Wednesday, August 04, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Incivility Amok!

A new correspondent writes:

This morning I followed up on a Chronicle article from the tail end of last week (, and I was truly disheartened by the comments. The idea itself I liked, mainly the idea of common space for casual interactions (I have experienced isolation both as a faculty member and as an administrator), but the comments were disturbing. How is it acceptable for "scholarly and educated" people to spit out such personal attacks? There were a number of comments that simply said "I think privacy and student conversations will be an issue", but many more simply went straight into the "what an idiot, what a stupid idea" mentality.

I have noticed this in the comments on a number of higher ed sites, even occasionally in the comments on your blog.

Has higher ed always been this way? Have you noticed an increase in this type of attitude? Or is this just an easy outlet for angry people?

I have been working at a community college for 12 years- 9 as faculty, in various ft/pt configurations, and the last 3 as an administrator. While overall I believe the faculty and staff at this college are dedicated and want to see things work, people (on both sides) are still keen to make personal comments and pass judgement on situations of which they have very little understanding.

Although I am a firm believer in the mission of the community college, and of higher education in general, I am considering exploring other industries that might have less rancor.

I suppose the easy answer is to just not read the comments, but then you miss the dialogue and sharing of actual ideas.

Is this something you have noticed?

Before venturing some thoughts, I’ll just make a distinction between the general topic and the historical angle. I’m generally skeptical of “people used to be nicer” arguments, and it’s hard to say in the context of blogs and online discussion boards since their history doesn’t go back terribly far. So I can’t really give an intelligent answer one way or the other on the question of historical trajectory.

But the larger issue of personal attacks is very real.

I’ve read that social psychologists have a term -- the “fundamental attribution error” -- for the common mistake of ascribing others’ objectionable behavior to character flaws, rather than to missing information or external constraints. (I stopped abruptly because someone cut me off; the guy who cut me off is just an asshole.) I’ve seen that both online and in my day job.

In the day job, I’ve been accused repeatedly -- to my face and in public -- of harboring secret agendas to “do in” this program or that one, of thinking of faculty as piece workers, and of being -- in the words of one particularly charming public interlocutor -- “just idiotic.” All of those have been in response to budget-driven decisions. None of them suggested realistic alternatives to my ideas; when pressed, none of them even involved a recognition that budgetary decisions need to get made at all. I’ve had to learn not to take the bait, and to recognize the lashing out as a function of propinquity more than anything else. If I’m goring somebody’s ox, it must be because I’m an asshole; surely there’s no such thing as a real resource constraint. When other administrators do the exact same thing -- since we’re all working against the same state cuts -- well, we’re all just assholes.

Online, of course, it’s frequently worse. In the comments at IHE to my recent posts about the tenure/adjunct dialectic, for example, I was accused of “pathetic self-absorption,” “turn[ing] into a monster,” and my personal favorite:

Dean Dad, when you are meeting with a candidate for a tenure track position at your college, do you tell that person, "You should be aware of the fact that I oppose the idea of tenure and believe higher education would be better off without it"?

It’s easier than actually engaging the argument, I guess, but it doesn’t exactly encourage others to join the debate.

It’s frustrating, but I’m not sure what’s to be done about it beyond sticking to the high road as much as possible. Online, I’ve had to learn to restrain myself from hitting back at comments like those, since the exchanges quickly devolve into free-for-alls.

On campus, of course, “contrapower harassment” is legion, and even blessed with honorifics like “gadfly” or “thorn in the side of the administration.” For a professor to attack me personally in front of two hundred people is considered academic freedom; for me to hit back would be considered retaliation. The double standard does nothing to encourage honest discussion, and frankly, drives a lot of good people out of administration over time. (Oddly, the folks who attack the hardest also complain about administrative turnover, and never connect the dots.) Tenure enables contrapower harassment, which is probably why the harassment is much worse in higher ed than in most settings.

