I attended a group dinner this May to say goodbye to five faculty members who are leaving the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Four of them are among my closest friends, people with whom my partner and I have maintained professional relationships and socialized with regularly for years.
Of course faculty members lose friends to outside offers, retirement departures, or negative tenure decisions all the time. Sometimes we are able to sustain those relationships at a distance. Inevitably, students we care about leave town every year. And friends die or grow apart. We may not like it when some of these things happen, but, like others throughout academe, we attend these farewell dinners and adjust.
This dinner was different. Our friends this time were leaving under duress. Two took very early retirement. Two took outside offers. They all cited the same reason. They could no longer tolerate working under irrational and malicious administrators. After years of faculty protests being ignored, they were seeking the only relief available to them: getting out of town by any means possible.
For most faculty members, the impossible administrator is usually a department head. I always advise colleagues confronted with an incompetent or destructive head to bide their time. Do not protest too early. Let frustration build to mass discontent. It usually takes three years. Once a dean is confronted by a faculty rebellion against a chair, he or she will feel sufficient political cover to act. Even a dean cannot hold the ground against a campus tsunami.
This time, however, it was not a department head who was the problem. The head in question feels equally beleaguered. The sources of frustration were administrators further up the ladder. One was irrationally and incompetently destructive. One was consistently dishonest. And two were using their administrative positions to carry out personal vendettas. Complaints had been made, and ignored. There was no recourse, no mechanism through which to seek justice. The collective response to their departure interviews: "You’re leaving. You’d say anything." One of these friends who is known to be extremely judicious said this at the dinner about the administrators in question: "They’re rotten to the core."
That is not what he would say about every failed administrator. The University of Illinois just lost a president to a forced resignation.  He foolishly squandered his good will and pretty thoroughly alienated the faculty in the system and finally even the Board of Trustees who hired him, but I certainly never considered him a monster. But universities do have monsters in high places. At a local American Association of University Professors chapter meeting this month it was acknowledged that our failed president was hardly the most wantonly destructive administrator. Yet the faculty members who gave formal presentations
pronounced shared governance alive and well on campus, and advocated greater collegiality — rather than structural change -- as the way to strengthen and maintain cooperative bonds among faculty, administrators, and the board. How many careers have to be damaged or ended by rogue administrators before faculty members will admit broader reforms are needed?
Toward the administrators who were an invisible presence at our dinner, faculty discontent has a long history. But nothing comes of it. The university administration’s daily functioning is grounded in both line authority and line loyalty along the administrative chain of command. Administrators will not challenge that protocol unless they feel they have no choice. With administrators who hand out rewards to select faculty, universal rebellion rarely coalesces, though in some of the examples I am referencing it has come pretty close.
Can anything be done? Under collective bargaining faculty usually have stronger grievance procedures and thus access to procedures not in the hands of senior administrators complicit in misdeeds throughout the chain of command. But nothing would prevent a campus like my own from instituting good grievance procedures even without collective bargaining, nothing, that is, except those faculty members and administrators who benefit from and prefer the status quo. Which means it will not happen without collective bargaining and unless faculty members take a cold collective look at conditions campuswide.
Meanwhile, my friends are leaving. There was no component of sweetness for most of us at the dinner. Sorrow dominated. Along with the sense that those of us remaining on campus are serving on poisoned ground. Unchecked administrative abuses undercut morale decisively and convince faculty members it is a mistake to think of themselves as members of a community.
Cary Nelson is national president of the American Association of University Professors.