Thursday, June 02, 2011

As The Department Turns: What Causes Conflict, Drama And Other Energy Sapping Dynamics

Things can explode when you least expect it!
 This week's Chronicle of Higher Education features a blog post by David Perlmutter entitled "It's Not Your Fault."  Aimed mostly at helping assistant professors and graduate students understand how they might have unintentionally become the target of a senior person's anger or jealousy, Perlmutter explores six factors that might cause unwelcome behaviors by senior people.  While it is sometimes the case that a younger person's actions might have provoked the incident or ongoing dynamic, it is also likely that it didn't. The project of figuring out what went wrong can be just as agonizing for a younger person as the reprisals and criticisms themselves. 

As Perlmutter notes wisely, "sometimes the quickest relief comes from merely figuring out that a single tussle or a longstanding feud is not your fault but rather originates in the minds, culture, politics, or economic situation of others. So don't bang your head on the office door trying to uncover what you did to create an enemy. Sometimes the enemy is the problem, not you."  Knowing that you are not at fault does provide quick relief -- but real change can only come when a whole department adopts an ethic of civility and respect, and works hard to maintain it.

What makes the behaviors Perlmutter describes tolerable and normal in an academic setting, whereas in other settings they would be considered aberrant?  For example, a student who repeatedly shouted at other students would be perceived as an asocial bully; a corporate executive who schemed, cheated and manipulated things to serve only personal interests would be seen as a weak link in a well-run business; a politician who tolerates only his own values and enforces them ruthlessly is known as a dictator.

One answer to the question of how academia's maintains its exceptionalism is our rigid seniority system.  The tenure and promotion system gives some people absolute power over the fortunes of others, and it can easily transform nontenured people into bargaining chips, allies, enemies and/or surrogates.  A second, and less frequently discussed, dynamic of tenure is the tendency of faculty to work at one institution over the course of decades, causing them to over-invest in their sense of control and authority within the department rather than be ambitious in a larger world that is less easily controlled.

Perlmutter's theory suggests a kind of deference to the status quo:  be clear about what you are, and are not, responsible for in a department that will not change.  Alter behaviors of your own that are drawing negative attention if you can; accept those dynamics that you cannot change, and work hard to leave, if these dynamics are impossible to evade. This is one good approach, and I would certainly advocate it over participating in draining, time-consuming personal struggles against people who will cheerfully stab you in the back to get you out of their hair.  But how might a department's dynamics actually be altered over time to diminish or eliminate the conditions I have described above?  Here are a few suggestions.

Vote as little as possible.  I would put voting at the top of the list of department practices that create cascading damage.  Department cliques form around common ideological predilections that not only harden over time, but require recruitment to maintain themselves.  This affects hiring and promotion decisions as cliques strive to maintain dominance over department policies by controlling more votes.  It also means that younger and more vulnerable members of a department are always being scrutinized for their loyalties in ways that prevent them from making independent decisions for fear that they will be punished by one clique or another.  If you work in a department where there is a high insistence on secret ballots, you can be sure of three things:  that everyone knows, or will know, who voted which way; that the final vote does not reflect any collective agreement about what should happen; and that there is a system of informal punishment in play, probably run by those people who are insisting on the secret ballot in the name of "protecting" everyone who is not a full professor from retribution (by some other person, over there.)

If you must vote, find ways to reincorporate the minority and make compromises with it.  Department power brokers don't do this, not only because they don't have to, but because every time they win a vote their endorphins go off the scale.  This is what they live for:  to them, each vote won is another brick in the wall of their ideological fortress.

But it doesn't have to be that way.  Did you win a vote about a line going to one field rather than another?  This is the moment to reach out to the other group and find a way to define the line to take account of their interests; or to promise that the next available line will be dedicated to their excellent proposal.  Questions of department policy can be trickier, and for this reason, should never be voted on.  Because of the right to autonomy that disagreeable senior people can claim, a privilege that few administrators will challenge, no senior person has to abide by a policy that s/he did not vote for.  More time has to be taken to establish the grounds for a policy, and to establish a policy that everyone can live with.  Consider having these discussions facilitated by a professional if your department is very fragmented and can't make these decisions on its own.

