What Is a “Toxic” Campus? A Guest Post

I have been asked by readers to describe the qualities of a “toxic” campus or job. I have thoughts on this, and someday plan to write a post about it. But for now, I offer this anonymous guest post by a client, which she titles, “The Bad and the Ugly of Academia.”


I did the unthinkable. Walked away from a full-time tenure track position at a medium-sized liberal arts college. I do mean walked away. I quit.

Why? I decided that my mental, emotional, and physical well-being was more important than putting up with what had become regular teaching overloads because of short-staffing, an abusive dean, uncollegial and pettily competitive colleagues, lack of research support, and a generally unhealthy environment. That was five months ago. Since then, I’ve picked up an adjunct teaching gig as well as a part-time academic research position to help to make ends meet. I’m finally getting to write the articles that had been languishing because of oppressive teaching and service requirements. I’m searching for a new position. In general, my health and outlook on life have improved immensely since making the somewhat terrifying decision to leave.

Now, I wasn’t alone in leaving. A grand total of 15 mostly full-time tenured or tenure track faculty members left the college at the end of the Spring semester. These were largely voluntary departures. Four more tenured faculty members have indicated that they will be resigning at the end of the Fall semester. Considering that there are roughly 90 tenure-track positions, this could be considered full flight.

In one of her blog posts (It’s Okay to Quit), Karen wrote that the culture of higher education is becoming “increasingly soulless.” When I look back, I think that I must have been delusional to thing that “things are going to get better” despite the warning signs. In the past several years, the majority of faculty members who went up for tenure were denied: two of 13, one of nine, two of eight, zero of seven. These are not good numbers.

The tenure numbers were a reflection of a pattern that began several years ago. The college was chronically short-staffed across all departments when it came to full-time tenure-track faculty members due to difficulties in hiring. This meant that full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members were being asked take overloads practically each semester. In my own case, a 4/3 turned into a 5/4 or even a 5/5 load. Saying no was not an option. Because of the rules governing committee service at the college level, a smaller number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty were being forced into serving on those committees in additional to their service obligations at the school and departmental level. Again, saying no was not an option. It was likely to lead to substandard evaluations by one’s dean and denial of a merit salary increase.

New hires were being brought in and told that they would have ample time and resources for research, only to find that the other obligations left very little time for it. Teaching expectations, in terms of the numbers that had to be “hit” on student evaluations, didn’t leave a lot of room for attempting to balance teaching and research by cutting back on the teaching end (e.g., fewer assignments). If a faculty member couldn’t’ make the “numbers” (on most student evaluation scales, between a 5 and a 4), it meant a visit from the dean and a mandate to improve or be terminated.

This played out in the tenure decisions in an interesting way. The Faculty Handbook stipulated that faculty members were required to have a minimum of two publications when going up for tenure. Proceedings and lesser publications were allowable under these guidelines because of the teaching expectations. However, the rules in practice that the deans were using were in clear violation of the Faculty Handbook. The deans had begun to use impact factors to assess faculty publications. In my case, my dean told me that I had to have published a journal article in a journal with an impact factor of 3.5 or higher. As a colleague at another institution pointed out, there are no journals in our field that have an impact factor of 3.5 or higher. Across the college, faculty members who had been told on evaluations that their research was noteworthy or satisfactory were suddenly being told that they were “unsatisfactory” when it came to research by their deans. In one case, a colleague in another school was told that the book that he spent three years writing and had published was not going to count favorably toward tenure because the published was not “prestigious” enough. Since the faculty was not unionized, and the faculty governance committees relatively ineffective in dealing with an administration that backed the deans, there was very little that could be done outside of independent legal action.

Also, a disproportionate number of tenure denials were being made to female faculty members. Several did sue, and were awarded settlements in Federal Court. Most of those who had sued decided not to return to the college when given the option since they knew from female colleagues who had sued and returned that life was going to be miserable if they chose that route. The deans and the administration were unforgiving of any faculty member, but especially females faculty members (and even staff), who dared to object to or question the system and ever-changing rules in practice. One individual who complained about being sexually harassed by her superior actually received a letter from the college’s attorney outlining in detail the consequences of taking her complaint any further. These included immediate termination and loss of tuition benefits for the child enrolled at the institution. She did file a complaint with federal authorities, and the college made good on the threats contained in the letter. The woman later sued and the college was forced to pay the largest settlement ever awarded against it, but she certainly had no desire to return.