The irony is hard to miss. The same tenure that’s supposed to protect the free exchange of ideas actually enables a culture of embedded hostility that frequently prevents honest discussion. In his wonderful book The No Asshole Rule, Robert Sutton notes that tenured academia is one of the most difficult settings in which to change a culture, since it’s structured almost perfectly to reward me-first behavior. (Notice that it’s a structural argument.) Once you reach a certain critical mass, there really isn’t much to be done.

That said, though, I’ve found a few techniques generally effective in settings that haven’t reached critical mass.

The most basic one is actually listening. People shout when they think they aren’t being heard. The longer they feel ignored, the more blustery and unhinged they tend to be when they finally have a moment. If you make a habit of actually listening, I’ve found that over time, most people will slowly calm down. (I say “most” because some never will. Just a fact of life.) If you only have one shot at being heard, you’ll swing for the cheap seats; if you know you’ll be heard on a regular basis, you can choose your moments more judiciously.

A second, related one is admitting when you’re wrong, and/or incorporating better ideas when you hear them. I’ve made a point of noting changes derived from public input, and of crediting the folks who made the input, whenever possible. It seems to help, since it shows (correctly) that constructive input can actually work. A lot of the more histrionic stuff seems to come from a sense that it’s all just futile anyway; disprove the futility thesis, and some folks will adjust accordingly. Show respect, and eventually some of it will find its way back.

Of course, there’s also modeling. This is tricky since nobody’s perfect, but there’s something to be said for leading by example. At first, it can feel like unilateral disarmament, but it ages well.

And then there’s just knowing your own limits. We all have our hot buttons, and we all have our lesser moments. Sometimes it’s best just to change the subject or postpone the discussion. And some people will be contrary or difficult for sub-rational reasons no matter what you do; once you suss out who those folks are, tune them out.

So to answer your question, yes, I’ve noticed. I wish it weren’t so, but there it is. Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways of dealing successfully with folks who think it’s reasonable to yell insults across crowded auditoriums?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. -- Henry A. Kissinger
It isn't just colleges and universities; professors are just more eloquent in expressing their views. For example, the comic strip "Dilbert" has run for decades with ideas generated by anonymous e-mails describing the madness of management. I learned an all-time classic while working summers in college. (What's the difference between an engineer's boots and the contractor's boots? Which side the sh-- is on.) Such responses are typical from those who perceive themselves as powerless.

PS - I think that quotation is not correctly attributed by the first Anonymous.

PPS - Adjuncts have used shared offices since the start of time. Am I the first to get that in here?
You write: "The double standard does nothing to encourage honest discussion, and frankly, drives a lot of good people out of administration over time. (Oddly, the folks who attack the hardest also complain about administrative turnover, and never connect the dots.) Tenure enables contrapower harassment, which is probably why the harassment is much worse in higher ed than in most settings."

I can imagine this would be the case if administrators with oversight over faculty/academic policies do not themselves have tenure. At many institutions, however, the simple and elegant solution is that administrators in such positions *must enter the position* with tenure, which is seen as a qualification that is essential for them to be able to do the job effectively.

You also write, about people's comments to your anti-tenure stuff, "It’s easier than actually engaging the argument, I guess, but it doesn’t exactly encourage others to join the debate."

Ok, fair enough. But the people who do engage your arguments, who offer well-reasoned objections to your claims, never get a response from you. I'm thinking of the many, many comments that CC Physicist has left for you over the years that ask you to fill in the details of your alternate to tenure. Since well reasoned objections get crickets, I feel like you're not really interested in creating a space where civil debate or conversation happens. One of the reasons that I think incivility is the norm in many comments sections on different blogs/sites is because those who administer the space don't take seriously their responsibility to manage how conversations in the comments go.
Has the correspondent looked at the comments section in any other online forum? They are almost universally awful. It's a pretty well known phenomenom that civility breaks down in electronic communication: it's easier to _write_ something snarky than it is to _say_ something snarky to a person's face. Whenever my husband receives a nasty fax or email, he immediately calls the other party. In almost every instance, the rancor immediately drops and the issue is civilly resolved. The problem is exponentially worse with anonymous communication, because there is (almost) no mechanism for accountability. Say I write a viscous rant about how DD is a cat-loving accordion player who eats his bread butterside down. There are no "real" consequences for my vitriol the way there would be had I said the same thing in a department meeting. I see it as "comm theory meets Lord of the Flies," but this isn't really my field of expertise. An actual Comm or Soc person can probably give a more eloquent explanation.

