Public criticism of higher education continues to gather momentum; the primary issues are cost, quality and political bias. The objective evidence regarding high and rising cost is compelling and the body of evidence suggesting a secular decline in quality is also growing.
The political bias issue is more controversial, although it is nonetheless important. Bias is an existential threat to higher education’s central mission (scholarship and instruction). If society cannot trust the academy to produce nonpartisan scholarship and instruction, why should it support higher education? Financial support is always dependent on the public's perception with respect to our value added. There is no escaping that rude fact. In an era of compromised economic prospects and rising global competition, these are not issues that can be ignored without consequence.
In our contacts with students, we learn to read their responses to questions about performance; you either learn this or you will be manipulated by students. When I ask students about their performance, there are some responses that always make me suspicious; an aggressively defensive or indignant response, for example, suggests the student is in denial or is hiding something. If the student admits deficiencies, recognizes an absence of effort or a problem comprehending, this is a good indicator of sincerity. If the student follows through with remedial action, the results generally improve.
Is the academy’s collective response to questions about cost, quality, and bias constructive? Do we appear willing to objectively consider the issues and to reform where necessary?
Based on our actual record, one could reasonably conclude that the academy is not “cursed with self-awareness.” We are uncomfortable with introspection and actively discourage inconvenient questions. When teaching loads or class sizes are discussed, faculty members studiously avoid the cost question, preferring to focus on how reduced loads and smaller classes will improve quality. No attempt is made to balance the very real higher costs with the intangible improvements in quality. Worse still, we make no effort to study the outcome after teaching loads or class sizes are reduced; did we really improve quality? It is hard to escape the conclusion that we really do not want to know the answer to that question.
There is cause for hope, however; some insiders are asking the right questions. Unfortunately, these brave souls are at risk of being shouted down by those who believe all the issues are either bogus or a political agenda. For example, a prominent University of Virginia social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, is asking very important questions about his discipline. He documents the absence of conservatives in his profession and explores what that absence means for the quality of research and the professions’ credibility with the general public, where conservatives out number liberals two to one. In the end, he calls for a “post-partisan social psychology” and affirmative action for conservatives in social psychology.
By making this stand, Haidt is taking a professional risk for the sake of improving both research and teaching. Since he is a committed liberal and is going outside his own comfort zone to take on this politically incorrect topic, he is to be respected.
According to Haidt, the damage done to the social psychology profession is through the creation of a “tribal moral community” that leads its members to be “blind to any ideas or findings that threaten our sacred values.” He also notes that tribal moral communities create inhospitable environments for those who do not share the tribe’s sacred values. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider how at odds that is with the values expressed by scholars and diversity advocates alike. It also explains why campus diversity programs rarely concern themselves with intellectual diversity; the people who control those programs are committed members of the tribal moral community who believe alternative intellectual perspectives have little diversity value.
In order to illustrate why tribal moral communities obstruct research, Haidt revisits the firing of Larry Summers as Harvard’s president. During an academic conference on the chronic problem of female underrepresentation among math and science faculty at the elite research universities, Larry Summers suggested the disparity might be explained by the greater variance in male IQ scores than in female IQ scores. Summers’ point is that the higher variance means there are more men in the upper tail of the distribution than there are women (it also means there are more men in the lower tail of the distribution). Despite the fact that this hypothesis needs to be tested, the event launched the movement that led to his firing. Haidt says social psychologists should be most “outraged by the outrage” over Summers’ comment and very supportive of testing the hypothesis.
Haidt’s work has significant implications for academic culture and is a defining moment for all of higher education. It comes from a scholar in the right discipline to explore the inherent conflict between tribal moral communities and higher education’s mission: scholarship, and teaching. Tribal moral communities obstruct research and they easily turn education into indoctrination. Furthermore, they explain why higher education stubbornly refuses to reform.