I myself was sexually harassed by the Vice-President for Academic Affairs (aka the guy who makes final tenure decisions). This unwelcome and unprofessional behavior went on for months despite my making it well known that I have a significant other and that we were living apart at the time because he was employed by another institution. For my lack of responsiveness, I was called into my dean’s office (good buddies with the VPAA) and told that I appeared to be “unhappy” at the college, and that it’s “just a game…. Just play the game.” He then proceeded to outline just how I was going to be harassed and set up for termination based on teaching if I didn’t “play the game.” Well, it certainly wasn’t a “game” to me, and he obviously hadn’t taken a good look at my teaching evaluations, which were among the best in the entire college. He did manage to find grounds for giving me an “unsatisfactory” rating on research because I hadn’t accomplished the impossible in terms of impact factor of publications.

I made the decision to “walk.” Things were not going to get any better. Shortly after I made my decision, a colleague in another school informed me that he had been given a terminal contract because, in the words of his dean, he “didn’t fit” at the college. This was a highly productive individual who could have gotten tenure at just about any R1. He told me that his dean objected to his having married his partner over the summer, and that he had been told that his openly gay lifestyle was objectionable to several senior administrators. He threatened to sue, and was given a settlement to leave the college and to not speak about either the institution or its administration and the reason for his dismissal. Several other gay male staff and faculty members who had married their partners also mysteriously” resigned” during this period.

Since leaving, I learned that one of the people denied tenure had decided not to return despite being given a year-long terminal contract. In response to his letter of resignation, the Associate Dean of his school called the custodial staff to have his office cleared out before he had a chance to remove personal items. The custodial staff was removing items from his office when another faculty member happened to be walking by and stopped them. She called him to come and get his stuff because it was going to be thrown in a campus dumpster. In coming to the college, he had been told that he would be instrumental in founding a new and innovative academic program. He did develop that program, which was approved and is slated to begin accepting students. What he got for his work was a denial of tenure and a trashing of his office. And so it goes…..

What about the rest of the faculty? They take it. The faculty culture is a culture of fear and perceived powerlessness. Many are tenured and are looking to keep their heads down and make it to retirement age. Some have spouses working in the area, making it difficult to leave in a bad economic climate. Others are quietly looking for new positions elsewhere. But if the Spring exodus is any indication, more are finding a way to walk away from a bad situation rather than continue to put up with academia at its ugliest.

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What Is a “Toxic” Campus? A Guest Post — 23 Comments

  1. This is a terrible story- thanks for sharing, and good luck to the author in finding a new position. I am on the market this year- what are warning signs that a candidate might be able to pick up at an interview signaling a toxic environment?

    • I too was at an institution from hell and can relate to many of the ugly stories. There were some red flags during my interview that I describe here:
      When I asked how my position came to be Open I was told the former professor had died…no other discussion about how. Later when I was in the position I discovered on my own the professor had wound up in a mental ward due to the way he had been treated then had a heart
      attack upon return.
      I also was treated with disrespect during the interview. I wanted to discuss some of my experiences working in a facility similar to one on the campus. The faculty in the department who was head of the facility told me they weren’t interested in that using a very snide tone. (Just one example of the dismissive way I
      was treated on the interview).
      Finally there was an obvious monitoring of who I was allowed to talk to and for how long. There weren’t that many junior faculty I could ask questions of and the one I talked to the most was a temporary one year term.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. I had a similar experience during my graduate career and was actually fired for filing a discrimination complaint. I was devastated by both the incident and the harassment and discrimination I faced; I could not leave the program if I wanted to retain the admission I had been granted to a top tier PhD program. The only thing that sustained me during this time was a professor like you who also faced discrimination and threat of termination and was willing to reach out and help me in spite of it all.

    Thank you for being willing to share, I hope all of us in academia have the courage to do what you and my mentor if faced with the same situation.

    Thank you

  3. All of this sounds so familiar, sadly. I faced a similar situation to Meridith above–without faculty members with integrity (and tenure!), I would have been forced out of my program, which is just about as toxic for faculty, these days. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Wow, I swear that the author is talking about my institution. I am close to walking and I have tenure. Nasty new Dean hired to “whip us into shape.” Thanks to the author for sharing.

  5. Wow, I thought the two departments I worked in were toxic (lots of petty power struggles and backstabbing), but this is definitely the worst account I’ve seen. I’m shocked that you want another academic job. I’m giving up on academia and trying to get started in another profession – turns out my health and happiness are worth more than the research I was once so dedicated to. Good luck to you: I hope you find a reasonable academic environment.

