Monthly Archives: June 2014

“Match My Commitment”

[WordPress ate my first post, and I didn’t save a copy of it before I lost it.  Live and learn.  Here is an inferior reconstruction.  I’m posting it because I hope to start a discussion on academic bullying and hazing, one that is more nuanced and thorough than my first thoughts here.  Thanks in advance.]


Hazing has long been a part of the college experience for many students.  From athletic clubs to Greek life, student groups have long felt the need to use shared misery as a bonding experience.  While some have defended hazing as a means of forming a group identity, many others have derided it as a kind of torture, an example of the powerful exerting their dominance over the powerless.


An internet search for “university hazing” quickly retrieved nearly 7 million results, and a quick scan of the most popular results would suggest that hazing is an activity primarily engaged in by students.  However, as many academics will attest, while students may serve as the public face of hazing, college faculty are equally adept at hazing, and have willingly participated in a culture of bullying and punishment in their continuation of a brutal hierarchical system.  Worse still, this system is often celebrated – particularly by the bullies – as a meritocracy.


Although I have posted before on some of the problems faced by adjuncts, one issue I did not address (not directly, anyway) is the bullying that many of them face.  And while many adjuncts can attest to the overt and subtle forms of bullying they have experienced, hazing has been experienced by many college faculty, in a variety of positions.  While it might be easy to see the tenure track as a position of power (which it in many ways is), academia is a complicated network of power relations, any one of which can be used to exploit, abuse, and torment faculty.  Women, faculty of color, LGBTQ faculty, faculty with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses, untenured faculty, faculty raising children (especially single parents), faculty caring for elderly parents, and a variety of others who have in some way been identified as non-normative or not following “the rules,” have long been subjected to a variety of forms of hazing.


In some cases, these “rules” are universal across academia; in other cases, these “rules” are specific to individual departments.  An example of the former is the unwritten rule that new faculty do not say no in their first years on the job; some have even reported to me that they were explicitly told by PhD advisors that they should plan on agreeing to whatever is asked of them in their first years on the job.  An example of the latter was reported to me by an academic who wondered why some of her colleagues at her new job were not speaking to her; it was only after a couple weeks on the job that someone told her about an unwritten rule that new faculty must introduce themselves to current faculty.  She told me that current faculty would not speak to new faculty until those new faculty had properly introduced themselves to their colleagues; or, as one of her colleagues called it, “presented themselves for inspection.”


In the post below, I hope to share some of my own experiences, stories that have been shared with me, and note some strategies that we can all use to help break the cycle of bullying that many faculty continue to be caught up in and perpetuate.


Before I continue, I’d like to note that, by any measuring stick, I have achieved a fair amount of success in academia.  I landed a tenure-track job in my first year on the market (2006/7, which in many ways was the last “good” year before the economic collapse was used as an excuse to curtail tenure-track hiring).  I earned tenure last year, and I have published work that some in my field find interesting and meaningful.  I have, in other words, been very lucky.  I would never deny that.  I note this all, in part, because my position also gives me the ability to speak up.  Many faculty don’t speak up because they fear for their jobs; those without job security need to continue to curry favor with their colleagues to ensure their continued employment.  It is, therefore, an absolute necessity that those of us with tenure continue to speak out against – and actively oppose – the various forms of academic bullying.  That said, this does not mean that I have not faced my fair share of bullying.  One lesson I have learned in my 7 years on the tenure track is that power relations are far more complicated than I had ever considered as a graduate student.  In some cases, bullying was part of the system; junior faculty are bullied as an accepted part of academic culture.  In other cases, bullying was personal.


In my opinion, the most damaging forms of faculty bullying come under the guise of professional development.  Unlike schoolyard bullies who approach their targets openly and embrace their role as bullies, faculty bullies often refuse to acknowledge their bullying (and, even more dangerously, sometimes appear to believe that they are not bullies, but are engaged in some form of mentoring).  It’s so common that I always advise new faculty to beware the phrase “this is a good opportunity,” because it often really means “you should do this because you need votes to be reappointed, and nobody else wants to do this work.”  Throughout my professional career, I have noticed that senior faculty, department chairs, and administrators will often use “good opportunity” as a means of encouraging junior faculty to perform jobs that senior faculty have no interest in doing.  And, to be fair, sometimes it can be a good opportunity.  Faculty are contractually obligated to engage in university service, and the university performs its work better when all faculty share a sense of civic engagement.  But not all service is created equal.


