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Don’t Shoot! A Meditation on Civility

February 17, 2010, 11:30 am

The sensationalism of the Amy Bishop tenure case, in which a University of Alabama biologist shot numerous colleagues in the head after her failed appeal, has us all unnerved and fascinated. Of course, the news reports that are piecing together a portrait of a sociopath, a ticking time bomb who happened to have become a university professor, have already helped us build distance between “us” and “her.” The Bishop story, which is being reported over at University Diaries in press clippings and terse, incisive commentary (that makes you think Margaret Soltan really could produce the thriller or mystery we all long to write) is, however, countered by the more prosaic and recognizable case of Bill Reader, a journalism professor at Ohio University. Reader seemed to be on track for tenure and now — isn’t exactly. Why? There are allegations that, although he is not a sociopath, he may be a garden variety bastard (or not) who is being portrayed as a sociopath by colleagues who voted against his tenure.

Hence, the Reader case raises a set of more serious issues for all of us, in my view.

According to Inside Higher Ed, prior to his tenure case, Reader “had received nothing but glowing annual evaluations with no mention of untoward behavior in his file.” But when the case was reported out of the Journalism School, with a positive but very split vote, three female faculty members who voted against the case filed harassment charges against him, citing threats allegedly made by Reader that were related to them by third parties. The rumour was that Reader “was ‘out for revenge’ against those who had opposed his bid for tenure.” Subsequent to the filing of these charges, “recommendations by the journalism school’s director, a college-level review committee and dean have all come out negatively.”

It’s always difficult to know what happened when reading public reports of these things. Apparently Reader was prone to nasty email exchanges, one of which, ignited over the failure of colleagues to sign a card for a departing colleague, was particularly unpleasant. I doubt that he was the only one who sent flaming e’s, although he was in a position to know he could be harmed by such behavior and clearly failed to perceive it. But many people suffer failures of self-perception on email, as adrenaline and self-righteous wrath washes over their — no, let’s say our — brains. Even those of us who don’t have grievances filed against us have probably participated in terrible e-mail exchanges that we are embarrassed about in retrospect, whether we believe we were right or wrong at the time. Reader apparently isn’t embarrassed about the greeting card incident, however, which tells you nothing about his suitability as a colleague, but a lot about what constitutes normal behavior at the Ohio State J-School. “I opted for vitriol,” he states. “I have no regrets. Before my e-mail, there were few signatures; afterward, there were many.”

Really? Even now you are not ready to stand down about that stupid greeting card?

Inside Higher Ed sees this case as part of “a continuing national debate over the extent to which ‘collegiality’ ought to be considered in the awarding of tenure,” and on the surface I suppose it is. But Reader’s supporters, and presumably Reader himself (who was not informed or or able to respond to the harassment charges until several negative decisions on his case had already been made), say the tenure process has been tainted by these allegations. I tend to agree with this somewhat narrower interpretation. So does the Faculty Senate at Ohio, which has reversed the negative rulings, and sent the case forward to the next level. The attorneys standing outside their office sharpening their knives probably had nothing to do with it, although this is a situation where a little gentle advice from the AAUP can go a long way.

I don’t know whether I would like Bill Reader or want to work with him, and it’s difficult to tell from the few facts that can be gleaned from the IHE piece, of course. But take it from someone who has been bullied: what is wrong in that department goes beyond Bill Reader and points to a winner-take-all culture where there is more than one person with no commitment to civility. Although there are clearly people who believe they have been victimized, the search for authentic victims is likely to produce instead a vivid picture of professional relationships dominated by gossip, faction and spite, in which people who insist they are wedded to “procedure” manipulate it cruelly to get their way. It’s not for nothing that novelists as different as Mary McCarthy, Randall Jarrell, C.P. Snow and Ishmael Reed have spent anywhere from a semester to a career with us and consistently pointed out these very qualities.

Academia, one might say, is characterized by strong personalities out to win an argument, and sometimes the desire to win gets out of hand. The origins of the bad behavior at Ohio University, either Reader’s abusive emails and threats over signatures on a greeting card, or individual faculty members trying to have more than one vote on a tenure case by launching an internal grievance process, might well be a departmental culture in which the need for authority and the disregard for appropriate behavior is pervasive at all ranks. I also find it useful to remember what every child psychologist knows: that people who bully have often themselves been bullied. I once saw an older historian who was famous for hir nastiness, public temper tantrums and contempt for colleagues, treated with such contempt and rudeness (in public and for no good reason whatsoever) by hir prestigious dissertation director of three decades ago that it literally took my breath away.

This observation didn’t make me like this person any better, nor did it make me more willing to be subjected to verbal abuse by others. But it did create a little window of understanding that subsequently caused me to look around the world I live in differently; to understand the ways in which we replicate the behavior of others, often unconsciously; and to place my own actions under the lens that I used to evaluate other people’s behavior towards me. The lesson, in my view? We need to model judicious and civil behavior at all costs, and speak to people honestly when they breach the bounds of civility, not wait until a high stakes moment to declare them unfit for our company. We all need to insist that our authority and reputations be taken seriously by others, but not demand it by damaging them, in turn, after the fact. It is quite possible to work productively with people one neither likes or respects, and it is possible to have one’s judgement not be sustained by the judgement of the majority without going nuclear: people outside the academy do it all the time.

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