The well-established tribal moral communities on campus create very high costs, both in the literal and figurative sense. We spend insufficient time and effort asking difficult questions about cost, quality and bias. When these questions are raised, some people become very angry and indignant, even enraged that a member of the campus community could suggest there might be a problem. Anger and indignation are aggressive defenses; they suggest the angry person cannot support his or her position with evidence or carefully reasoned argument; it is an unambiguous red flag. Anger, indignation and character attacks are used to enforce adherence to “sacred values” and for that reason they have no place in a community of scholars.
We are very gifted in the art of analyzing the behavior and motivations of other groups and institutions. Furthermore, we are intensely trained in the tools used to conduct complex inquiry; yet, we rarely bring those tools to bear on our own activities. As a consequence, our costs grow out of control, quality declines, and we become progressively more defensive. These are not behavioral modes with survival value in a technocratic society.
An important part of the academy’s “sacred value” set is the conviction that academy members are not subject to the same failings that plague the rest of humanity. It is a belief in “academic exceptionalism,” if you will. Members of the academy who served elsewhere in society, such as the military, government, and/or corporations, know this is simply not true; people are basically the same wherever they serve. The academic exceptionalism assumption leads to insufficient protection against the pursuit of self-interest, which causes the pervasive principal/agent problem.
The principal/agent problem always means that costs are higher than necessary. It also means some people do not carry their share of the load. Ironically, the worst example of economic exploitation in our capitalist economy occurs in higher education (a decidedly non-capitalist institution), where adjunct faculty members are employed at will, carry a disproportionate teaching load, are paid very little, and have few benefits; they are truly the modern “reserve army of the underemployed.” This is why “accountability” is a legitimate public concern.
Someone totally unfamiliar with our academic culture would assume that a “community of scholars” pays close attention to the quality of its intellectual climate. They would be surprised to learn that that subject is taboo. Try raising this issue on your campus. Make a careful intellectual argument for a post-partisan university. Explain how an ideology free zone is most conducive to controlling bias in research and teaching, or how it teaches true critical thinking skills, rather than the sophomoric notion that “critical thinking” means saying harsh things about other people’s character and motivation.
Fearless and totally honest introspection leads to self-improvement and, after all, self-improvement is why we committed ourselves to a lifetime of study. Imagine what kind of working environment you would find in a post-partisan university.
Robert Martin is emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College and author of The College Cost Disease: Higher Cost and Lower Quality (Edward Elgar, Ltd, 2011).
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.
In response to the scandal surrounding the men's lacrosse team, Duke president Richard Brodhead has initiated a "conversation on campus culture." The first installment provided little insight. To Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American Studies, recent events showed that "we need an innovative and brave curriculum that will allow our students to engage one another in a progressive manner." It's worth remembering that only two years ago at Neal's institution, a department chairman jokingly explained the faculty's ideological imbalance by noting, "If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire." It seems rather unlikely that Duke's curriculum lacks a sufficiently "progressive" nature.
Indeed, far from needing a more "progressive" campus culture, the lacrosse scandal suggests that a considerable portion of the Duke faculty and student body need to reread the Constitution and consider the accused -- regardless of their group identity -- innocent until proven guilty. Moreover, if, as Duke officials have claimed, Brodhead seriously desires to use this event as a "learning opportunity," he needs to explore why voices among the faculty urging local authorities to respect the due process rights of Duke's students seemed so overpowered by professors exhibiting a rush to judgment.
In early April, prior to his peculiar commentary on campus culture, Professor Neal joined 87 other Duke professors in signing a public statement about the scandal. Three academic departments and 13 of the university'ss academic programs also endorsed the statement, which was placed as an advertisement in the student newspaper, The Duke Chronicle, and is currently hosted on the Web site of Duke's African and African-American Studies program. That 88 faculty members -- much less entire departments -- would have signed on to such a document suggests that whatever plagues Duke's campus culture goes beyond the lacrosse team's conduct and the administration's insufficient oversight of its athletic department.
Few would deny that several players on Duke's lacrosse team have behaved repulsively. Two team captains hired exotic dancers, supplied alcohol to underage team members, and concluded a public argument with one of the dancers with racial epithets. In response, Brodhead appropriately cancelled the team's season and demanded the coach's resignation. Yet the faculty members' statement ignored Brodhead's actions, and instead contributed to the feeding frenzy in the weeks before the district attorney's decision to indict two players on the team.
