Wednesday, July 05, 2006



As a kid, parents seem all-powerful and all-knowing, until puberty, when they become all-powerful and inexplicably stupid. But either way, they seem terribly powerful for a long time.

I’m convinced that lots of people carry that attitude towards authority into other areas of their lives, and never quite reach adulthood relative to authority (even if they do, relative to their parents).

Self-styled ‘rebels’ often have the same issue without realizing it. Conspiracy theories generally assume both tremendous power and tremendous competence on the part of the conspirators, as well as assuming the tremendous importance of the victim. (After all, if everybody from the Trilateral Commission to Fox News to Halliburton is out to get me, I must be terribly important!)

The frustrating truth of authority, in both parents and politics, is that these are just people. Some are sharper than others, and some more powerful than others, and some more malicious than others, but they all have feet of clay, blind spots, human failings, and everything that goes with being human. And even with the best of intentions, sometimes these human failings will play themselves out in ways that affect other people.

It’s scary when someone who still carries the view that authority is all-powerful moves into a position of authority. Typically, they kiss up and kick down; they bootlick without shame, and abuse their underlings like it’s going out of style. I’m not entirely convinced this kind of behavior can be changed, or at least, not without a level of psychological intervention that goes far beyond a manager’s toolkit. These people can be very successful at relatively low levels, since they run tight ships (through sheer terror), and they have a way of saying what those above them want to hear. But they’re essentially parasitic, draining the lifeblood of the organization in the name of some unresolved psychodrama. Over time, they entrench themselves by draining the spirit from anybody else with any leadership potential. They practice zero-sum office politics, and see nothing wrong in it. At the end of the day, they’re more than willing to hollow out the core of the organization, as long as their own turf is enhanced.

I used to teach the play Antigone, and I’ve come to realize that I taught it wrong. I used to focus on the King’s dilemma – honor Antigone’s request for a proper burial for her brother (a traitor to the city) in the name of family, or deny her request in the name of sovereignty. Now I’m thinking the really key moment in the play is early on, when Antigone is steaming about her brother not receiving a proper burial, and she says something to the effect of “it would be different if it were my child, because I could have another; but it’s my brother, and my parents are dead, so I can’t have another brother.” To the modern reader, that’s @#$(! weird. What she’s doing there, though, is separating the individual from the role. The role is much more important than the individual; she could always have another child. As a culture, we aren’t too good at separating the role from the individual, and some people seem completely incapable of it.
Separating the role from the individual involves recognizing the limits of each. An ethical person in a position of leadership will at least try to recognize where relevant leadership ends and personal pique begins. Nobody will get it right every time, since we all have blind spots, but failing to make the effort is contemptible. It’s a sign of the belief that authority is self-justifying, which is madness incarnate.

Since moving into administration, I’ve seen an awful lot of variations on how to wield authority, ranging from the thoughtful to the clueless, from ethical to manipulative to abusive. To the extent that I’m dogmatic, it’s in adhering to the belief that the role and the person are separate. Everyone brings a personal style to the job, and that’s fine, but personal style has its limits. I’m now in my sixth year of deaning, and reporting to my fifth vice president, so the separation of person from role is quite clear to me. Each vp had strengths and blind spots. The acid test for me has not been what a given vp has thought, since there have been times when I was out of favor for reasons I considered crap; it has been whether I could face myself on the drive home.

One of the many reasons I keep blogging is that the academic blogosphere has so little thoughtful input from administrators. Childlike fantasies of how administration works (e.g. Cary Nelson) float around almost un-rebutted. I’m trying to de-mystify the role (which, paradoxically, requires mystifying my identity – no problem, since the two are distinct). Over time, I’d love to see more thoughtful, ethical people go into administration, people like many of the folks whose blogs I read daily (especially if the alternative is more of the kiss-up, kick-down petty tyrants). The role matters, because higher education matters, and running it into the ground would be a travesty.

Deans, vice presidents, assorted muckety-mucks are often no smarter than you are, and frequently less. Trust me on this one – I’ve seen enough of them to know. Some of them got where they are by climbing over people who were too intimidated by the idea of the all-powerful authority to try it themselves. If my messages-in-a-virtual-bottle convince some thoughtful people that they can do this, and a few of them actually give it a shot, that would be a fine thing. It wouldn’t do anything to further my career, but unlike Cary Nelson, I know that careerism isn’t the only thing that motivates us. Some of us actually care, clay feet and all.

