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.