Grad and professional student bullying rises

University surveys show peer-to-peer and faculty-to-student bullying has risen since 2007.

Christopher Aadland

From verbal attacks to threats, graduate and professional students are increasingly experiencing harassment and bullying at the University of Minnesota, according to surveys.

“… I’ve lost all desire for research because of the continual harassment and hostile environment I’ve experienced,” an anonymous student said in a recent survey. “I never thought I would give up on research, but I guess anything’s possible. I’ve given up.”

For the past decade, Jan Morse, director of the University of Minnesota’s Student Conflict Resolution Center, has noticed an upsurge in graduate and professional students coming to her office looking for relief from bullies.

And despite work over the last six years by a group of school administrators, faculty members and students that aims to tackle bullying, this year’s survey still shows graduate and professional students are increasingly experiencing harassment.

But Morse said she doesn’t think the trend is due to the group’s work being ineffective, but rather it’s because its members have raised awareness surrounding the issue and have motivated victims to come forward.

“You can’t really change culture,” she said. “You can only set the stage for culture change to occur.”

When Morse began noticing the bullying issue, she created a survey to find out how prevalent it was among graduate
students.

The first Academic Incivility and the Graduate Student Experience Survey was sent to students in 2007 and then the work group was assembled a year later to address the concerns the survey spotlighted, Morse said.

Despite the group’s efforts, the 2014 survey reported that 30 percent of the over 1,600 students who responded had experienced harassment — the highest number that’s been reported in the past seven years.

Reporting the problem

Fear of retaliation or creating a tense work environment — where post-graduation success is often determined — can keep graduate and professional students who are victims of harassment from reporting the problems.

Students often only report bullying once the situation has escalated, said Keaton Miller, a Council of Graduate Students executive board member. And by that point, students may have already chosen to switch programs or advisers.

Graduate and professional students also tend not to confront abuse altogether because they fear backlash from the accused party, Morse said.

The 2014 survey showed more than half of students who experienced harassment didn’t report it because they feared retaliation. Of those who did report it, 42 percent said they experienced retaliation afterward.

The survey defines academic harassment as “hostile, intimidating, or threatening behavior which interferes with the ability to work or study.”

In the survey, students who reported that they were harassed cited fellow classmates or residents, faculty and graduate advisers as the most common abusers.

Morse said the work group has strived to make it easier for those who are harassed to find resources for dealing with the bullying and give students with complaints a well-defined way to resolve them.

Additionally, Miller said clear definitions for the student-adviser and student-faculty relationships are needed within departments to ensure no one crosses any lines.

Getting along with one’s adviser is crucial to finding a job post-graduation, said Gary Namie, director and co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, an advocacy group. “A faculty member is not just a supervisor, but they are also the gatekeeper to a post-doc or post-graduate career,” he said. “They are the reference.”

While the work group encourages students to report bullying, Miller said bringing the situations forward can sometimes create an uncomfortable work environment.

“A lot of students feel uneasy about going through that process,” he said. “It’s like a particularly nasty divorce or breakup.”

University policy

Namie said he’s not surprised  that the number of harassment reports  among University graduate and professional students has risen.

“It’s normal for [bullying] to be there because of the size of the institution,” he said.

 An anti-bullying policy is necessary to address the issue, Namie said.

According to University policy, bullying reports become an issue for the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity and Affirmative Action when the reported person’s behavior is related to a protected class or identity, like race or gender. If the incident doesn’t fall under that category, there isn’t a clear University policy for how the harassment should be addressed.

While there isn’t a clear policy for most bullying instances the Student Conflict Resolution Center encounters, Morse said the work group has hesitations about lobbying for one.

“Our approach is, ‘how can we be helpful to members of our community who are dealing with this issue,’” she said.