This is a great post. I like thinking about separating the role from the individual. What do you do, though, if the individual has essentially defined the role? And they're one of those kiss-up, kick-down kind of people? Wait and hope for someone else to take that role? Strive for the role yourself?

I think many people dislike administrators so much not because of the roles, but because of the kind of people who tend to take them. Even when there are ethical, smart people in those roles, they are often overpowered by those who are trying to climb over them. I've never been afraid to speak truth to power, but sometimes being on the receiving end of the kick-down is not only painful, but demoralizing.
Actually, I think it is that we don't separate the individual from the STATUS (position). Role is the behavior done by someone who holds the position.

Hey -- I'm a sociologist! It's what I do!!! :)
Harumph. Okay, I'm not a sociologist, and that's largely why. I remember trying to make my way through some of the literature on social movements, only to find that it all got bogged down in nomenclature: did the movements engage in resource mobilization, or was it about state access?

Are you #%*@# kidding me?

So no, I'm not a sociologist. Guilty as charged.
I think this post is pretty spot on. I'm beginning my 6th year as an associate dean (and it will be my final one, with a long-awaited year-long sabbatical coming my way). I've seen it all too. And the unethical organization-destroying type you discuss is a common species around here. (Interestingly, in my institution's history, it's mostly been women, but that may be idiosyncratic. But it also might be something about how women *perceive* they need to behave in a male-ordered world.)

As you said DD, the key question for those of us in administration is whether we can look at ourselves in the mirror every morning and not cringe. We all make mistakes, and those of us who CAN look in the mirror will find those mistakes largely forgiven by those above and below us precisely because they know that WE are committed to doing right by them even if we don't get it right every time.
I've never thought of the kiss-up-kick-down types in this way, so this post was quite thought-provoking. We have one of these in our office (Mr. Horwitz, I must add that in this case it is a man) and it does, as you say, suck the lifeblood. Our KUKD has also perfected the "all glory to me, all blame to underlings" approach while mouthing the phrase "I'll take the heat on that" without meaning it. Is that common in the breed?
I'm accounting as fast as I can
"[I]t also might be something about how women *perceive* they need to behave in a male-ordered world.

I've seen all of these things in my time as a public school administrator. We have watched reasonable men replaced with unfortunately brusque, uncompromising women. I believe it certainly is based in both a misconception on the part of the female administrators as to what is expected, and men imposing perceptions of weakness on attractive characteristics such as mercy and restraint.

Granted, I still have the print of a size 8 womens Ferragamo on my posterior.
Actually, I've seen the KUKD type in both male and female managers. The style of kissing up is slightly different, but the basic behavior is the same.
Who is this Cary Nelson that you speak of? Linky, linky?
This is indeed a great post. I'm particularly taken by your connection of the knee-jerk distrust of administrators that some faculty have to the kinds of thinking about the importance of the self seen in conspiracy theory. It puts me in mind of Timothy Melley's amazing book _Empire of Conspiracy_, in which he argues that conspiracy theory is underwritten by "agency panic," in which the subject imagines him/herself to be losing agency to amorphous and poorly-understood collectives ("them," "the system," or, in this case, "the administration"). Conspiracy thinking becomes both a way of explaining the individual's apparent loss of agency while simultaneously conserving the primacy of the individual as the object of these collectives' oppressive actions. I hadn't thought about this argument in conjunction with faculty-administration relations, but boy, does it make sense.
On the subject of conspiracy theories, at my last university (Mission Creep U), one of my colleagues disrupted the mandatory sexual harrassment workshops by claiming that "they" (the administration) was using sexual harrassment policy to try to get him fired. His evidence was that that "they" kept sending attractive young men to his office in order to tempt him.
It used to be that administrators, both in college and public schools, were educators first and politicians last. Now, with the threat of lawsuits around every corner, administrators have become politicians and/or drawing room lawyers. Not actually knowing the law except as it is presented in seminars, they rule independent of real meaning and seem to enjoy playing tyrant. Granted, there are a few out there that genuinely try to run a campus like a family business where everyone wins, but more and more there's this feeling that the teachers serve at the whim of whatever administrator is in charge, which means when the head position changes, everyone's job is on the line. It doesn't make for a happy staff.
Authority is like a loaded gun. In the right hands, it is a tool that can promote security and motivate good behaviors. In the wrong hands, innocent people get hurt. However, it is a valid basis of power, and people do give power to those in authority for a reason. I loved your comment about the zero sum office politics. As somebody who is extending the conversation on that topic on his own site, the way people play office politics fascinates me. Great post and interesting comments since.
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