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.