Bullies and Victims in Higher Education

Journal of Bullying and Social Aggression

Volume 1, Number 1, 2015

Bullies and Victims in Higher Education: A Mixed-Methods Approach

Amelia D. Perry & Sarai Blincoe

Longwood University








Corresponding Author: Amelia D. Perry




















            A majority of research on bullying focuses on primary and secondary education or the workplace, and fails to address bullying at the higher education level.  This mixed-methods study explored bullying at one university through an investigation of prevalence rates, characteristics of bullies and victims, motivations, and awareness of and attitudes towards bullying policy. After completing a questionnaire, participants described their experiences with bullying through a written narrative. Of the students surveyed, 63.35% witnessed bullying in some capacity since coming to college, and 27.15% reported being victims of bullying; verbal bullying was the most common subtype observed and experienced. The results were generally consistent across the two methodologies used, but the qualitative narratives revealed novel reasons for the occurrence of bullying. With further evidence revealing bullying among students within higher education, these findings can aid colleges and universities in developing and improving policies, preventative programming, and assistance for victims of bullying.

Keywords:  bullying, higher education, motives, policy, narratives, victimization


Despite the increasing number of studies that explore the topic of bullying, few examine the bullying of students at colleges and universities (Chapell et al., 2004; Coleyshaw, 2010; Duncan, 2010). Those that do tend to focus on prevalence, identities of the bullies, reporting behaviors (Chapell et al., 2004; Sinkkonen, Puhakka, Meriläinen, 2014; Student Experience Report, 2008), and the particular sub-type of bullying known as cyber-bullying (Kraft & Wang, 2010; MacDougall & Roberts-Pittsmen, 2010;Schenk & Fremouw, 2012). The predominant methodology in these studies is the self-report survey. In the present study, we used a survey to replicate previous findings on prevalence and the characteristics of bullies, but added a unique qualitative component in which the participants described actual bullying incidents at the university. Via these personal narratives we examined motives for bullying, a topic that has, until now, been studied only at the primary and secondary education levels (Erling & Hwang, 2004; Frisén, Jonsson, & Persson, 2007; Thornberg & Knuttsen, 2011; Varjas et al., 2008), as well as bully identities, and reporting behaviors. Higher education administrators, particularly in student affairs, increasingly turn a critical eye to their campus’ culture and its potential to support bullying; thus, the present study also included several questions concerning student knowledge and perceptions of campus policies.

Bullying Types and Prevalence

To identify bullying behavior, many researchers use Olweus’ (1994) three part definition of bullying: 1) bullying is intentional and causes violent harm, (2) a real or perceived power imbalance exists between the parties involved, and (3) the behavior must occur repeatedly.

Bullying can further be classified into four main types: physical, verbal, social, and cyber-bullying (Cornell, 2012). Physical bullying involves causing bodily harm to or damaging the possessions of another person or group. Verbal bullying involves repeated insults, threatening, teasing, making fun, and name-calling. Social bullying occurs when people intentionally try to damage someone’s reputation or social standing; it may include ignoring or leaving someone out on purpose, encouraging others to ignore/exclude, and/or spreading rumors or gossiping about a person (Cornell, 2012). Social bullying is often considered indirect bullying because the victim is not present when the bullying occurs (Olweus, 1994). Oftentimes verbal, social, and physical bullying are considered traditional types of bullying and grouped together in research on prevalence; whereas cyber-bullying, which can occur anonymously and not in the presence of others, is considered different and addressed separately. Cyber bullying is the use of technology such as email, cell phones, social media, or the internet, to inflict harm on someone through teasing, name-calling, making/spreading rumors, or insulting (Cornell, 2012; Schenk & Fremouw, 2012).

