In his provocatively titled recent book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Robert I. Sutton argues for zero tolerance of “bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants, serial slammers, despots, [and] unconstrained egomaniacs” in the workplace. These individuals systematically prey on their co-workers, especially the more vulnerable ones, leaving their victims feeling humiliated, belittled, and demoralized. Their weapons include personal insults, threats and intimidation, hostile e-mails, public ridicule, and scornful interruptions. In the environments that they poison, enthusiasm for work gives way to anxiety, resentment, and a longing to get out.
The importance of a civil workplace struck Sutton more than 15 years ago during a department meeting at Stanford University, where he teaches. As his colleagues debated hiring a candidate for a faculty position, one of them remarked, “Listen, I don’t care if that guy won the Nobel Prize ... I just don’t want any assholes ruining our group.” Sutton describes the group as a collegial and supportive small department, “especially compared to the petty but relentless nastiness that pervades much of academic life.”
Although he goes on to cite many businesses that have the zero tolerance policy that he advocates, he does not return to his bleak characterization of academic life. Neither does he explore the reluctance of universities to hold faculty members to the rules of conduct that many businesses are implementing — rules that supplement standard prohibitions against harassment and discrimination — even while they apply them to staff. At my own university, for example, exempt and non-exempt staff are explicitly required to “cooperate and collaborate with other employees in a spirit of teamwork and collegiality” as a condition of their employment. Faculty members are not.
The reluctance to adopt a code of conduct for faculty members stems in part from a belief also expressed in corporate workplaces: that geniuses must be jerks and that some belligerence, indifference to others, and rudeness are inseparable from the achievements of a Steve Jobs or Bobby Knight. Sutton counters this view by observing that not all successful people are jerks and that jerks succeed despite their cruelty to others, not because of it. I would add that the odds are slim that the professor yelling at the departmental secretary spends the rest of his day bringing about a Copernican revolution in his discipline.
Sutton also argues that even in the extremely unlikely event that the bully is a genius, he still does more harm than good — which is why a Bobby Knight or Michael Eisner eventually wears out his welcome. Making exceptions for seemingly special cases can be damaging, not only in spawning imitators but in depressing the initiative of others. Sutton rightly emphasizes that “negative interactions have five times the effect on mood than positive interactions”: “a few demeaning creeps can overwhelm the warm feelings generated by hoards of civilized people.”
However, the November 1999 American Association of University Professors statement on collegiality as a criterion for faculty evaluation — while conceding the importance of collegiality to teaching, scholarship, and service — favors limiting a faculty member’s evaluation to these three areas on the grounds that vigorous discussions are essential to academic life. Adding collegiality as a yardstick, the AAUP asserts, is not only unnecessary — it risks “ensuring homogeneity,” “chilling faculty debate and discussion,” and curtailing academic freedom by stigmatizing individuals who do not fit in or defer to the group:
In the heat of important decisions regarding promotion or tenure, as well as other matters involving such traditional areas of faculty responsibility as curriculum or academic hiring, collegiality may be confused with the expectation that a faculty member display “enthusiasm” or “dedication,” evince “a constructive attitude” that will “foster harmony,” or display an excessive deference to administrative or faculty decisions where these may require reasoned discussion. Such expectations are flatly contrary to elementary principles of academic freedom, which protect a faculty member’s right to dissent from the judgments of colleagues and administrations.
Weeding out the gadflies, critics, and malcontents (via the criterion of collegiality), according to the AAUP statement, leaves us with the “genial Babbitts” and casts “a pall of stale uniformity” on what should be a scene of vibrant debate.
“Should be” is the key phrase here. The individuals Sutton is criticizing — the bullies, jerks, and so on — themselves chill debate through personal attacks, intimidation, and invective. One sign of this is the relief felt when they are away. Instead of disappearing, dissent blossoms, as individuals can now express ideas without fear of vicious recrimination and unfounded attack.
Thus, some faculty members have begun exploring codes of conduct, not because they want to squelch free debate but because they want to enable it. They are especially concerned about the most vulnerable faculty members – often newcomers with fresh perspectives and much-needed enthusiasm – who may shy away from departmental deliberations lest they jeopardize their personal futures. The motivation behind codes of conduct is not to make everyone agree but to let everyone feel free to disagree, allowing all voices to be heard.
The literary scholar Linda Hutcheon offers a version of this argument in her recent essay “Saving Collegiality,” in Profession, published by the Modern Language Association. While acknowledging the potential dangers of poorly worded and insensitively enforced codes of conduct, Professor Hutcheon reaffirms the importance of mutual respect, civility, and constructive cooperation to healthy debate: “Harmonious human relations need not stifle the right to dissent that we all so rightly treasure; instead they can make dissent easier, because safer. I fail to see how inclusivity and collaboration would necessarily chill debate.”
I think that this mounting interest in collegiality stems from the intensification of the forces arrayed against it:
A star system that widens inequities between the haves and have-nots and equates academic success with a reduction in teaching loads, service commitments, and other work on behalf of the institution.
Greater reliance on adjuncts and part-time faculty with little connection to the departments that hire them.
Tension between administrators and faculty exacerbated by top-down methods of management and increased demands for narrowly defined measures of accountability.
A poor job market that places individuals at institutions where they may not want to be, thereby fostering feelings of estrangement, disdain for colleagues, and single-minded efforts to leave via one’s research.
Recourse to e-mail as a substitute for face-to-face collaborative decision-making. Its impersonality unintentionally licenses individuals to fight and distrust one another even more (as Sutton explains, “apparently this happens because people don’t get the complete picture that comes with ‘being there,’ as e-mail and phones provide little information about the demands that people face and the physical setting they work in, and can’t convey things like the facial expressions, verbal intonations, posture, and ‘group mood’ ”); and, finally,
Inadequate salaries and benefits at many universities, deepening resentment, stoking competition for increasingly scarce material rewards, and adding new urgency to often longstanding rivalries and feuds.
Add to these forces department chairs who are inadequately prepared for dealing with conflict, and an already fragile community begins to pull apart, giving antisocial behavior even freer rein.