Regarding the correspondent's particular issue: I don't think the nasty comments prove academics are a singularly petty group. Rather, I think they demonstrate that advanced education is no proof against our lesser human impulses.
As one who for a couple of decades worked in the for-profit world and then returned to school for graduate work I can tell everyone that from my own personal experience Higher Education (at least in the school I attended) does have a higher percentage of people who engage in said "incivility."

It truly amazed me when things were said in person during class discussions such as "that's dumb." (a rather mild example, but one of the most common; on the extreme I had a professor tell me that I had a "mediocre mind with a half-wit thesis") In the for-profit world a good manager would put a stop to such personal attacks; So, I was very surprised when NONE of my professors even tried to suggest that such comments were out of bounds. Not one!

So, I think this issue goes beyond tenure professors. I think at lot of it has to do with the "elitist" nature of academia. So many (but certainly, not all) folks in Higher Ed feel that they are better than the rest of us and have no problem with expressing their true feelings of contempt towards others.

The real question is what solutions can help to overcome this attitude? Are there any? Or is it hopeless?
Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers, but I have noticed similar incivilities among some of the faculty at my institution. I think the reason is two-fold. It seems that in the culture of academia, verbal acuity is valued more than kindness or prudence. It also seems that professors don’t suffer any real consequences from incivility. In my job as a study abroad coordinator, I work hard at maintaining good relationships not just with faculty, but with our Registrar, financial aid office, Student Life staff, and business office. I work closely with all of these folks, and if they thought I was a jerk, it would be a lot harder to get my job done effectively. It doesn’t seem to me like professors experience any real fall-out from their co-workers thinking that they’re blowhards or jerks.
At the non-academic institution in which I now work, there is a "culture of nice" that is enforced by censure for those who break the code. Because there is on-going opportunity for advancement, what other people think about you really does matter. So the same kind of back-stabbing and criticism happens, it just happens behind closed doors between people who do it to blow off steam.

In the academy, there's nowhere to go so there's really no reason to be nice. Since faculty rarely work together on projects, there's no opportunity to develop the teamwork skills that help move groups along. In fact, I'd say in my old department, the more nasty you were, the more likely you were to get your way because people didn't want to become your next target.

The way to power in that context is to form a silent majority and then use process, politics, and isolation to gain power. Blowhards are rarely organized enough to mount a political campaign so if you just isolate them and get everyone else on your side you can accomplish a great deal. If you are really evil, you can manipulate them into exploding at a key time, pissing off someone who is politically key, and then use that to accomplish your ends.

