Fear and loathing on campus: bullying at Irish universities

Irish universities are spending record sums dealing with bullying and harassment allegations

Universities are spending millions on legal fees, which include dealing with allegations by third-level staff of bullying, harassment and discrimination, particularly on gender grounds. Photograph: iStock

Universities are spending millions on legal fees, which include dealing with allegations by third-level staff of bullying, harassment and discrimination, particularly on gender grounds. Photograph: iStock


Is bullying and harassment rife at Irish universities? These institutions are spending millions of euro on legal fees to deal with allegations by staff of bullying, harassment and discrimination, particularly on gender grounds.

A series of high-profile legal cases in recent years has highlighted tension bubbling up across a number of campuses – and many more are in the pipeline.

All of this comes at a time when the seven university presidents are urging greater state investment and the introduction of an income-contingent student-loan scheme.

So what’s going on behind the walls of our higher education institutions? Records released under the Freedom of Information Act show that dozens of lecturers and other staff members have made complaints about bullying, harassment and discrimination across Ireland’s seven universities in recent years.

There is a heavy financial toll. Ireland’s universities paid out more than €3.3 million in legal fees involving staff between 2010 and 2015, a threefold increase in the space of five years.

A significant amount of this money was spent on allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination, particularly on gender grounds. Colleges often hire external investigators to deal with such complaints.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland, which represents lecturers at institutes of technology, conducted a survey of more than 1,100 members in recent times to help measure scale of the problem. The results surprised some seasoned union officials: almost 30 per cent of respondents said they are always, often or sometimes bullied at work.

A further 69 per cent said there is always, often or sometimes friction between colleagues at work.

Managers lacking training

Joan Donegan, of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, says it is dealing with fresh allegations of bullying and harassment every month of the year.

“If management are not trained on how to deal with bullying and harassment cases, they can – without realising it – cause more harm. In-house training for HR and support staff is essential and more cost- effective,” she says. “Investment in a qualified external mediator, although expensive, is worthwhile if staff are not trained. Spending money on consultants to conduct investigations is very expensive, and the outcome from such processes is rarely helpful in healing the hurt between the parties.”

Figures released to The Irish Times indicate dramatically different patterns across individual higher education institutions.

The University of Limerick topped the table with 11 complaints over the past five years, including nine bullying complaints, one of sexual harassment and one linked to racial and religious discrimination.

The college has been at the centre of controversies relating to whistleblowing over alleged financial irregularities relating to expenses claims and human resources practices.

The university insists it has handled all these allegations properly. Informed sources, however, says there are tensions betwene the the Higher Education Authority and UL over these issues.

It has spent more than €250,000 in legal fees in cases involving staff in recent years.

NUI Galway has also been in the headlines following a successful case taken by former lecturer Micheline Sheehy- Skeffington on the grounds that she was unfairly passed over for promotion because of her gender.

The university has since pledged to introduce gender quotas, but it is still engaged in a legal battle with five female lecturers who say they were unfairly passed over for promotion.

NUIG says it has not had a complaint from staff under the university’s “dignity and respect” policy, which deals specifically with harassment and sexual harassment.

Under the anti-bullying policy, however, it has received eight complaints over the past five years – seven of which were from women against both male and female colleagues.

University College Cork has recorded just just four complaints since 2011 – three by men and one by a woman. However, it has spen by far the most, €1.5 million, on legal cases involving staff.

The most recent high-profile case involving a staff member who has taken legal action against the university after not being shortlisted for a professorial position. The college, however, insists it followed proper procedures at all times. The action is ongoing.

Trinity College Dublin says 10 staff members made complaints between 2011 and 2015, involving men and women.

It says investigations are conducted by college officers who receive specialist training.

Maynooth University received five complaints alleging bullying and harassment in the workplace.

University College Dublin says nine staff members have made complaints under its “dignity and respect” policy since 2011.

No uniform standard

Aidan Kenny of TUI says a uniform standard to address these issues across all colleges should ideally begin in mediation before a case is sent for investigation.

In some cases, he says, outside consultants determine the scope of investigations and can keep them going for years; tighter terms of reference are also needed.

The main issues, in his experience, occur when friction builds up over time between colleagues, or staff members feel under pressure to take on excessive work.