The National Center for Education Statistics (2013) surveyed 24,456,000 students, ages 12-18, across the United States, and found that 27.6% of them reported being victims of traditional types of bullying, and 9% reported being cyber-bullied. While the NCES has systematically studied the secondary education system in the United States, no such comprehensive study of bullying exists for postsecondary education. A few researchers have investigated bullying among students at their specific institution (Chapell et al., 2004; Sinkkonen et al., 2014), and some multi-site studies have been done in Finland and England (Kunttu & Huttunen, 2009; Student Experiences Report, 2008).  Chapell et al. (2004) conducted one of the few studies on traditional bullying within higher education in the United States and found that of the 1,025 students surveyed, 60.9% had witnessed bullying, and 24.6% reported being victims of bullying in college. The rate of victimization is comparable to that identified in the NCES (2013) study. A Finnish health survey revealed that one-quarter of their  9,967 participants were bullied during their university studies (Kunttu & Huttunen, 2009), but a more recent study, which focused on a single Finnish university, found considerably lower rates (Sinkkonen et al., 2014). Only 5.2% (N = 2,634) of participants reported victimization and 11% reported witnessing bullying during their university studies. Finally, the British Student Experience Report (2008) yielded similar results to the Finnish project (Sinkkonen et al., 2014); only 7% (N = 3,135) of participants reported being bullied at their university.

The studies discussed above address bullying in general or bullying of the traditional types.  In the face of increased availability and use of technology, several other studies of college bullying investigate solely cyber-bullying. At a public liberal arts college in New Jersey, Kraft and Wang (2010) found that 10% (N=471) of students admitted to being victims of cyber-bullying. In a slightly larger study, Schenk and Fremouw (2012) surveyed 799 college students at a large university (30,000 students) in the Mid-Atlantic and found a victimization rate (8.6%) comparable to that of Kraft and Wang (2010).  MacDonald and Roberts-Pittsman (2010) found slightly higher rates at a Midwestern university; 21.9% (N = 439) of their participants reported cyber-bullying victimization. The variation in prevalence rates, both for traditional and cyber bullying, may be due to the different methodologies employed from study to study.  For example, Schenk and Fremouw (2012) had participants endorse certain questions in order to be considered a victim of cyberbullying, whereas MacDonald and Roberts-Pittsman (2010) gave participants definitions so that the participants could self-identify as victims. Regardless, the evidence suggests that bullying does not disappear when students exit the K-12 system.

The present study sought to replicate past prevalence rates, but with unprecedented attention to the nuance of bullying types.  To our knowledge, no previous research simultaneously investigated both the traditional types of bullying and cyber-bullying; nor, to our knowledge, have researchers of higher education bullying treated physical, verbal, and social bullying independently, rather than lumping them together as the “traditional” types.  In addition to these methodological advances, the qualitative portion of the present study allowed for the identification of co-occurring types (such as social and cyber), a possibility not investigated in previous studies.

Characteristics of Bullies and Victims

Unfortunately, the same individuals tend to be the victims of bullying throughout their academic career. Although, bullying behavior appears to decrease from elementary to middle to high school and eventually college, bullying never fully ceases (Chapell et al., 2006).  Certain factors, including gender, race /ethnicity, sexual orientation, obesity, disability, and not fitting in with peers, increase the risk of being a victim (AERA, 2013; Swearer, Espelage, Vailancourt, & Hymel, 2010). Some of these characteristics, such as sexual orientation, have been studied extensively through large studies like the National School Climate Survey, which found that of the K-12 LGBT youth surveyed, 81.90% reported verbal bullying in the previous year as the result of their sexual orientation (Kosciw et al., 2011).

Investigations of the perceptions of primary and secondary school students provide much of our understanding of bullying motives. Thornberg and Knutsen (2011) presented 185, 15-16 year-olds with Olweus’ definition of bullying and asked why bullying occurs. The researchers coded most of these responses into bully and victim attributes. ‘Deviance’ was a common victim attribute used by participants; the teenagers believed victims were targeted because they were in some way (e.g., dress, personality) odd. The perception that victims are targeted because of appearance is a prevalent one (Erling & Hwang, 2004; Frisén et al., 2007). Other common victim attributes reported by Thornberg and Knutsen (2011) included ‘irritable’ (e.g., victim was annoying), ‘weak’ (e.g., victim was physically weak, insecure, no friends, shy), and ‘mean’ (e.g., victim provoked the bullying).

