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.