Rescuing the Department in Distress

Even though academic departments are crucial for universities, Robert Weisbuch says, we have not thought enough about how to avoid dysfunctional ones.

October 10, 2016
 
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“I can go this far and not an inch farther,” I said, red faced, at an English department meeting at the University of Michigan some time in the early 1980s. “This” -- and my hand theatrically swept the air -- “is where I draw the line.”

My colleague Julie Ellison rose to speak, full of fury at this bullying male. “Well,” she said, “I have my own line and this” -- mocking my gesture -- “is where I draw it.”

When we looked back upon that glare-versus-glare moment of tense conflict, neither Julie nor I could quite remember what it concerned. That would be unremarkable if, as would be likely between close friends of long standing, our inability to recall even the general subject of the fierce debate had taken place just recently -- years after the altercation. In fact, our recall failure occurred at a conciliatory lunch just one week after the Gunfight at Lit Crit Corral.

That’s how it goes in departments -- those crucial components of a university -- and especially in humanities departments, where we rely on hyperbole as much as social scientists rely on data. That kind of late-afternoon argument, fueled by fatigue and hunger, over a course requirement or a written policy on which the future of the world appeared to depend, often shrinks to its right proportions after the drive home and a salad, a sauvignon and a salmon.

At least that’s the way it should be, and that is the way it was in the Michigan English department by the time Julie and I had our contretemps. But that’s certainly not the way it ever is in unhappy departments, and dysfunction at the department level, if left untreated, can have ramifications throughout the entire institution.

For example, when I arrived in Ann Arbor in 1972, lunches were not the cure for conflicts but the incitement. I was a naïve 26-year-old assistant professor who had been drawn to academe in part because it appeared to provide a faculty society far superior to the life of, say, an insurance office. That fantasy began to erode as I was taken out to lunches during the first week of the semester by two separate groups of faculty. Each, it became plain in minutes, despised the other and was urging me not so subtly to sign up on their side.

The arguments centered on standards for promotion. I found myself agreeing more with the more rigorous group, but I found it natural to have friendships that defied the divide. Nonetheless, I quickly learned that you do not invite X and Y to the same party, especially if it is a small one. And every spring before the elections to the department’s executive committee, there would be two caucuses.

We were an unhealthy culture, but we were surrounded by a mostly healthy college culture, which reacted to our warfare predictably -- and rightly. We were not placed in the dreaded receivership, but the dean made certain that we received few replacement faculty members or other optional benefits. There are plenty of other departments, was the implication, and as long as you have such opposing lunch cabals, those other departments will eat your collective lunch.

That’s the problem with departmental cultures that have failed. However distinct the battling antagonists, they have one thing in common: everyone loses.

Several years ago I was a member of an external review of a department at one of universities in the State University of New York system where conflict was so rife that the five of us were registered in a local hotel under false names so that no one could get at us with their side of the conflict. The creative writers, the literary historians, the theorists and the composition experts each wanted to secede -- taking, of course, all of the departmental resources with them. At a faculty meeting organized for us, one colleague’s highly emotional diatribe was greeted by the response of another who stood and said with startling simplicity, “Well, eff that.” The original speaker unhesitatingly replied, “Well, eff you.” “If you behave this way,” I cried, “you are all effed.”

And they all were. We wrote what we believed was a strategic report allowing each of the secession scenarios to play out and showing how each would be a disaster for all concerned. Amazingly, the report’s insistence that the factions needed to disarm and learn to work together actually succeeded -- but, less amazingly, only for a year or two, after which the wars resumed and the department was placed under college control.

Why so often is departmental culture so unsuccessful? For one thing, it is understudied. Look at 20 tomes on the crises facing higher education, and you probably will not find one that discusses the life of individual departments as a key factor. Yet it is the primary place where we academics live, more there than in a college, much less a whole university. When I became chair of the English department at Michigan, after perhaps 15 years as a faculty member, and thereby began to meet colleagues in a vast array of disciplines, I felt like I had entered a new universe. Before that, my department was my planet and the universe-ity was the far-off sky.

Beyond Dysfunction

We have not thought nearly enough about departmental cultures. The usual external review rarely provides adequate help, as the visitors themselves are not always adept at leadership issues and may see their task as one of advocating for the department to the supposedly unfeeling dean. A real redo of departmental culture and behavior requires planning backward from shared goals, as moderated by academics or fellow travelers who get it. And when national reforms of higher education sponsored by foundations and agencies are undertaken, they should be informed by studies of department life that do not yet exist. Both at the local and national levels, then, we need to consider departmental culture as an anthropologist would study the life of a tribe and as a wise counselor would minister to a valuable but neurotic patient.

