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October 15, 2008 [feather]
How it really works

Gary Olson is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Illinois State University--which means he's pretty much seen it all when it comes to the behavior of academics. His column in this morning's Chronicle of Higher Ed concentrates on the humdrum, everyday, ubiquitous forms of professional violence that academics love to do to one another -- and it's worth reproducing in full.

Many years ago when I directed a doctoral program in my discipline, I invited a celebrated scholar to hold a daylong "master class" for a select number of senior graduate students. He lectured for a few hours and then opened the session to questions. "Dr. Famous," one student asked, "what do we need to know to survive our first year as assistant professors?"

A notorious enfant terrible, our mischievous guest stunned everyone with his reply: "Remember that every department has at least one ax murderer, but you won't know in advance who it is so you'd better be on your guard."

While our guest was clearly playing to his audience for a laugh, he was also articulating what has become a lamentable fact of faculty life: Many academics regularly engage in a kind of "gotcha" politics.

The propensity to pounce ruthlessly on a politically wounded colleague is rapidly becoming a favorite spectator sport in academe. I am continually astonished by the gusto with which some faculty members will leap to attack a colleague at the slightest hint of an allegation of misconduct, even when the accused is a close friend. Or by how vigorously some department chairs will initiate proceedings against a faculty member when informal discussions might have resolved the issue in question.

Over the years, I have served on or presided over inquiry panels convened to determine whether a complaint against a professor had merit. Invariably there would be a point in the proceedings — usually early on and before all the evidence had been considered — when some faculty member would pronounce indignantly that the accused was clearly guilty and that we should recommend the maximum penalty available. "He most certainly made an offensive remark in class; he should be suspended for at least a semester." Or, "She undoubtedly falsified her research results; she should be stripped of all future institutional support." Or, "This is clearly plagiarism; he should be fired immediately."

Although such pronouncements were always made solemnly, I could not help but detect a certain underlying glee — the kind you might find when a parent catches a child misbehaving.

When guilt is assigned before all the evidence and perspectives are heard, when the verdict is swift but premature, and when the recommended penalty is the most draconian available, we have entered the zone of gotcha politics. That zone has no room for judicious deliberation, reasoned debate, or compassion — which makes it especially out of place in an institution that has historically prided itself on championing reason, deliberation, and justice.

Undoubtedly, predatory behavior in the academic world is a convenient means of crippling or eliminating rivals. Why not accelerate your opponents' demise by advocating strenuously against them if the opportunity presents itself?

A business dean told me that one of his faculty members had become convinced that a popular associate professor regularly altered his teaching evaluations by slipping into the department late at night after students had returned their evaluation forms and removing any negative ones. The incensed colleague mounted a vigorous campaign against the associate professor, whose reputation was ruined in the process. Everyone in the college believed he was guilty. As it turned out, an extensive investigation proved conclusively that the professor was innocent; no tampering had occurred whatsoever.

The same people who are quick to ascribe guilt are often the first to violate confidentiality and fuel the engine of gossip and innuendo, which can, in effect, render irrelevant any official finding in the case. An individual may be exonerated in the end but found guilty in the popular imagination.

A favorite gambit of those who engage in such vicious politics is to enlist a student — preferably a graduate student — to do their dirty work. They will urge the student to file a complaint against a rival or spread malicious gossip. In fact, it is not uncommon to discover after some scrutiny that a student's letter of complaint against a professor was actually penned by another professor.

Gotcha politics are particularly brutal when they involve anonymity. A number of my fellow deans across the country tell me they are continually shocked by the viciousness with which some faculty members attack their chairs in end-of-year written evaluation surveys. Some evaluations contain abusive diatribes and preposterous allegations, all based on the flimsiest of evidence (or just on gossip).

University administrators regularly receive anonymous letters purporting to reveal some grievous act by a faculty member: This one has plagiarized; that one is sleeping with students; another is misusing grant money. Rarely does the anonymous revelation provide specific facts and details, much less do so in a coolly objective tone. More often it takes the form of a rant with little specificity.

The ever-increasing influence of blogs has exacerbated the problem. Blogs foster a culture of anonymity and unchecked expression without accountability. Bloggers can write whatever they want, regardless of the damage to others, and they can do so fully protected by the cloak of secrecy. In some universities, blogs dedicated to unseating the institution's president have proved quite effective. In response, some university presidents have instituted their own blogs and have made them easily accessible from the institution's Web site.

The kind of predatory politics I am describing thrive on righteous indignation and, as such, are self-serving: If you are in a position to renounce some perceived indiscretion or act of wrongdoing, then you can feel — at least to yourself — morally superior. No need to consider possible extenuating circumstances or alternate interpretations of the facts. After all, you have the high ground.

Perhaps the most extreme form of gotcha politics is the phenomenon recently dubbed "mobbing," in which a group of people collectively set out to damage or destroy a colleague's reputation. The Chronicle has reported fairly extensively on this trend and has detailed several cases in which professors and administrators have fallen prey to mob action.

We all have the right — indeed, the obligation — to point out potential misconduct when we become aware of it. Improper behavior needs to be identified and halted. But dealing with that behavior does not require ad hominem attack, abusive language, unsubstantiated allegations, or wolf-pack savagery.