The 88 signatories affirmed that they were "listening" to a select group of students troubled by sexism and racism at Duke. Yet 8 of the 11 quotes supplied from students to whom these professors had been talking, 8 contained no attribution -- of any sort, even to the extent of claiming to come from anonymous Duke students. Nonetheless, according to the faculty members, "The disaster didn't begin on March 13th and won't end with what the police say or the court decides." It's hard to imagine that college professors could openly dismiss how the ultimate legal judgment would shape this case's legacy. Such sentiments perhaps explain why no member of the Duke Law School faculty signed the letter.
More disturbingly, the group of 88 committed themselves to "turning up the volume." They told campus protesters, "Thank you for not waiting and for making yourselves heard." These demonstrators needed no encouragement: They were already vocal, and had already judged the lacrosse players were guilty. One student group produced a "wanted" poster containing photographs of 43 of the 46 white lacrosse players. At an event outside a house rented by several lacrosse team members, organized by a visiting instructor in English Department, protesters held signs reading, "It's Sunday morning, time to confess." They demanded that the university force the players to testify or dismiss them from school.
The public silence of most Duke professors allowed the group of 88 to become, in essence, the voice of the faculty. In a local climate that has featured an appointed district attorney whose behavior, at the very least, has been erratic, the Duke faculty might have forcefully advocated respecting the due process rights of all concerned. After all, fair play and procedural integrity are supposed to be cardinal principles of the academy. In no way would such a position have endorsed the players' claim to innocence: Due process exists because the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition has determined it elemental to achieving the truth. But such process-based arguments have remained in short supply from the Duke faculty. Instead, the group of 88 celebrated "turning up the volume" and proclaimed that legal findings would not deter their campaign for justice.
When faced with outside criticism -- about, for example, a professor who has plagiarized or engaged in some other form of professional misconduct, or in recent high-profile controversies like those involving Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado -- academics regularly condemn pressure for quick resolutions and celebrate their respect for addressing matters through time-tested procedures. Such an approach, as we have frequently heard since the 9/11 attacks, is essential to prevent a revival of McCarthyism on college campuses.
Yet for unapologetically urging expulsion on the basis of group membership and unproven allegations, few professors have more clearly demonstrated a McCarthyite spirit better than another signatory to of the faculty statement, Houston Baker, a professor of English and Afro-American Studies. Lamenting the "college and university blind-eying of male athletes, veritably given license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech, and feel proud of themselves in the bargain," Baker issued a public letter denouncing the "abhorrent sexual assault, verbal racial violence, and drunken white male privilege loosed amongst us." To act against "violent, white, male, athletic privilege," he urged the "immediate dismissals" of "the team itself and its players."
Duke Provost Peter Lange correctly termed Baker's diatribe "a form of prejudice," the "act of prejudgment: to presume that one knows something 'must' have been done by or done to someone because of his or her race, religion or other characteristic." It's hard to escape the conclusion that, for Baker and many others who signed the faculty statement, the race, class, and gender of the men's lacrosse team produced a guilty-until-proven-innocent mentality.
Baker's attacks on athletics added a fourth component to the traditional race/class/gender trinity. It's an open secret that at many academically prestigious schools, some faculty factions desire diminishing or eliminating intercollegiate athletics, usually by claiming that athletes are lazy students, receive special treatment, or drive down the institution's intellectual quality. In fact, with the exception of the two revenue-producing sports (men's basketball and football), the reverse is more often true at colleges like Duke, Vanderbilt, Stanford, or the Ivy League institutions.
I admit to a bias on this score: My sister was a three-year starter at point guard for the Columbia University women's basketball team. Seeing how hard she worked to remain a dean's list student and fulfill her athletic responsibilities gave me a first-hand respect for the challenges facing varsity athletes at academically rigorous institutions. In addition to the responsibilities sustained by most students (challenging course loads, extracurricular activities, often campus jobs), athletes in non-revenue producing sports have physically demanding practice schedules, in-season road trips, and commitments to spend time with alumni or recruits. They play before small crowds, and envision no professional careers. It's distressing to see that many in the academy share Baker's prejudices, and view participation in college athletics as a negative.
