Sunday, June 17, 2012



Some topics never go away.  Collegiality and its evil twin, incivility, is one of them.

I had to smile at the discussion of the issue in this article.  It suggests, correctly, that while nearly everybody agrees that wanton douchebaggery is a major issue in higher education, there’s a tremendous reluctance to actually do anything meaningful about it.  The AAUP makes its predictable “anything useful could be abused” argument, otherwise-thoughtful people suggest that academic freedom includes the freedom to abuse all and sundry, and we pretend that the entire field of social psychology doesn’t exist.


I think a more useful approach might be to look at other venues in which educated professionals work, and to see how they handle the talented-but-insufferable.  Academe isn’t unique in having egos, or power struggles, or internal politics.

In much of corporate America, power struggles play out as follows.  Sanders and Patterson are at war over competing visions of a project.  Each deploys a power base, and each tries to outflank the other.  In short order, Sanders wins, and Patterson leaves the company, either by force or under the threat thereof.  Patterson takes her project, and some of the people, elsewhere.  Over time, the market decides who was right.

In that setting, the academic strategy of chronic low-level sniping wouldn’t make sense.  Conflict gets resolved -- usually with a clear winner and a clear loser -- and over time there’s a bottom line that tells you if you picked the right winner.  If upper management consistently picks the wrong winner, it’s eviscerated in the marketplace.  If it consistently picks the right winner, it does incredibly well.  Kodak didn’t want to deal with digital photography, so the market dealt with Kodak.  

In politics as politics -- that is, the organized and ongoing battle for control of the government -- there’s no shortage of low-level sniping, but there’s still a recurring bottom line.  Every few years, the voters render a verdict, and that’s that.  Party leaders can pay attention or not, but if they don’t, they quickly become irrelevant.  (One could argue that the electoral bottom line is entirely too much in thrall to certain people’s economic bottom lines, but that’s another post entirely.)

In fields like law, the bottom line may be less directly legible, but there’s always the option of leaving to hang your own shingle.  (On the corporate side, that’s called “consulting.”  In medicine or law, it’s called “private practice.”  In art, it’s called “freelancing.”)  If Sanders and Patterson just can’t stand the sight of each other, one or both of them could just say “screw it” and light out for the territories.

In each of those settings, there’s some version of a bottom line -- a moment in which, as I’ve heard it said, money talks and bullshit walks -- and/or the option of going independent and setting up your own shop.  The combination of a bottom line and a credible threat of exit makes the “war of attrition” strategy pretty unattractive much of the time.  

I’ve read recently that worker dissatisfaction with jobs is just about as high now as it has ever been, since the Great Recession has reduced the credibility of the threat of exit for many people for several years.  If/when demand bounces back, I’d expect to see the pent-up demand for exit suddenly express itself.

In traditional higher ed, there is neither a meaningful bottom line for most individuals, nor a credible threat of exit.  There’s an institutional bottom line, in the sense of a budget that has to be met, but the consequences for, say, an individual professor if the college fails to meet that line are usually independent of that professor’s performance.  A pay freeze hits the productive and the unproductive alike.  If Sanders and Patterson can’t stand the sight of each other, but they both have tenure at the same place, there’s usually neither a bottom line to settle the question nor a credible threat of exit for either.  (Superstars can and do leave, of course, but most people aren’t superstars.)  The “hang your own shingle” option is not realistic -- I’ve never heard a disgruntled professor threaten to start his own college -- and the market for other jobs sucks, especially for higher ranked people who aren’t superstars.  

Life tenure just makes matters that much worse.  Neither can deal the other a real death blow, and they both know it.  So instead of settling the question, they just get crabbier and crabbier, poisoning the working environment for their colleagues and the learning environment for their students.  And they claim the moral high ground of “academic freedom” all the while.

