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Social Capital in Academia
January 8, 2012 - 7:42pm

The advent season invariably leads me to engage in a self-reflection on whether (and to what degree) I have been naughty or nice. Oftentimes, I am very confident I have done more good deeds than bad, mainly because I have little occasion to potentially do ill to somebody. As long as I did things on my own (as a professor, researcher and writer), my actions bear little direct consequence to others. I would like to think I have a modest amount of social capital after being in the academic profession for 20 odd years, which I could bank on in case I veer towards the naughty territory.

But my social capital account has seen some tectonic movements in the past year. On the credit side, I would like to think of points gained from the many social events I pursued in line with my being Division chair: arranging a memorial for a retired faculty member who passed on; celebrating the Deanship and the Scientist award given to colleagues; welcoming a colleague who returned from a leave of absence; attending a funeral for a parent of a faculty member; hosting student events such as the Best Undergraduate Research award and a graduation reception; and throwing several parties at our house marking the start and end of the school year. A big plus also came from my unerring attendance to University events: graduation, opening ceremonies, alumni homecoming, foundation day celebrations, lantern parade, etc. Where I use to “disappear” from the University social scene to do research field work, or attend a conference or meeting, I now find my schedule sufficiently “freed” to make room for exponentially-expanding social obligations attached to the chairmanship.

On the debit side of my social capital ledger are losses due to the bitter struggle against a faculty member who wanted concessions pertaining to faculty loading (she eventually resigned); junior faculty members who now feel “small” because I made public their student evaluation ratings; a falling out with a colleague from a collaborative project whose leadership style and decisions I strongly contested (she no longer talks to me); and a foreign colleague whose proposals for a co-authored journal article piece I turned down without saying so (he was very upset because I didn’t answer his emails).

I would like to think I have also added on to my social capital after having introduced some worthy managerial innovations. The Division yahoo group is buzzing with exchanges of information, queries, responses, well-wishes and even debates. I have collected each of my faculty members’ mobile phone numbers for collective text message sending. Weekdays, weekends, nights and early morning (I am up at 5am doing “office” stuff on my computer); I engage my faculty and staff. I am told when any of them is sick, on errand somewhere, traveling or in some kind of trouble. I doggedly tracked down and followed personnel, mundane (e.g. updating the faculty contact list) or quixotic (seeking “corrective” promotion, something NOT previously done in the University’s history) concerns. I introduced transparency in ALL of the Division’s transactions from conference attendance grant applications to faculty loading. I feel I have established sufficient trust that I can confidently expect timely and substantive output from faculty members when I ask them to. Alas, the yahoo group medium also sank some of my social capital. A yahoo group for a regional project I was involved in yielded less than satisfactory outcome: my natural inquisitiveness and demands for transparency were seen as un-collegial and high-handed. Several members simply tuned out.  I don’t expect them to come rallying in support of future proposals from me here on.  My virtual musings at University of Venus, which keyed in academic issues to on-the-ground realities of my factual University, equally earned me admiration and admonition. Two former bosses told me my writing was too spicy and bear little circumspection but the current one says he enjoys reading them. At least I can expect some accountability from here on (lest they want to get written about!).

Political Scientists have argued that social interconnectedness and its premise of generalized reciprocity are linked to positive collective human endeavors. Whether addressing poverty or reducing crime, things get done better where social capital is present. In the academe, one must be ready to earn or burn it accordingly. There is always the next year to start all over again.



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