Progress Report on the Anti-Bullying Initiative

Implementation of Recommendations of the Anti-Bullying Working Group: Initial Steps

Statement by Provost Mary C. Boyce

In September 2021, I convened a Working Group to discuss bullying and other abusive behavior and make recommendations on how we, as an institution should address this problem. The goal, as I said then, was to “provide an environment for learning, research, living, and working that is free from discrimination and harassment, and that does not tolerate abusive or intimidating behavior.” When I received the Working Group’s report last spring, I described its recommendations as thoughtful and well-reasoned and said I looked forward to discussion of them across the campus.

We have had much discussion in the months that followed – at the University Senate, in meetings of various faculties (including Arts and Sciences, where the Policy and Planning Committee (PPC) fostered particularly robust discussion), and in many other venues. That discussion will continue. But taking account of what we have heard from the Senate and feedback from several constituencies, including the PPC, I am pleased to announce the first major steps to implement recommendations of the Working Group. The steps are summarized here and described in greater detail below:

The University is adopting the Working Group’s proposed definition of bullying as a working standard for our various implementation efforts. That definition is as follows:

Abusive conduct or bullying is a pattern of unwelcome conduct that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, intimidating, disrespectful, degrading, or humiliating. For purposes of this policy, the terms “abusive conduct” and “bullying” are synonymous.

Bullying may take many forms including physical, oral, or written acts or behaviors. Calls, texts, emails, and social media postings can also constitute bullying, even if they occur away from University premises or outside of work hours.

In determining whether unwelcome conduct amounts to prohibited bullying, it is essential to consider the totality of the circumstances, including the frequency, nature, and severity of the conduct, the relationship between the parties, and the context in which the conduct occurred.

Line-drawing in this area is inherently difficult, as the definition recognizes. The definition establishes an objective, “reasonable person” standard that acknowledges the range of circumstances that need to be considered in any particular case. We are calling this a "working standard” on the explicit understanding that we will learn from our implementation efforts and can refine the definition over time in light of our experience with it. This definition is a good place to start.

In addition to proposing the definition itself, the Working Group also provided very helpful commentary on the definition –  a set of illustrations and observations intended to aid in interpreting the definition on a case-by-case basis.

Because the commentary has raised more questions than the definition itself, it deserves emphasis that it is the definition that we are adopting. The commentary remains background material that reflects the thinking of the Working Group and may be helpful in considering how the standard should be applied, but it does not represent the standard itself. We expect that the principles reflected in the commentary will be the subject of continuing discussion and we will ask the new standing Advisory Committee (as described in the next section) to consider the commentary and how it might be refined as one of its first orders of business. For now, the commentary provides important context, particularly its recognition that power-based abuse raises special concern and deserves particular attention, and the importance it places on fair process and respect for academic freedom and freedom of expression. On this last point, it’s worth quoting from the Working Group’s own language:

The foundational element of these recommendations is a definition of bullying that is narrowly tailored and informed by the experience of other institutions that have adopted similar standards. The recommendations explicitly recognize that not everything unpleasant is bullying, that negative feedback and criticism are, in fact, essential elements of the academic enterprise. The recommendations on remedial framework . . . emphasize the need to protect the rights and interests of all participants, including respondents. That protection is required as a matter of fundamental due process. It is also essential to the restorative principles that animate this entire report. The goal of this report, reflecting the charge to the Working Group, is to help create an environment in which all can thrive. The Working Group believes strongly that such an environment is essential to the protection of academic freedom and freedom of expression, not an obstacle to these critical objectives. 


We are adopting the Working Group’s recommendation to establish a new standing committee to advise the Provost on bullying. As envisioned by the Working Group, this will be a University-wide Advisory Committee whose membership is broadly representative of faculty, researchers, students, and staff, reflecting the full range of activities across all campuses. Members will serve defined terms to (as the Working Group put it) “increase the diversity of voices that can be heard on the Committee over time.”

The Committee will not be involved in the resolution of particular disputes but will “address culture and climate on an ongoing basis. . . . Its mission [will] be to keep attention focused on the topic of bullying and abusive behavior, to serve as a continuing signal of the University’s commitment to create an environment in which all can thrive. The advisory group [will] be charged with assessing progress toward achievement of that goal and recommending changes in policy and practice to move the University forward in that direction. . . . [It will also] be expected to serve as a University-wide coordination mechanism, facilitating the sharing of information and best practices across the various School-based efforts to address culture and climate, and paying attention to the experiences of other universities, scientific and research institutions and organizations generally.”