Other explanations for bullying generated by the teenage participants touched on characteristics of the bullies. Thornberg and Knutsen (2011) identified an ‘inner flaws’ category which described the bully as weak and resorting to bullying as a way to deal with feelings of insecurity and low self-confidence. In comparison, the ‘social positioning’ category explained that the bully is trying to gain popularity, status, or power out of bullying others. Varjas et al.’s (2008) smaller (N = 30) qualitative study of 4th through 8th grade students’ perceptions of bullying also found bullies commonly described as trying to gain status or make themselves feel better.  Other bully characteristics identified by Thornberg and Knutsen (2011) included: ‘hostile feelings’ (e.g., bully is motivated by anger, jealousy, dislike), ‘bad personality’, ‘problematic family’ (e.g., hostile home environment), and bullying for fun. Most of these characteristics also emerged in other studies (Burns, Maycock, Cross, & Brown, 2008; Frisén et al., 2007). The present study asked whether the motives for bullying identified by primary and secondary school students would replicate with university students using both survey and narrative methods.

Although our understanding of bully motives comes from K-12 research, the roles occupied by bullies have been studied at the university level; most studies find that college students are bullied by their peers or members of the faculty or staff. Chapell et al. (2004) found that of those who witnessed bullying, over 60% witnessed a student bullying another student, and 44% witnessed a teacher bullying a student.  In Sinkkonen et al. (2014) and the Student Experiences Report (2008) participants identified students as the bully in 51% and 79% of the reports, and teachers/faculty/staff as the bully in 44% and 29% of the reports, respectively.  Commenting on the relatively high percentage of reports involving faculty, Sinkkonen et al. (2014) suggested that faculty may be unaware they are bullying. Alternatively, students may be misinterpreting academic criticism or humor.  In addition to exploring faculty-student bullying, the present study adds nuance to the role of the bully by classifying student bullies into subgroups such as roommate, significant other, and friends. Such nuance is critical for the targeted development of campus policies and programming directed at bullying prevention.


Sadly, a minority of bullied college students say they seek help to stop the bullying. In Sinkkonen et al.’s (2014) study, only 26 of the 147 participant victims reported seeking help, as did less than one-third of the bullying victims surveyed in the Student Experiences Report (2008).  Not knowing to whom incidents should be reported was a common reason given for the lack of action (Student Experiences Report, 2008).  Students who did report seeking help identified faculty and administration, police, student health services, student housing, student union, and student organizations as resources (Sinkkonen et al., 2014). Unlike the K-12 setting in which appropriate authorities (classroom teacher, school counselor, principal, etc.) have been identified for the students, the diversified staffing of a typical college campus can make the identification of the appropriate authority a challenge.

Students may also avoid help seeking because they believe that the response will be inadequate. Of those Student Experiences Report (2008) respondents that did report bullying, a majority (61%) stated that the university did not adequately support or resolve the issue. This may be linked to the fact that students are not sure where to go and potentially contact offices and individuals that are ill-equipped for intervention and response. To expand our understanding of help-seeking behavior in cases of bullying, we asked participants in the present study whether they would (hypothetically) report bullying and to whom they would report it.

The absence of state and federal laws in the United States requiring universities to protect their students from bullying (AERA, 2013) complicates the help-seeking process. One theory explains the lack of policy as due to the perceptions of colleges and universities as “bully-lite” (Coleyshaw, 2010). Such an assumption is hard to justify given the recent research on prevalence rates.  Although arguably less prevalent in the postsecondary setting than K-12, bullying most definitely occurs in higher education (Chapell et al., 2004; Schenk & Fremouw, 2012; Sinkkonen et al., 2014; Student Experiences Report, 2008). Perhaps the absence of a large, systematic study of bullying in higher education partially explains these perceptions.

The diverse and complex nature of a college campus may also deter the development of solid policies; universities have limited legal standing on events that occur off-campus or outside the classroom. Because a better understanding of location may aid campuses in establishing effective policy, participants in the current study reported the specific locations at which they experienced bullying, either as victims or witnesses.

Alternatively, vague definitions may explain the lack of policy. Universities commonly group together aggressive behaviors such as harassment, hazing, cyberstalking, and incivility (AERA, 2013). The use of the narrative methodology in the present study allowed for a unique examination of bullying experiences students have encountered, as well as evidence of how easily bullying can become entangled with other aggressive acts.

Current Study

Using a combination of self-report survey and narrative methodologies, this exploratory study substantively extends the examination of bullying in higher education. In addition to replicating past findings on prevalence, we considered issues of bully identity and motivation and incident location. Many of these issues have been studied only at the level of primary and secondary education (Thornberg & Knutsen, 2011; Frisén et al. 2007; Varjas et al., 2008). A particular emphasis of the present study was awareness of and attitudes towards policy, and the implications that the characteristics of a bullying incident have for developing policy, preventative programming, and assistance for victims on college and university campuses.