One very valuable kind of service is “leadership service,” which can often (but not always) come in the form of administrative work (directing programs, chairing departments, etc.).  Often, this kind of service comes with course releases.  And although serving in such a capacity is easily just as much a “good opportunity” for junior faculty as is other service (perhaps more so, as this is highly visible service with an immediate impact on campus services), those opportunities are far less likely to be handed over to junior faculty to assist them in building their CVs or preparing for reappointment.  I do have a friend, a junior faculty member at a public university, who holds an administrative position that comes with a course release.  However, she reports to me that the course release does not come close to accounting for the time spent in the administrative position.  In other words, she spends much more time on the administrative work than she would in the classroom.  That she is untenured and this work is very labor intensive are not, I am suggesting, unrelated.  On the other side of this coin, for my entire time at SUNY Potsdam, several such positions have been held by the same faculty members.  Twice during my time here the university has hired junior faculty members with training and experience to hold one particular position, which has been held onto by one colleague for a decade.  At no point were those junior faculty members asked to do this work, and to take the course releases that comes with the position.  One former colleague was explicitly told that this position would be available to her; even so, when the current director was granted a sabbatical leave, this former colleague had to fight in order to be given the chance to serve in this position.  Let me state this more explicitly: even when the current director was going to be on leave, a well-trained junior faculty member who was hired (in part) to perform this work, still had to fight with administration to take on this position, even in a temporary capacity.  Nobody denied that this would have been a “good opportunity” for her.  Her own professional development never entered the conversation.  And she was explicitly told, several times, that this was not a permanent position for her, and pressured on several fronts while holding this position.


Additionally, there are several faculty at my university who hold multiple positions of this kind, and collect the multiple course releases (and salary bonuses) that come with them.  These positions are rarely made available to junior faculty, despite their value as “good experience.”  And, to return to the original intent of this post, faculty who pursue such positions are subjected to bullying.  For instance, I have several times attempted to secure a position serving as a “foundation co-ordinator,” a position that works with the university general education committee to institute and uphold standards for the first-year (“foundational”) general education courses.  In addition to my interest in leadership service, I regularly teach several (sometimes as many as 6) sections of the appropriate foundational course every year.  My qualifications are not in doubt.  But every time I have approached others about this position, I have been reprimanded for doing so, at one point being explicitly told that “making waves” about such positions during the year I am up for tenure could be “dangerous.”  Message received.


In a similar vein, there are a variety of examples of faculty being asked/encouraged to perform service work outside of “business hours.”  Often, the flexibility of the academic schedule allows others to assume that, because faculty technically can perform their job duties outside of the traditional “work day” (this includes, but is not limited to, grading, engaging in research, and assisting students and colleagues online), that they should be expected to be available at all times, every day.  A friend of mine, who is now a department chair at her institution, shared with me the following story:


“I was junior faculty and a single mom. I had child care during the week, but my chair insisted on having night meetings and weekend retreats. Once they paid for a day of child care since it was a Saturday & I thought that was very nice. They scheduled yet another retreat, none of my sitters were available even if I had the $, and I said I could not go. I also pointed out that assuming faculty could be on call for meetings at all hours and on weekends was unreasonable and not family friendly. The chair became very angry, started shaming me for being difficult, then said ‘do you know how we paid the child care for you last time? I told everyone you couldn’t afford to come otherwise and passed the hat!’ in a snotty voice, and I was so miserable and I felt like everyone’s charity case.”


Here we have an example of bullying that comes from multiple vectors: a junior faculty member is being bullied by her department chair; a single mother is being bullied because of her needs as a parent; an individual is being separated from the group and told she does not belong to the group (that is, not part of “everyone”).  This faculty member was not only shamed for her (very reasonable) needs for accommodation, but she was reminded that she was indebted to the entire department for those accommodations.  In other words: she was very clearly told that she owes them.


Overt bullying is quite common, and happens in countless departments.  In my own department, for instance, one senior faculty member has a history of telling junior colleagues that, if they are unhappy, they can always quit.  I was told this, as were several of my colleagues, and we told this repeatedly.  Now, this may not sound like bullying.  But consider the subtext: this is the way things are, and if you don’t like it, leave.  Not all bullying, in other words, need be threatening.  That said, however, very often it is.  Consider the following anecdote, provided by my friend quoted above:


“Another time, I was on a grad admissions committee. We had gone through applications and excluded any that were not complete, even when missing letters of rec and that was all. We got to a student that the chair knew and liked, whose file was incomplete. I moved to exclude, to keep things fair. I think we tabled the matter for later consideration, I forget exactly how it was set aside. The chair later showed up at my office, got heated in tone, and said if I did not agree to let candidate in she would escalate matters to the dean or beyond, and ‘you don’t want that fight.’ Directly threatened in my second year by my chair, for trying to keep admission criteria uniform across candidates. I am surprised we never got sued for the ‘nepotism,’ we probably should have.”


