Search This Blog

Oct 2, 2021

How good departments self-destruct

The path to self-destruction most often winds its way through the terrain of prolonged and intractable personal conflict. Educational relation in general has a little element of utopia, of a perfect community. Educators are prone to make a mistake of confusing the in-departmental working relation for an educational one. They sometimes develop unreasonably high expectations about their own small community; expectations no group can ever meet. In other words, imagining a family, or an activist group in place of an academic department sets up a wrong model of relationality. If you expect your colleagues to change because you really want them to is a really bad idea. Instead of weak values of civility and decorum, people erroneously pursue intense values such as friendship, common beliefs, solidarity, and heightened sensitivity to each other’s personal needs. And it is just too much for a not-quite-a-voluntary community to sustain.

The beginning of such a conflict is completely irrelevant. It could be almost anything or nothing at all. The culprit is not the conflict itself – they are plentiful anywhere two or more humans come together. The culprit is the intense, obsessive focus on interpersonal relations. That is indeed the main cause of the self-destructive impulse. The more you stare to your own relations, the more twisted and distorted they will look. Every action, and every reaction, every word and every silence will be interpreted as a hostile move. Once a conflict builds its own history, it becomes very difficult to set aside. The longer it festers, the harder its fibers become.

In theory, we should not worry about such conflicts. After all grownups should be able to sort out their won relationships. However, it inevitably starts to affect the work. Curriculum will not be updated and passed, talented people will not be recruited and retained. Faculty will start looking for other jobs. Scholarly collaboration will wane. And most importantly, the creativity in pursuing new ideas, new programs, new projects will stop. Maintaining the status quo leads to stagnation. In the end, both the students, and the entire institution will pay the price. The damage is not only to the department – it is to other people, which is where I begin to worry. Eventually things may get so bad, that departments become the sick child, get disbanded, split, absorbed, or just closed down. It may take many years, but I have seen or heard of several examples in my 30 years in higher ed. TO be fair, it happens only rarely. Most groups will stop somewhere in the middle, redefine and rebuild their working relationships, and manage to move forward.

The solution is very simple. Our job is to serve our students, and to maintain the long-term interests of the institution. The public does not pay us to get along, to be friends, and to spend many days (of paid time) gazing at the collective navel. While faculty well-being is important, it is important as long as it serves the students and the public. It is not why we all are here. To refocus on the needs of students, on new ideas will help. Generally, looking outward rather than inward is helpful. The public trusts us to do the right thing, and grants us self-governance, tenure, and other privileges most professions do not have. While many faculty members feel underpaid, it is still a middle-class wage job with unparalleled flexibility and intellectual freedom. Let us not forget that the public wants something in return.

No comments:

Post a Comment