The disintegration of community takes a special toll on academic workplaces. In a chapter of tips for surviving nasty people and hostile workplaces, Sutton mentions developing indifference and emotional detachment, limiting contact with one’s adversaries, and doing the bare minimum required by one’s job — in effect, disengaging. These are not solutions but survival strategies intended to assist individuals stuck a demoralizing job that they cannot change or escape.
So collegiality turns out to be important as well as endangered: important because necessary to the free discussions, voluntary service, and constructive collaborations that universities depend on and endangered because so many institutional developments militate against it. Thinking about the collegial atmosphere of a particular institution, one of the contributors to the Profession symposium wonders if it might not just be “the luck of the draw,” the happy byproduct of a mix of people who just happen to get along, rather than the result of institutional intention.
But other contributors rightly counter that some steps can be taken, especially by department chairs, to foster collegial professional relations: for example, modeling respectful treatment of others, expressing appreciation, hosting social events and lunch meetings, sharing information, informally consulting with and involving colleagues, distributing responsibility, supporting reading groups organized around certain topics, setting up forums where faculty members can discuss teaching or present their research — in short, creating a vibrant social context for decision-making and debate. It can be harder to demonize people you eat lunch with or see at a reception with their children. One contributor to the symposium shrewdly defines a dysfunctional department as “one where the main interactions with the faculty are around tenure decisions.” Embedding difficult discussions in a network of relationships cushions their potentially divisive impact.
At the same time, another contributor to the Profession symposium, Gerald Graff, makes the important point that these “soft” ways of nudging faculty members into collegiality, though necessary, are not sufficient. As “add-ons” or “Friday afternoon solutions,” they must compete with other priorities in a busy professor’s life. When deadlines call and the pace of the semester picks up, attendance drops off and enthusiasm wanes.
Professor Graff argues for supplementing these measures with structural changes in the curriculum such as team teaching, exchanging classes with a colleague at mid-semester, and teaching one another’s books. Overcoming the customary isolation of teaching enables collaboration to be incorporated into what we do every week.
There remains, however, the problem of those admittedly few angry, disruptive individuals whom no one would want to teach or mix with — the “bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants, serial slammers, despots, [and] unconstrained egomaniacs” that I started out this essay with.
It is always tempting to ignore these individuals, hope they’ll go away, or find some way of excusing them. In “When Good Doctors Go Bad,” Atul Gawande observes the extraordinary lengths physicians will go to look the other way even when one of their colleagues repeatedly botches surgeries, abuses patients, and triggers lawsuits. As with many cases of professorial misconduct, the people in the best position to see the damage being done can be in the worst position to take action against it: junior physicians, nurses, staff members. Meanwhile, senior physicians are held back partly by the tremendous work involved in documenting and substantiating evidence of incompetence and partly by social pressures.
There’s an official line about how the medical profession is supposed to deal with these physicians: Colleagues are expected to join forces promptly to remove them from practice and report them to the medical-licensing authorities, who, in turn, are supposed to discipline them or expel them from the profession. It hardly ever happens, for no tight-knit community can function that way.
As in academic departments, intervention gives way to avoidance but at great cost, in the one case to the incompetent physician’s patients, in the other to the abusive professor’s colleagues and students, who sometimes come into play as prizes to be fought over or enemies to be scorned because they have sided with a rival.
Even so, despite the odds against it, in hospitals and doctors’ practices sometimes the bad physician loses his license or gets sanctioned in some other way.
In universities, here is where a carefully designed faculty code of conduct can become necessary — as a last resort, when other interventions have failed and the behavior in question falls through the cracks of the faculty handbook. The threshold for invoking the code should be high, not just by one isolated outburst. But the expectation of collegial behavior, of cooperating and collaborating with other employees in a spirit of teamwork and collegiality, should be there — not as a distinct criterion for promotion and tenure but as a condition of employment for faculty as well as for staff. Once faculty members make the difficult decision to act against a disruptive colleague, they must have the means of doing so, lest powerlessness and frustration make their demoralization even worse.
After a code of conduct is institutionalized, it becomes everyone’s responsibility to use it. In my experience, most people treat others in the academic workplace with respect, consideration, and care, conduct code or no conduct code. My intent here has not been to legislate collegiality but to make sure that in those rare instances when enough is enough, when egregious behavior persists and reaches a carefully defined tipping point, faculty members and administrators are in a position to do something about it.
Michael Fischer is vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, as well as a professor of English, at Trinity University, in San Antonio. Prior to joining the Trinity administration, he was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of New Mexico. A longer version of this essay will appear in Change and is available on the magazine's Web site.
The history of English literature is replete with authors who hid their names from their audience. Should the 21st-century academy also follow in this tradition? Jonathan Swift, for example, published all of his satirical writings without revealing his identity to his audience. In the case of his late masterwork, Gulliver’s Travels, a work — as he wrote in a famous letter to Alexander Pope on September 29, 1725 — designed “to vex the world rather than divert it,” Swift went so far as to have an intermediary deliver a sample part of the manuscript to his publisher. Should contemporary academics follow Swift’s lead and publish all of their critical writings anonymously? Should they even put their name on critical assessments of their colleagues? What role, if any, should anonymity play in the contemporary academy?
While Swift may be a more elaborate case of an author wishing to deceive the public — and his publisher — as to his true identity, he was far from the only famous English writer to mask his or her identity. Spencer, Donne, Marvell, Defoe, Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Byron, Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, Tennyson, George Eliot, Sylvia Plath, and Doris Lessing are some of the writers who published works that did not reveal their true identity to their audience.
Given that these authors and their works are some of the cornerstones of the English literary canon, one might wonder why these authors did not put their names to some of their greatest works of writing. The simplest — and probably best — answer is fear: fear of things like persecution or imprisonment. This link between fear and anonymity is now carried on in the academy. Though fear of persecution or imprisonment might not persuade academics today to hide their identity from their audience, fear of retaliation surely does. Some academics fear that negative — or even positive — comments about their colleagues will lead to retaliation from them.
