January 22, 2010

Collegiality: It's harder to separate ideas from people than you might think

As the president of the USF chapter of Florida's statewide faculty union, it's part of my job to defend the academic due process rights of That Guy.* If you've worked at a college or university, you've had to deal with That Guy, a generally prickly personality more commonly male than female who may have some good ideas (and in some cases, That Guy is usually correct on the merits) but tends to express them in ways that attack people rather than focus on the relevant issues. That Guy's standard mode is bullying in private and either high dudgeon or deliberate attempts to embarrass in public. That Guy's vocabulary can be littered with terms such as moron, idiot, and liar... usually in reference to people who disagree with That Guy. That Guy usually refers to high motives and ethics to justify That Guy's behavior, but from the outside, it looks like That Guy's model is more likely to be John Bolton than Martin Luther King, Jr.

It looks like Ohio University assistant professor Bill Reader may be a That Guy in the eyes of his colleagues, and his tenure case revolving around collegiality has now hit the news. The 1999 AAUP statement on "collegiality" as part of evaluation argues that there is a difference between evaluating collegiality as part of someone's job (that is, in teaching, research, and service), on the one hand, and having a free-floating collegiality criterion separate from the different parts of one's job, on the other. The more radical view of John Wilson is that even tucked inside teaching, research, or service, collegiality is an inappropriate expectation at a university. On the other end of the spectrum, I can probably find a number of administrators who will explain that if someone is truly destructive in a work environment, it's part of their job to deny tenure to prevent the problem from saddling an entire department or college with dysfunction for a person's whole career. The AAUP statement is still the best guide to navigating the issue of That Guy on any campus, but it takes a bit of guts on the part of those around That Guy to enforce reasonable norms of behavior.

Part of a university's job is to explore uncomfortable ideas. This will inevitably prompt outside Astroturf pressure groups to criticize a university on occasion, as happened this week with USF. That's why it is right for those concerned about collegiality criteria to warn that collegiality is not congeniality and that a free-floating collegiality criterion could chill speech. On occasion, we all make stupid mistakes in social settings, and we should still get a hearing for our ideas. If a perfect recitation of Judith Martin's Miss Manners books were a requirement for an academic job, I suspect few faculty would ever have our jobs. And if we kicked out faculty who occasionally lost their tempers, we'd be setting a poor model for students, whom we'd like to socialize into recognizing that good ideas come from all sorts of places and people. On occasion, people engaged in ideas act in ways that are uncomfortable. There has to be wiggle room in our ideal of a conversation that focuses on ideas rather than people, or we'd have sterile, passionless universities.

And yet, while that wiggle room should be broad, it should not be infinite. That Guy may entertain or amuse faculty with thick skins and who are not the targets of That Guy's tactics, but That Guy's tactics often push a good segment of faculty (either in a department or more broadly) to withdraw because they don't want to be targets or to say To hell with serving on this committee or task force; I'm going to go back to my office and work on what I know is valuable and not a waste of my time. That Guy's behavior shrinks the active public space at any college or university.

That's the core dilemma in the discussion over collegiality as a criterion used in evaluation. If universities can casually dismiss faculty because they're prickly, administrators can destroy that common space for debate in an a priori sense, because ideas are taking a lower priority than deviation from an arbitrarily set norm. But if That Guy can run rampant in a department, college, or university, the behavior effectively destroys common space for debate in a factual sense, as only a small handful are willing to be in the presence of That Guy, and you get a rump caucus masquerading as collegial governance. Obsess about personal behavior that is pricklier than your norm, and the ideal of paying attention to ideals is lost. Assume everyone has mental Kevlar, and the reality of a broad discussion is lost.

The AAUP statement is a practical and professional way to address the dilemma by forcing peers and administrators to be cautious in judging interpersonal prickliness: see where it affects the job. And the statement is explicit in warning that extreme behavior is not protected: "Professional misconduct or malfeasance should constitute an independently relevant matter for faculty evaluation. So, too, should efforts to obstruct the ability of colleagues to carry out their normal functions, to engage in personal attacks, or to violate ethical standards." The AAUP statement should not be much comfort to That Guys the world over, because it gives peers and administrators the ability to judge truly odious behavior as odious, if they choose.

Ah... it's the if they choose where the rub usually lies. Faculty have very little training in confronting colleagues about their behavior. It's a little too easy to avoid conflict, to avoid pointing out that lying and backstabbing is inappropriate, because that's a horrible conversation to have no matter what its outcome. And when it comes to annual reviews for tenure-track faculty, it's tempting to be encouraging and avoid telling colleagues that they're not doing enough in research or teaching... or in treating colleagues, staff, and students like human beings. I understand the temptation of administrators to have collegiality as a separate item for tenure reviews: in many departments, there will not be the guts to stand up to That Guy, and the separate item seems to be a reasonable alternative, or an alternative for desperate administrators. But then you're left with one end of the dilemma I've sketched above, and you've betrayed core academic values.

There is another problem with the separate collegiality criterion: you're failing to address the underlying problem in those cases, which is with peer evaluation that does not look at what's actually happening. If a tenure-track faculty member comes up for tenure and close to a majority or a majority of colleagues votes against tenure for reasons of collegiality but no one told her or him of the problem for five years, how much of the problem is with the candidate for tenure and how much of the problem is a dysfunctional pattern in peer review? And suppose you deny tenure in that case... there are always likely to be tenured jerks as well as untenured jerks, sometimes even jerks as deans or provosts. Don't you want faculty with integrity and savvy willing to stand up to the tenured and administrative jerks and thugs? Unless you foster an environment where everyone looks at problems with open eyes and talks about what's as plain as the nose on your face, the type of faculty member most likely to stand up to administrative thugs is ... That Guy. Congratulations: you've just created/maintained an internal audience for That Guy.

* A friend who is a very active defender of academic freedom used That Guy in an e-mail to me a few months ago as a generic term for department/campus jerk. The friend's department apparently has two That Guys, one male and one female.

Update (1/23): Bob Sutton has additional, very thoughtful comments, including the perfect reading recommendation (Gunsalus's book on academic administration).

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Posted in The academic life on January 22, 2010 10:20 AM |