A total of 221 university students (161 females, 59 male, 81% Caucasian) completed this survey-based study. The sample consisted of 77 freshmen, 31 sophomores, 40 juniors, and 67 seniors; five students did not identify their class standing.

Method and Procedure

            Recruitment. A majority of the participants (n = 148) completed the study on Survey Monkey in partial completion of a psychology course requirement. The researcher recruited additional participants (n = 48) from four sociology and English classes. The instructors of these courses emailed the Survey Monkey link to their students. One additional English class participated via paper survey during a regularly scheduled class session (n = 25). Participants recruited through their regular classes did not receive participation incentives. All participants gave consent (either online or in paper form), and received debriefing.

Survey items. The first part of the survey covered participant demographics, including gender, ethnicity, and year in school. Next, participants answered questions pertaining to the bullying experience. The first set of questions asked participants to rate possible bullying motives on a scale of 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 7 (Strongly Agree). These motives were grouped into a composite of bully-focused motives (i.e., power, showing off, attention, popularity; α = .76) and a composite of victim-focused motives (i.e., weight, race, disability, and sexual orientation, dress; α = .87); one motive, “harmless joking”, did not load with either composite and was excluded from further analysis.

Participants then read the Olweus (1994) definition of bullying, followed by the definition of each subtype of bullying (i.e., physical, verbal, social, cyber) as reported in the introduction above. Immediately subsequent to each of the five definitions, participants reported if they had been a victim and/or witness of that type.  Next, participants indicated, by checking all that applied, locations where they had been bullying victims or witnesses while at college (e.g., dining hall, residence hall, classroom, etc.) and the general identity of the bully (e.g., student, professor, significant other, etc.)

Next, participants indicated whether or not they would report bullying if they observed it, and if yes, to whom they would report the incident. The free responses for the “to whom” question were coded into six categories: residential advisor (RA) / residential education coordinator (REC), Dean of Students, police, faculty, counseling center, and generic adult/authority figure. Finally, participants answered yes or no to the question “Does the university have any policy regarding bullying” and indicated on a 1(Strongly Disagree) to 7 (Strongly Agree) scale their level of agreement with the statement “Universities / Colleges should have a policy against bullying.”

Bullying Narrative. After completing the survey items, participants read instructions for generating a bullying narrative. Participants were asked to recall a real event in which they were a victim of bullying at college.  If they themselves had never been a victim, they could describe an incident in which they witnessed bullying at college. The instructions indicated that participants should describe the incident in as much detail as possible, including who was involved, where it occurred, and the aftermath of the incident, including disciplinary action if applicable.

The first author and an additional judge coded each narrative as described below.  The second author reconciled coding differences through conversation with the two judges.  All narratives were coded for the degree to which they satisfied the three components of the Olweus (1993) definition of bullying. Sixteen of the narratives did not satisfy any of the definitional components. These narratives represented hazing or fighting as the result of intoxication (n = 5), intimate partner aggression (n = 6), or disrespectful/rude behavior of a general nature (n = 5).  We excluded these 16 narratives from further analysis. Of the remaining 113 narratives, 57 did not meet all components of the bullying definition, most typically because not enough information was given in the narrative to conclude if the described incident occurred repeatedly. We chose to include these narratives in the analysis. For most narratives, data was missing for at least one of the coding categories due to insufficient narrative detail.