A staff member at a university, who has asked not to be named, says lecturers have limited mobility and don’t want to face court costs, whereas the universities retain legal teams in the event of a staff member alleging bullying or victimisation.

“Women, in particular, who speak up suffer, so they’re afraid to complain. If you do report bullying, a line is drawn around you,” she says. “The focus on university rankings prioritises research over teaching; this suits men, who can travel more and network more easily. We need this to change and we need gender quotas as well as a system of no-fault reporting.”


‘Women are sniped at and criticised by men. The old boys’ network still runs the show’
“I took early retirement from my university a number of years back, ostensibly on health grounds, but really because I had been bullied and undervalued, and I suffered burnout. It kept getting worse and nobody did anything, despite matters being brought to their attention.

“Eventually, I came to an agreement with those who were supposedly in authority about changes. But nothing changed. I had made it to personal professor and had a reasonable pension, so was allowed to leave quietly, with the unwritten and unspoken proviso that I would not take legal action.

“In my university I saw mediocre men promoted over stronger female candidates, including men who did not have PhDs. I can’t honestly say if the levels of bullying and harassment are higher in third level than in other sectors, but the small aggressions all added up. Women are referred to by their first name; men are given titles such as “professor”, even if they don’t have them. Lecture halls are bedecked with portraits of men only. Women are constantly sniped at and criticised by men.

“And of course there is the age-old example of men taking credit for ideas and work of women, whether in faculty minutes, organising conferences, submitting publications or putting new courses together. I regularly heard men tell women that they’d get the promotion because they were a woman but, even then, mediocre men would get the job over a much stronger female candidate, even when the male applicant did not have the minimum qualification of a PhD or the requisite number of years of service.

“There’s much talk of change, but the old boys’ network still runs the show. I can’t see that changing easily.”

‘I was shouted at, excluded and insulted. After nine years, I was made redundant’
“I was shouted at. I was excluded. I was insulted. My work space was invaded. One of the bullies even kicked a box I was packing before leaving the lab. This is all documented in the investigation the university carried out on my bullying complaint.

“It began while working in the research lab of a co-supervisor, and was perpetrated by two colleagues. It persisted for more than a year.

“The stress I suffered resulted in chronic diarrhoea, vomiting, a skin condition and counselling. I tried to speak to one of these colleagues but I couldn’t engage in dialogue with her. I requested a mediation process with HR, but the lab co-supervisor declined it.

“In the end, the university paid a private company for the investigation, which took 10 months. The findings were flawed, biased, and it wasn’t possible to appeal. After more than nine years of work, my position was suddenly made redundant.

“During the investigation, a paper I had written doubled the number of authors within months of submitting the first draft to this lab co-supervisor. When I complained, I was told, in an email that was copied to everyone, that I’d have my name taken off the paper unless I accepted it. I reported it to the research office and the investigating team, but they didn’t address it.

“It should be possible to appeal the findings of an investigation; when you can’t, the university is open to finding whatever is most convenient to them. The person who complains is isolated and made to suffer a long and horrible process. It’s better to leave the job than put yourself through that ordeal.”

‘The college has failed to validate my exoneration and continues to impose punitive restrictions on me’
“A manager accused me of bullying out of the blue. A few weeks beforehand, I’d been reprimanded by the manager for speaking out at a meeting: the complaint followed. It alleged that I had consistently tried to undermine the manager and had bullied other staff. It contained little specific, and included third-party allegations amounting to an attack on my character.

“The complaint was investigated by an external organisation hired by the college. I was exonerated on every accusation. The investigators found that the complaint lacked any credibility. They found that aspects of the manager’s behaviour towards me were concerning. However, they also concluded that, because the manager believed the allegations to be true, they had been made in good faith.

“The process has dragged on for 2½ years and remains unresolved. The college has failed to validate my exoneration and continues to impose punitive restrictions on me. From the outset, the manner in which the college dealt with the complaint has been flawed and unfair. The policy under which the complaint was processed has not been distributed to staff – a failure of institutional governance. The college did not adhere to the requirements of the policy, particularly in relation to the legitimacy of the complaint.

“The process has been damaging to me and costly to the college. It was unnecessary: competent management could have sorted it in a day. A mechanism designed to protect people in the workplace was misused as a tool to stifle dissent, to impose authority and to cover up bad management.

“My trade union has been a great support, underlining their importance in the contemporary workplace.

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