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Aug 17, 2006

How to stop turf wars

Having some turf of one’s own is natural. Chimps, for example patrol their territories at night, and can severely hurt or kill intruders from adjacent bands. All primates are territorial animals, and academics are primates with graduate degrees. Human groups have a deep-seated instinctual drive to establish their territory, be it a hunting ground or an academic program. We all need to know the degree and the limits of our freedom in order to be able to exercise our free will. In the academia, having some freedom is especially important, because our identities are closely linked to having knowledge, expertise, and therefore to the ability to determine the right course of actions. We do not react well to limitations simply because they question our competence, and thus jeopardize our very being as scholars. Academics like freedom because it their existential condition, not because of personal preference. We are nothing if we cannot have some claim to independence. Independence means having a piece of turf of one’s own. In reality, universities operate under all sorts of constrains, including, of course, budgetary, but also political and administrative. 

Most of these constrains are completely out of our control. Every time State bureaucrats come up with a new requirement or initiative, we have no choice but to comply, whatever we think the merits of these initiatives are. Such daily capitulations inflict deep psychic wounds, because they demean our identity but forbid admitting even to ourselves that such thing has taken place. Of course, the frustration seeks a way out. We cannot do anything about the State or NCATE, but we can do something about our immediate neighbors from our departments or departments next door. When things get difficult, suddenly “they” seem to become pushy, suspicious, and perhaps wanting to take over our turf. “They” take on almost mythical qualities: they don’t respect what we do, they have questionable ethical beliefs, they plot against us, and they do not understand what we do, but want to meddle anyway. They always have hidden agendas, and they have cause harm to us in the past. Their calls to cooperate are but attempts to trick us into letting our turf go. They do not work as hard as we do, and they make way too much money. They have more power, and they do not respect us. But most importantly, they want a piece of our turf. 

Most of such opinions of course do not have a rational basis. It is very unlikely that the next group of humans with very similar life experiences, educational level, and general outlook on life would somehow contain more unethical, incompetent, or dishonest people. It is possible, but statistically very unlikely. Because of that simple fact, I maintain that the real cause of most academic turf wars is the misplaced anxiety over circumstances beyond our common control. 

However, let me return to the initial assertion: turf is good; even if the turf wars are rarely productive. An honest conversation about the boundaries may reveal not only that there is enough turf for everyone, but that there are huge surpluses of nobody’s turf out there. A clear statement of rights of a particular group goes a long way in understanding that others may not really want to violate these rights. In other words, turf must have more or less clearly marked boundaries. Good fences make good neighbors. Only when groups are secure about their turf they may come to a conclusion that collaboration with neighbors can be beneficial. Moreover, they may realize that boundaries sometime maybe shifted without the threat of total annihilation. Ultimately, the forces beyond our control may be somewhat controlled if we figure out how to stop turf wars, because, as everyone knows, it is still the old “divide and rule” world.

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