolution early in the conflict – speaking to the perpetrator early on may enable resolution without formal approaches that can be lengthy and stressful.
• If the bullying persists, identify whether your organisation has a grievance policy and report the problem to a relevant individual eg union representative, HR manager, line manager or occupational health adviser.
• Discuss it with your support network inside and outside of work. Support is also available from charitable organisations. For instance, the mental health charity Mind can offer support via phone (0300 123 3393) and email (

Sam Farley is a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Work Psychology (IWP), Sheffield University Management School – follower him on Twitter: @sam_farley3

Christine Sprigg is a lecturer in occupational psychology at IWP, Sheffield University Management School