The dark, Machiavellian side of academia

Overlooked by the mass media and given almost free rein, the academic world is a haven for bullies and antisocial behaviour

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According to the mass media, Hollywood and Westminster are awash with misogynists, pornographers, exploitationists and bullies. That may or may not be true. Natural justice requires that accusers and accused have their day in court. Unfortunately, trial by media seems to have replaced trial by jury.

While we’re in the mood to put the world right, we should also shine the spotlight of righteous indignation into the murky world of academia.

Overlooked by the mass media and given almost free rein, academia is a haven for bullies and antisocial behaviour.

It happens like this: most academics are mild-mannered idealists interested only in writing and teaching. Let’s call them hippies. A few, however, are ruthless self-promoters with an unhealthy interest in power and money. Let’s call them Machiavellians.

Despising of their hippie colleagues, whom they consider exploitable imbeciles, the Machiavellians elevate brown-nosing, back-stabbing and bullying to a fine art. Willing to do almost anything to further their own interests, the Machiavellians are catapulted up the promotions ladder – professor, dean, pro-vice chancellor, vice chancellor, then, if they’re a standout Machiavellian, chancellor.

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In Britain, the fortunate pick up a gong or two along the way – Member of the British Empire or Order of the British Empire. The most fortunate are ennobled, able then to spend what remains of their selfish lives eating cream cakes, drinking brandy and incubating gout.

“Are there no protections?” I hear you ask.

On paper, yes. Most British universities are organized into subject-specific colleges. For example, a university will have a College of Social Science, a College of Medicine, etc. Within each college sits a head of college, a supposedly disinterested figure with the powers to investigate allegations of misbehaviour. The head of college is the last institutional port of call for a bullied member of staff.

Does this system work?

Usually, no. Most often, the head of college is nothing more than a puppet, beholding to the heads of department who, in British universities, wield enormous power – political and budgetary.

Compromised by his/her ambitions, the head of college usually prefers a quiet life to one of confrontation and standing up for what’s right.

That leaves vulnerable members of staff with one option – the trade union, run by archetypal substance-abusing, warm beer-drinking, sock-and-sandal wearing, Glastonbury-attending British hippies.

Hopeless. Looks like the revolving door of academia is set to spin ever-faster.

Dr. Simon A. Bennett is the director of the Civil Safety and Security Unit at the University of Leicester, in the United Kingdom.

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