  6. I had something similar happen to me at a large public university in Pennsylvania. I have intractable epilepsy, and I have always found it difficult to find an academic position because of my disability. In 2008, I was understandably pleased when I was hired as an adjunct professor to teach several large sections of Western Civ. I had decided to “come out” as an epileptic the previous year, and became active in promoting epilepsy awareness. I made the mistake of assuming that the tenure track faculty would be receptive to a discussion of epilepsy and diversity in academe. Unfortunately, I was excoriated for “pushing” my disability “in their face,” and I was terminated shortly thereafter.

  7. This is all perfectly normal. Why? Because whenever people can get away with playing the Power/Gang Game, that’s what they do; whatever else they are supposed to be doing might arise as a sort of epiphenomenon, but only if others in or around the organisation, or those who defined unbreakable rules for it in the past, can force it… or if, quite often, the Power/Gang Game is very close to the intended activity of the institution, as with competitors in sports competitions. For sports administrators of course, playing the Power/Gang Game is very often not closely connected with what they are supposed to be doing, a common feature within management/admin.

    People Create And Exploit Power, and very often co-operatively. It’s because this is the real game they’re are actually playing that they resent more than anything else those people who they sense resist it: whistle-blowers, “do gooders”, and those who won’t “play the game”. Game Players will go out of their way to stamp on whistle-blowing over and over again in full view of outside critics because they can’t afford to let it be seen to succeed, and because intra-organisational survivors instinctively feel that you cannot fight The Game, so they co-operate in the end. This is why I never stop reading stories of how sexual harassment is allowed to thrive in US academia (maybe in other countries people don’t even dare mention it!). It’s also why trying to re-engineer the guidelines for good science broadcasting in the BBC is doomed (stamping out the Fact and anti-philosophy-of-science obsessions), because people know it’s an organisation whose teeth are so set against boat-rockers, that they were one of many organisation who fostered within their bosom the national record-holder at child molestation, Jimmy Savile, for decades. (Anyone five or ten years ago, watching a program celebrating him, knew there were rumours.) The new net-based culture of Twitter, co-operative blogging, and Facebook, further enhances the You Must Be Nice/You Must Never Criticise imperative. But good systems cannot run entirely on positive reinforcement, since it encourages group corruption.

    Don’t just say how horrible it is. Study it as a characteristic of human systems, work out why it happens more or less frequently in various places, do what you can to devise strategies to help prevent it. Racism/sexism are symptoms, or similar phenomena, and needed special legislation of a type whose violation in organisations is considered to be triggered merely by results that “might have been caused by it”.

    Niall Ferguson suggested in the Reith Lectures this year that successful civilisation in Europe ascended to a new level 200, 300, 400, 500 years ago, as institutions took over power from kings/warlords etc. Even though institutions are themselves hotbeds of game-playing, they at least offered an improvement on what went before – some alternative to the king’s benefit at least now existed, in the form of “what the institution was supposed to be doing”.

    For me, the majority of workplaces are toxic, even in academia, which is far better than most. That’s why I chose years ago to operate outside as much as possible, seeking self-funding instead of grant-grovelling, self-publication instead of pandering to both the publishing and the peer review game players, and simply sticking it unforgettably to whomsoever I see marring civilisation by their game playing.

  8. This is an awful story, and I wish the writer the best in finding another job. Keep up the great work on your publications, those will certainly help! It must feel so good to get back to that part of your work — along with teaching, it’s what makes it worth while. 🙂

    I faced a similar situation in my graduate program a couple years back; after not ‘cooperating’ with a certain interested party, I suddenly found my recommendation letters for fellowships being unsent (resulting in several disqualifications), necessary other paperwork on my publications not being filed, grants for travel funding not being moved through the necessary avenues (the ‘smited’ party held a position of some authority), and my dissertation work forestalled by flagrant unattentiveness (e.g., months to even read/ comment on a single 30 pg chapter). This all ended in my filing several official complaints and having to dissolve/ rearrange my committee at the end of my third year in the phd.

    In all, I felt like I had to pay the price for someone else’s misconduct/ poor management skills (to say the least). It’s a miserable situation, and I’m so proud of you for taking the step to leave — good for you! The economic situation in this country seems to have exacerbated certain academic authorities’ undue sense power, presuming that it’s acceptible to treat some of us like chattel. They know we need to make a living, and therefore (presumably) we should put up with it. You and your other resigning colleagues (and support networks such as this) help to demonstrate that this is not the case. The state of your former institution (and others) is a damn shame and shouldn’t be allowed to continue under blind eyes. Best wishes to you!