A more positive approach involves rewarding with position and power those who are willing to be nice and get along. This would be through the careful selection of committees or by assigning release time to people who want to do projects that will cause change. Takes more time and requires more resources but leaves one feeling much less dirty - I like this second way much better.
There is also the "Greater Internet F---wad Theory" which combines neatly with all the other higher ed-specific issues mentioned above.
Well, there are seminars geared towards improving workplace interaction, but I don't know how useful they are. I think SW is on to something about valued traits and lack of consequences. As long as civility is perceived as a fluffy, non-critical trait, then rude behavior will keep getting a pass. I think if people draw attention to the material consequences of incivility, (losing good employees to the private sector, for starters) then maybe admins and department chairs will have motivation to curb the behavior.
I am really ambivalent about this issue. First of all, I do believe that the internet does indeed generate opportunities for incivility – I’m often shocked by the comments on my local newspaper’s discussion boards. However, I also agree with the viewpoints expressed here that academic encourages incivility, especially among the tenured. That being said, however, I don’t think that simple admonitions to be nice and get along – or more concrete and material strategies to promote civil behavior in the workplace – fully address the often quite varied reasons for and examples of incivility. For example, I have seen striking examples of faculty incivility towards administrators (and have even been on the receiving end of said incivility). Many’s the time when I have thought that such uncivil comments were uncalled-for. But I have also witnessed administrators using charges of incivility in order to evade just and public criticisms of their policies and decisions. In my university, faculty are actually disempowered, even vis-à-vis those components of the institution control of which is assigned to them by policy (e.g., curriculum). Sometimes jumping up and down and yelling is the only thing left to do.
Finally, I think it’s a bit disingenuous for you, DD, to use your own blog as an example, since Dr. Crazy is right. You don’t ever really engage the substantive criticisms of your position on tenure, or respond to real questions about it (I for one have asked you several questions over the years about implementation, which you have never answered). Can incivility include lack of interest or engagement as well as explicit insults?
"Can incivility include lack of interest or engagement as well as explicit insults?"

I think so. Pointedly ignoring or omitting someone is a classic passive-aggressive tactic, and can be pretty devastating to the right target. (eg a new hire who is consistently left off email lists and social invites.) I think it gets a bit trickier with online comments. I think a general policy of abstaining from comments is reasonable (journalists almost never descend into the pit), but ignoring one particular poster or argument seems less so.
Charles says "I think at lot of it has to do with the 'elitist' nature of academia."

I think it has a lot to do with the wimpy or passive-aggressive nature of many academics. On the one hand, on the other hand ... and Harry Truman goes looking for a one-armed economist. Criticizing students or stating an Absolute Truth just isn't part of how many faculty operate.

Just think for a moment about the comparison Charles made - between a professor (perhaps contingent or untenured) and a "good manager". Most faculty manage about as well as Dilbert's pointy-haired boss. When you are lucky, like I am, you get a Dean and a Provost who were the exceptional faculty who became good managers.

PS to Dr. Crazy -
Thanks for the compliment. I've been struggling with my college's public budget data to see if I can answer those questions for my own CC. It isn't easy, particularly because you need to separate fringe benefits and substantial pay for extra classes from the total salary numbers in our aggregated budget. Some are fixed costs (like health care) while others scale with salary, including extra classes.
So--do you know the story about the prison chaplain, deandad? On his retirement, he was asked how many inmates he'd brought to God.



Well, he said, to have actually brought someone to God, I would have had to have had a better class of prisoners....

Abolishing tenure might take the edge of some of the incivility, but the kind of people who typically go into teaching (and I speak of myself) are people who are generally timid but in the safety of their classes or meeting rooms often quite combative.

If they were otherwise, they'd be out in the world.

These are the class of prisoners you have got, deandad.
i like the fact that people feel entitled enough that deserve a response from you whenever they feel as though they've made a valid point or counter-argument against your blog post.

yes. you have people calling you out because of a blog post that was unsolicited to them, and isn't required for them to read in any way. sheesh.

there are quick, and i would argue proper solutions for incivility online, and those are a) don't allow comments on your posts, or b) implement a method for providing real user validation. doesn't allow comments. so do a lot of other places. seems smart to me, as they don't have to worry about having to answer stupid claims and arguments.

in the end, who cares? the internet is full of hot air. just get over it, click on the next link, and enjoy that ad with a hot chic wearing some sort of witty t-shirt...
We feel entitled because we're academics - that's what we do. Someone makes an argument, we respond to it, they respond to our counter-argument, etc. etc. etc.

I also think we feel entitled because Dean Dad's blog is smart, thoughtful, and interesting - not the usual blog drek. Even when I disagree with DD, I want to engage with him, not sit back passively and look at "hot chics" (whatever those might be).
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