How do you cope when a department chair is all out to cause you problems? Especially when he is doing it for personal reasons that I have no control over (e.g. gender, skin color, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, accent, etc). My chair hates me, so he harasses me with bad teaching loads, too many preps, assigning me one class at 8am on one campus and another class at 8pm on a separate campus three hours away, making me teach every day when others teach only twice a week, denying me funding to go to conferences, not permitting me to go on a sabbatical, etc etc etc. He is highly unethical. I suspect he discards good teaching ratings I get and pencils in bad teaching ratings but I have no way to prove it. He makes up untrue anonymous complaints from anonymous students and anonymous complaints from anonymous faculty / staff. When a particular person is not hired and everyone wanted to hire that person, he whispers to everyone that I am the one who voted against hiring. He tries to turn everyone against me. When anything even remotely goes wrong, he blames me.

He has the Dean in his pocket. He is also the chair of the faculty senate, childhood friends with the university president, brother-in-law of the provost. He is not the research type - he has one of those Ed.D. degrees and is a career administrator who has been the department chair for 17 years now. When I was hired, he was on medical leave, so he had no say in my hiring decision. He is also the only person in the department who does not teach or do research related to the department. He is a politician - former mayor of a small city - so much more astute and politically shrewd than I can ever be. He is dishonest, a blatant cheat and a frequent liar, so sitting down with him definitely never helped. He has superb contacts within the town and in state politics. Short of finding a new job, is there anything I can do? I cannot leave this university for personal reasons relating to the two-body problem, family whose help I need to take care of a severely handicapped child and other personal reasons.

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    Don't walk. Run.
    – JeffE
    Apr 7, 2012 at 5:33
  • 2
    How about moving to a different department?
    – JRN
    Apr 7, 2012 at 10:29
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    Why the vote to close?
    – JeffE
    Apr 7, 2012 at 17:28
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    I recommend the book Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia by Emily Toth, whether or not you are female. It's great. There's a second book that is presumably as good, but I haven't read it. Apr 9, 2012 at 6:03
  • 3
    Gather evidence, enlist allies, get ready to connfront him! Apr 9, 2012 at 9:04

8 Answers 8


I agree with JeffE that leaving is the best solution, but it may not be an option. One key question is whether you have tenure: if not, you're presumably doomed (if the chair's behavior is as bad as you fear) and you will need to find another job anyway.

Assuming you have reasonable job security, I'd sit down with the chair and ask what he envisions. Don't complain, argue, or try to present your side. Instead, you could start by acknowledging that the two of you have unfortunately gotten off to a rough start in your working relationship, and that because of his stature and leadership role it's important for you to earn his respect, so you'd like his advice on how to improve the situation. Your goal is to learn, not to debate. Don't explicitly agree to any facts that aren't true, but you don't have to fact check everything he says, and you shouldn't dispute his perspective or opinions in this conversation.

One possibility is that he is an insecure jerk who wants you to submit to his power and authority. If you do so, and let him boss you around a little without complaining, then he may treat you somewhat better. [This is assuming he can't treat you any worse than he already is. If you fear things could get worse, then be careful, but your question suggests you don't have a lot to lose.]

Another possibility is that he just doesn't want you around, and there's simply nothing you can do to get on his good side. In that case, maybe he could help you transfer to another related department, for example. Of course, you can't even bring this up unless you have some job security, since otherwise you have no leverage at all. And it's important to do it in a face-saving way. There's no way it will happen if it looks like he is getting rid of a problem employee (the administration and the other department will not accept that as a valid reason for such a transfer), and obviously he won't cooperate if the stated reason is getting you out from the control of an irresponsible chair. Instead, you'd have to give it a positive spin: helping your career by giving you a chance to develop in a slightly different research direction, building ties between departments and fostering interdisciplinary connections, etc. It may be galling, but you need to set this up in a way that makes it look like your chair is doing something valuable for the university by helping to arrange it. If you can get your chair enthusiastic about this, and if there's another plausible department, then the chair's influence within the university might really help you. And don't be too restrictive in ruling out possible departments: there might not be any appropriate match, but I know of a couple of cases in which people have successfully resolved personality conflicts by moving to departments that were a bit further afield than one might expect (engineering vs. science, for example). If you've got tenure, then the university has a powerful incentive to fix this conflict, even if it means letting you sit in an odd department.