Be creative in finding ways for younger people to practice contributing their views and running things.  All department committees do not have to be run by a tenured person, or have a tenured person on them.  Conversely, all departmental committees ought to have one untenured person on them, unless there are so few untenured people that this places an undue burden on them.  The transfer of influence to younger generations should be a project so continuous that it is hardly visible.  Instead, what many departments have is a situation where a few aging faculty are grimly holding onto the reins of everything until they retire.  What that conveys to younger generations (we can even be talking about people in their forties and fifties who are themselves fully promoted and well-regarded in their fields) is that they only way to get what you want is to become that same person

Have a department handbook and review it regularly to make sure that it matches desirable department practices.  We don't like to spend our time hashing these things out and writing things down, but a department that makes a practice of saying what it means and meaning what it says is going to be less vulnerable to power plays and the factionalism that is incited by bad guys.  The result of not having an updated handbook can be an unspoken sense of "how things are done" that is not written down anywhere, cannot be conveyed to others precisely, and is tremendously powerful because it represents "rules" that are invisible to all but those who wield enough influence to enforce them.  Often practices are "recalled" at a moment of decision-making, which politicizes the process and allows self-interest to substitute for transparent procedure. One version of this is the notion of "precedent,"which has tremendous force in my institution and in my department, even though it is only appropriate to the legal system.  When someone starts talking about "precedent" you know you are in the danger zone, and that an outcome will be determined by the most powerful people in the room because a) they have the longest memories; and b) even if their memories are not accurate, they have the power to enforce their memory anyway.  Remember:  there are things that are governed by the department handbook, and everything else is up for discussion. Ruling by precedent is another way of saying, "Things ain't gonna change.  Not in my lifetime."

Don't naturalize abuses of power by ignoring them.  One problem with Perlmutter's view about correctly locating responsibility for bad behavior is that it locates abuse of power in the dyad.  Any good executive, manager or shrink would tell you that asocial actions have a corrosive effect on everyone, not just the person at which they are aimed.

When acts of abusiveness and factionalism are perceived as isolated and not contextualized by the department's tolerance for them, something else occurs.  The department divides itself into bullies, the directly bullied, and the people who watch -- who are themselves being indirectly bullied.  Here's a scenario for you:  in the midst of a departmental disagreement, a member of the department starts screaming at another.  Silence falls.   This has happened before.  After a pause, the two actors in this drama drop out of the discussion, a decision is reached, the meeting ends.  The screamer leaves the room, and a number of well-wishers run up to the person who was screamed at and ask sympathetically:  "Are you all right?"

What is wrong with this picture?  First of all, it doesn't actually matter what decision was reached, it was a bad one because it was made under the wrong conditions.  Furthermore, having gotten away with this form of venting in the past, the screamer has done it again, and has corrupted the process of decision making completely without being censured by the group.  While the group has established its capacity to be sympathetic, it hasn't demonstrated its capacity to be ethical.

Don't gossip. Don't make commitments as to what you will support, or have conversations about departmental matters, unless you are actually in a meeting.  If you are doing this, for whatever reasons, you are subverting the group decision-making process.  The other thing you are doing is letting departmental business expand to fill time that would be better spent writing, reading, prepping for class, going to the gym or watching YouTube videos featuring cats doing tricks.

The following activities, conducted outside department meetings, contribute to factionalization that will eventually bite you in the butt:  saying spiteful things about people, regardless of how horrible they are; relating things as fact that are only speculation; representing someone else's thoughts on a matter; allowing another person to persuade you that you are uninformed and should follow the lead of your elders; receiving or seeking tales (that can never be completely true and may be false) about some other colleague's views about you and obsessing about them; becoming persuaded that only your group is right and the other group is not only wrong but that their success will be a disaster; assembling, or participating in, a bloc of committed votes prior to a departmental conversation about the issue at hand; and assuming that because someone has been nasty to you and your allies that you can be nasty to that person and hir allies without accelerating the damage.

I'm sure I could add to this list, and that readers will.  My point is that anything that happens in a department is part of a group dynamic that implicates every person who is a member of the group.  This is why departments acquire reputations for good or bad behavior, and it is why troubled departments cycle through the same scandals and difficulties over and over again.  Acting systematically to prevent that is as important as understanding and addressing any of the individual events and decisions that are the symptoms of dysfunction.


Shane in Utah said...

I think this is all good advice, except for your first bullet point. How do you eliminate voting without also eliminating the last remnants of faculty governance? My department spent the last two years overhauling the curriculum, and the department head (who I suspect had been reading business management how-to books) tried to implement some sort of "consensus model" rather than putting crucial decisions to a vote. Problem is, she kept interpreting confusion and uneasy silence as approval and consensus, and the lack of a single decision-making moment meant that no one put much thought into the ramifications of the changes we were proposing. We almost got stuck with a really lousy, incoherent curriculum, until I insisted that we put things to a vote, at which point the discussion suddenly became more focused and serious. I'm a big fan of voting!

Tenured Radical said...

I think invoking voting as a strategy for focusing a conversation makes perfect sense, and might be required in certain cases. For example, in personnel cases at Zenith, the department must submit a vote.