A more robust job market would help, of course, but for some of these folks, it would take a far more robust market than anyone can realistically expect before it would reach them.  (Would I be eager to hire someone, especially at “full professor” rank and salary, who was fired elsewhere for being a horse’s ass?  No, I would not.)  I don’t see the “start your own damn college” option becoming realistic, either.  The proliferation of online options may open up some more prospective employers, but as long as most adjunct gigs pay as badly as they do, that’s hardly an attractive option.  

Until we get at some of the basic underlying issues, I suspect, we’ll just keep having the same conversation over and over again.  Or the market will settle it for us.  

I think you have an unrealistically rosy picture of the corporate world. Doesn't resemble anywhere I've worked, anyway.
Make up your mind. Is there such a thing as "life tenure" (there is no such thing at my college, which has tenure that can be revoked for poor performance) or can full professors be fired for "being a horse's ass"?

I remain convinced that everyone who complains about "life tenure" is either ignorant of what happens when colleges are run by people who take evaluating their faculty seriously, or have only been at places where Deans have no incentive to do that part of their job.

You also ignore the real cases where the person being hired with tenure is the one who left because the horse's ass was getting resources that rational people (like those at the other college) would allocate differently.
This comment runs the risk of hijacking the whole comment thread, I know, but I have to say this.

This post left me absolutely cold.

I am in relatively close proximity to the UVa debacle right now. For some funny reason, how faculty treat one another doesn't seem to be my biggest concern at this moment. On the contrary, the faculty ranks where I'm at are suddenly more united than they've ever been, and there's a bit more collegiality and a bit more ease at talking to one another. A common external enemy can work wonders.

(So thanks for that, Rector Dragas, and now please go the hell away, thanks.)

DD, your points may be fair here for where you're at, and if this is a problem for you right now then I genuinely feel for you. But in light of what increasingly feels like an existential threat to the academy, this is one of the most tone-deaf things you've ever written. You need to find a new way to write about your tenure issues and the role of faculty, or else you're going to lose us, even some of us who are long-time friends.
Worth noting here that the AAUP, in its official capacity, was quoted only by excerpting some document of theirs from over a decade ago. It's not the same as the author of the IHE article having actually interviewed some AAUP honcho concerning the arguments presented by a couple of professors at (NB) an AAUP conference, and then quoting their response.

In any case, I think it is sometimes correct for certain individuals or organizations to argue for policies that they know are not optimal, simply because their role in a debate is to act as a counterweight to extreme views on the other side. If you got a bunch of AAUP people in a room and told them that they would henceforth be the dictators of all university policies everywhere, they might well come up with some kind of provision for getting rid of people who created a toxic environment or whatever. Who knows, maybe they'd even question the absolute need for the tenure system. However, that's not the scenario at all. They're instead the only organization anywhere whose principal concern is the maintenance of academic freedom in the American academy -- against politicians and bureaucrats who think the whole idea of academic freedom is ridiculous, and against administrators who think it's good ceteris paribus but often inconvenient and not an absolute right in any sense. In the circumstances, the AAUP's absolutism concerning the three pillars of academia may well be the correct position for them to stake out.
Beyond my previous comment, a huge +1 to what anon. 8:40 pm wrote. I just can't be persuaded that any of this is at all significant in view of truly existential threats to the institution of publicly funded higher education in this country.
Excellent as usual.
You overlook one major factor that inhibits the mobility of most American employees, whether faculty or civilians: healthcare.

Maybe, for a while, while you are single and healthy and in your 20s, you can summon the courage to say "the hell with this" and leave a nasty work situation. But once you are married, start a family, or just get a little older and your moving parts start to rust, that's just not an option.