This, in turn, leads many contemporary academics to voice their comments from behind the veil of anonymity. Or, worse yet, convinces them to alter their comments because they are not anonymous. The practice of anonymous critical assessment is relatively common and widely accepted in the academy. So too is the understanding that some non-anonymous comments by academics may not be reflective of their true opinions.
Here is an example of how the logic of academic fear works with respect to non-anonymous comments: Professor Jones is asked to write a reader’s report on the worthiness for publication of Professor Hill’s manuscript. Jones reads Hill’s manuscript and believes that it is a “weak” contribution to the field, and believes that it should not be published. However, the potential publisher of Hill’s manuscript tells Jones that his name and his comments will be passed along to Hill. Jones fears that if he writes a negative report of Hill’s work, that Hill will in turn retaliate against Jones by writing a negative report of Jones’ work should the opportunity arise. Therefore, Jones decides to write a “less negative” or “more positive” report of Hill’s manuscript.
A variation of this example involves the use of anonymous comments, rather than non-anonymous ones: To avoid a “dishonest” report by Jones, the publisher assures him that his comments will be kept anonymous. Therefore, Jones knowing that Hill will not discover his identity decides that he will provide a more honest assessment of the manuscript.
There are of course many variations of these scenarios including a totally anonymous interchange: An anonymous manuscript stripped of all indicators of the identity of its author is read by a reviewer whose identity is in turn not revealed to the author. Moreover, the logic of academic fear does not end with peer review of manuscripts. It is not uncommon, for example, for the identity of students to be hidden in the assessment of their professors. It is also not uncommon for the identity of faculty to be hidden from administration in their assessment of them.
Should the identity of individuals within the academy be hidden so that they may speak freely (and honestly) about each other? Or is the practice of anonymity within the academy contrary to the aim of the academy, namely, the free and honest exchange of ideas and opinions in pursuit of knowledge? Is increasing the frequency and range of anonymous assessment in the academy in its best interest? Or does encouraging anonymous assessment within the academy promote a less collegial and more thin-skinned academy? These and similar questions raise significant issues that have not received a whole lot of attention.
The prevailing wisdom seems to be that anonymity is an accepted and acceptable practice with positive implications for the academy. Many seem to believe that like the history of English literature, where anonymity has provided writers with the opportunity to express their ideas and opinions without fear of retaliation, the history of the contemporary academy will show that anonymity has been a positive, liberating practice. However, such a history of the academy would be nothing more than a fairy tale.
I believe that anonymity is the enemy of dialogue, and, as such, should have a fairly limited role in the academy.
Dialogue in Academe
Dialogue in academe involves the free exchange of ideas and opinions. It requires that the interlocutors respond to each other and know to whom they are speaking. It is difficult, if not impossible, to have a discussion or debate when one of the discussants or debaters does not participate. Furthermore, it is not possible to have a discussion with no one — some minimal level of identity is required for those who participate in dialogue.
Differing ideas and differences of opinion make the academy a vibrant, living, organic entity. Within the academy, individuals are expected to defend their ideas and opinions to the best of their ability. The question and answer rhythm of dialogue tempered by rational reflection assures that no idea or opinion passes through the academy without proper critical assessment. Knowledge of the identity of the interlocutors allows for proper and relevant questions to be asked — it also allows for questioners and answerers to be accountable.
The aim of dialogue in the academy is not merely to just state or assert one's opinion. Simply asserting one's opinion to one another has more in common with two dogs barking at each another than two people engaging in dialogue. The aim of dialogue is rather to defend or argue for one’s opinion against any and all objections. The ideal here is the type of dialogues fictionalized in the early writings of Plato. An opinion that cannot be defended against objections has no place in the contemporary academy, just as it had no place in the ancient Greek academy.
Once a view or position is stated or expressed, the expectation in the academy is that through dialogue between the source of the opinion and other members of the academy, particularly students and faculty, stronger ideas will continue to be discussed and debated, and weaker ideas will gradually fade from conversation — and be dismissed. Without the free exchange of ideas and opinions in pursuit of knowledge, the academy perishes — or at least loses part of its distinctive character.
The free exchange of ideas and opinions in the academy assumes that the aim of this free exchange is the dissemination and production of knowledge — not opinion. Discussion of all opinions and ideas in an environment that is conducive to separating the defensible opinions from the indefensible ones is essential. This means that those who share their opinions with others should not fear negative consequences or reprisal for doing so. This does not mean, however, that individuals who promote bad ideas or opinions should not be identified with them. On the contrary, if one promotes an idea or opinion which is eventually dismissed through academic dialogue, this (bad) opinion or idea becomes part of one’s academic identity.
While the continued identification of an individual with his or her bad idea or opinion within the academy may seem like a harsh statement, it is ultimately a fair one. Just as individuals that promote sound ideas and opinions continue to be identified with them, so too should individuals who promote unsound ideas and opinions be identified with them. Take for example the philosopher/scientist Albert Einstein.
Early in Einstein’s career, his notions about relativity were met with disapproval by his colleagues and members of the academic community. However, this negative reaction from his colleagues only encouraged him to find stronger grounds upon which to convince them that his ideas about relativity were valid and sound. Ultimately, he prevailed in the critical dialogue about his ideas, and was awarded with not only the Nobel Prize, but the respect and ear of the academic world. If Einstein had not prevailed, his identity as a person of intelligence and compassion would not have been secured — and his subsequent ideas and opinions would have had far less visibility. Later in his life, the world listened intently to Einstein’s comments about things other than physics because they were his ideas. Epistemological affiliations which result from critical dialogue are powerful.
Just as one tends to benefit positively from the successful defense of an idea, so too should one benefit negatively from the unsuccessful defense of an idea. Trust and power in the academy is earned, not randomly bestowed upon individuals. It does not mean that one examines any less vigorously the ideas of Einstein as opposed to someone who has never successfully defended an idea — let alone a revolutionary one. Rather, it means that those whom we value as voices of wisdom in the academy have earned this through past argumentative success, not through dialogical failure. Continued failure to successfully defend one’s opinions and ideas should not be rewarded by the academy; rather, it should be met with increasing skepticism as to the academic abilities of the individual — and possibly even dismissal of the individual from the academy, particularly if there is no record of academic (or dialogical) success.