With the most vocal elements among Duke's faculty using the lacrosse case to forward preconceived ideological and pedagogical agendas, it has been left to undergraduates to question some of the district attorney's unusual actions -- such as conducting a photo lineup that included only players on the team, sending police to a Duke dormitory in an attempt to interrogate the players outside the presence of their lawyers, and securing indictments before searching the players' dorm rooms, receiving results of a second DNA test, or investigating which players had documented alibis. In the words of a recent Newsweekarticle, the lawyer for one indicted player, Reade Seligmann, produced multiple sources of "evidence that would seem to indicate it was virtually impossible that Seligmann committed the crime." To date, the 88 faculty members who claimed to be "listening" to Duke students have given no indication of listening to those undergraduates concerned about the local authorities' unusual interpretation of the spirit of due process. Nor, apparently, do the faculty signatories seem to hear what The Duke Chronicleeditorial termed the "several thousand others of us" students who disagreed that "Duke breeds cultures of hate, racism, sexism and other forms of backward thinking."
The Raleigh News and Observer recently editorialized, "Duke faculty members, many of them from the '60s and '70s generations that pushed college administrators to ease their controlling ways, now are urging the university to require greater social as well as scholastic discipline from students. Duke professors, in fact, are offering to help draft new behavior codes for the school. With years of experience and academic success to their credit, faculty members ought to be listened to." If the group of 88's statement is any guide, this advice is dubious. Even so, Brodhead has named two signatories of the faculty group to the newly formed "campus culture" committee. Given their own record, it seems unlikely that their committee will explore why Duke's campus culture featured its most outspoken faculty faction rushing to judgment rather than seeking to uphold the due process rights of their own institution's students.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Consider this scenario: You are now the head of a large unit in which you have been a faculty member for many years. Until you became head, you were not fully aware of the problems with one of your colleagues, Professor Choler. Now you feel besieged by complaints from staff members about his treatment of them.
You remember, over the years, having received Choler's periodic e-mail messages -- sent to the whole department -- complaining about one matter or another, but since most of them didn't affect you directly, you paid little attention. You also knew that Choler could be unpleasant at faculty meetings, but he didn't attend very often, and most of his complaints were ruled out of order.
Now both the messages and the conduct have become your business. In his typical e-mail message, Choler describes a problem, personalizes the fault to a single individual, and recommends a solution that usually involves humiliation, if not discipline, for that person. The people he targets (or, in some cases, their union representatives) are the ones complaining to you and demanding that you take action. In addition, a few faculty members have asked you to "get this e-mail thing under control". At meetings Choler uses the same general tactic, usually going after a particular person with strong language and in a loud voice. This makes some people so uncomfortable that they will not attend a meeting if they see him in the room.
There is no evidence in the files that anyone has ever spoken to Professor Choler about his e-mail tirades or his conduct in meetings.
What do you do?
Some difficult people are merely minor irritants: Others learn to avoid them as much as possible, and the overall working environment is not badly compromised. But a person who targets others, makes threats (direct or indirect), insists on his or her own way all the time, or has such a hair-trigger temper that colleagues walk on eggshells to avoid setting it off, can paralyze a department. In the worst cases, this conduct can create massive dysfunction as the department finds itself unable to hold meetings, make hiring decisions, recruit new members, or retain valued ones. When I first got involved in helping department heads cope with such people, my colleagues and I used concepts and approaches we gleaned from studies of bullies.
The bullies I have encountered in the academic environment come in many forms, from those who present themselves as victims, all the way to classic aggressors who rely on physical intimidation. In academe and other settings populated by "knowledge workers," one often encounters other kinds of bullies as well, including "memo bullies" (who send regular missives to a long mailing list) and "insult bullies" (destructive verbal aggressors).
