Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


Assessment bullies

Posted on April 1, 2014 at 7:30 AM

One of the things I love about working in higher education is the people. Far from the old stereotypic image of stuffy, arrogant professors, at least 99% of them are warm, friendly, and caring—a joy to work with.


But every college seems to have a very small number of people who seem to view their life role as throwing up obstacles to others. They hold up department or committee work with pontificating or argument, making their colleagues uncomfortable. I recently saw one faculty member hold up a college’s work to define critical thinking, for example, by saying a generalized definition couldn’t fit with his own definition, which used the specialized jargon of his discipline…which of course no one else in the room understood.


If these people have any real or perceived authority—say, they teach the courses that are the focus of a department’s assessment, or they’re longstanding members of the college’s general education committee, or they’re on a tenure committee—the discomfort level grows exponentially. These people can intimidate those around them from accomplishing whatever they intend to do. They approach the definition of bullying ( unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.


Why do we tolerate these people? One reason, I think, is because most of us are basically nice people; we don’t want confrontations. Another is the high value we place on academic freedom and freedom of speech; it’s easy to stretch these concepts to say that anyone can say or do whatever one wants at any time, no matter how disrespectful or intimidating it is. Yet another is that sometimes these people are truly in positions of authority or have the support of people in authority.


Assessment bullies are of course not grade school bullies; they’re not going to beat anyone up in the school yard. But they can still do some damage, keeping a college from moving to where it needs to be on assessment. What can we do?


1. Try to figure out why the bully acts aggressively. I’ve often found that these people have real misunderstandings about assessment. Inform your committee’s work with readings on research and good practices…and invite the bully to bring his or her own. I’ve also found that these people, ironically, feel disrespected; they feel they’re being told that what they’ve been doing in their classes for years is wrong. Sometimes—not always—some private one-on-one conversations about their concerns and figuring out gentle, respectful strategies to address them can help.


2. Continue to respect academic freedom by giving these people appropriate venues to express their views, such as special meetings and open forums. Then limit the agendas of committee meetings to accomplishing the work at hand.


3. Don’t ignore bullying behavior. As says, be more than a bystander. Respectfully tell these people that calling the assessment coordinator the “assessment czar” is inappropriate, and ask them to stop. Be persistent and consistent about this.


Do you have any other ideas? I’d love to hear them!

Categories: Assessment culture