Anonymity Is Anti-Dialogue
The academy has an obligation to protect itself from anything that enervates critical dialogue and to encourage anything that energizes it. While repeated failure to defend ones ideas and opinions is not admirable, it is also not reprehensible or unexpected. Publication, tenure and promotion, merit pay, and respect are some of the major ways in which the academy rewards dialogical success (and the denial of these are some of the ways it “punishes” failure). How then does anonymity figure into this picture? In particular, how does it contribute to the promotion of dialogue in the academy?
A common response is that anonymity is of benefit to the university because it protects individuals against reprisals from other members of the academy. In particular, anonymity is utilized to assure the free exchange of ideas and opinions in the academy. If one’s identity is not revealed in the stating of an opinion, then one cannot be the recipient of any negative (or positive) consequences from said opinion. In this climate, anonymity functions like the mythical Ring of Gyges: academics can say and do whatever they wish without fear of direct negative consequences for their actions. But does the normal operation of the academy require a Ring of Gyges? I don’t think so. In fact, I would go one step further and maintain that anonymity is also ultimately not in the best interest of the academy.
Anonymity affords one the opportunity to speak without having to be accountable for the consequences of one’s speech. Anonymous propositions do not draw their power from the reputation of the speaker. Rather, they draw their power from the fact that they could be from anyone — from their disaffiliation. They speak for and from everyone and no one. Once the identity of the source of the anonymous proposition is revealed, they become part of the world of dialogue, affiliation, and situated discourse; however, if the identity of their source is never revealed, they have a decidedly halting effect on discourse.
Anonymous propositions are fundamentally monological, not dialogical. Whereas a proposition that is attributed to or affiliated with someone always contains the possibility of being questioned or interrogated, anonymous statements cannot be questioned because there is no one to ask. Because anonymous propositions are not subject to the process of question and answer, they cannot speak back or respond to requests to explain themselves (because their source is unknown). These epistemological limitations make them a weak source of knowledge. Furthermore, anonymous propositions discourage human interaction and inquiry.
Students commonly evaluate their professor’s performance in the classroom anonymously. The alleged reason is that students will be more honest in their evaluations if they know that the professor will never be able to track the comment back to them. The fear is that if a student says something negative about their professor, then the professor will retaliate by either giving the student a lower grade in the course under evaluation or the next course that the student takes with the professor. Though this may be a valid point — some professors are vindictive — the solution to this problem is not anonymity, but rather professional reprimand.
Furthermore, comments from students under the guise of anonymity are generally not very instructive. “Professor Jones is the best teacher ever,” writes the student. Jones is then credited with superior teaching performance on the basis of this comment. But consider some possible reasons that the student might have written this comment: 1) The student is a “C” student, but because Jones is an easy grader, he or she received an “A” in his course; 2) The professor conducted class by passing out cookies and Kool-Aid each day, and told stories about his college days; 3) Professor Jones canceled the final exam; 4) Professor Jones challenged his student to master the material and an otherwise “A” student earned a “C” (and the kudos of the student); or 5) Professor Jones is the best teacher ever (outshining both Einstein and Socrates). These reasons may be multiplied many times but lead to the same conclusion: an anonymous student comment is not very informative. Furthermore, it begs for the question and answer process that dialogue provides to get at the reality of Professor Jones’ classroom performance. In other words, one needs to know a lot more about the identity of the student in order to determine the validity and soundness of their comment. Dialogue would provide this; anonymity denies it.
The case of anonymous peer evaluation is not much better in terms of dialogic effect. In her article, “Seven Faces of Anonymity in Academe," Lynn Bloom speaks to this issue directly: “I never sign my reviews. This is not a dialogue. I do not what to know your rebuttal, though I am willing to read thoroughgoing, thoughtful revision. I do not want to know the impact of my review on your life, professional or personal, or on your feelings. I am providing a Service to the Profession, even if it means keeping you out.”
Bloom is of course right. Anonymity in manuscript review allows reviewers to disengage from dialogue. It of necessity keeps the author of the manuscript outside of the dialogic process. She is also right in that reviews impact lives: they are not singular events for the manuscript’s author even though they may be for the anonymous manuscript reviewer.
To consider Bloom’s comments fairly, one must distinguish between anonymous reviewers reviewing anonymous manuscripts, and anonymous reviewers reviewing manuscripts where the identity of the author is revealed. Because the former short-circuits the potential of dialogue by not including any identity markers in the review process, one can maintain that this process is not as problematic as one wherein the reviewer knows the identity of the author but the author does not know the identity of the reviewer. The former may be called the “totally anonymous review process,” and the latter the “partially anonymous review process.”
With regard to the partially anonymous review process, it does not make a whole lot of difference if the reviewer or the manuscript author’s identity is not revealed. The same problem holds for each situation — a problem that parallels the case of a student who knows the identity of the professor but the professor does not know the identity of the student (or vice versa). Just as student evaluation under this condition is problematic, so too is the partially anonymous review process.
When the identity of one of the two parties in the review process is revealed, the possibility of dialogue takes hold. The partially anonymous review process is by definition failed dialogue. It is akin to an unidentified person yelling a comment from behind a curtain to a person who is standing before a crowd. The comment is “Professor Jones is a poor scholar!” Rightfully so, Jones and the audience will wonder about the identity of the person making the comment, and want to ask more in depth questions of them. It makes a difference if the person yelling the comment is a respected scholar in Jones’ field of expertise or a young man who has not even graduated from high school. The partial review process leaves lingering questions of identity that the totally anonymous review process avoids. While one can ask questions as to why an anonymous reviewer failed to see the power of an anonymous manuscript they reviewed, the doubt that is raised by an anonymous reviewer of a non-anonymous manuscript raises an entirely different set of questions, such as does the reviewer have a personal or professional problem with the author? And so on.