It's not criticism that is in question; it's the tone and style of it.

Obviously, there is no way to legislate against gotcha politics or to prevent it by fiat. The only way to put an end to such incivility is for each of us to resolve not to be a party to such unprofessional behavior. It is in your own best interest to do so. After all, you never know when you might become the ax murderer's next target.

I'll make a wager. I will bet that no academic reading this blog has never seen any of the above. I will further bet that very few of the academics reading this blog have actually stood up for what's right when witnessing the poor behaviors Olson outlines. That's what keeps it going and allows it to become a norm, after all. I also suspect that no academic reading this blog can honestly say that they have never seen mobbing behavior among their colleagues--if they have not been mobbed themselves, they have watched others be mobbed, or have perhaps participated in a mobbing (rationalizing it as something else, of course, along the way). And I split a hair here that should not, perhaps, be split: If you passively sit by and let a mob do its thing, then you are accessory to that mob, and a de facto participant in it. Maybe you think the mobbing was deserved--or maybe you feared that it would target you next. But that doesn't absolve you.

Olson is describing an ugly truth about the day to day working culture of those who trumpet their special right to academic freedom--and who often invoke it as license not to have to be accountable in the ways other working people must be accountable. But part of academic freedom is the freedom to self-govern--and the obligation to do so. What Olson is describing is an academy that has abdicated that responsibility so often and so long that a very different, very toxic set of norms has taken over.

posted on October 15, 2008 8:55 AM

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Makes me glad I work where I do. We have one department that is notoriously fractious (though for the most part openly so), but it's not my department. Believe it or not, Erin, I've not seen any of Olson's horrors in my eleven years here. As is so often the case, things look different from the perspective of my own humble institution. Maybe we're just not ambitious enough here.

Posted by: Eveningsun at October 15, 2008 11:03 AM

I am not now, nor have I ever been, an academic, but I've observed a fair amount of knife-in-the-back politics in the business world. In general, malign politics flourishes when management is weak. I suspect politics in academia is probably worse than in business because the academic governance model does not encourage strong management, and makes it difficult to get rid of people who need getting rid of.

The ideal is to focus individual competitive drives into channels which benefit to overall organization rather than detract from it. For example, a strong competitive spirit between two regional sales manager is in general a good thing. However, if you have people whose activities are closely interconnected...say, an engineering manager and a marketing product manager..a spirit of cooperation is more important. Tell me if I'm wrong, but most academic work seems (from this standpoint) more like the first model than the second.

Posted by: david foster at October 15, 2008 1:56 PM

I'm wondering if the more competitive academics don't naturally get concentrated at the more prestigious institutions, which also have the most stringent requirements for tenure etc. (As I understand it, there are even schools that will deliberately hire two or even three new assistant profs on the understanding that only one will be awarded tenure.) Those of us who are less competitive are happy to teach at places like my own humble institution. This might explain why Erin's and Olson's experiences have been so different from mine. I suppose it also helps that my department is so small that we only have one Americanist, one medievalist, etc. That makes it easy for each of us to be the department's "best" Americanist, "best" medievalist, etc., without having to constantly prove it by putting someone else down.

Posted by: Eveningsun at October 15, 2008 3:21 PM

Erin: I have read your blog for a couple of years now and always enjoy your lucid, even-tempered style. Where I would lose all self-control and be reduced to muttering "Madness!" you calmly skewer the idiot(s) and keep on moving. I'm also struck that you seem to enjoy writing without apparent need for large crowds of acolytes, cross-links, mutual admiration, etc. Note that I am also a Penn grad (from waaay back in the '70s) so it's nice to hear the occasional reminiscence of your Penn days.

Posted by: BobS at October 16, 2008 3:51 PM

BobS -- Thanks so much for the kind words. They mean a lot. --Erin

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at October 16, 2008 3:54 PM

I have seen an attempt at a mobbing, but because, believe it or not, a majority of tenured faculty refused to participate, the mobbing fell apart.

Before I arrived at my current institution, I understand that there was a full-scale war in progress. This type of behavior was apparently quite common. The introduction of new administrators from president on down ended the battles and now we appeared to have entered what one dean calls "the era of good feelings." I think the war (which ended 30-year friendships and denied tenure to very qualified individuals, among other things) scared everybody so much that they don't want to re-enter that now radioactive area.

Posted by: beckyj at October 17, 2008 7:31 AM

Nearly 10 years into my career at a small, non-prestigious, teaching-emphasis school and I have to say I've never seen "mobbing" or similar behavior.

I'm sure it happens, but it doesn't happen in my department. Oh, we have disagreements about stuff, but it seems to me that everyone really has the best interests of the students at heart - and so discussion will come back around to, "OK, but what do we need to do to make it work for the students?"

Perhaps part of it is that in my department, there is exactly one person in each sub-specialty - so there are no turf battles. Also, the administration (mostly) leaves us alone because we seem to be pretty harmonious.

The only folks who have left the department (well, since I've been here) have either been through retirements or through getting a job at a school they'd rather be at.

Posted by: ricki at October 20, 2008 6:29 AM

Erin I realize this is late but I just came upon a site that you might find interesting if you follow up on this topic:


Posted by: AYY at November 15, 2008 9:34 PM