Narratives were classified as to whether the participant was a victim or witness of the bullying incident. All analyses of the narratives are reported separately for these two perspectives. One goal of this narrative methodology was to replicate the findings elicited by the more general survey. To that end, the judges coded the type of bullying described (i.e., physical, verbal, social, cyber), the location of the incident (i.e., university managed housing, on-campus public space [e.g., library, classroom, dining hall], off-campus [e.g., non-university housing, parties]), the campus role of the bully (i.e., student, professor, significant other, roommate/hall mates / house mates), and bullying motive. Each motive feel into one of seven categories identified from previous literature and the survey results: 1) victim race/ethnicity or SES, 2) victim appearance (e.g., style of dress, weight, height, disability), 3) victim sexuality (e.g., virginity, promiscuity, sexual orientation), 4) victim religion or beliefs, 5) victim interests or organizational affiliations (e.g., membership in an off-campus Greek organization), 6) personal issue (e.g., roommate conflict, dislike, jealousy), and 7) victim failure or inadequacy (e.g., answering a question wrong in class). A second goal for the narratives was to expand upon the survey by identifying additional features of bullying incidents. To that end, we coded the number of victims and the number of bullies (one vs. more than one) and the biological sex of the victim and the bully (i.e., male, female, or mixed group). Interrater reliability was assessed using the kappa statistic. Kappas ranged from a low of .796 for the type of bullying to .964 for the number of bullies, with a mean kappa for the eight variables of .90.


Of the 221 students surveyed, 63.35% reported witnessing bullying, and 27.15% reported being victims of bullying since coming to college. When asked specifically about the four subtypes of bullying, participants reported experiencing verbal bullying, both as a victim and a witness, more commonly than the other three types.  Physical bullying was least reported (see Table 1). The narratives reflected the pattern of the survey as to bullying type.  Both as victim and witness, participants most typically described verbal bullying incidents, followed by social bullying incidents, with physical and cyber incidents accounting for less than 10% each. Interestingly, the narrative methodology allows for the possibility that multiple bullying types co-occur (see Table 1). Five incidents from the witness perspective and five from the victim perspective involved more than one type of bullying but no particular combination represented a majority of the these narratives.

According to the survey, bullying occurred throughout the campus, in both public and private spaces (see Table 2). Participants most often indicated seeing or being bullied in the residence halls, in the dining hall, and off-campus. Of the witness narratives, only 33 clearly identified a location; a majority (57.60%) mentioned an on-campus public space such as the dining hall or university managed housing (36.40%). Only two incidents occurred off campus. The pattern for victim narratives was almost identical to that of witnesses, with 38.70% taking place in a residence, 54.80% in an on campus public space, and two incidents occurring off campus.

What does a bully look like?

            As reported by participants on the survey, most bullying occurred at the hands of fellow students, friends, roommates, and significant others, but faculty and staff were also implicated (see Table 3). Most of the narratives identified a fellow student as the bully (58.10%). An additional 29 narratives (22.50%) labeled the student as a roommate, hall-mate, or housemate. Reports of bullying by professors and significant others were more rare, at five narratives and four narratives, respectively. Based on narrative coding, bullying took place at the hands of a single individual about as often as a group. Witnesses reported a single bully in 60.00% of incidents and victims in 55.40% of incidents. Victims, on the other hand, were most frequently alone in their victimization. Over two thirds of witness and victim narratives described a single victim (86.30% and 82.50% respectively). Because the participants were primarily female, the victim narratives were considered a biased representation of the biological sex of victims, but the witness narratives suggest that both males and females are vulnerable to bullying, with rates (69.40% of incidents described female victims) comparable to the distribution of the sexes at the university generally.

Motives for Bullying

Participants agreed that both bully-centered motives, such as power and attention, and victim-centered motives, such as the victim’s race or appearance could account for bullying. A paired samples t-test found that participants agreed significantly more with the bully-centered motives (M = 5.88, SD = .86) than the victim-centered (M = 4.79, SD = 1.19), t(214)=13.52, p < .000, r = .68. Participants perceive bullying to be the result of the desires of the bully as well as the characteristics of the victim, but, importantly, a bully’s desires for power and attention are ascribed a more decisive role.

Ninety of the narratives provided sufficient context to deduce a possible motive (see Table 4). Personal issues were the primary motive (37.30% of witnesses, 40.40% of victims) and included such things as roommate disagreements or arguments, jealousy over boyfriends / girlfriends, and relationship arguments. One participant wrote “A peer of mine was extremely jealous of my boyfriend and I’s relationship because she was very interested in him.  She made up lies about me and told a lot of people false information about me and my lifestyle.” Another wrote about her roommates:

There was [sic] three of us in a small room.  One girl decided she didn’t like me and did her best to get me to move out. She would do little things, like not talk to me, ignore me even when I was doing something in the room, talk about me behind my back, and tell the RA things that were not true about my behavior to make her look like the victim in the situation. She got her friends acting rude to me, and eventually I had enough and moved out.