Give all American workers affordable healthcare that follows them as they seek optimal employment and watch what happens. Until then, many (most?) of us are stuck.
This comment has been removed by the author.
A chair or dean with some decent management skills should be able to suppress at least some portion of the toxicity by simply refusing to tolerate it. At my institution we still have merit pay as part of our collectively-negotiated compensation scheme, which could serve as some kind of behavioural reinforcement. But even in the absence of merit pay, if someone (or someones) in leadership shuts down the tenured bullies often enough, many will eventually get the message.
It's not clear to me that not having tenure solves the problem with uncollegial colleagues either. They're still unlikely to go elsewhere on their own, given the state of the rest of the market.
Last I checked most schools have ways of getting rid of toxic tenured professors. They choose not to. At GradU they didn't because said person was a Nobel Prize winner. They looked at the cost-benefit analysis and decided taken all together, they could tolerate his behavior. In the experimental sciences, you are somewhat toxic & not very productive guess what your lab space gets taken away and you get placed in the basement. The lab space is given to those who are productive and get along with others (labs are interconnected save for the old labs in the basements so if you can't play nice with others you de facto get voted off the floor).
I have come to realize that academics are a bunch of whiny, entitled little twits (coming from a department where there are at least two "camps" and each one does not talk to the other.)
Anonymous Coward, as a staff member, I have to say that Dean Dad's post rings very true to me. Although I work with some very lovely, well-mannered faculty, I am also surprised at how out-and-out rude many faculty are, not just to each other, but also to staff and students. I suspect it's because academia values intelligence and tenacity over empathy and people skills. Put simply, being a jerk is not a barrier to career advancement.

I don't have any brilliant suggestions for solving the problem, but I do think that having deans and a president who clearly value civility and friendliness and extend to all members of the university community is helpful.
Very interesting post and discussion. However, I suggest that the free market is going to slam into academia in a very big way in the coming years. See this:

If so, the days of indulging in debates over collegiality will be coming to an end.
It is always so easy in these situations (faculty incivility) to state that this is simply a failure of proper personnel management. I used to feel the same way when I witnessed unconscionable behavior on the part of my faculty colleagues with no apparent reaction from my Dean.

Now, I am that Dean and the shoe is very uncomfortably on the other foot; and not to mix too many metaphors, but don't criticize until you have walked a mile in my (or DD's) shoes.

I have two faculty who hate each other's guts and never miss an opportunity to raise hell about him/her. I have had endless meetings with this pair, both together and apart, trying reason, threats, coercion, pleading, bribes, etc. Heck, I even suffered through a 10-week conflict management class to see if I could learn something. What I learned is strikingly similar to DD's insights: things are very different in other worlds of work. Tenured faculty are secure in the knowledge that unless they utterly fail in the classroom, or shoot an unarmed student in front of at least 10 witnesses, they are not going anywhere. So, there are few or no consequences to bad behavior.
I suspect that one of the reasons for bad behavior among tenured faculty is that even though they have virtually lifetime job security, in these tough times they are probably stuck in their same jobs for the rest of their lives.

I can see why that recent survey showed that tenured associate professors are unhappy. If you feel dissatisfied in your current position, unless you are a superstar, you probably have little prospect of ever landing a tenured position at another school. So you are trapped in your current job, frustrating as it is. In an era of tight funding and declining student enrollments, you are faced with little or no salary raises year after year, and your standard of living is steadily declining in an inflationary economy. In addition, you are faced with ever rising medical insurance costs and rapidly-rising copays. In the past few years, the value of your pension has slowly eroded away, and you now feel that you cannot afford to retire anytime soon. Your service loads have risen higher and higher with each passing year, taking up more and more of your time, and you fully recognize that service actually counts for very little in the promotion and salary increase process. You are faced with ever-increasing demands from the administration for higher publication rates and more insistence that you obtain outside funding. You may even be faced with the threat of post-tenure review, where the administration could use the flimsiest of excuses to label you as a poor performer and place your job at risk.

Just like a couple stuck in a bad marriage, frustrated faculty members exhaust themselves by fighting each other over course assignments, office space, sabattical leaves, funding for conference attendance, etc. Faculty members can be as anxious over perks as corporate executives, and they can be as rank-conscious as military officers. Imagining they are fighting for high principles, faculty members exhaust themselves battling with each other over relatively trivial matters. You can feel that you are enmeshed in a pesthole of intrigue, and going to work each day can be a real downer.