All of the scenarios of anonymous assessment mentioned above share the same effect, namely that of short-circuiting dialogue. If one believes, as I do, that dialogue is an essential feature of academia, then one must conclude that anonymous assessment is antithetical to the very idea of the academy. While one might be able to live with a less than ideal academy which extensively utilizes anonymity but is otherwise collegial, one would not be able to live in an academy that is uncollegial in part as an effect of anonymity. Let’s now briefly turn to the effect of anonymity on collegiality before establishing a conclusion on the role anonymity should play in the academy.
Anonymity, Collegiality, and Critical Judgment
The common rationale for academic anonymity is quite clear: if one were required to accompany one's assessment with one’s true identity, one would not speak the truth.
While I think that a case may be made that total anonymity is fairer than partial anonymity, the fact remains that anonymity by definition halts dialogue. Imagine, if you will, an academy where all were required to reveal their identity when they voiced their opinions or ideas. Further imagine that in this ideal academy everyone was expected to think about and respond to the ideas and opinions of others: Where critical dialogue was the norm, not the exception. Would this not be a desired situation?
Part of the problem with academia today is a fear and avoidance of critical judgment. Some even believe that criticizing the views of another is a fundamentally uncollegial (if not also unethical) act, and that uncritically supporting a colleague is a collegial act. Academia has created a culture and ethics of uncritical consent and has hidden it behind the cloak of collegiality. Uncritical kindness in response to any and all of our colleagues’ ideas and opinions is not only fundamentally uncollegial; it is also an abdication of academic responsibility.
The only reason that anonymity is so prevalent in academia today is that as academics we have forgotten that critically thinking about the opinions and ideas of others is what we do — or even what we do best. It is the task of the academic to be critical. Anonymity breaks down the critical dialogue that brings us together into a unified profession in search of answers to our questions—and questions to our answers. It atomizes the profession in a way that sets one individual and their ideas against the other in personal (not epistemological) competition for superiority. According to the popular logic of anonymity, academia is “nasty, brutish, and hard — a war of all against all” for position and power.
Collegiality requires dialogue. If we set up practices in the academy that prohibit or prevent dialogue, then we are fundamentally enabling uncollegial behavior. Partial anonymity, at least, is always already uncollegial behavior; and total anonymity, while less pernicious than partial anonymity, still discourages dialogue, and therefore is also fundamentally uncollegial.
Part of the reason that many people have difficulty sharing critical judgment with others in the academy is that we have created a culture where critical judgments must be protected from fear of retribution. If one were forced to reveal his or her identity in all critical judgment situations, individuals would probably take more time to develop their arguments knowing that they could become themselves the object of critical attention. While it goes without saying that it is wrong to be the subject of retaliation for one’s ideas and opinions, it also goes without saying that the culture of retaliation is encouraged (rather than discouraged) by the widespread use of anonymity.
It is acceptable within the public sphere to anonymously share an opinion and not have to answer to questions or concerns raised about it. However, within the academic sphere, this is simply not desired behavior. If one, for example, posts on his or her blog a statement concerning one’s belief in gremlins, one is not obligated to respond to persons who disagree with this statement. However, in the academy, students, faculty, and administration are expected to answer to questions about their opinions. When sharing an idea or opinion with ones colleagues, one should expect — and hope — that they respond to it. This is what being a colleague means.
Conclusion: Against Anonymity
The widespread use of anonymity in academia should be a cause for concern, not celebration. If dialogue is the warp and woof of the academy, and collegiality demands dialogue, then the use of anonymity in the academy should be discouraged. Though individual cases might be made where anonymity is justified in academia, these are far from the norm. The norm in academia should be against the use of anonymity, rather than for it. Increasing the role and scope of anonymity in the academy serves to make it less collegial and more fractious by discouraging dialogue as the major source of critical assessment. The academy must work toward the elimination of all forms of anonymous critical assessment — lest it lose the characteristic which most distinguishes it from other institutions: the free exchange of ideas and opinions in pursuit of knowledge.
Jeffrey R. Di Leo
Jeffrey R. Di Leo is dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and associate professor of English and philosophy at the University of Houston-Victoria. He is also founder of the journal symploke, were a longer version of this essay will be published.as part of an issue devoted to the topic of anonymity.
There are two main narratives battling to define the current crisis at the University of California. While the California situation is an extreme example of what is happening to public higher education these days nationally, these dueling narratives can be found in many other states as well.
On the one hand, President Mark Yudof and the Board of Regents want everyone to blame all of the university's problems on the state. According to the administration’s narrative, the simple issue is that the state has defunded higher education, and due to a $1.2 billion cut from the state, the only thing the campuses can do is raise tuition (which we in California call fees), cut courses, lay off workers, increase class size, furlough faculty members, and demand that the state increases the university’s funding by $913 million.
The counter narrative, articulated mostly by the unions and the students, is that the university just had a record year of revenue, and the system does not have to raise fees or cut services. Instead, the counter discourse argues that the profit-making units should share their profits, and money earmarked for instruction should actually be used for educational purposes. While unions and students also insist that full state funding should be restored, they recognize that most of the state reductions were made up by federal recovery money ($716 million), fee increases (43 percent -- 9.3 percent in September, 16 percent in January, and another 16 percent next September) and cost saving measures that have already been undertaken.
A close analysis of the university's own audited financial statements (see page 52 of this document) for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009 shows that in every major category of the budget -— research, medical profits, extension programs, and even state appropriations — the university increased its revenue. Thus, even though President Yudof declared a fiscal emergency during the summer of 2009 and was granted emergency powers to impose an austerity plan that included across the board salary reductions, it turns out that the university was never in better fiscal health. In fact, the university’s finances were doing so well that after the state reduced the university’s funding, the university turned around and lent the state $200 million.
When reporters asked Yudof how he could lend the state money at the same time he was cutting salaries, reducing enrollment, and laying off non-tenured faculty, he responded that when the university lends money to the state, it turns a profit, but when the university spends money on teachers’ salaries, the money just disappears. According to this logic, the university should just get out of the education business and concentrate on generating high bond ratings.