In the near term we expect the new Advisory Committee to undertake the following specific assignments:

  • Consider the commentary on the definition of bullying as described above and how it might evolve over time – in particular, does more need to be said about the presumption of innocence, the distinction between actions that are inadvertently and unintentionally offensive to another individual and those that are repeated or are deliberately intimidating, or other points that have been raised in response to the Working Group report; and
  • Convene focus groups in partnership with the Senate and groups representing faculty (e.g., the Policy Planning Committee of the Arts and Sciences), researchers, students and postdocs, to explore the nature and size of the bullying problem and to provide continuing feedback in aid of further implementation efforts.

One of the most important recommendations of the Working Group is to establish an Office of Conflict Resolution, or OCR, to which complaints of bullying can be directed. As envisioned by the Working Group, the OCR would serve as a central hub capable of providing formal resources and support for all remedial efforts across the University. The OCR concept seems strategically sound, and we are developing plans to move in this direction, but creating and staffing such an office and developing a suite of new processes for it will take time and needs to be informed by continuing investigation and feedback from across the University.

While that effort unfolds, we need to answer the question: where does one take a complaint of abusive behavior now, pending development of a new remedial framework, assuming the complaint involves no element of protected-class discrimination? Given the gap in our current remedial framework, this is a question of some urgency. Here are the steps we are taking to answer it.

Interim Central Referral Committee

Pending creation of an OCR, we will establish an interim, central referral committee to which bullying concerns may be brought by any member of our community-- student, faculty, researcher, or staff. This will be a standing committee (separate from the Provost’s Advisory Committee described above) made up of current personnel with the necessary experience and expertise from the Provost’s Office, the Office of General Counsel, and Columbia University Human Resources.

The committee will have no authority to investigate disputes or recommend punishments. Its assignment will be to register complaints and steer the complaining party toward available resources, as appropriate, either at the unit level (see Unit-Based Points of Contact), in the Office of the Provost (See Coordinators in Provost's Office), or CUHR, with the emphasis on conflict resolution through consultation, coaching and “mediation” broadly understood.

Where a case is considered to be so serious that disciplinary action might be warranted, the committee will steer the matter to appropriate authorities (Deans, Office of the Provost, EOAA, CUHR, as appropriate). This committee is not intended to displace existing opportunities to seek redress for complaints that involve discrimination. Its mission is to help fill an existing gap and provide an option where abusive behavior does not involve protected-class discrimination.


Identify Unit-Based Points of Contact

Each School, institute, and central administrative unit will be required to identify the persons or team that can work on unit-level issues of culture and climate and also receive complaints, particularly from postdocs and graduate students, and consider possible remedial actions.

Coordinators in Provost's Office

Understanding that there will often be need for fact-finding and adjudication external to the unit in which the complaint originated, the Office of the Provost will identify and appoint coordinators in the Provost’s Office who can themselves address allegations of abusive behavior while also helping to provide training and coordination for the unit-based resources.

Guiding Principles

These central and unit-based resources will be available to address specific complaints under the following principles:

  • The standard to be applied will be the definition of abusive conduct or bullying set forth above, on the understanding that the definition may evolve over time in light of our experience with it.
  • The emphasis will be on remediation of the problem, not punishment.
  • Neither party to a dispute will be required to undergo face-to-face mediation without their consent.

The University has taken a number of steps to promote safe and inclusive research environments that are free from bullying and abusive behavior. Significantly, these steps are intended not only to meet our own standards but also those increasingly mandated by funding agencies. They include a new requirement that National Science Foundation-funded projects involving off-campus or off-site research must have a project-specific plan in place to address abusive behavior, including bullying.

In anticipation of other implementation steps to come, the Office of the Provost will convene one or more small working groups to:

  • inventory existing policies and offices concerned with abusive conduct, their specific domains and limits of responsibility, and, as needed, identify possible redundancies with an eye to eliminating them;
  • look into best practices and report promptly on actions we can take in the area of training – to expand on the steps we’ve already initiated through the Center for Teaching and Learning, including assessing what our peers are doing, looking for available training products, and exploring ways to provide training for all responsible for managing others (Department Chairs, faculty who manage labs, administrative managers, etc.) and for mentors as well as mentees; and
  • identify opportunities to enhance the University’s capabilities in restorative justice and collaborative-based conflict resolution strategies, understanding that these processes may be most appropriately pursued through broad and community-oriented conversation and guidance, rather than through individual mediation.

These are just the first steps, and they are supplemented by other activities, including new programming at the Center for Teaching and Learning to help faculty advance their mentorship practices. Our goal is to create an environment in which all can thrive. As the Working Group said, that necessarily means an environment that does not tolerate abusive or intimidating behavior, that respects the rights and interests of all members of our community, and that upholds our foundational principles of academic freedom and free expression. If we are to achieve that goal, much work remains ahead for all of us.