The second most common motive was appearance (31.37% witness, 8.77% victim), and included such physical characteristics as disability, weight, height, and style of dress.  One witness wrote “I have seen a student be bullied in class numerous times by being out-casted and laughed at because of her disability.” Another witness described a friend being verbally and physically bullied:

My guy friend who is a smaller individual, Asian, and acts more feminine than most guys has been called gay multiple times since coming to college. He said the boys that were the worst about it lived in his hall and they would call him small and hit him and tell him to hit back. As a result he started avoiding them, but the situation was never reported. He told me the comments and bullying would get worse when there were around a lot of people cause they wanted to make themselves look better.

Although this narrative could, to some extent, qualify for the sexuality motive (reminding us that bullies often identify victims that are “deviant” in more than one way), we coded it as appearance motive because of the multiple references to the victim’s size. This narrative also represents the co-occurrence of multiple bullying types, most notably the physical and verbal.

Victim failure or inadequacy was the third most common motive (5.88% witness, 12.28% victim) and included such things as being bullied for answering a question wrong in class or not having a particular skill. One participant wrote that “during class you hear other students talking about others’ ideas and joking and making fun of comments that other people say.”  Other students wrote about professors making fun of or humiliating them because of their work: “I have personally felt degraded and belittled by [Name of Professor]. In [particular class], he tends to call on students and then brings them down in front of the class.  It is not a positive learning environment.”

Few participants identified race/ethnicity, sexuality, religion/beliefs, and interests/organizations as reasons for bullying, but those who did often shared particularly detailed and poignant stories. Most of the narratives in these categories describe verbal bullying incidents, with some describing social bullying, and only a couple describing cyber-bullying. One victim’s description of ethnicity-based bullying evokes feelings of anger and despair:

I am of Hispanic decent and most people automatically assume I am Mexican…People would make jokes regarding me being Mexican.  All of a sudden I’m a gardener who cuts everyone’s grass.  Apparently I am an illegal alien because I snuck through the border…People at this school suck…Nothing is ever done except laughter.

Another victim shared her story as a member of the LGBT community, writing: “My suitemate and her boyfriend liked to throw around the word ‘gay’ and ‘faggot’ towards me…it was uncomfortable to be in an apartment with someone who thought I was hitting on them all the time just because of my sexuality.”

Help-Seeking and Policy

Of the 221 survey participants, 60.63% (n = 134) said they would report bullying if they saw it.  When asked to whom they would report it, participants listed faculty (n = 56), police (n = 37), residential advisor (RA) / residential education coordinator (REC) (n = 35), Dean of Students (n = 6), and the counseling center (n = 6).  Thirty-nine participants said they would report bullying to an authority figure or other adult, but did not specify further, perhaps indicative of confusion as to who on the college campus represents the appropriate authority for these situations. As for the narratives, most did not offer any evidence that action was taken to resolve the bullying. Some students who experienced bullying by their roommate, suitemate, or in their dorm referenced an appeal to their resident advisor (n = 9) or moving out (n = 6). Not all those that sought help from the RA asked for room changes, and not all the students that discussed moving out or changing living situations were housed in university managed housing. A few participants (n = 3) reported the incident to an authority figure (such as a department chair in two of the incidents involving a faculty bully) or referred it to the conduct board (n = 2). One of the conduct board referrals resulted in disciplinary actions, in which two students were removed from a student organization.

Participants generally agreed that universities and colleges should have policies against bullying (M = 5.97, SD = 1.27), and 51.15% of students indicated strong agreement. In fact, a majority of the participants (68.30%) believed that the school at which the study took place does in fact have a policy on bullying. However, as of the most recent (2014-2015) printing, the student handbook does not contain a single reference to bullying.


This survey-based study examined bullying among students at one university in an attempt to replicate and expand upon existing research. Student participants completed a self-report survey about the prevalence and location of bullying, as well as the nature of bullies and victims. In a novel application of a narrative methodology, participants also wrote about a time when they experienced bullying as either a victim or an observer. These narratives replicated many of the survey findings, but also provided a nuanced picture of higher education bullying, particularly with regards to bullying motives and the identity of victims and bullies. A further contribution of this study was the investigation of help-seeking behaviors and student knowledge of and attitudes toward campus bullying policies.

