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In the late 1960s and early 1970s, students in many universities sat on departmental committees and voted on hiring decisions and curricula. They posted “Challenge Authority!” signs on bulletin boards and classroom walls. Many faculty joined “Professions for the People” and encouraged their students to get out into the community and study and join their struggles. Faculty and students worked together to hold teach-ins against the Vietnam war. Students did not ask deans for permission to post their flyers or take their bullhorns and speak out on campus.

bully nation

The university—then or now—cannot be viewed in isolation. In our book, Bully Nation, we show that America is a militaristic corporate society with bullying built into its essence. From the point of view of the American elite, the purpose of the university is to produce a higher-level labor force and conduct research for profit, military domination and social stability. There may be more freedom and less bullying in the university than other institutions including the corporation, the military, the police, the courts, elementary and high schools. However, the university is a link in a bullying chain where institutions and individuals higher in the chain bully those below.

In response to student protest movements of the 1960/70s, many corporate donors, trustees, and state legislators sensed that the university was not serving militaristic capitalism, withdrew support and forced administrators to tighten control.

In response to student protest movements of the 1960/70s, many corporate donors, trustees, and state legislators sensed that the university was not serving militaristic capitalism, withdrew support and forced administrators to tighten control. Heads of universities were bullied into bullying.

Decades ago, college presidents who restricted student and faculty rights rose to political prominence. After S.I. Hayakawa, Chancellor of San Francisco State, crushed a strike, he became a U.S. Senator from California. Boston University President John Silber was embraced by trustees who made him the highest paid college president in the country, but he sent the police to squash student protests, provoked strikes by students and faculty, and had ten deans and three-quarters of the Faculty Assembly demand his resignation. He then received 49% of the vote when he ran for Governor of Massachusetts.

One politician benefited more than any other from attacking academic freedom—Ronald Reagan, although his background was in Hollywood, not in academia. In 1966 when he first ran for Governor of California, he sent a letter to then Chancellor of San Francisco State Glenn Dumke asking:

How far do we go in tolerating these people & this trash under the excuse of academic freedom & freedom of expression?...Hasn’t the time come to take on those neurotics in our faculty group and lay down some rules of conduct for the students?

When he was elected President in 1980, Ronald Reagan moved swiftly to rein in these immoral sites of undisciplined and unpatriotic student mobs. What Reagan wrought was the intensification of the corporatized bureaucratic university, a mega-hierarchical structure that we call the “chain of bullying.” Sweeping away the anti-authoritarian and libertine spirit of the 1960s, the Reagan revolution created a university of top-heavy administrative armies to enforce order, authority and rule-based conformity. Trustee boards and top-heavy administrations sit on top of the chain, faculty below them, students at the bottom, and campus workers subject to yet another chain.

bully nation

Universities have refused to cooperate with the Trump administration’s demand to report undocumented immigrant students and academics have been extremely critical of many of President Trump’s assertions, including his denial of global warming. Trumpists view the university as a site of dangerous dissent, and Trump is using his budgetary powers to bully them and reduce their influence. Trump’s budget, if enacted, will accelerate the downward spiral of declining federal financial support for universities. Trump’s proposed 2018 budget will cut nearly 4 billion dollars from Pell Grants, a federal program which upon which over 9 million students, nearly 40% of all students, depend. He plans to cut another $193 million from programs for students who need remedial support to thrive in college. Substantial cuts are also planned for student loans and federal student work-study assistance, all forms of budgetary bullying intended to instill fear and compliance with Trump’s political agenda.

Such political bullying contributes to a chain of bullying within the university, as boards of trustees and university presidents seek to tighten the academic ship and rein in professors, students and staff who might be seen as jeopardizing university funding.

In Bully Nation, we show that bullying is perpetrated by institutions as well as individuals. Structural bullying runs rampant in our corporations, government, and the military as well as universities. As in the schoolyard, this institutional bullying arises out of inequalities of power torturing those lower in the chain with humiliation and even trauma if they don’t conform or obey.

Universities have long been hierarchical—before the 1960s there were dress codes, rigid tests and attacks on student protests—but the chain was looser in some earlier eras and is now tightening rapidly, creating a rule-smothered bureaucracy running contrary to the free-thinking and empowering ideal of higher education. Anti-intellectualism, always strong in America, has returned with a vengeance since the Reagan era, as elites are bullying academic administrators to focus on vocational training and stamp out dissent.

A bloated administrative hierarchy—seeking donations from corporations, the government and alums—is the linchpin of this new academic authoritarianism, likely to grow under Trump but evident at least since Reagan. Seeking more power and money for itself, it imposes an ever-increasing set of rules that bully faculty and students, who are bullied to bully each other.

This internal university structural bullying, that we describe below, while not started by Trump, reflects a chain of command academic model mirroring the Trumpist bullying template envisioned for virtually all institutions.

The administration bullies its own. The top deans bully the legion of associate, assistant and deputy deans to bully students and faculty. For example, in many universities, deans of students prevent students from posting flyers, distributing them in dormitories, or assembling freely to speak without registering as official student organizations and getting multiple permits for the place, topic, and speakers.

When we have asked deans of students why they police student speech so rigidly, many say they are sympathetic to student speech but are afraid of being fired by higher administrators who want law and order on campus.

