When Faculty Members Look Down on Others

April 22, 2009

Dear Survival Guide:

I’m one of those long-term employees from the underbelly of my college: I have an advanced degree, am well known externally for my contributions, but I am not a faculty member. Most of the time, I love my job and feel valued and appreciated for what I bring to the table. The fly in the ointment is some outspoken faculty members, very active in campus politics so omnipresent in my life, who treat me like a servant or a child to be seen and not heard. One objected when I spoke at a meeting, and talks over me as if I’m not there. He suggested that, as staff, I should not sit at the table with a committee I’ve worked with for years, but instead should sit in a chair behind the table to “take my notes, or whatever.” Another isn’t as obnoxious or obviously rude, but constantly goes directly to my boss about decisions in my area. I suppose I should count my blessings: they’re worse to a colleague who didn’t get tenure and moved into an administrative position in our unit. Is there anything I can do to get the respect I have earned? It’s my university, too.

Dear Seething,

Some people are just rude, or boors. Others are insecure and put down those around them in order to raise themselves up and validate their own status. In universities, you see individuals at the top of their own fields who over-extrapolate their expertise and feel qualified to make judgments without study, evidently based on the assumption that other areas are less complex than their own, especially those in the administrative realm. There are people who occupy the center of their universe and are oblivious to their effect on others; they have, shall we say, robust self-esteem, sometimes verging on the delusional. These categories overlap, and before slotting someone into one of them, it’s worth double-checking your own conduct to assure that you’ve set and stay within professional boundaries and that you are observing the appropriate courtesies.

One pitfall of our American workplace is our deceptive informality: We’re all on a friendly first-name basis, yet we’re working, not socializing. Whether we like it or not, there are status differentials in our setting. It’s worth reflecting privately whether you’ve overstepped the invisible-but-still-present bounds of your role. For the long-term health of your career, it pays to be slightly more formal and correct than is required, the more so when you are part of the infrastructure, or as you’ve put it, the underbelly of the college.

Remember that you do not have to like or even respect those with whom you work. What we all must do is to behave with civility, cordiality and professionalism to all those with whom we interact. In higher education, where our goal is to teach and to assist students with their development into professionals, it is part of our mission to model how grown-ups in the workplace interact.

The problem you’re describing has myriad presentations in academe. There are the individual manifestations you’re encountering, and there are what my exemplar in academic administration used to call “insecure units.” Those are the groups (whether a department, division, college, school, program, institute, center, or whatever formal label it carries) that are always anxiously looking over their shoulders to see what others think of them, that scrabble for what they perceive to be status, without ever actually assessing quality for their mission on their own terms. The group culture somehow lacks the confidence to set standards or take on the challenge of assessing contributions according to those metrics; instead, they always want to know what someone else thinks and they adopt that.

Groups that constantly seek external validators of status have a hard time “growing their own,” for exactly these reasons. They are only comfortable with hiring people that a status-holder wants; by the time their rising stars are externally validated, it can be too late to retain them. This is a close relative of the “no man is a hero at home” syndrome and why so many spend money on external consultants to tell them what people within already know: analyses only have value when presented by the “important” from “away.”

And what about your dilemma, you ask? Why all this discursion away from your problem? To help you set the behavior in a larger context. The key to lowering your frustration, not to mention your blood pressure, is to gain some personal distance from it.

Since you say that you love your job, I’m going to assume that your goal is to do the best you can while gaining personal fulfillment. Even if you hate your job, the more equanimity you can achieve in facing the aggravations, the better off you’ll be and the higher the quality of your everyday life. To start, try the “fake it until you can make it” approach. If it’s any consolation, there’s research that supports the concept: just as smiling will make you more cheerful, acting confident and unhurt will help you get there.

The primary rule is that what you get to change is you, not the other person. Lessening the sting requires both changing how you perceive the situation (seeing a larger context) and changing how you react. This admittedly is a chicken and egg problem: how do you change how you react when it feels so bad in the moment? What if your instinct tells you that the intention behind the conduct that is painful to you is malicious and may escalate if the low-level insults don’t seem to be hitting home? Try to hear the next bit in a warm and caring tone of voice: it doesn’t really matter what motivates the conduct, the only thing you get to change is you.

The solution grows out of the fundamental truth expressed by James L. Brooks in the movie Broadcast News: “wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?”

Cultivate compassion for how horrible it must feel to have the need to put others down all the time. Letting the insults roll off without shrinking or cringing will raise you in the esteem of those who are present, and help them regroup to respond in your support. Those of good will who witness the kind of attacks you write about are likely themselves trying to figure out what to do. Public nastiness can leave people paralyzed and embarrassed—as well as privately worried about becoming the next target. Step back and re-frame your arguments and positions so they have a more scholarly look and feel: you are basing your decisions on information and data, so marshal them in ways that are meaningful to the professors on those committees. Do not take for granted that just because you are good at what you do, all others should accept your opinions and recommendations without questions, even if it feels like your track record means they should. In the end of the day, the more crisp and professional you are, better you will look and the pettier they will.

Think yourself into these situations and practice being non-reactive. Teach yourself to respond kindly, or not at all, with a smile. Design, in advance, some low-key, easy-going, comments to have on hand to respond, and practice the body language that conveys “there he goes again” while looking ruefully amused. Rehearse your responses in advance so they’ll be accessible when the need arises.

So armed, return to your work thinking about the appreciation shown by those who matter; they will think even more highly of you for cultivating a professional, pleasant demeanor, even when you are under withering fire.

Questions for this column are welcome. Send e-mail to:ck.gunsalus@insidehighered.com

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