Whatever their approaches, bullies are people who are willing to cross the boundaries of civilized behavior that inhibit others. They value the rewards brought by aggression and generally lack guilt, believing their victims provoked the attacks and deserve the consequences. Their behavior prompts others to avoid them, which means that, in the workplace, bullies are likely to become effectively unsupervised. I've seen secretaries, faculty members, and businesspeople who were so unpleasant to deal with that they were neither given the same duties as others in their environment nor held accountable for the duties they did hold.
Aggressor bullies fit the usual idea of a bully: They threaten to beat you up if you don't give them your lunch money. Victim bullies, in contrast, demand your lunch money because of some harm they claim you've done to them.
While many workplaces have bullies, institutions of higher education may be especially vulnerable to them because of some of the distinctive characteristics of academe. First, bullies flourish in the decentralized structure of universities: the isolation of so many microclimates, from laboratories to small departments, creates many opportunities for a bully to run roughshod over colleagues. Then too, the bullies of academe typically manipulate the concepts of academic freedom and collegiality with flair. The propensity of bullies to misuse these central academic concepts only adds to the importance of being well grounded in those concepts yourself. If you have a firm understanding of what academic freedom is and what it is not, you'll be better prepared to cope with those who try to distort the concept for their own ends.
Another reason people in academe are generally unprepared to deal with bullies is that bullies are relatively rare. They are what is known as "low-incidence, high-severity" problems: one in which the problems don't arise very often, but when they do they are so serious that they can threaten the integrity of the environment.
For prevention of bullying, creating and maintaining an environment in which respectful professional interactions are expected and reinforced is the most powerful approach.
When unprofessional or uncivil conduct occurs in the work-place, it's important to nip it in the bud. The tone of your response should be nonconfrontational: "Oh, I'm sorry, maybe we forgot to tell you that we don't act that way here." Dealing with the problem head-on and promptly is critical. If someone is verbally abusive to staff or threatens physical violence, the appropriate penalty must be imposed. Any other response only erodes the trust of those who work hard to do the right thing. Similarly, ignoring or tolerating inappropriate conduct in the workplace sends the message that the way to prosper is to misbehave.
How to Handle a Bully
I once got a request from a department administrator (let's call him Holmes) for advice about how to deal with a visiting faculty member (and let's call him Cooper) whose contract was to expire in just a few weeks. Cooper had been verbally explosive all year, so people had learned to tread gently around him. But recently his volatility had increased, and a colleague who collaborated with him on research had begun to feel unsafe around him.
I asked Holmes whether Cooper had been informed that his outbursts were causing concern. Well, Holmes responded, "everybody knows" that that kind of behavior is unprofessional. I advised calling Cooper in, nonetheless, and telling him that his conduct was unsettling to his colleagues and students. He'd be doing both Cooper and the intimidated collaborator a favor by letting Cooper know -- unequivocally -- that he was expected to control his behavior and to conduct himself professionally in all interactions with colleagues, students, and staff. People who are acting out need to be told clearly that there will be consequences for uncivil behavior.
Holmes acknowledged that this made sense. But what could he say, and how should he say it?
I've learned to recommend a three-step process: First, try to identify and describe a pattern in what you're observing. In this case, the escalating explosive verbal conduct is the pattern, and it intimidates others. It sounds like a bullying situation. Second, sketch out a general strategy. In this case, the strategy is to send the message to the offender that this sort of behavior is not welcome in this department or this university. Finally, it is tremendously helpful to outline the points you wish to communicate and practice how you'll say them.
Be sure your words convey the message that you expect him to change his behavior -- a warning that he is approaching, and has crossed at times, a boundary that must not be crossed.
After the conversation, you should send a cordial and factual confirming letter restating the gist of what was said. Some people's eyes work better than their ears, and you want to be sure the bully gets your message.
Let's hope no further action will be necessary. But if the bully’s behavior does not revert to the upsetting-but-tolerable category, your next response will be to call the campus police, who will supply a bit of what my colleagues and I have come to call "blue therapy": a talk with a uniformed (and trained) peace officer. I predict that, should the need arise, the interaction with the police will be both educational and therapeutic for a tantrum habit.