Speaking of which, the larger tribe is the discipline rather than the college, and as long as we continue the questionable practice of mimicking disciplines in the organization of our departments, whatever schisms exist in the discipline are likely to show up in the department to challenge a harmonious community. That is what had taken place in that department where I had been part of an external visiting team, and while that was an extreme situation, it was not a rare one. Composition and literature colleagues sometimes stare at each other like the creatures at the Star Wars bar, wondering, what are you -- or what am I -- doing here? So too historians of medieval China and their modern American history counterparts.

We either must make continually explicit why the branches of a discipline extend from a common trunk or we should reconsider the forest and plant anew. And we might question as well the high number of departments even in the smallest colleges. At one college that I’m familiar with, the classics department consisted of two tenured faculty members who alternated in the role of chair. Since they despised each other, the constant motif resembled revenge tragedy.

In addition to a lack of scrutiny and those disciplinary schisms, one other problem faces many departments: administrative neglect. Some deans and provosts just let the dysfunction go on, refusing to take sides or even take conciliatory action for fear of descending into the muck. That kind of leadership cowardice is not rare.

Herewith, I offer three fast suggestions and one slow one.

  • Find Ms. or Mr. Right. Many colleges and universities simply allow the departmental chairing responsibility to rotate among tenured faculty. That is insanity. Leadership is a precious and vital talent, and no department can thrive without a fine leader. No one would think it wise to rotate the college presidency or a deanship in this manner. Why then the vitally important departmental chairs, who collectively matter as much or more to the institutional well-being?
  • Provide an incentive. It could be a bump in salary, a course release, a research assistant or a combination of all these. Because, let’s face it, chairing is hard work and heart work. It requires an all-in dedication as well as the ability to match the institution’s overall goals with the department’s own. (The chair must interpret the president’s broad bromides and tell her, “This is what we in our department think you meant by that.”) The chair must also serve as a friend/analyst for each faculty member, while coordinating what each wants to do with an overall program that best serves students. And beyond all that, the chair must foster a “let’s try it” spirit among a group that is better known for criticizing than for entrepreneurial zeal.
  • Allow space to govern. Too often shared governance devolves into snared governance. Shared governance needs to be real and clear so that all faculty members have skin in the game, but that clarity must include a territory for the chair to have some freedom and discretion. Without that, no incentive will be adequate. With it, a culture will depend less on the individual leader and create a tradition of both leadership and collegiality.
  • Reconsider the overall departmental structure. This is the slow suggestion, but it is worthy of the highest thought. Is it best to equate disciplines and departments, given so many ambiguities and anomalies? Might fewer be far better? How do we make the multidisciplinary more than an add-on while we never take anything away and thus everything gets thinner? This rethinking of a college or university ought not to be just slow, but continuous. Colleges compete to distinguish themselves with one or another gimmick and yet all offer very similar smorgasbords of fields. Would not basic redesign provide a more dignified distinction?

Healthy Conflict and an Esprit de Corps

None of this can happen without leadership beyond the department, encouraging the right people to act in the right ways. In Michigan English, the college leadership walked the talk, and two superb chairs -- who also had friendships that crossed boundaries and who practiced integrity like master musicians -- patiently eased the conflicts. The first used his naturally diplomatic manner and his obvious goodwill to dissolve the warring camps. The second inspired us with calmly and honestly stated high goals that people beyond the college came to respect. Neither ever lied. Each knew how to say two magic words when they made a decision that didn’t work out: “I’m sorry.” But because they were both remarkably strategic as well as fine, they did not have to say that very often.

They left me, as their successor, with a department full of healthy conflict within a context of great esprit de corps. We all remembered the bad old days, and we became willing -- if not at once, at least by lunch the next week -- to let what we held in common rule over difference or to refuse difference its devolution into personal dislike. “Human beings can be awful cruel to each other,” Huck Finn remarks, but human beings can also learn to value shared achievement over fiercely held dogmas. During one of those good-spirited years, a friend from another university who visited our party at the Modern Language Association conference wrote to me in wonder, “It was like halftime in the locker room of a winning basketball team.”

Departments matter more than anything else. And however and whoever they choose to do it, they would do well to survey themselves and their students and to adopt the suggestion of David Grant in The Social Profit Handbook that the staff members of any nonprofit be challenged to ask themselves, “What would we look like if we were really successful?” And then, “What would we look like if we were even more successful?” And to plan backward from there.

If no consensus emerges, the only right response is to question the very departmental structure and seek new forms of organization. But if there really is a reason why we in a department are all here together, then what are those deep values that we share? And how do we promulgate them, in large ways and small, with our students foremost in consideration?

If we really want a new era of triumph for the liberal arts, it cannot happen in any unit larger than a single department until it happens there.

Bio

Robert Weisbuch, a former president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and of Drew University, now leads Robert Weisbuch and Associates, a consultancy for liberal arts colleges and universities.

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