What many people do not know is that this emphasis on pleasing bond raters in order to gain a better interest rate drives many of the decisions of private and public universities today. For example, it was recently discovered that one reason why the university continues to raise tuition each year is that it has promised its bond issuers to use student fees as collateral for construction bonds. In this credit default swap, students take out high-interest loans to pay for their increased tuition, while the university gets low-interest bonds to build more buildings. Moreover, the bond raters have recently praised the university for having such a diverse revenue stream and for holding such a high level of unrestricted funds that can be used for any purpose.
When Yudof is questioned about the fungible nature of the university's $20 billion operating budget, he usually responds by arguing that almost all of the funds are restricted, and only money from student fees and state funds can be used to close the budget deficit. However, much of the university's money is only restricted by its priorities, and Yudof himself has admitted that the university needs to protect its reserves and help grow the profitable aspects of the university.
Yudof’s protection of the profit-centered units was highlighted when many of the highest earners in the university system were able to remove themselves from his furlough plan. First the people funded out of external grants were exempted, and then the medical faculty, some of whom make over $800,000 a year, were able to fight off any salary reductions. Meanwhile workers making less than $40,000 were having their pay reduced and non-tenured faculty were being laid off. The result of this process is the increased growth of income inequality in a system where already in 2008, 3,600 employees made over $200,000 for a collective pay of $1 billion.
Even with the revelation that many of the top earners are administrators and that there are now more administrators in the UC system than faculty members, many tenured professors have sided with the administration because it is much easier to attack the state for all of the UC’s problems. By blaming the state and the anti-tax Republicans, there is a clear enemy and an easy narrative. Moreover, by placing the onus of responsibility on the state, the university does not have to look at its own internal problems. However, if the faculty continue to buy Yudof’s narrative, there will be no way of fighting the continual increase in administrative costs and the further privatization of the university. This double move of corporatization and administrative growth should be a concern of all faculty members across the United States.
Yudof’s latest gambit is to ask the state, which he knows is facing a $21 billion deficit, to increase the university’s funding by $913 million. Everyone knows that the state cannot provide this money, and so when the state does not meet Yudof’s request, he will feel justified to make another round of fee increases and budget cuts. In this version of the shock doctrine, a fake crisis motivates people to give power to a centralized authority and to privatize a public good, while wages are decreased and profits are kept by a small group of power elites.
It is time for the faculty to stand up and join with the students and the unions to resist. Moreover, the university's lack of shared governance and budget transparency is but a symptom of the national move to strip faculty of any power and to shift control to an administrative class that sees higher education institutions as investment banks dedicated to pleasing the bond raters. Only the faculty can make education the priority at these institutions.
Bob Samuels is president of the University Council - American Federation of Teachers, which represents lecturers and librarians at the University of California. He teaches at UCLA and writes the blog Changing Universities.
William Buckley famously said he’d “rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than by the dons of Harvard.” In my 14 years as president of a leading liberal arts college, I grew weary of overworked jokes that likened leading a faculty to herding cats or kangaroos. Looking back, I recognize in them a bit of bravado masking an awkward misalignment. Faculty are proudly autonomous, defiantly so, independent thinkers who give each other as much trouble as they give the administration when one or another of them raises a head above the herd in a gesture of leadership. Faculty are socialized as individuals, not as members of a group; taking a broader view runs against the grain for many of them, in the ways and for the reasons Hugh Heclo enumerates in his insightful book, On Thinking Institutionally. And yet the principle of “shared governance” requires a faculty capable of effective self-governance in partnership with professional administrators and a voluntary governing board.
The institution I was privileged to lead and others with which I’ve been affiliated have wonderful faculty – exceptionally engaged, responsible, and responsive in virtually every respect. Yet from the day I arrived on campus as a new president, I was schooled in a cultural norm that the better part of valor was to tiptoe around the faculty. It was as though "the faculty" as a whole was a hibernating bear no one dared disturb for fear of being mauled. I could see all the ways in which the faculty as a body – a "constituency" in academic parlance – was being watched, coddled, and handled with enormous investments of energy and studied restraint. Over time, as I became adept at reading the emotional force fields on campus, I realized that this strenuous effort was thinly masking an undercurrent of fear. And this, I have come to learn, is true to one degree or another through much of the academy.
The fear arises out of an intellectual culture that is awash in competition and critique, in picking ideas apart and taking no prisoners. Critical thinking and skepticism are the coins of the realm. But skepticism can devolve to cynicism, and criticism to contempt, an acrid brew of belligerence and disengagement that can poison morale and yield a system of self-governance far better suited to obstruction than construction. This is a pity because it matters, both educationally and strategically.
Educationally, students pay close attention to how the "grown ups" on campus behave. The academy remains arguably one of the last major sectors in American society still making a good-faith effort to both uphold and enact the view that in a healthy democracy we have obligations to one another. This includes the obligation to resolve differences by enabling the majority to form its collective judgment through meaningful discourse in which all relevant positions are fully aired. "A democracy needs citizens who can think for themselves rather than simply deferring to authority, who can reason together about their choices rather than just trading claims and counterclaims," Martha Nussbaum wrote in Cultivating Humanity.
Strategically, faculty governance bodies have pressing work to do in this era of shrinking resources and accelerating global competition. If they once routinely fostered authentic and serious public debate about real educational problems, discussion too often deteriorates, now, into something even less informative than a clash of competing claims, a spectacle more akin to disconnected “serial oratory.” At my own institution, and others I knew well, it was mystifying to see faculty members we revered for their pedagogic virtuosity – faculty who were creating in their private classrooms exquisitely hospitable venues for courageous exploration of controversial ideas – so stuck in old and unsatisfying habits when trying to resolve conflicts in the academic calendar, or come to terms with grade inflation, or revise the curriculum.
These discussions moved painfully slowly and unpredictably. Often a lone, loud voice or a mobilized minority faction would hijack the conversation in the eleventh hour. I couldn’t help but wonder, at these times, whether this would be happening if the faculty as a whole were more vividly experiencing itself weighing evidence and making wise choices on matters of curricular or educational consequence and then feeling bound to one another by their collective decisions.