But many situations involving academic bullies date back years, if not decades. Problems with long histories are not quickly resolved. In fact, it generally takes more than a year to bring about significant change in a pattern of conduct that stretches back over years. But significant, positive change can be achieved, given the right mindset, some patience, and persistence.
The key to changing a bully's behavior is to change the environment. Most bullies have never been confronted with the consequences of their actions, or even been told that their conduct is not well regarded in their environment. Thus your task is to change the environment to begin attaching natural consequences to unpleasant behavior, and most of all, to remove any rewards it has yielded. This is the essence of the hard work to come.
It's not hopeless -- you can make a difference. True, taking action will not be without cost. But what will be the costs of inaction?
C.K. Gunsalus is special counsel and adjunct professor in law and medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she formerly was associate provost. She has served as chair of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility. This essay is adapted and reprinted by permission of the publisher from her new book, The College Administrator's Survival Guide (Harvard University Press).
In the last two weeks, the Duke University lacrosse case has rapidly unraveled. First, at a December 15 hearing, the director of a private lab admitted that he and prosecutor Mike Nifong had entered into agreement to intentionally withhold exculpatory DNA evidence. Then, a week later, Nifong announced that a representative from his office had interviewed the accuser for the first time (eight months after arrests were made), and that she no longer claimed memory of events that would constitute rape. The district attorney promised to proceed anyway with charges of sexual assault and kidnapping against the three students he has targeted -- Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty, and Dave Evans. But as things stand now, the case seems unlikely to survive a February 5 hearing to consider defense motions to suppress a procedurally flawed photo lineup.
I created a blog to cover this case, exploring the twin themes of Nifong’s misconduct and Duke’s troubling response to it. I have no connection to Duke, and knew none of the lacrosse players when this case began. My initial interest flowed from dismay at the faculty’s rush to judgment in late March and early April.
I stayed with the case for a variety of reasons. As a historian of Congress, I’ve spent 15 years examining the significance of procedure -- and it’s hard to imagine a case that will better demonstrate how procedural decisions directly affect outcomes. Personally, I have some experience in dealing with rogue figures in power amidst an atmosphere of academic groupthink, and recall the importance of outside pressure in exposing wrongdoing. And pragmatically, the blog has had some impact, perhaps because I enjoy more freedom to speak out than local faculty members, who risk opprobrium from what one Duke professor termed “the wrath of the righteous.”
The response to what could now be termed the “non-rape” case will not go down among the academy’s finest moments. Three issues seem to me particularly noteworthy.
1. Concerns about McCarthyite behavior tend to depend on who is targeted. Defenders of the academic status quo regularly accuse critics of latter-day McCarthyism -- on issues ranging from the Academic Bill of Rights to Ward Churchill’s fate. Yet, last spring, when a local demagogue who ignored civil liberties targeted their own students, Duke faculty members barely expressed concern about his actions.
Over the last nine months, Mike Nifong has coupled demagogic appeals to prejudices based on class and race with a habit of making public charges unsubstantiated by material in his own files. Meanwhile, he overrode standard procedures (ordering police to show the accuser a lineup confined to suspects; refusing to meet with defense attorneys to consider exculpatory evidence; concealing DNA test results) and mocked due process. In one of his most outrageous lines, he mused, “One would wonder why one needs an attorney if one was not charged and had not done anything wrong.”
Yet despite that record, until last week only three Duke faculty members -- James Coleman (law), Steven Baldwin (chemistry), and Michael Gustafson (engineering) -- had publicly criticized Nifong’s conduct. This trio comprises 0.2 percent of all Duke professors.
2. In the contemporary academy, some students are more equal than others. On April 6, 88 faculty members issued a statement proclaiming that they were “listening” to alleged statements from anonymous Duke students. Relying solely on the version of events presented by Nifong, the Group of 88 took out an ad in the Duke Chronicle that included remarks of the signatories themselves. The professors definitively asserted that something “happened” to the accuser, while saying “thank you” to campus protesters like these, who had called the players “rapists” and distributed a “wanted” poster with lacrosse players’ photos. The statement’s author, Wahneema Lubiano, gleefully labeled the players the “perfect offenders,” and, as ESPN reported, fully understood that “some would see the ad as a stake through the collective heart of the lacrosse team.”