  9. I found your website because I am a California RN (BS with 2 grad classes), who originally started out as a health educator and am now in a highly paid good job that but am worn out by demeaning, demoralizing, high pressure management. The fact that our union keeps extracting more out of the employer contributes to their high demands apparently. I am hoping to moonlight as an educator again and then, maybe, if I have benefits, then, “quit”. The last time I was paid and rewarded for using my strengths of innovation, teamwork and development in education was 20 years ago when I developed cost saving training programs that collaborated with local schools that tailored their content to our university hospital’s needs. I am hoping that I could find employment or contract positions working instead for the trade schools with the same goal.

    But I do best with a mentor and the freedom to brainstorm, so I am open to being an volunteer assistant to a professor in a university setting so I may be mentored since I am willing to work very hard three days per week in developing my talents. Professors: Is Academia so structured and rigid that I should not consider walking on campus again? Should I start with the trade schools that supply local employers? (Sacramento, CA). Thank you. Please forgive me if my questions are inappropriate for this forum.

  10. Yep, I, too, got caught up in an EXTREMELY toxic department as a grad student. Fortunately, I had a life and established career before I got there. After the previous pecked chicken graduated, I was singled out for extra-special job and program discrimination and could get NO recourse whatsoever from “going through channels.” Only after I stood up to those bullies did they back off. They get away with mobbing and creating a hostile climate by disingenuously claiming “that’s just grad school.” No, that’s just grounds for a big fat lawsuit.

  11. When I read this article, I cried because parts of it coincided with what happened to me. My department was also not unionized. When I came into the department as an nontenured junior academic staff I was also made to perform administrative and teaching duties that made my research activity come to a standstill. Being at that stage of my career where I was nontenured and junior in rank, I was naturally apprehensive about refusing to comply with the excessive demands from my department. However, every year at my annual staff evaluation meeting with senior academic staff in the department, I voiced out this heavy administrative workload but was ignored year after year. To give some examples, I was in a Search Committee for Professorial (!) hires despite being one of the most junior hires because there was a shortage of staff. I took large classes (at times about 200 students for a 3rd Year course), took the tutorials, had to grade all the assignments personally, represented the department for various talks, booths at careers fests, guest lecture at other faculties, chaired some departmental committees etc. I was told by my faculty how to structure my modules, the types of continuing assessments to apply for my modules, and had little freedom to decide on such matters. I also played to role of an accountant – at one point, I was managing the day-to-day accounts of three research grants that I have obtained. I forego my work-life balance because I was severely reluctant to give up my research and could only somehow maintain some shadow of it by wrecking my work-life balance. I did these in addition to the university’s requirement for research productivity for tenure.

    Not surprisingly, I was denied tenure because ‘inadequate’ research productivity and impact. The department, after proactively wrecking my tenure potential, advised me to continue on a renewal contract. I decided that enough was enough and I quit. Seeking an alternative job was hard but up to this day, I stood by my decision to leave that university and could only fathom why I permitted myself to be abused for so long.

  12. Thus post is quite alarming. I am a recently minted PhD. When I left school, I decided that academia was not for me. I’ve been going back and forth on that thought process. I don’t think I have a desire to be a professor at a major research university. If I could teach at a smaller institution and have research projects and opportunities, I consider that success!

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  14. I can certainly sympathize with this post. Although there haven’t been comments made on this post since 2013, if there are any Ph.D. candidates out there reading this, one way to avoid a toxic environment is to start reading job ads in your field 2-3 years before you go out on the job market. Because I was incredibly uninformed, I didn’t know that there was a high turnover at the institution where I got my first TT job. I left that place and have noticed that the position is listed every few years. If you see that a certain university has difficulty retaining their faculty, that should be a sign that there are issues (either in the department or the overall culture of the university).