Many faculty are increasingly conscious of imbalances within their own ranks, frustrations they discuss privately with deans or presidents hoping for a simple solution from on high. Rarely do they come together to explore their mutual accountabilities: to one another, to their departments, to their disciplines, and to students other than those they see directly in their own classes, offices, studios or labs. Some carry a disproportionate load for their institution as a whole, while others seem to ride more or less free. Disparities of this kind seem to be widening.
When one or another faculty member would bring an injustice or a dispute to the administration for adjudication, I often felt tempted to weigh in with what looked like decisiveness. I learned, though, that only the faculty had the power to resolve differences among themselves. The impulse that flows from perceived inequities is to tighten central controls. But that only exacerbates the problem. People who feel under surveillance resist authority, or withdraw, or both, feeding a vicious cycle: more controls, less commitment. Rather than acquiesce in the imposition of more central controls, faculty themselves would do well to shore up their own systems of citizenship, taking account of the increasing complexity of faculty work, while recognizing that the institution’s continued success will require ever greater interdependence.
In some schools, the economic downturn has brought faculty into new relationships with the administration and the trustees on budgetary decision-making, strengthening their roles in shared governance, at least for a time; in others, the reverse has occurred. As financial and competitive pressures continue to bear down on all institutions of higher learning, the incremental changes many have been making to ride out the recession – draining reserve accounts, deferring maintenance, making across-the-board budget reductions, reducing staff, relying more on contingent faculty – are likely to shift more work onto faculty shoulders and erode the quality of their work lives. If budgets have to be trimmed further, it’s hard to imagine finding additional economies without reconsidering the organization of the educational enterprise itself and the assumptions behind it: how students learn, how faculty teach, the nature of the curriculum, how everyone uses time.
I worry that the professoriate may be standing at the threshold of a shake-down as disruptive as was the restructuring of medical work that began in the 1970s when health care costs began to spiral out of control, the process that Paul Starr analyzed with such foresight in The Social Transformation of American Medicine. And I worry that colleges and universities with strong faculty – brilliant scholars, devoted teachers, radical individualists, and stubborn skeptics who treasure autonomy, resist authority, distrust power, and who love their institutions as they have known them – may find it especially difficult to bring faculty together, bring departments together and make timely, wise, informed and realistic choices about a future worth having.
Over the next decade, colleges and universities are likely to need greater flexibility, organizational resilience and openness to new ideas, and, at the same time, stronger internal systems of shared responsibility, accountability, collaboration and communication. They will need to become more fluid learning organizations, better positioned to capitalize on the forces of change, and better able to make and defend potentially divisive choices, while remaining true to the purposes that will ensure continued success.
Faculty will need to be clearer about those purposes and about the essential ingredients of the education they want their students to expect and receive – an integrative education that prepares new generations to take their places in a world of mounting complexity, interdependency, inequality ... urgency. They will need to do a better job of modeling the serious engagement of their own differences that integrative learning clearly implies and that enlightened organizational stewardship absolutely necessitates.
Diana Chapman Walsh
Diana Chapman Walsh served as president of Wellesley College from 1993 to 2007.
I’d like to nominate the term "faculty-driven" as a candidate for disinvestment and elimination.
After serving as a director of composition and as the coordinator of a general education program at universities in the Midwest, I am beginning my second year as department head here at a university in West Texas. At our first all-faculty meeting of the year, it was announced that we are on the verge of two major academic initiatives that will require a substantial commitment of institutional time and energy. The first is a program review process, and the second is a quality enhancement project required by our accreditor.
Both of these efforts are necessary and, I suspect, will result in needed improvements. I have faith in the best practices upon which we will model our efforts. I also believe in the goodwill and good intentions of our academic leadership.
I just wish our administrative team would stop saying these efforts will be "faculty-driven." It’s a term that has little, if any, persuasive power. It may in fact, for many faculty, have the opposite effect. Rather than sweetening the pot, it may just as likely leave a bitter taste.
It's possible academic leaders inside higher ed believe that "faculty-driven" is synonymous with “shared governance” (another term I’d nominate for the trash bin) or "grassroots consensus-building." However, these terms only mask how power actually circulates in academe.
Let me be clear: I’m not opposed to how power functions in colleges and universities. I think the decision-making hierarchy in my university is appropriate and benefits faculty, staff, and students. And it’s quite evident who has authority and who doesn’t. Our operational policies tell the story of power and process quite well, and our organizational chart clearly illustrates the verticality of institutional authority.
I'm only saying that academic leaders should be more careful about how they talk about what we do. Faculty don’t drive processes that come down from accrediting agencies or the administration. They execute them. That’s why a better term is "faculty-executed."
Faculty members are directed to execute program review. Faculty are directed to execute a quality enhancement process. Faculty are directed to develop and assess student learning outcomes. Faculty are directed to appear at convocation and commencement. It may be that faculty don’t like to follow and execute these directives, but that’s really beside the point .
Let me share with you to the last two stanzas of a poem I like very much by William Stafford called “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.”
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk: though we could fool each other, we should consider -- lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give -- yes or no, or maybe -- should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
We may fool each other even when it’s not our intention. So we should take as much care as we can. We should use language that clearly depicts institutional power and its supporting policies and processes. And "faculty-driven" is a smudge.
If faculty drive anything, it’s student learning — the central ritual of any academic enterprise. Certainly, there's many an institutional directive that drive faculty away from that focus. But what drives faculty to distraction even more is language that misses the opportunity to do good work.
My preference is that academic leadership should talk straight about the parade of our mutual life. Leaders should tell faculty what they want faculty to do and, just as importantly, they should tell them why. And tell them often. Not fly-by mission statements and core values on overhead slides. But in public and in person, boots on the ground. Follow me. This way. Here we go.