Leaving the university is radically different from switching departments, and you should not ask the chair for help in doing that. Within the university, your chair's standing with the administration will play a major role in what opportunities are available. Outside the university, your chair probably can't help you very much, but could certainly hurt you, so it's not worth the risk.

The worst case scenario is that your chair hates you and wants to hurt your career, regardless of which department you are in. In that case, there's nothing you can do if your chair has the full support of the administration, and you'll have to either leave the university or wait for the chair to retire. However, you shouldn't give up all hope until you've exhausted options like submitting or transferring.


Just to add to the other excellent comments: while I have no personal experience that might be of value in your situation, I think that there is one thing you MUST do on a continuing basis regardless of everything else.

Document every instance where you feel this person is abusing their authority in relation to you. Accumulate as much evidence you can on each case, and build up a case file. Even if you don't go on the offensive, you'll need this if the chair starts trying direct confrontation and provocation (instead of the passive aggressive bullying that's going on right now)

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    Agreed. Also store your records off-campus. Apr 9, 2012 at 6:02

If you are dealing with a bully who is insecure and threatened by you, direct negotiation will only result in your being manipulated further. Read the available on-line literature on adult bullying.

Making friends with other powerful people (e.g. superordinates of your boss) is effective, eventually you might become someone that the bully wants "on side" and their overt behaviour will just flip like a light switch. If you can document all your claims e.g. some members of a department having twice the teaching load for no clear, publicly-stated policy reason, you may have legal recourse & be able to get a more level playing field to try to prove your academic merit on (have you talked to HR?) But if things are as "sewn up" as you say, and there is no help from HR or another campus organisation, then the best thing is to change job.

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    Do you have any suggestions for reading about adult bullying? I don't know much about this but would like to learn more. Thanks! Apr 10, 2012 at 17:29
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    I'm afraid I just did Google & Google scholar searches on it when I had a younger colleague draw my attention to a situation that I realised, while extreme, was far too familiar. The only papers I found worth putting in my citation index were on school-age bullying, but the gist of the Psychology Today etc. articles on adults were enough to help me help my colleague(s). It seems to be an under-researched area, which is ironic since understanding it would probably benefit the childhood problem as well. Apr 11, 2012 at 23:39
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    @AnonymousMathematician: an online blog here
    – ElCid
    Aug 28, 2012 at 14:48
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    I've found the book "It's all your fault! 12 tips for managing people who blame others for everything" by Bill Eddy incredibly helpful. It can be bought for next to nothing on Kindle and it brought me great insight and understanding. amazon.com/Its-All-Your-Fault-Everything/dp/0981509037
    – L Platts
    Mar 18, 2014 at 20:38

If the harassment really is for reasons of "e.g. gender, skin color, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, accent, etc," then the federal government could get involved. See the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website (http://www.eeoc.gov/) for more information.


Not a full answer, but a suggestion: Consider meeting with the college's ombudsperson (if they have one), affirmative action officer, EEOC officer, etc.


This is a very interesting question, and I am surprised that there's no more about "bullying" in the SO academia community (I hope this will change fast).

As anonymous and new user, I can share some experience:

1) If someone (higher in grade) bullies or harasses you, it's sad to say, but that means that you are not seen as doing a valuable contribution to the department. Not a "maybe", not a "perhaps": that is just what it is. This assumption could be right or wrong, but any dean/chair/professor wants to have a supportive (adoring?) team. So either you adapt to the system, or you will make your life very miserable: make your contributions very clear, boast about your workload or find another place. Bullies like strong (and loud) voices.

2) Do not confront the bullying person: it's anyway an unfair battle, since they're managers and higher-ranked anyway.

