Academics Behaving Badly: Not Just Irritating, But Also Expensive

Around this time of the academic year, the enthusiasm of last September has been almost completely exhausted. Deadlines for big class projects are fast approaching, everyone is sniffling with a cold or has gigantic lack-of-sleep circles under their eyes (or both), crankiness is running rampant, and the end of the semester seems a looooong way away. So maybe that’s why my eye was caught this past week by two different discussions of academic bad behavior.

Over on The Contemplative Mammoth, Jacquelyn Gill called out a poster on an email list for making disparaging remarks about hiring female PhD graduates for academic jobs; the poster (a woman) claimed that young job applicants, “especially female[s]”, “don’t bring much to the table”. The responses to Jacquelyn’s critique recounted many similar experiences of being insulted or stereotyped, and wondered why some academics seem to think they can get away with this sort of  inappropriate behaviour.

Then, through the Inside Higher Ed website, I found out about a post provocatively titled Academic Assholes and the Culture of Niceness. Inger Mewburn, a/k/a The Thesis Whisperer, described a discussion with some of her colleagues – inspired by Bob Sutton‘s excellent book The No Asshole Rule – about the bad behaviour in many academic workplaces, how it seems to get perpetuated despite its unpleasantness, and what could be done to counteract it. The responses to Inger’s post included many stories of bad behaviour similar to those experienced by Inger and her colleagues.

It should be no secret to anyone reading this blog that I love my job, and that I enjoy working in an academic environment. But while I was reading these two posts and the many responses to both of them, I was nodding my head in recognition. Because I have seen this behaviour too – way more often than I would like to have seen it – and it’s really depressing to recognize how widespread it is. Here’s just a few examples of academics behaving badly:

  • Senior scholar at a conference publicly dissing the work of a junior scholar for no other reason than to promote his or her own research? I’ve seen it.
  • Journal articles rejected because a (supposedly anonymous) reviewer complains that the article didn’t have enough citations of his or her own publications? I’ve seen it.
  • A thesis or dissertation supervisor presenting their student’s work as their own? I’ve seen it (but didn’t personally experience it, fortunately).
  • Researchers refusing to talk to other researchers from institutions that aren’t well known or who don’t have high profile publications? I’ve seen it (and personally experienced it, unfortunately).

What’s more sobering, though, is that’s not just academics writing on blogs who have had these experiences, or academics in my own discipline. I have fairly diverse research interests, so I get to interact with academics involved in many different types of research. I can’t think of a single academic discipline I’ve encountered where I haven’t heard about these kinds of behaviours. And from participating in committees within and across different post-secondary institutions, I have heard stories of behaviour that was so inappropriate – sometimes not just inappropriate, but also illegal – that it would absolutely make your hair curl.

Jacquelyn and Inger both outlined a couple of reasons why bad behaviour might be more prevalent, or at least more obvious, in academic workplaces.

  • Getting resources for research is usually a competitive process, so the better you can make yourself or your research look – and the worse you can make others look by comparison – the better chance you might have of having your research recognized or supported.
  • Academic workplaces are unquestionably hierarchical; graduate students learn from faculty members, and younger faculty members learn from older faculty members. It’s hard to change an entrenched structure with hundreds of years of tradition behind it.
  • And, to be honest, succeeding in an academic job requires a certain amount of confidence in yourself and in the quality of your work.

All of these factors don’t excuse bad behaviour like bullying or petty politics, but they certainly don’t do anything to discourage it either. We might laugh really hard at The Big Bang Theory when Dr. Sheldon Cooper makes his research assistant get his ice cream sundae for him….but this isn’t too far off from some of the real-life stories I’ve heard. And when getting recommendations for jobs, or opportunities to participate in research, might depend on accepting that sort of mistreatment, it isn’t really that funny.

What is the loss when someone leaves an academic job because they can't tolerate their colleagues' behaviour? (credit:

Someone might leave an academic job if they can’t tolerate their colleagues’ bad behaviour. (credit:

A noticeable number of responses to both Jacquelyn’s and Inger’s posts were from people who loved academic work and the research they were doing – but they quit, because they were fed up with the ridiculousness of their colleagues’ behaviour, and the lack of any organizational will to crack down on it. This, to me, is one of the saddest parts of these discussions. Bob Sutton’s book makes a very convincing case for “no assholes” in organizations by calculating examples of how much, in dollars, it could end up costing an organization to keep an employee who acts like an asshole. The costs he describes include:

  • lost revenue, when clients or customers take their business elsewhere because of their encounters with the bad employee;
  • costs associated with recruiting and/or retaining new employees, if other employees leave the organization because they are tired of being around the bad employee, and feel that the organization isn’t serious about controlling his or her behaviour;
  • and even legal or administrative costs, if employees that are the target(s) of the bad employee’s behaviour decide to file lawsuits or other formal types of complaints.

What would this costing model look like if we applied it to someone leaving an academic job because of their colleague’s or colleagues’ bad behaviour? In addition to the operational costs that Sutton describes, there could also be:

  • the cost to the ex-academic of the time and money they invested in their education; those costs could be increased if they can’t find another job in which they can use their expertise, or if they have to retrain;
  • the cost to the institution of the resources they invested in hiring that person and supporting their work; if the person completed a degree at that same institution, the institution also doesn’t get a return on the resources invested in that student and their program;
  •  the cost (tangible and intangible) to the discipline, and to society, of the potential contributions to research or knowledge the ex-academic could have made.

Bad behaviour in academia is unnecessary and damaging. But when, in many places, the costs associated with supporting post-secondary education are being challenged, maybe we should be framing academic bad behaviour in hard financial terms. Figuring out just how much bad academic behaviour is costing individuals, institutions, and the post-secondary system as a whole might generate some serious impetus for change.


  1. The current notions about education reform seem determined to test the classroom teacher, apparently with the intent of ultimately finding fault with career teachers. Meanwhile, no one seems interested in scrutinizing the institutions of higher education that are responsible for the teachers’ education. My impression is that universities are not being held accountable, at least not to the degree that teachers are.

    1. gotta agree with you there! Higher education institutions are the ones making sure us teachers are up to scratch so they should be under just as much scrutiny if not more so.

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