May 26, 2021

Stories of Academic Bullying Reflect Ombuds' Work

Last fall, Nature Human Behavior published a commentary by Morteza Mahmoudi: "A survivor’s guide to academic bullying." He found that the vast majority of respondents who experienced bullying did not report the behavior to their institution and, of those who report, only 8% felt the process was fair and unbiased. Science has now published a collection of responses from Mahmoudi's study. In many of these stories, the target consulted with the campus Ombuds, with mixed results.

Here the stories that mention Ombuds:
  • I went to HR [human resources] of the department and of the institution; I discussed it with [a] disability adviser; I discussed it with the international office adviser; I filed a formal complaint with the dean; I consulted with the ombudsperson. The outcome of all of this was zero.
  • I talked to the ombudsman and the dean who both supported me and [took steps to ensure] my appointment wasn’t canceled. It was cut short but not as much as initially threatened. I got therapy hours from the institute to help cope (10 hours) and meetings with the ombudsman to keep contact and let me know they hadn’t forgotten about me.
  • I spoke to the department chair and was told I am the problem. I then spoke with the ombudsperson and was told I am NOT the problem, but because it was not gender-based bullying, there was nothing that could be done.
  • I was afraid to report at first but when it got worse, I spoke to the graduate ombudsman. His office handled the matter professionally and I did not experience retaliation.
  • I tried to report the incident, but my department said they had no power to do anything about the bullying and harassment. I went to the dean’s and the ombuds office, but they told me the same thing. Finally, I contacted the Title IX department who was willing to show me how to file a formal report. The formal complaint process has been going on for over a year and the investigators seem like they are trying very hard to bury my complaint.


  1. These stories (sadly) are a reminder of what happens when conflict management systems fail. An effective conflict management system would include formal (HR, management, Audit, Compliance, Title IX, etc.) and informal (Ombuds, EAP, etc.) offices. Here, because the Ombuds Office is not designed to hold people accountable, it seems that the common problem in all these experiences is a failure of the accountability/formal offices (i.e., management, HR, supervisors, etc.) to take effective action.

    1. Seems like a good lesson for all of us in our outreach efforts AND for upward feedback to institutional leaders-- ombuds offices only work as well as systems are in place to address issues beyond the realm of the informal. And it doesn't serve the institution to have the OO tarnished with the same brush

    2. I completely agree and relate to their experiences. When I started at the university, faculty asked me to help them craft an anti-bullying policy - it took 4 years to get it passed by legal council. We talked about accountability with leaders many times over the years. It is just a hollow promise because those in power refuse to hold others accountable for bullying. So far, the best outcomes happen when someone comes early and I can coach them on how to prevent further bullying, or when I find a Chair/supervisor who will take an active role (which has occurred once in 7 years). Or, along with a bullying allegation, there are Title IX implications, although I've seen too many cases where the Title IX sanctions lead to attending a workshop vs a meaningful sanction.