3) Be blatantly open with what you do, aka "blow your own trumpet": when you start doing it, others reply as well, and you start realising that your "case" is no worse or better than somebody else's.

MISTAKES TO BE AVOIDED: I think that the worst mistake to be done in these cases is moaning about the issue, or using "allies" to make the case, or asking the unions to do something about it. Moaning won't solve your case, but just make your stomach more acid; internal allies will not either: having allies and support is generally a good thing, but I realised that I was just "using" them to reinforce my assumptions and beliefs (ending up in a infinite loop of self-commiseration); unions will just use a pre-defined strategy that will be well known in advance by the bully.

REMEDIES: Since you do not want to change your affiliation (but sadly this is the only real way to solve the issue, I am afraid), my take on the issue is to be honest with yourself, and ask whether your workload could be worse, or if you could make a request to avoid some teaching times by using some reasonable excuses, and in general stopping being negative about the person. The latter is tough but again, if you're being (overtly or secretly) negative, the bully will make your life even worse.

RESOURCES: An excellent blog on the matter, and an "external" voice to talk to (yes! they talk and listen to you, also privately...) but in the UK: http://bulliedacademics.blogspot.co.uk/

  • me? i left the institution
    – ElCid
    Aug 28, 2012 at 13:29
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    I have to strongly disagree with this answer. The initial point is correct—if you are being abused, you are not valued. But the proper response to abuse is not to "get used to it"; this is a merely a recipe for continued abuse. Allies are a must in this situation, just as they are in any other stressful, emotionally charged situation. Trying to tough it out alone is dangerous and usually unnecessary. But it is important to find allies who are well-informed and brutally honest—the last thing you need is an echo chamber.
    – JeffE
    Aug 28, 2012 at 14:16
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    The last sentence is especially disturbing. Yes, it's healthy to be positive and forgiving, but not because negativity will make the bully think less of of their victim.
    – JeffE
    Aug 28, 2012 at 14:22
  • dear @JeffE, what to say? I have been through it, and before that, I shared your opinions. I fought. Hard. Found allies who were brutally honest, but who were also scared to take the next step forward with me (a formal complaint). Tried to overcome the system, met the oppressor many times in his "cave", filed formal complaints. In order not to sink others I fled
    – ElCid
    Aug 28, 2012 at 14:24
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    I think you did the right thing, by finding allies, by fighting hard, and by leaving. None of that is easy.
    – JeffE
    Aug 28, 2012 at 14:27

I got through this type of situation through a combination of institutional and personal means.

I was subject to mobbing by a group of faculty members in a particular field of British lit (pre-1800). When one of them became chair, and I stepped down as graduate program director, they piled on. One filed a specious grievance against me. When that failed after a year of harassment (during which I lost my mother), the new chair scheduled me to teach 3-4 new preps every single term. After four years of this, and after 3 separate administrative complaints that went through my chair and were stopped by the dean, I filed a grievance after my chair finally got grounds to file a negative performance review because she had overloaded me for years. The grievance was part of a peer review process; my peers found for me five to one. Next, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and got 1 year off. During that period, my chair got promoted (!!!) and was gone. Problem solved, on top of which I had grounds to file EEOC complaints for gender, age, and disability discrimination. I'm back this term. So far so good, with a chair that doesn't seem to have the stomach for all of this.

We are so vulnerable--and until our good work is trashed, we don't realize how vulnerable we are.

Fight the good fight when you can, and back off and lay low when you can. There's nothing to be lost by it, either in terms of your job or in terms of your self respect.

  • 1
    Downvoted because this is simply one example situation. The answer cannot be applied to general situations.
    – padawan
    Nov 9, 2017 at 2:36

You didn't mention if you had a union or not. If you do, go to the union's grievance officer. Bring all the evidence. Have a conference with the chair and the union rep. It doesn't have to be hostile. The focus can be how you can be on par with other faculty members. Most grievance reps are good at building consensus. It will put the chair on notice that his decision making isn't to be arbitrary and capricious.

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