Ten rules for succeeding in academia through upward toxicity


Think the way to forge a brilliant career in academe is to produce good research, teach skilfully and mentor generously? That arduous approach works for some – but there is an easier way.

Universities sing the song of meritocracy but dance to a different tune. In reality, they will do everything to reward and protect their most destructive, abusive and uncooperative faculty. The more thoroughly such scholars poison departments, programmes and individual lives, the more universities double down to please them.

Universities are even willing to ruin their own reputations and alienate their alumni to protect bullies and abusers. They might think that reputation management demands that such behaviour be swept under the carpet, but they ought to know that the scandals will break eventually, and that the cover-up will make them look worse. Some universities even hire people in the full knowledge of abuse allegations against them, thereby becoming invested in keeping secret their decision to put their students in harm’s way.

You too can become upwardly toxic; if you are the sort of person who likes harassing less powerful people, you will enjoy it, too. It is not necessary to actually be a genius scholar or administrator. Once enough people buy into the elaborate fiction of your irreplaceability, everyone will play along. To maintain it, universities will devalue the work of colleagues and students who are more brilliant, productive or collegial. These people, in turn, will internalise the message that they are inferior, and will be too busy dealing with their shattered confidence to pose a threat.

Your indiscretions – on occasion, even your crimes – will be kept quiet through regimes of fear. Threaten lawsuits, repercussions, closed-off opportunities. The more people cave to fear, the more they become implicated in shared guilt and work to maintain silence whether they want to or not. Colleagues who used to get along fine will be divided by resentment of their mutual failure to stand up to you.

Upward toxicity can work in any industry, but it is particularly effective in a career with few escape routes. If your students and colleagues want to get away from you, it could mean moving their family to another country, or even abandoning their life’s work altogether. Most are forced to deal with you for the long term.

There are many fringe benefits to being upwardly toxic. Use service assignments to benefit yourself at the expense of colleagues and you will magically find yourself doing less service. You will not get certain duties because you are not trusted. Of course, you can also ignore remaining work; your colleagues will learn to compensate accordingly.

Carry out a steady programme of harassment and gradually you will be released from duties to students, too. They will tell each other to avoid you. Your colleagues will take on extra work to protect them from your roving hands. Eventually, you will mentor only a select group of acolytes, who always do your bidding. If you behave egregiously enough, you may even win the grand prize: paid leave from teaching, which you can use to publish more research, bolstering your reputation for genius.

Still unclear? Try following these 10 easy rules:

  1. Cultivate powerful friends. Gain power over as many publication organs and scholarly bodies as possible and use them to promote your clique.
  2. Do nothing for anyone unimportant.
  3. Find a less successful scholar who will fear and admire you. Flatter them into becoming your sidekick and count on them to denigrate your colleagues and defend your reputation.
  4. Crush the confidence of students with the potential to surpass you. Or sleep with them. Or both.
  5. Manipulate students and employees into feeling they owe you, long after you no longer have power over them. Make outrageous, unethical promises they will feel bad about accepting or refusing.
  6. Promote a zero-sum model of success. Anyone else’s gain is your loss. Claim your students’ work as your own and reassign their best ideas to your favourites. Collaboration is for losers.
  7. Systematically badmouth your colleagues so you can improve your own standing. Shut out the students of rival scholars. Mock those rivals for having less successful students.
  8. Gaslight and spread misinformation about anyone who stands up to you. Complain about the “rumour mill” and “witch-hunts”. Accuse your critics of jealousy.
  9. Ask loudly why no one is willing to come forward officially to substantiate the rumours of abuse against you. If someone overcomes their terror, call them crazy.
  10. Lie brazenly. Accuse others of lying.

By following these rules, you can absorb enormous amounts of attention, time and resources with impunity. Sure, there will be critics. They will grumble among themselves that universities ought to foster talent, not protect abuse, and that research and education should serve society, not the gratification of a few egos. They may even call for a breaking of the conspiratorial silence that drives good people out of academe and leaves psyches shattered.

Don’t worry. They will be too afraid even to share this article.

Author Bio: Irina Dumitrescu is professor of English medieval studies at the University of Bonn.