I would also urge faculty to remind themselves of our larger enterprise more frequently. We can all make the easy case of how overworked we are. But we’re not running backhoes or bouncing along on the back of garbage trucks. We’re lucky enough to work in fields of our own choosing.
From my perspective, program review and enhancement projects offer us the opportunity to make the case for values and valuing, a chance not only to remind ourselves of why we do what we do, but also to remind others — especially those above us in the vertical leap — of our unique and vital contributions to the knowledge pie.
(And we should be beating that drum in our classrooms, too!)
Many faculty think they are undervalued or have no voice in the scheme of things. Why then would we resist a directive to tell our story? Otherwise, the line that threads through all we do may become loose, unravel, or, worse yet, break.
I believe very good and persuasive reasons often exist for why faculty should execute what we are directed to do. But there’s a difference between giving directives and giving directions. The first is a means; the second, an end. But they can be easily confused. And frequently are. When directives become ends in themselves, we lose our way in the dark.
Please take out the directions and read them again.
Laurence Musgrove is a professor and chair of English at Angelo State University, in San Angelo, Texas, where he teaches composition, literature, creative writing, graphic narrative, and visual thinking. His work has previously appeared in Inside Higher Ed, Southern Indiana Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Concho River Review and Journal for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. He blogs at www.theillustratedprofessor.com.
Last Friday, I attended a meeting of progressive faculty and also started reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. In raving about the book to friends, I keep calling it Waiting for the Goon Squad by accident, apparently mixing it up with Waiting for Godot and with my identity as a progressive faculty member always waiting for the goon squad to show up -- the goon squad being that vague and shadowy watching cloud that we fear may out us as real people.
The meeting itself wandered into a conversation about our online identities. Someone mentioned the recent case of the provost candidate at Kennesaw State University who was driven away from the job he had accepted by the local paper in Marietta, Georgia — about four hours’ drive northwest from where we were meeting in Statesboro, Georgia. The candidate didn’t out himself as a Marxist on Facebook; he merely cited a source, and the criticism of blacklisting someone based on a cited scholarly source has been well covered elsewhere. But this surveillance of our scholarship quickly and inevitably descended, in our case, into faculty fears that if we let anything slip about ourselves in a public forum in Georgia or elsewhere, someone might see us for who we really are.
In other faculty meetings and professional gatherings, I’ve heard a sort of competitive edge to the fear-driven conversations about what we post and whom we friend online. We have rules: no students; only students who have graduated; maintain two profiles; keep it utterly neutral. Since I began my career in higher education, I’ve learned that faculty members who survive — like other employees in the corporate world and its wannabe stepchildren — are those who embody a poker-faced restraint. This is why I assumed I wouldn’t last long. My poker face is more of a bingo face. And it’s assumed among faculty in general that anything can and will be used against us in a future Horowitz-driven witch hunt or a future round of budget cuts that accidentally happens to target outspoken faculty members.
This larger theme of fear of the cloud ties in nicely with Egan’s book. The "goon squad" in her book could be time itself, or it could be taken to be the cloud of consumer data and its market-driven aims of manipulation. One of the inadvertent heroes of the book — who ends up a superstar by giving in to the cloud — kept himself pure by remaining completely offline. Egan’s super-smart book may be saying that this idle hope is not the way to safety, or she may be saying something else. Her version of electronic communication is sales- and surveillance-oriented, and she’s got fantastic points.
But my version of the cloud also includes the strange and meandering civic functions the cloud provides. People do still occasionally hook up with political causes and learn about social issues through the Internet. And there are people like me — untenured and naked — who occasionally nevertheless post something about their political thoughts or personal experiences online.
In my own case, I have to admit this is driven by the contrarian streak that made me a memoirist. I like telling things that other people seem to feel are embarrassing. I don’t like secrets — they make me edgy; they make me clench my teeth and get depressed. And most of what I believe and have done is already out there in paper form, so I’m done for no matter what goon squad shows up.
I have never eaten a baby or knocked down an elderly person, but I have several things in my life that are bothersome and that I will not write about. Being "open" does not equate to having no discretion, shame, or concern for other people. I have pretty much the same filter wherever I go, and I like to believe that my online person roughly matches what I would say to you face to face. That’s my goal: to make the two identities match up.
Even on Facebook, I friend lots of people. I post links to articles that interest me. This doesn’t mean that I live a particularly fascinating or racy life, or that I post pictures of myself drinking with my students. That’s an image of someone who doesn’t care about their position as an adult working with young people.
Anyway, I don’t have those pictures to post. And I want to be a good role model. Often, I fail — just like every other adult. But I think being "out there" online is part of being a good role model. I want to suggest an alternative to the cautionary, circumspect, and reactive common faculty response to our own personalities. What if being ourselves online is part of our civic responsibility?
In other words, if we only put the neutral stuff online, our students see us as people who are interested in coffee, walks in the park, and the occasional splurge at a bookstore, and nothing else. Maybe we let slip what music we like, as long as it's not the Dead Kennedys or Ani DiFranco. In that version of our online selves, the "goon squad" of Egan's novel wins. The orientation toward private and consumer concerns is what is left when we strip away anything that might be used against us down the road. Either students see us as cowed and impersonal, or they can’t find us at all online, and they lose an opportunity to see what it’s like to live an adult life as one particular person who happens to care about civic issues.
There are two responses to the fear of online surveillance. One is to manage your data so carefully that when they come for the Marx-reading or Marx-citing, they can’t find you.
And then when they come for the Friere-citing, you’re nowhere to be found. The other response is for everyone to say, "I’m Spartacus," to "like" Spartacus on Facebook if you like him in real life, and to push back against the tactic of combing someone’s online identity to search for the objectionable material by being a bit more human online. If we try to compete against each other in a race to the bottom, the winners are those that succeed in being completely impersonal and private and apolitical, focusing on their own private square of safety (with a window) as the world goes to hell.
As wild as your personal beliefs are, we really only have one public sphere, and the Internet is part of it. Engaging in public conversation does mean ultimately that you will be searchable, and that’s important, because public conversations always involve risk, but these small risks are what change the world and what support other people to take larger risks and be themselves.