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Cyber-harassment in Academia

University Business, Jun 2008

The process of leading higher learning institutions is not for the faint-hearted. Leaders are called upon to navigate the competing and sometimes hidden agendas of multiple taskmasters and the communities their institutions call home. A new challenge that is showing up on the agenda of administrators in higher education is cyber-bullying among students, faculty, staff, and community members.

Blogs are an ideal platform for cyber bullies. "Today's blogosphere is a veritable Wild West of verbal ambushes and shootouts, with very little fear of legal recourse to keep character assassination, defamation and dirty business tricks in check," wrote Judge Edward Fadaley, retired associate justice of the Oregon Supreme Court. Daniel Lyons of <em>Forbes</em> magazine summarized the motivation for slanderous blogs as follows: "Web logs are the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty, but spewing lies, libel and invective."

Although cyber-bullying and cyber-harassment are used inter-changeably, there is a difference. Cyber-bullying refers to bullying of children and teens by children and\or teens, while cyber-harassment involves adults on one or both sides. If we set aside this distinction, there is considerable common ground between the two. Both rely on all forms of digital media, including instant messaging, blogs, websites, e-mails, chat rooms, and cell phones and both may use anonymity to engage in relentless, and vicious attacks. In both cases, the intent is to threaten, humiliate, and destroy the victims by causing emotional distress, demanding submission, spreading lies, and compromising the economic and social wellbeing of the victim. It is a deliberate, malicious act done for self-gain and satisfaction. In an unsupervised digital world where identities are fluid and fiction can become fact overnight, digital predators find cyber-bullying and cyber-harassment to be an exciting game that provides them with an emotional high, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Today, the footprints of digital predators can be seen all over the world as they target victims without regard to nationality, gender, age, education, class, race or religion, and make virulent attacks. It has become a growing problem for governments, legislative bodies, corporations, communities and individuals.

Cyber-bullying on campuses can take many forms, including students bullying students, students bullying teachers, teachers bullying students, faculty and staff bullying other faculty, staff, administrators, and Board members, and administrators bullying faculty and staff, or any combination thereof. Although the research on cyber-harassment in academia is in its early stages, an article on BNET, "Bullying in Colleges by Students and Teachers," shows that men tend to bully more than women and although girls in high schools tend to be more bullied than boys, both male and female college students were bullied equally. The report also suggests that nearly 60 percent of students have been bullied in one form or another and that students who have been bullied tend to become bullies themselves. As someone who was the target of severe cyber-bullying, while I was president at the <b>State University of New York at Alfred State College</b>, I can personally attest to the debilitating effects of cyber predators on my family and myself. As the first woman of color in the college's 100-year history, I was repeatedly cyber-bullied by a small group of disenfranchised faculty and staff on an anonymous blog. The blog by "Brewester Pennybaker" attacked me and my senior leadership team, which included several female administrators, with derogatory remarks about women and racial and ethnic slurs. Based on a threatening e-mail that "Brewester" sent to me at work, Brewester was eventually traced to be an administrator that I had removed for unprofessional conduct. Cyber bullies at Alfred State College damaged the institution and its progressive agenda. Society has always looked up to the professoriate for thought-provoking solutions to thorny problems-rarely anticipating that academia itself could become a part of the problem. What happens when educators themselves become digital predators who resort to lies, slander, and racial and ethnic slurs when they disagree with an authority figure? What happens when "Do as I say, not as I do" becomes the unstated mantra of digital predators, and students observe in shame and disbelief the unprofessional conduct of faculty and staff?

What can colleges and universities do to address this growing problem? First, educate all stakeholders about the nature, scope, and definition of cyber-bullying. It is broad and includes threats, abuse, and humiliation in the form of e-mails, blogs or other digital media. Second, ensure that your institution has cyber-bullying policies and procedures in place. These policies must be widely distributed and discussed so that key stakeholders have an understanding about the magnitude of this problem. Third, institutional judicial systems and ethics committees should be ready to take on this challenge. Fourth, conduct workshops and seminars to educate campus constituents as to what steps they can take to combat cyber-harassment. Finally, encourage and emphasize the importance of kindness and civility. Toxic work environments are on the rise and it has a debilitating effect on the health and mental wellbeing of all, both the bullied and the bullies.

<em>Dr. Uma G. Gupta is president and CEO of Global Cube Consultants, an educational consulting firm, and can be reached at</em>