Friday, October 20, 2006

Victim Bullies

I just finished reading The College Administrator's Survival Guide, by C.K. Gunsalus (Harvard U Press, 2006), and I'm utterly taken with it. Gunsalus gets so many of the details right, and in such an unpretentious way, that I expect to keep it around as a reference.

In the meantime, though, a few of her neologisms deserve posts of their own. One of these is the notion of 'victim bullies.' Gunsalus distinguishes between traditional, assertive bullies, who throw their weight around with bluster and force, and 'victim bullies,' who use claims of having been wronged to gain leverage over others.(pp. 123-4) Unlike simple passive-aggression, victim bullies use accusations as weapons, and ramp up the accusations over time. Unlike a normal person, who would slink away in shame as the initial accusations are discredited, a victim bully lacks either guilt or shame, honestly believing that s/he has been so egregiously wronged in some cosmic way that anything s/he does or says is justified in the larger scheme of things. So when the initial accusations are dismissed, the victim bully's first move is a sort of double-or-nothing, raising the absurdity and the stakes even more.


Gunsalus also notes, correctly, that in academic settings, bullies have a way of escaping supervision. Between the protections of tenure and the personality types who self-select to be in academe, department chairs and deans often deal with bullies by either mollifying them or isolating them. Either way, the bully is, essentially, rewarded.


Victim bullies thrive in the no-man's-land created by the deadly combination of slow and cumbersome processes, and failure of managerial nerve. Because defeating a victim bully takes tremendous endurance, most people don't try. Victim bullies know this, and are able to intimidate others into leaving them alone to do pretty much as they please.

I've had some experience with these, and I can say without reservation that they are, by far, my least favorite people to manage. It's not just that they're unpleasant and batshit crazy; they're self-righteously unpleasant and batshit crazy. They're implausibly persistent.

They test your patience, and seem to enjoy it. They read every bylaw, every handbook, and every contract front-to-back, but all one-sidedly. They LOVE hearsay. And anything at all that happens, no matter how far afield, is really about them. Their narcissism is so fully developed that sane people find them unpredictable; their logic is so convoluted as to be inscrutable.

Sadly, some of them have tenure.

Gunsalus makes the obviously correct point that the key to defeating these folks is the classic administrative pincer movement of process-and-time. Easier said than done, but still right.

I just can't tell you how heartening it was to see such a frustrating part of my life described so correctly. It's not just me. There's hope. This book gives me hope. I can't give much higher praise than that.