On the other hand, consensus is also governance, and Quakers have used it for centuries. It relies on respect, the capacity to speak freely and honestly, the capacity to listen, and on good facilitation. It requires putting the interests of the whole above the interests of individuals.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that list is so depressing! I feel very lucky about my job just reading it.

Anonymous said...

This won't work for everyone, but openly addressing the conflict worked for me. In my first year I made an enemy of a full professor in my department through no fault of my own. (As I later learned, he felt slighted when I politely refused an offered item of food). While he had no trouble shooting off nasty e-mails about me to my colleagues in the dead of night, when I actually went to his office to confront him he was so flummoxed that the behavior stopped. I've also tried to make nice since then by being supportive of him in department meetings and such when he's not being infuriating. Very like how I respond to my 4 year old!

I also agree wholeheartedly about the votes. Formal votes foster mean-spirited behavior in my department (lots of whispering behind closed doors, leading to the other behaviors listed). Minimize the formality of voting and the department is much more serene.

Anonymous said...

I second the depressing nature of these conflicts and what must be done to avoid them -- especially when the writing's on the wall that, until some of the old boys move on (and why would they, since there's no accountability for them? Yay, tenure!), no one's going look at the handbook, no one's going to make any effort to keep junior colleagues from having to 'take sides' when they vote (especially in a small -- read, tiny -- SLAC department) and the folks in charge seem to ignore the fact that the department is rotten at the core and just needs to start over.

Your post and the Chronicle's articles about this issue are great -- but the people who really need to read them couldn't care less, I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...

Another terrific post! I'd add a point about addressing horizontal hostility -- I see it most readily in senior women turning on or creating and sustaining hostile environments for junior women, which is not quite horizontal. But I also see junior faculty creating difficult, even untenable situations for other junior folks.

Anonymous said...

Of course an increasingly important aspect of departmental hierarchy not mentioned here is the tenure/contract employee divide--which often marginalizes all of us (sometimes middle-aged and older) contract employees.

GayProf said...

Having survived a very dysfunctional department, this and Perlmutter's advice seem quite on target. One of my colleagues used to propose the idea that one should earn tenure at an institution and then automatically move to another. In this way, ze speculated, one neither became too invested in the institution nor carried personal bitterness from the process.

I would also suggest that departments should always be open and transparent in their voting. Anonymity permits a lot of abuse.

Kevin L Nenstiel said...

I have successfully avoided such entanglements by remaining as low on the food chain as possible. It's a surprisingly effective technique. On a completely unrelated note, I'm now looking for work outside academia...

Anonymous said...

Wow in the two departments I've been in, one at a place like Zenith, if anyone screamed at a Dept meeting the whole Dept would have turned on him like white blood cells going after an infection, and the issue we were debating would be put aside to deal with the inappropriate behavior.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Excellent fucken post! Two quibbles!

(1) "What makes the behaviors Perlmutter describes tolerable and normal in an academic setting, whereas in other settings they would be considered aberrant?"

HAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!! This shitte goes on in *every* high-stakes winner-take-all type of professional environment: business, law, medicine, art, sports, music, etc.

(2) "Don't make commitments as to what you will support, or have conversations about departmental matters, unless you are actually in a meeting."

This makes sense only if your department already is operating collegially and with comity. If it is not--and you are not one of the sicks-fucke assholes that makes the department dysfunctional--then you need to find allies and plan together to minimize the toxic effects of the assholes.

Anonymous said...

I'd rather vote than do concensus because in my experience concensus means the most powerful win and the least powerful get no voice.

In our most recent vote the fulls lost against everyone else, and it was a big thing because on this issue they've always been the ruling minority and impractically and unjustifiably so.

Re gossip and caucusing on that - yes we caucused. Nobody wanted to be stuck out alone voting against them, although each individual wanted to. We had to make an alliance, because it was an example of an always already overpoliticized and not entirely collegial situation.

Susan said...

I don't usually caucus, but as Profacero notes, it's useful when there is a contentious issue. If you know there is a division, it seems reasonable to talk to colleagues about how to build an argument, who might speak to what issue, etc.

I'm assuming that you "don't have conversations about department matters unless you are in a meeting" refers to concrete proposals, not general conversation. Most of the issues that eventually come to the faculty formally begin in conversations along the lines of "I see problem X; do you see this?" that leads to brainstorming, wider discussion and then sometimes policy changes.

Historiann said...

Great comments here. I agree with Shane that voting can be highly productive and a way to focus a conversation, so I don't see voting as an inherently divisive activity. (It's not, if you work with adults who don't see faculty meetings as Mortal Kombat. Most of us get it that we win some and we lose some. Whatever.)