Prevalence of Bullying

This study investigated the prevalence rates of the different types of bullying (i.e., physical, social, verbal) within higher education, advancing past research which lumped together the three traditional types, and typically focused on traditional to the exclusion of cyber (or vice versa). In both the survey and the narratives, verbal bullying was reported the most, followed by social bullying.  The rates of both overall bullying and cyber-bullying found in the survey are similar to those found by other researchers in the United States (Chapell et al., 2004; Kraft & Wang, 2010; Schenk & Fremouw, 2012). In contrast, these rates are considerably higher than those found at a Finnish university (Sinkkonen et al., 2014) and British universities (Student Experiences Report, 2008).

By measuring prevalence rates separately for each type, we actually found that participants reported being victims and witnesses of verbal bullying and witnesses of social bullying at higher rates of response than bullying in general.  One explanation for this statistical impossibility is that, despite including the definition of bullying at the beginning of the survey, students label as bullying incidents that do not actually meet the definition. Participants may have had a more narrow idea of bullying when they answered the general question than when they answered for each subtype.  The narratives expanded on the survey results, particularly in their ability to capture co-occurring types of bullying and pinpoint the types of aggression that college students may confuse with bullying, including intimate partner violence, hazing, fighting due to intoxication, and one time incidents of rudeness or disrespect.

Motives of Bullying

The students surveyed endorsed many of the same reasons for bullying initially described by primary and secondary students when asked to rate pre-selected motives (AERA, 2013; Frisén et al., 2007; Swearer et al., 2011; Thornburg & Knuttsen, 2011; Varjas et al., 2008).  Using the narrative methodology, different patterns emerge with interesting implications. Firstly, sexual orientation was represented less frequently as a cause of bullying in the narratives than might be expected from the research on K-12 bullying (Kosciw et al., 2011). The lack of LGBT-focused narratives could be due to the limited diversity of the sample (although narratives from the witness perspective could help to counter this), but it might also be interpreted as potential evidence for more acceptance among college students, compared to middle or high school students. Interestingly, tther aspects of sexuality, specifically the quantity of sex being had by students (promiscuity, virginity) emerged as motives for bullying in the narratives of these college students; this theme did not arise in studies of secondary students. Other motives unique to the college environment are roommate/ suitemate conflicts and organizational bullying (e.g., sororities bullying other sororities). If researchers only investigated K-12 bullying, we would be unaware of these bullying situations. These motives unique to higher education could impact the creation and implementation of policies regarding bullying in higher education. For example, roommate / suitemate conflicts occurred frequently among the narratives, and universities could address these situations by training their residential assistants and other housing staff on how to appropriately handle and resolve bullying conflict.

Advancing Bullying Policy at College and Universities

A sizeable minority of surveyed students, a full 40%, said they would not report bullying if they saw it. And among those who indicated that they would report bullying (possibly because that answer would be considered socially desirable), the person to whom bullying would be reported ranged across the full scope of campus administration, from faculty to deans to student affairs staff. Seventeen percent of respondents simply said they would talk to an “adult”; such a vague answer does not bode well for help-seeking or intervention in the face of an actual bullying incident. In fact, the narratives revealed a very limited amount of anti-bullying action. Only a handful reported steps to address bullying either as victims or witnesses. These findings may reflect a lack of information; do our students know where to turn for help in the vast bureaucracy of the college campus? Do they know how to overcome the tendency to be merely bystanders to the bullying of others? As long as help-seeking remains a step taken by a minority of students, the notion of colleges as “bully-lite” (Coleyshaw, 2010) may be hard to dismiss.

Although the notion that colleges and universities are “bully-lite” is increasingly challenged by the results of the research (Chapell et al., 2004; Schenk & Fremouw, 2012; Sinkkonen et al., 2014; Student Experiences Report, 2008), a large, systematic study of bullying in higher education, such as those conducted in K-12 (Kosciw et al., 2012; National Center for Education Statistics, 2013) does not exist. Compounding the problem is the tendency for universities and colleges to group together (often dissimilar) types of aggression, such as hazing and bullying, for the purpose of policy (AERA, 2013). Students themselves appear to have only a vague idea of what actions constitute bullying. Even when explicit definitions were provided on the survey, many participants described in their narratives incidents that failed to meet all three of Olweus’ components. When the bullying definition was applied rigorously to the narratives, only 25.34% (n = 56) of participants described a bullying event; and yet 1/4 of the participants described a time when they either witnessed bullying or were bullied themselves while at college (for the freshmen participants, this would be in their first semester). These finding underscore the need for policies that clearly and comprehensively describe bullying and differentiate it from other aggressive behaviors and forms of misconduct.

