• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


The Collegiality Conundrum

Definitions and policies.

January 2, 2019

I read with interest the piece in IHE about Fresno State’s attempt to craft an aspirational document about the ways it would prefer that people interact with each other. The guidelines strike me as well-meaning, if probably ineffectual, and that’s probably the best that can be done in the short term. That said, one sentence jumped off the screen for me:

“Still, the survey revealed some concerns about ‘accountability, especially as it relates to the ability to deal with low performers, disrespectful behaviors, and the perception of favoritism…’”

Favoritism strikes me as the most solvable part of the sentence. To the extent that favoritism results in skewed distributions of goodies, it’s relatively provable.  To the extent that it overlaps with protected class categories, it can be addressed through HR. But the issues of dealing with low performers and disrespectful behaviors are far harder.

(To be fair, sometimes the issues overlap. The same statement that registers as “a vigorous challenge” when a white man makes it may register as “disrespectful” when a black woman makes it.  Perceptions of “appropriate” behavior are based in social contexts, with all of the biases that implies.)

Robert Kelchen tweeted out on Wednesday his frustration at the difficulty of doing good research among holders of high positions.  They can be hard to get access to, and even if you get on their calendars, their incentive for candor is typically somewhere between zero and strongly negative.  I’ve seen it personally; there’s a reason that I still have his writing niche to myself after all these years.

So without betraying any confidences, I’ll just say that I was not the least bit surprised when the (anonymous) IHE survey of college provosts last year found that a supermajority of provosts prefers a renewable-contract system to a tenure system.  See enough abuses of the system over enough time, and it’s hard not to focus on “low performers” and “disrespectful behaviors.” In many contexts, those people and/or acts are either sanction-free or, perversely enough, rewarded. Become known as a pain in the neck, and watch the service requests dwindle away.  Meanwhile, your peers with consciences are rewarded with more work. The same can even apply to teaching. The people who go out of their way to help students are rewarded with more papers to grade; the ones who drive students away through general crankiness get away with less work. Over time, some of the good ones turn, because they get tired of feeling like chumps.  

The collegiality code Fresno is proposing is an attempt to mitigate the symptoms without actually addressing underlying causes.  As such, it’s understandable, but it’s unlikely to get very far.

Collegiality may be devilishly hard to measure, but the damage done by its absence is real.  Robert Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule shows clearly that in many contexts, a single jerk can drag down an entire department.  In academic settings, Sutton settled on “shunning” as a response to jerks, but that option isn’t really available to deans and provosts.  (Julie Schumacher’s novel The Shakespeare Requirement features a provost who is literally never seen on campus. At all. That’s championship-level shunning.  But it’s also satirical fiction.) On an individual level, that’s for the best; anyone can have a rough patch, and some conflicts are based on misunderstandings.  But when the jerks in question are dedicated, tenured, and unionized, uncollegial behavior can become an inescapable fact of daily life. In the absence of something actionable -- which, in this context, is pretty extreme -- general jerkishness can flourish for decades.  Worse, it can become contagious. Collegiality matters, but we aren’t allowed to act on it. That’s a nasty conundrum.

The folks at Fresno State are trying to solve a real problem.  But unless and until they make the code somehow enforceable -- whether by unimaginable clarity or by larger structural change -- I don’t see it.  Jerkishness is too hard to prove in court, even if, as Potter Stewart put it, most of us know it when we see it.



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