I hear what CPP, Susan, and Profacero are saying about caucusing, but in my experience these private pre-meetings just end up perpetuating factionalism, not combatting or challenging it. But once again, I realize that walking into a meeting open-minded and ready to talk about something requires a significant number of other colleagues who will do the same thing rather than caucusing themselves. I suppose people protected by tenure should just insist on having an open conversation regardless of the fact that different factions think they've got the whole thing hashed out and sewed up.

Widgeon said...

This is one of the best descriptions of a dysfunctional department I've read. Add to the mix the problem of caucusing via e-mail, which can lead to a permanent record of some rather uncivil language. My own department reached a point of total crisis this past year, and as a result I am leaving for a new job and a new department. A collegial department who values me and my work. They don't scream at meetings, apparently, or deliberately throw barbs at one another. I am giddy with freedom!!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

They don't scream at meetings, apparently, or deliberately throw barbs at one another.

How can you possibly know this when you haven't arrived yet?

Widgeon said...

I know this because I have existing relationships with many members of the department. And I realize no department (or workplace) is without conflict. But some departments have long-standing cultures of enmity that make them truly miserable. As TR has pointed out in the past, even a job at an ivy isn't worth such misery.

Anonymous said...

Widgeon, was it Samuel Johnson who defined a second marriage as the triumph of optimism over experience? In any case, I think that is what you have here, but good luck anyway!


Anonymous said...

"What makes the behaviors Perlmutter describes tolerable and normal in an academic setting, whereas in other settings they would be considered aberrant?"

Perhaps because in most employment settings, people submit to some form of hierarchy. As someone for whom academia is a second career, I find the persistence of collective decision-making in a workplace setting absurd. Even the most lefty of 70s era non-profits have largely accepted that collective governance does not work very well when individuals' livelihoods are at stake. But academics cling to collective governance as though it were the essence of academic freedom. It's clearly not; it produces any number of counter-productive effects (as attested to in both Perlmutter's piece and this one); and it allows bad behavior to go unpunished for decades. All in the service of what, exactly?

AcadeMama said...

I appreciate the information in this post along with its intent. It does, however, make me more than a bit afraid. Call me Pollyanna, but is it like this everywhere? Most places? And how does one tactfully tell a colleague (especially a senior one) *not* to talk about an issue or upcoming vote in my presence? If I'm in the hall, I can always walk away. But I've seen the "corner and collude" strategy that leaves one feeling trappe with no escape route.

Josh Verienes said...

Well written! You touched all points accurately.

Robert Self said...

You know I love you, TR, but I have to object to point #1. A certain department I know well went to secret ballots for all personnel decisions about 3 years ago--for precisely the reasons you outline. BUT, and it's a big but, my experience has been that most faculty DO NOT know how everyone voted. In fact, the system has worked pretty well.

Granted, junior faculty say relatively little in these meetings (probably wise), so their leanings are difficult to gauge (and therefore difficult to hold against them). But I have been present for some pretty free-wheeling discussions in which I confess that I was not at all certain how particular people voted--outside of the obvious partisans.

I was compelled to respond to your post, because I think it's important for junior faculty--and departments generally--not to reject secret ballot as one, if only one, mechanism for protecting freedom of conscience. If I am a junior faculty member, and there is a controversial hiring vote, and I plan to be silent in the meeting, my ONLY protection is secret ballot. Otherwise, my silence in the discussion is meaningless.

So, all you junior faculty in departments that have secret ballots (or that don't), please don't assume that secret ballot is inherently a flawed system. It CAN work. I've seen it.

Shannon said...

Good post, but I really have to take issue with this statement:

a corporate executive who schemed, cheated and manipulated things to serve only personal interests would be seen as a weak link in a well-run business; a politician who tolerates only his own values and enforces them ruthlessly is known as a dictator

Aren't you describing Wall Street? the Republican Party? Maybe in fact ALL politicians?

Tenured Radical said...

Robert: I agree with you, a secret ballot is vital in a department that is controlled by faction and power brokering, and of course everyone but the most senior people need access to it. That said, it's also a sign of a broken departmental culture, and I think we need to work to de-naturalize the necessity of secrecy. So agreed: it is necessary, but under circumstances where a majority of the department is already being controlled in ways that restrict freedom of thought and expression.

Anonymous said...

The need to caucus, the need for secret ballots, the need for a small secret ad hoc committee to advise the chair and then have the decision come down as his/hers alone, etc., are all signs of broken departmental culture.

I'd like to think (can't help thinking) that the way to fix that kind of thing is to create a new departmental culture but I've also noticed that departmental cultures sometimes reflect regional cultures and so there's not always an "outside", so to speak, to the dynamic.

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