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

June 2, 2011, 3:07 pm

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 inf
luence 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.

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