• College Ready Writing

    A blog about education, higher ed, teaching, and trying to re-imagine how we provide education.


No A-hole Rule

Does higher education's structure help to foster a culture of, well, a-holes?

October 6, 2013

In my work with the President’s Leadership Academy, I have had to read a number of leadership books. The most recent book is The No Asshole Rule by Robert I. Sutton a PhD in Organizational Psychology and a professor at Stanford. One of the first anecdotes in the book involves a discussion between academics in which they express their gratitude (and surprise) that their academic unit is, remarkable, ass-hole free. This is actually a common theme among the leadership books we have been asked to read: that academics are hard to work with, and often are what the book would consider, ass-holes.

On the one hand, of course I resent the perpetuation of the common stereotype of academics-as-ass-holes who are impossible to work with; these books are all targeted towards an audience of business leaders, people who have or hope to have influence on politics and who also make decisions about hiring. That they think all academics are ass-holes doesn’t bode well for our future. (Also, I wonder what the message that the steering committee is trying to send to us, the academics, who are reading these books).

But, on the other hand, well, they all have a point. Sutton in particular in his book outlines the conditions that allow ass-holes in the workplace to thrive, and it describes academia perfectly: highly stratified positions that are rigidly enforced, massive pay disparities across different units and rank, a culture of fear and retribution, etc, etc, etc. He emphasized that we can learn a lot about a person’s character by how they treat those “below” them, and I remembered all the times I’ve seen the administrative assistants disrespected by professors. And, he emphasizes, that the actions do not have to be overt, that simply actively ignoring or avoiding (what would now be referred to as microaggressions) are just as pernicious; think of all of the ignored or dismissed or disregarded adjuncts who toil away in silence.

There is some good news, thankfully, and it comes down to leadership; if the leaders of the organization or unit set the tone that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated (and they actively don’t engage in that behavior themselves), then it can be eliminated, or at least mitigated. And I have seen chairs and deans who have worked hard to keep the ass-holes at bay, but unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much desire at the upper-level positions to set the right tone for everyone else; my heart broke at Duquesne's “official response” to the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko. Here there was a real opportunity to set a tone of reconciliation, compassion, and empathy, rather than confrontational and dismissive.

(And if you aren’t using adjuncts for the cost-savings, what in the heck are you using them for?)

This kind of behavior also thrives online, in the comments here and elsewhere, as well as on social media. I think it’s a reflection, honestly, of just how poisonous many of our work environments have become, that we take it out on those who are in lesser positions than ourselves, or that we need to vent in negative ways online, anonymously and hurtfully. But I have also found wonderful support online, here and on Twitter, from people who aren’t ass holes at all, people who want to create a new space for learning and collegiality, if only they could get jobs and positions in which to initiate that change.

Unfortunately, the books points out that ass-holes tend to attract and hire more ass-holes. Maybe I am just too nice for academia. 


Back to Top