Academic Mobbing: State of the Field in 2021

April 2021

Italian sociologist Francesco Alberoni has devoted much of his career to the odd, exceptional human phenomenon of falling in love, describing it as a two-person social movement sealed by fanatic mutual attraction. I’ve devoted much of my career to an equally odd, exceptional, but contrasting kind of social movement: workplace mobbing. This is not dyadic attraction and affection but collective revulsion and aggression, the fanatic ganging up of a bunch of people on a despised workmate, whom they seek to disgrace, punish, and in the long run eliminate.

I didn’t invent this field. The Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann did that in the 1980s, building on earlier studies of mobbing among birds and animals by Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz. My goal has been to develop the field, to enlarge our understanding of mobbing especially in universities, and in particular to lodge the word mobbing in people’s vocabularies, so that they can recognize this terrifying social process when it unfolds before their eyes.

The concept of “falling in love” makes life more intelligible. When I see a teenage girl whom I know to be generally sensible and prudent, suddenly acting strange, drawn to some boy as if magnetically, obsessed with him, smitten, enraptured, blind to his weaknesses but with 20-20 vision for his strengths, my puzzlement is reduced once I recognize that she has fallen in love. What she sees in the boy I’ll never know, but that’s how it is. No grand theory is required. Falling in love is just something that happens among humans, rooted in innate biological impulses. It’s a thing. Having a name for it helps us make sense of life.

Similarly, when I see normal, rational professors who customarily behave as scholars with fiercely independent minds, coalescing around shared visceral antipathy toward a colleague, blind to the colleague’s talents and strengths but fixated on his or her failings and faults, hell-bent on harassing, humiliating and getting rid of him or her, my puzzlement is reduced when I recognize that these folks have formed themselves into a workplace mob. No grand theory is required. Mobbing, the enactment of collective hate, is just something that happens among humans, professors included. It’s a thing. Having a name for it, understanding what it involves, makes academic life more intelligible.

My research this past quarter-century has consisted mainly of studying one mobbing case after another, and then piecing together by the method of analytic induction a set of propositions about the nature, causes, and consequences of this terrifying social process.

The good news is that the science of mobbing has progressed. Google Scholar reports just 60 articles, books, and book chapters on workplace mobbing between 2000 and 2004. For the most recent five-year period, 2015-2019, the number is 986. The same trend is observed for specifically “academic mobbing,” from 3 publications in the first period to 115 in the most recent one.

Google Scholar misses, moreover, many of the best contributions to the research literature, like Eve Seguin’s 2016 trenchant article in University Affairs about “how to become campus tormentors,” or the detailed 2019 exposé in the Swiss magazine Republik of the dismissal of astronomy professor Marcella Carollo from ETH Zurich. It also misses the long series of articles on academic mobbing in the ezine Quillette, including: Brad Cran’s 2018 overview of the field and analysis of the case of Steven Galloway at UBC, Barbara Kay’s 2018 analysis of the case of Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim at McGill, the editors’ 2018 dissection of the ouster of Noah Carl from Cambridge, and in 2020, Alberta anthropologist Kathleen Lowrey’s splendid first-person account of what she calls her “strange feminist journey,” and in 2021, Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot’s first-person account of his encounter with what he calls a “crowd of people who have lost their individuality in a frenzy of group madness.”

There is good news in particular about the kind of academic mobbing most common in our time, namely the mobbing of dissenters from postmodernism (aka cultural Marxism, relativism, critical race theory, or woke-ism), that has gradually overtaken Western academe since the 1960s. Twenty-five years ago, this orthodoxy was pretty much taken for granted, so that when a professor was mobbed for transgressing it, this was generally assumed to be administration of social justice. We owe a huge debt to the scholars who cast doubt on this orthodoxy, brought its tyranny to light with concepts like political correctness, social-justice warrior, John Fekete’s “moral panic,” John Furedy’s “velvet totalitarianism” and Alan Kors’s “shadow university,” and to the countervailing organizations they created: SAFS, the NAS, the FIRE, the Free Speech Union. I remember with gratitude the names of those who inspired and founded SAFS: John and Chris Furedy, Doreen Kimura, John Mueller, Heinz Klatt, Phil Sullivan, Dick Henshel, Judy Wubnig, among others.

In society at large, the spell of leftist political correctness has been broken, and this allows the mobbing of politically incorrect professors (among many others) to be more easily recognized and questioned. New digital media, the blogosphere and twitterverse have brought diverse viewpoints to the fore. The Trump presidency, Brexit, and populist unrest across the Western world signify vibrant opposition to the political and cultural ethos of people like Tony Blair, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Justin Trudeau, Michael Ignatieff, Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris. Culture is more volatile than formerly. It’s kind of wild out there. People get cancelled right and left.

One upshot is that mobbings rooted in postmodernism more often backfire – a process Brian Martin in Australia has analyzed with much insight. Five years ago, Jordan Peterson was the target of a woke mob that aimed to banish him from respectable company. I sent him an email of concern. He wrote back that he thought he had weathered the storm. As things turned out, he did more than that: he adroitly turned the storm back on its instigators and turned himself into one of the most prominent public intellectuals in the world.

Rebecca Tuvel’s adversaries hoped to silence her when they collectively demanded that the journal Hypatia withdraw her reasonable comparison of transgenderism and transracialism. But publicity seems to have nipped that incipient mobbing in the bud. Tuvel’s institution has stood behind her. Colleagues have come to her defense. Her argument has gotten more attention and her reputation has acquired more lustre than if the campaign against her article had never been launched. It is a fine example of what’s called the Streisand Effect.

Yet amidst the turbulence, mobbing of the postmodern kind continues regularly to be carried to its ideal conclusion, namely ridding the campus of the targeted professor. Ricardo Duchesne was eased into early retirement from UNB in 2019 after his colleagues in sociology and other disciplines signed collective denunciations of his scholarship as racist, white supremacist, and devoid of academic merit. Huffpost publicized this caricature far and wide. Duchesne’s sin was that he generally admires Western civilization and wants to explain empirically its power and inventiveness. His further sin is to be so smart and work so hard as to produce a larger, more coherent body of scholarship than – wild guess – 95 percent of UNB professors. As if these offenses were not bad enough, he is kind of a foreigner, having been born in Puerto Rico and bearing an Hispanic first name. One of my books on mobbing is entitled The Envy of Excellence. Duchesne’s case is archetypal.

The direction of our conversation this afternoon remains to be seen. We can discuss specific cases of academic mobbing, since each one yields fresh insight into the nature of the beast. We can talk about how to recognize mobbing, its hallmarks and indicators, distinguish different kinds of it, debate what kind of academics are most vulnerable, pinpoint predisposing conditions and common consequences. All these topics are important, all are treated in books, articles and research reports on my own and others’ websites. Whatever direction our conversation takes, I’m grateful to have been invited to take part, and I look forward to hearing the views of my fellow panelists.