By this fall, student sentiment had turned overwhelmingly against Nifong and in favor of the targeted players. Yet the Group of 88 and like-minded Duke faculty no longer seemed interested in “listening” to their students. One signatory, Grant Farred, accused Duke undergraduates who registered to vote in Durham of projecting their “secret racism” onto the city. Another, Karla Holloway, denounced the Duke students who had defended the players, suggesting that they believed that “white innocence means black guilt. Men’s innocence means women’s guilt.” Peter Wood, meanwhile, leveled several unsubstantiated attacks on Reade Seligmann, about whom virtually no one other than Nifong has said anything untoward. Thomas Crowley published an op-ed containing so many falsehoods about the lacrosse team that he had to retract the document.
Duke’s admissions home page promises prospective parents that “teaching is personal,” as the institution’s professors “teach and mentor undergraduates, not only in the classroom.” Students who don’t conform to the race/class/gender worldview, however, seem to receive a different kind of “personal” attention.
3. Groupthink has its effects. Any orthodoxy -- even the race/class/gender approach currently in vogue -- can go too far, especially in an atmosphere when it passes unchallenged, blinding its adherents to injustice in their midst. Academic debates can sometimes seem trivial, and it’s easy to understand the overwhelming temptation that some Duke professors felt last April to do the politically correct thing and denounce the lacrosse players.
This particular behavior, however, had significant consequences. Less than four weeks after the Group of 88 issued their statement, Nifong captured a hotly contested Democratic primary by a mere 883 votes. Given the political and legal fluidity in Durham last spring, it’s hard to imagine Nifong prevailing had 88 Duke professors publicly demanded that he respect their students’ due process rights rather than thanking the protesters who had branded the players guilty.
Instead, of course, the denunciations continued -- and have continued to have an effect. In what could be a first in American criminal law, the actions and statements of accused students’ professors have been cited in a recent defense motion as grounds for a change of venue.
Imagine the reverse of the situation that Duke experienced. In a primary electorate almost evenly divided along racial lines, an appointed district attorney faced two challengers, a weak white man and a strong black woman. A case emerged on campus featuring allegations against members of a black fraternity by a local white woman with a checkered background. The D.A. responded by making dozens of highly inflammatory statements to the national media, going before an all-white crowd to announce that “this case isn’t going away” even though he lacked scientific evidence, and ordering police to violate their own procedures to ensure that the accuser picked out viable suspects before the primary.
Does anyone seriously believe that, under such circumstances, the faculty of Duke -- or that of any other major university -- would have stood idly by, with a vocal minority denouncing the students?
The behavior we’ve seen from Duke’s faculty -- the frantic rush to judgment coupled with a refusal to reconsider -- was all too predictable. The Group of 88’s statement was fully consistent with basic ideas about race, class, and gender prevalent on most elite campuses today. Reconsidering their actions of last spring would have forced the Group of 88, and sympathetic colleagues, to reconsider some of the intellectual assumptions upon which the statement was based.
Duke’s Gustafson recently reflected on what his colleagues had done:
"We have removed any safeguards we’ve learned against stereotyping, against judging people by the color of their skin or the (perceived) content of their wallet, against acting on hearsay and innuendo and misdirection and falsehoods. We have formed a dark blue wall of institutional silence; we have closed Pandora's box now that all the evils have made it into the universe; we have transformed students from individual men to archetypes—to 'perfect offenders' and 'hooligans' -- and refused to keep their personhood as a central component of all this. We have taken Reade, and Collin, and Dave, and posterized them into 'White Male Athlete Privilege,' and we have sought to punish that accordingly."
I’d like to think that most academics entered the profession eager to work with students; and that most professors would never prioritize advancing their own ideological agenda over protecting their students. Yet I see little reason to believe that Gustafson’s words would not have applied had this incident occurred at another major university. And that makes Duke’s failing a failure of the academy as a whole.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center.