Challenging the Obstructionists
I'm a perpetrator!
Like everyone in higher education, where the politics are bloodier because the stakes are so much smaller (variously attributed to Woodrow Wilson and Henry Kissinger), I've found myself working in colleges and departments alongside devout obstructionists, academic colleagues deeply resistant to change (any change), who stifle leaders, douse optimism, and undermine progress.
Generally, they're senior colleagues who have either chosen to resist or learned not to trust new colleagues who enter the scene with ambitions for change. To begin with, their obstructionism is almost always more effective than their ambitious colleagues' proaction because they are better organized: we don’t need to study community organizing to know that it's easier to organize against something than it is to organize for something!
Their tactics include:
- "it can't be done": stopping meetings with arcane rules they can't produce, that predate the memories of everyone present, and that no one dares challenge for fear of looking uninformed;
- the loud and persistent "no": scaring untenured faculty by the adamance of their negativity and challenging the confidence of their chronological peers to take them on once they've staked out their positions;
- and storytelling aimed at portraying the advocates for change as turncoats who don't respect the good work of the faculty.
Fundamentally, their strategy is to churn up a climate of disaffection and anxiety aimed at establishing themselves as the sympathetic figures protecting faculty and the status quo.
And I'm a perpetrator because -- like so many of us who gather to chat at the coffee shop, the bar or the grocery store -- I churn the climate with delicious my-god-did-you-hear-abouts in which I recount the bad behaviors, give incidents of obstruction more and longer life, encourage colleagues who didn't know (and who, therefore, didn't feel bad) to now know and feel bad about what was said or done, and hope-upon-hope that I can invoke a bit of sympathy to make me feel a bit better about the blow I suffered in my support for good change and stronger as I gird for the next blow. I'm a perpetrator because, when I do this, I spread the odious climate of the resisters and become an unwitting accomplice of their bullying style.
Stay with me as I change the metaphor to one that every classroom teacher will recognize. Every one of us who has taught has walked into a new classroom, looked out over the sea of new students, found most looking eager and ready to learn, anxious to connect; and found one, two or three students propped in the corners or in the very back row, jeering, sleeping, distracted or even obnoxiously taunting us and their peers to stop doing what we're doing and pay attention to them.
Inexperienced teachers will become consumed by the distracters and all but ignore the large plurality of eager students (perhaps trying to prove to themselves that they can conquer the confrontational challenge). The price of this inexperience is the loss of precious instructional opportunities with the 29, 28 or 27 students who are eager to move to the next level ... and, if protracted, the loss of those learners in that class.
(This metaphor brings to light an added complexity: arguably, these distracters deserve our sympathy and attention as well. A complexity of conditions may bring them to these behaviors. But, while we may not like the behaviors -- we may not even like the people -- they are students [or colleagues] whose positions demand that we find the time and seek the skills to understand and help engage them with their peers.)
How do we stop being unwitting accomplices of obstructive behavior? There are at least four things that concerned colleagues and change agent leaders can consider and do to overcome the obstructive behavior and, perhaps, reduce its effects:
1. Personalities play a big role in the politics of higher education, of course. But let’s never confuse idiosyncratic personalities with obstructionism: gruff pessimism (for example) is not the same as obstructionism. In fact, the informed input of a gruff pessimist may add important contrarian value to the conversation or final decision.
2. We're ethically obliged to authentically try to understand the logic and motives of colleagues who resist before we label them obstructionists. In the same way that sunlight is the best disinfectant, openly and inclusively examining controversial issues and decisions is an opportunity -- and a litmus test -- for airing objective and fact-based differences. If it doesn't -- or won't -- come out in open and inclusive conversations, then it probably isn't objective or fact-based.
3. The logic and economics of both learning and change compel us, first, to invest in securing and optimizing those who come predisposed to participate in it; supporting, encouraging, incentivizing and rewarding those who come ready to explore and to invest energies in learning and change. Progress happens when we move forward; that’s what deserves our attention, more so than simply removing (or complaining about) hurdles. By focusing on those colleagues who are predisposed to moving forward we either ignore and plow past whatever hurdles exist, or build allies whose investment in -- and mounting commitment to -- progress engages them in either marginalizing or removing obstructions.
4. Neither teaching and learning nor change are events; they're processes. Protracted, challenging and expensive processes. When someone chooses to become an obstructionist, usually it's a long-term commitment (perhaps lasting up to and beyond retirement). Concerned colleagues and change agents need to adopt a similarly distant horizon toward which they navigate their collegial efforts. When our frame of reference is small (like this afternoon's meeting, a hallway conversation, or a committee decision), small hurdles, problems and confrontations loom unreasonably large. When our sense of temporal context is longer (as in a two-year program curriculum, a three-year strategic plan, or a five-year promotion and tenure decision), then the same hurdles become manageable, like squalls that buffet us around while we right our ship to navigate towards that point we're aiming to reach on the horizon.
Higher education is under attack from just about every direction. Ironically, that which ought to liberate our creativity, to challenge us to find our better angels, may bring out the very worst in some of our colleagues. So let's be clear: in the long term the worst we can experience is never perpetrated by bad people who do bad things. The worst occurs when good people stand by and do nothing. The times call for each and every concerned colleague, those of us who are ambitious and see changes that need to be made, to step forward, work to understand, lead, persevere, and be strong.
Anonymous has experience as a dean at four universities during a 30-year career and is author of two books and several dozen articles on education and public leadership.