Although you can’t be fired at the mere whim of an administrator, your prospect of ever getting promoted to a full professorship is quite small. The requirement for such promotion have steadily been ratcheted upwards—more publications, more external funding, more conferences, and more fame are required A lot of the un-collegiate behavior that affects the lives of tenured faculty members can be traced to a lot of associate professors battling with other for such promotions.

And even full professors are not immune from being horse’s asses. Since you have obtained such high status, you have obviously shown that you are the winner in a Darwinian struggle for survival, that you have shown that you are superior to the other lower forms of life that surround you. This can lead to bullying and abusive behavior to the associate professors, assistant professor, adjuncts, and graduate students that surround you.
This can lead to bullying and abusive behavior to the associate professors, assistant professor, adjuncts, and graduate students that surround you.

Which leads to weird aggressive behavior amongst the lower levels too as they try to achieve the "higher" levels of status. My old department has been nearly destroyed by internal strife - those of you who have other problems are lucky.
Wow, someone cited a Pajamas Media post nonironically.

What did reality ever do to you, Mr. Dantes, that you are so mean to it?
Right on, Punditus. Ironically, I was amused that the top Stanford student was 411th in the class. Not the outcome they expected!

More on topic, I wonder how many were CC students.
I work in ‘industry’ managing a team of engineers for a large manufacturing company. 7 out of 12 have masters degrees. None of them have doctorates.
I can safely say that being a hard to work with asshole is tolerated only as long as
1. It doesn’t get in the way of getting the job done.
2. It doesn’t cause more work for me.
3. You’re willing to accept lower raises and bonuses compared to your peers because if you both get about the same results I’m going to reward the one that isn’t the pain in the ass. I will tell you that your chance to get a raise/bonus is being impacted. You might not care because there aren’t many of those but you never know.
If your attitude / personal issues with someone else keeps us from getting the work done and makes me spend time I don’t picking up the pieces than you need to pretty much walk on water.
Passive aggressive bull shit will be tolerated a lot longer. But at some point your crap and the other person’s crap are going to start to smell and then I will have to work with their boss to figure out how to get it done. Typically no one gets fired. But to whatever extent there are goodies to give out this counts against you. If your assholery gets my boss involved you might get fired…or transferred out. It’ll depend on what you can accomplish. I know one person who treated everyone like shit, bosses and executives alike and got away with it for years because he was that good. At my level a demonstrated inability to work with other people will get you fired.
This is not just an issue among academic faculty. I work in a purely administrative university office at the moment (nobody has tenure), and the politics have to be seen to be believed.

Contrary to the myth of the useless administrator, though, most people here work very hard and many of them can amaze you if given the chance.

Still, I haven't been able to figure out why we have this dysfunction, why there is so much sniping and turmoil and even outright hostility. I spent several years in the private sector, too, and it wasn't exactly rosy (and the market did not reach in and do away with troublesome people nearly as easily as you suggest - inertia is really strong, and hiring/training new people is time-consuming) but this is worse. The best I can figure is that the academic model is extremely kind to those who self-promote, even without tenure. Both in the direct sense of "look what I did, now reward me" and in the more subversive sense of kissing the right tushes at the right time.

It's like we don't know anything about good management or even about being good co-workers, so we just happily believe anyone who claims to be a good at these things or who makes the right people happy, relieved not to have to think about it anymore.
I work with a few of people who students despise because of the way that they approach the students. For a while, I wanted to kill the same people...

My perspective took a big change when I just started saying to myself, "they mean well, they just don't know how to talk to a human and have no idea the kind of tone or tenor their words carry."

Since then, I've consistently re-framed what they say into what I think they meant and I've gotten along swimmingly. Students still hate them though.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?