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Handling the 'Bad Apples'

July 13, 2007

Department heads, accustomed to running their own meetings, mostly listened along with provosts, deans and other faculty members during a training workshop in Seattle this week geared toward advising academic leaders in the science, engineering and math fields on how to manage their divisions while keeping diversity in mind.

The first national conference, called Leadership Excellence for Academic Diversity, was held at the University of Washington and supported by a National Science Foundation program intended to promote the advancement of women in the faculty ranks. More broadly, the conference addressed departmental culture and professional development of faculty.

Amid discussions of unconscious biases against women in academe and ways to mentor young female faculty, a theme emerged that had less to do with gender and more to do with faculty life in general. Current and past academic chairs swapped horror stories and asked how to best handle academic bullies -- generally older, tenured professors who are unwilling to take direction and can create what many described as a "toxic environment" in the department.

"I look at it like the classroom," said Sheila Hemami, a professor in Cornell University's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and programming director for the institution's ADVANCE program (which, like ones at Washington and elsewhere, focus on female faculty advancement). "One bad apple can spoil a class, just as one bad apple can spoil a department meeting."

Faculty leaders said they can talk within their departments all they want about being inclusive, but one disparaging comment about race, gender or sexual orientation by a professor can poison a discussion and potentially sour junior professors on the department. Some said the thorny professor also plays a role in both scaring away potential female hires who can already feel unwelcome in male-dominated fields and convincing female graduate students at the institution to continue their careers outside of higher education.

Speakers emphasized that they are not interested in censoring what faculty members say in the classroom or in their personal lives, but rather changing the tone of some departmental meetings and events. The environment, they say, can shape how people perceive their field.

Suzanne O'Connell, an associate professor and past chair of the earth and environmental sciences department at Wesleyan University, said the problem is particularly acute in small departments where one voice can have even more impact. Most faculty chairs, she said, don't have training in how to diffuse tense situations.

"I've seen a few people willing to marginalize faculty, and there just isn't an all-for-one culture in academic departments that would lead to (the bullies) being confronted," Hemami said.

Ana Mari Cauce, chair of Washington's department of psychology and a professor of American ethnic studies, said chairs shouldn't be afraid to tell a professor that a certain behavior won't be tolerated during meetings. Rather than addressing the issue as an entire department, academic chairs should confront the professor in a one-on-one setting, added Terri S. Fiez, director of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at Oregon State University.

Part of the issue is power, Fiez said. That's why discussing privately comments that were made in a group setting deprives the professor the joy of igniting a larger fire. To that end, Fiez said academic chairs should do whatever possible to gauge departmental consensus on issues rather than letting a vocal senior member have undue say during votes.

"If schools are serious about promoting diversity, they need to get away from the hierarchical structure of departments," she said.

But several department leaders said during the meeting that they didn't seek out the chair position and don't have an interest in policing faculty discussions. Many noted that they never had training in managing personalities, to which Fiez said she disagrees. "Everyone has had to manage graduate students," she said.

Cauce, of UW, said more common than the overt bully is the well-intentioned faculty member whose subconscious bias against women in the sciences might lead the person to advise the student against declaring a major in a related field. (She cited such a case.) Speakers during several sessions pointed to implicit gender biases as one reason why more women aren't faculty in science and engineering departments.

Even as data from the National Science Foundation shows that the proportion of women enrolled in graduate programs in the sciences increased in every category from 1994 to 2004, speakers at the conference expressed concern about the lack of women becoming professors in many of those fields. Data from 2005 that surveyed 100 top science departments (measured by research dollars won) show that while women and underrepresented minority faculty are slowly entering the professoriate in the SEM fields at a higher rate, they are still scarce in the highest-ranked departments and among the tenured. (Some conceded that women often choose not to apply to these faculty openings.) Speakers said it's important to look at the net gain of female or minority professors, or else all that's measured is which programs are stealing candidates from others.

Cheryl R. Kaiser, an assistant professor of psychology at UW, pointed to research showing that faculty serving on hiring committees subconsciously react more favorably to a male name than a female name on a résumé when the gender of the candidate is the only difference. She also noted that evaluations written for male faculty in engineering and the sciences often focus on his prowess for research, while the note for a female candidate often concentrates on her teaching abilities. When tenure or hiring decisions are made largely based on money brought in through grants, that's problematic for female faculty, Kaiser said.

The workshop, based on previous pilot programs, included little discussion of when a department knows that it has achieved its diversity goal, and instead focused more on how to open doors to non-traditional candidates and retain them. Among the topics:

  • Robert Page, director of the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, said department leaders have to get away from the idea of replacing a previous professor when making a hire and focus more on need.
  • Cauce and several other speakers said with the changes in STEM fields, it often makes more sense to hire in clusters, or at least think about how a candidate will handle team research. Along those lines, Mark J.T. Smith, head of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue University, said departments need to think about the best fits, not just the best candidates, and then diversity will take care of itself.
  • Speakers underscored the importance of mentoring faculty in the sciences, saying that constructive feedback in the first 1-2 years (even if most of what's happening is setting up labs) helps them feel connected. Smith said he meets monthly with untenured faculty members to talk largely about promotion and tenure.
  • Cauce said that as a dean, when she serves as a mentor, she is up front about the relationship with a faculty member. "I'm clear that I'll go to bat for you and help negotiate with the university," she said. "But I also say that as chair, I'm going to be evaluative in meetings and document everything, so for certain topics maybe it's best to speak to someone else."

 

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