Top university officials at many schools are bullying faculty to create standardized syllabi forms, dictating class readings, schedules, assignments, tests, and grading criteria. Some universities impose “syllabus rubrics,” with boxes—which many faculty see as meaningless—that must be checked to determine if the course fulfills “measurable learning objectives” dictated from above.

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The regimentation often leads faculty to teach to the rule and the test and to abandon the spontaneous teaching dialogue with students that is free form and a basis for true learning. In fact, the administrative rules for faculty just described bully professors to bully students pervasively in their teaching, even if the professor’s own personal values and style is antithetical to bullying. Many faculty resist or ignore rules but increasingly at their peril as funds are shrinking and jobs less secure.

Traditionally, universities prided themselves as communities of scholars, original thinkers, where no two people would teach the same course, the same way. However recently, administrators and academic departments are moving toward the idea that instructors should be interchangeable, as textbooks are assigned for certain courses without regard to whom teaches them.

One of the demands of the student movements of the 1960/70s was that students be given direct input in their education and be allowed to evaluate their professors. In some universities, especially state universities, this demand has been usurped by administrators who now use students to ensure professors and courses conform to their expectations. In many universities—probably not a majority, but possibly becoming more widespread- students are asked to assign a number value to how well the professor meet these criteria:

  • Grading criteria were clearly stated.
  • Course objectives were stated.
  • The course covered the stated objectives.

This form takes one model of teaching and implies that is the only legitimate one, having a structured course outline that is closely followed and bringing students to focus on grades. There in nothing on enthusiasm, breeding love of the subject, instructor's understanding of the material, encouraging a wide range of points of view, generating student input, or fostering independent creative thinking.

Administrators have appointed themselves guardians and protectors of students and thus use students to help control faculty. The Israeli lobby has pressured universities to deny positions to scholars critical of Israel. Some chancellors justify cancelling such an appointment on the grounds that anyone using such “disrespectful” language would not maintain a “civil” manner in the classroom and thus make student uncomfortable and reluctant to express themselves. Students weren’t complaining, but the Israel lobby was using the language of free speech and academic freedom to suppress these principles.

There are mandates to give students “trigger warning” when issues which might challenge preconceived view of the world are about to raised. This is actually a demand not to expose students to new perspectives and thus deny the opportunity to expand their perspectives and develop their ability to think critically. There are codes, specifying how faculty must handle sensitive issues, especially around race, gender, sexual orientation and veteran status-again limiting debate on the grounds of preventing students from feeling uneasy.

Faculty research (and that of student papers too) is similarly increasingly regimented, often through Institutional Review Boards (IRB). Getting through the IRB approval can be maddening and exhausting, especially when the research is historical and no “subjects” are at risk.

Students get the heaviest bullying, in and out of the classroom, from administrators, faculty and fellow students. They are victims of the restrictions placed on faculty—and of a new generation of faculty with less job security and more adapted to accept administrative control leading them to control or bully students. Student loan debt and tight job markets make students vulnerable, fearful and easier to bully into “respectable” courses, ideas and conduct consistent with getting a good corporate or professional job. Cutting funding is an effective strategy to force students to focus on jobs and not ask too many questions about society or education.

Administrators, faculty and students are all part of the “upstairs” of the corporatized university, itself part of a longer bullying chain that extends into the “downstairs” of buildings and grounds workers, custodians, secretaries, and clerks composing a huge bottom part of the bullying chain. Those in the downstairs are bullied ever more as the administration - bullied by new financial and political constraint - seeks to lower costs by subjecting downstairs workers to more temporary and lower-paid positions, creating bullying more severe than that imposed on the upstairs strata.

Much of this intensifying bullying of the downstairs by the upstairs has been described in the literature on corporatization of the university—and on discussions of adjunct faculty whose acute job vulnerability and low pay renders them similar to the “downstairs” university workers.

In one university, we encountered a long-term book-orderer in the university bookstore which was being sold to Folletts. All employees were being fired, and a new class of workers was being hired, all part-time and without the security or benefits, assumed in the past. Here we see the structural transformation that is changing the university into a microcosm of the corporate world.

The only solution is for all university employees to educate themselves about the reality of the bully chain—and its subversion of free inquiry and critical thought as well as its dehumanizing impacts up and down the chain. Such education must lead to organizing efforts to reduce power inequalities in universities and to create a more empowered faculty, students and workforce fighting for freedom and justice – both inside and outside higher education.

We see two hopeful signs. One is past or present models of universities that do not grade, let students create their own individual program of studies, and encourage student participation in university governance and community struggles for justice. These have included such schools as Evergreen College, Oberlin, Univ. of California at Santa Cruz, and Antioch. The other hopeful sign is the rise of student and faculty protests for free speech, anti-racist, anti-corporatization, unions for graduate students and faculty, anti sexual harassment, making universities sanctuaries for Muslim, undocumented or other potential deportees, and divestment of fossil fuel portfolios in university endowments.

The Trump era is accelerating a new wave of students and faculty seeking an end to bullying on and off campus, just as the Vietnam and Nixon era did.

derber mangrass

Charles Derber & Yale Magrass

Charles Derber, Professor of Sociology at Boston College, and Yale Magrass, Chancellor Professor of Sociology/Anthropology at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, are co-authors of Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society.