Policy-makers must also consider the fact that college students are identifying their roommates, significant others, fellow students, and faculty as bullies. Participants reported residence halls as the most frequent location for bullying, meaning that, at minimum, residence life staff need to be trained to recognize bullying and take steps to both intervene and prevent such behavior. Despite the fact that most bullying appears to take place where students live, faculty, more than another authority, were listed as the persons to whom students would report incidents of bullying. As potential first responders, faculty members need training in how to appropriately handle these reports. Faculty may also need to attend development workshops on the delivery of criticism, as several narratives made clear that faculty can cross over into bullying territory when attempting to deliver feedback.

In combining the typical survey methodology with a narrative methodology, new and unexpected patterns emerged in this study of bullying on college and university campuses.  These results advance past work by further specifying common bully identities, incident locations, and a lack of initiative in reporting, all of which has profound implications for policy.  At the same time, the research presented herein remains a snapshot, representing student perspectives at a single American university. Future research, following the example of the K-12 world, must include a large-scale study of bullying with representative samples. Nevertheless, smaller-scale projects can explore in more detail the bullying that occurs among roommates and suitemates within university managed housing, and bullying between faculty and students. The field appears to have reached a point at which applied research on the practices that reduce and prevent the occurrence of bullying on college campuses are greatly needed. Such studies could consider the role of disciplinary bodies, honor codes, or bystander intervention training. But just as important as additional research are the conversations that members of campus communities need to have about the climate for bullying in higher education.




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Table 1.

Bullying Prevalence by Subtype

Witnessed Bullying


Victim of Bullying

Bullying TypeSurveyNarratives SurveyNarrativesOverall63.35% (n = 140)N/A 27.15% (n = 60)N/AVerbal72.39% (n = 160)41.17% (n = 21) 35.75% (n = 79)50.87% (n = 29)Social63.80% (n = 141)35.29% (n = 18) 24.89% (n = 55)26.31% (n = 15)Cyber42.53% (n = 94)7.84% (n = 4) 10.86% (n = 24)5.26% (n = 3)Physical29.86% (n = 66)1.96% (n = 1) 4.52% (n = 10)7.01% (n = 4)CombinationN/A9.80% (n = 5) N/A8.77% (n = 5)















Table 2.

Survey Results for Location of Bullying Location


Residence Hall

55.65% (n = 123)


51.13% (n = 113)

Dining Hall

40.72% (n = 90)

Off-campus housing

37.56% (n = 83)


27.60% (n = 61)

Brock Commons

22.17% (n = 49)

Organization Affiliated Location

16.30% (n = 36)

Parking Lot

12.21% (n = 27)


7.69% (n = 17)


6.79% (n = 15)

Note. Participants could indicate more than one location




















Table 3.

Survey Results for Bully Identities Identity


Fellow Student (not roommate /friend)

52.48% (n = 116)


36.19% (n = 80)


28.51% (n = 63)

Do not know

17.19% (n = 38)

Significant other

14.03% (n = 31)


13.12% (n = 29)

Town Resident

13.12% (n =29)

Peer (not student)

8.14% (n = 18)


4.52% (n = 10)

Note. Participants could indicate more than one role or identity.





















Table 4.

Bullying Motives as Coded from Narratives




Personal Issue

37.25% (n = 19)


40.35% (n = 23)

Motive Undetermined

17.64% (n = 9)


15.79% (n = 9)

Failure / Being Wrong

5.88% (n = 3)


12.28% (n = 7)


31.37% (n = 16)


8.77% (n = 5)


3.92% (n = 2)


7.01% (n = 4)

Religion / Beliefs

1.96% (n = 1)


1.75% (n = 1)

Interests / Organizations

1.96% (n = 1)


7.01% (n = 4)









Permanent link to this article: http://sites.tamuc.edu/bullyingjournal/article/bullies-and-victims-in-higher-education/

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