    • I too hopped of the TT gig in a toxic department. I missed the bright red flags because I wanted a job, I wanted to start my career, and the location was right. Here are the red flags I see in hindsight: (1) The search hadn’t found anyone the years prior–this was a popular field and interviews are spendy to come away from empty-handed; something was definitely amiss. (2) The department hadn’t kept any new hires in 8 years–the faculty roster was old, the bases for my area were barely covered, they had needed a new hire years ago–why hadn’t they done it?. (3) The department had too many directions to go (half the department were theorists, the other half were pragmatists; half wanted to teach talk and fluff, the other half wanted to teach skills and thinking) and I was hired to bridge the divide–a ridiculous plan for a new hire–half wanted me there, the other half didn’t; the ineffectual, and eventually ousted, chair during the department split a year after I was hired, made the tie-breaking hiring call and I took the job. (4) The dean, at the interview, quizzed me about my coursework during my unrelated Master’s degree (I had a PhD in related field from Prestigious U). Who does this, especially when there are 100 other more relevant questions to ask? (5) The only professor in my specific field had been denied promotions for over a decade; (6) He explicitly asked me, and now I see that he very pointedly asked me: Why do I want this job? (7) None of the faculty did any research in my field nor in my method–though promised release time to pursue my research–whoopee, a whole year (which is spent figuring out how to teach and grade anyway)–the entire school was not equipped and could not accommodate anything of the sort. Would I have been happier staying in graduate school starvation land another year, waiting for better jobs to come along (I applied to 27 and most dried up before the interview process), I don’t know. I learned a great deal, and now can recognize a toxic environment from the subtlest of signs. 🙂

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  16. I also realized that no one has commented in a couple of years. I too had the same experience and worse. And mine was not a TT position. It was an administrative position in Student Affairs at a large uni in South Eastern US. It was horrible. I literally had to escape. This toxic personality who I’m sure had a personality disorder was a puppet master manipulating the director and other stuff. The only problem was I figured her out and once I did all hell broke loose. The slander, distortions, employee file padding, mobbing, harassment, and abuse that followed from all stuff was atrocious. The entire workplace ganged up against me. It was so bad that they even followed up with my professional references to spread falsehoods. Totally tarnishing my image. My saving grace was that I sensed the poison way ahead of time and had applied for and secured my new position so by the time they got to my references I already had a job. After I told them I was leaving the situation got worse. In fact, people I did not even know across the campus had caught wind of my notoriety when I had no idea what was even going on. I eventually resigned 3 weeks before my original intended resignation and was virtually at the point of a nervous breakdown. Even now, thinking of them sends shivers down my spine. It was horrific.

  17. This is horrifying and you are brave to tell the truth of it in such detail and righteous entirely in walking away. One has to wonder the effect on students who are being taught by overloaded professors who no matter how much they love teaching or their students are forced into doing more and more research and farther and farther away from a student centered reality. The years at college for students cannot easily be made up later. It is the worst for them that institutions should be so melodramatic and bizarre. It would be good to learn about the impact on the students of all this as well.

  18. There sure are toxic departments but none can hold a candle to the civil engineering department at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. It has fully earned its notoriety.

    If you must interview for a faculty position in the civil engineering department, do yourself a favor and ask why so many new professors leave the department in under two years. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the Trump White House, perhaps worse. You think being tenure-track or tenured will protect you here? Nope! Not when administration and a weak dean lets one man (remotely) terrorize junior faculty and do whatever he pleases. Three professors left in the last 9 months alone, and perhaps 30 others have come and gone in past years.

    Publish papers, get great teaching evals, and secure research grants all you want. But like a mafia, if you ever air a dissenting opinion or are not “loyal” to the don, then you will not last more than a couple years here. Interestingly, those who have left have gone on to great careers elsewhere, becoming chairs, deans, or top engineering consultants.

    The don in question is not the department chair. The department chair is just a puppet and errand boy; the person who actually runs the department is a short-tempered 4 ft-11-inches-tall curmudgeon who suffers from a Napoleon Complex, has fragile self-esteem, and feeds off self-adulation and flattery. He’s been here 35+ years, was the chair for 30 years, is known campus-wide for his tyranny and nepotism, and nurtures decades of enmity with many older professors in other departments.
    Even the other full professors whose ‘support’ he seizes to legitimize his most ridiculous decisions are terrified of him.

    Department meetings are tense, nervous, and fearful environments where laughter sounds almost coerced. Full professors often get publicly belittled by him. They have no say, cut a sorry picture of frustration and humiliation, and resort to flattery and sycophancy to massage the fragile ego of this one midget. It sounds bizarre but you have to see it to believe it!
    Someone at a conference warned me about all this when I applied but like any objective, idealistic, young PhD, I gave wanted to give it a chance. Now I wish I didn’t.

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