In this example, a faculty member is trying to uphold department policies, and to ensure that they are applied evenly across the board.  However, her chair decided that her own judgment should trump department policy.  Where it became bullying, of course, is when the chair made it a personal attack, literally telling a junior faculty member that it would be a fight, and one that she would lose.  I have been put in a somewhat similar position.  Once, I was asked – by both a colleague and by my chair – to make room in a full course for a colleague’s family member.  I was told that I would be doing a favor for the colleague, and that “this would not be forgotten.”  I was also up for reappointment that year.  One way to look at the situation would be to see it as a coincidence.  That said, I think such a reading, while generous, is also naive.  Bullying often comes under the guise of support.  In both cases, a person in a position of authority used that position to work around policies and procedures.  Although the overt bullying is more easily recognized as such, all bullying is detrimental to the healthy functioning of a department.


At the start of this post, I called this hazing, which is akin to bullying.  Bullying occurs whenever you have someone abusing a position of power for their own ends (whatever those ends may be).  Hazing is bullying that is specifically used as an initiation into a group.  And while it may not be immediately evident, I argue that all of the above examples constitute hazing.


First, all of the above are examples of junior faculty members being bullied as part of their “initiation” into the ranks of senior faculty.  The bullies knew that they held power over the bullied, used that power to get what they wanted, and knew that the bullied needed their support to eventually earn tenure, to join the (ever shrinking) club of tenured faculty.  But just as importantly, in many of these cases – and countless others – the bullies have justified their behavior by noting that they, too, have been similarly bullied.  This ugly cousin of “paying it forward” has long been used to justify hazing: we form a common bond through shared suffering.  Often, such hazing is explicitly a means of forcing people to prove that they are worthy of admission to the club.  “If you want it bad enough,” the thinking goes, “you’ll eat enough shit.”  It’s not enough to be qualified.  It’s not enough to do the job well.  Success is not enough.  No, you must also appease the bullies, whose unreasonable demands need not have anything to do with the job itself.  To give an example, my colleague who likes to remind junior faculty members that they can quit also likes to justify his behavior by reminding us of what he calls “the bad old days,” when things were simply awful.  And here is the logic of hazing: I survived it, so to prove your worth you must survive it too.  Hazing is perpetuated, in part, because those who were hazed feel the need to haze others; because they were made to eat shit, it’s simply unfair if others don’t have to eat shit in turn.  Those who don’t eat shit are seen as not having truly earned their positions.


We see the same kind of thinking on the academic job market.  Even though the technology exists to hold interviews online, many departments refuse to give up conference interviews.  Despite the often crushing costs associated with registering for, traveling to, and attending one’s field’s national conference, graduate students and adjuncts continue to go into debt in order to attend these conferences (sometimes for several years while chasing the more elusive tenure track jobs).  One reason they do so is because they know this is a hoop they must jump through; this is the shit they must eat.  I have spoken to many academics – some of whom have served on search committees – who argue that going to the conference should be part of the interview.  I have also met many academics who – having themselves gone into debt to attend such conferences – believe that others should be forced to do so, too.  “If they really want a job,” the thinking goes, “they will spend the money and go through the hassle of attending the conference.”  The worst story of job market bullying that was shared with me came from an academic who, in an unfamiliar city, could not find the interview location, nor was any transportation provided.  When she contacted a member of the search committee for assistance, she was told: “We consider your ability to find the interview location part of the interview process.” She ended up having friends online Google Map directions for her and call her back with directions in an effort to orient her.


In other words, the hazing does not begin when one takes the job; it begins well before, as the market itself has become a form of hazing.  (And although this post is long enough, I could easily report – from my own experiences as well as the experiences of others – the various ways that graduate students are hazed.)


Of course, many faculty who report instances of bullying are not on the tenure track, are part of the large (and increasing) numbers of contingent faculty, and as such cannot look forward to any degree of job security.  For instance, I know several adjuncts – teaching at a variety of institutions – who have reported abuse.  Sometimes, that abuse comes in the form of senior faculty and administrators demanding that adjuncts engage in non-contractual work.  For instance, in my department, some of our non-tenure track faculty volunteer their time and services to advising and committee work.  Some of these adjuncts note that they enjoy such work, and choose to do it because they are committed to the department and the students.  However, some of their adjunct colleagues who do not choose to volunteer their services fear future reappointment votes; if other adjuncts are willing to take on unpaid work, why should adjuncts unwilling to take on such work be reappointed?  But more importantly, can adjuncts ever willingly volunteer their time?  When one group of faculty serve entirely by the whim of another group, can that first group ever say no?  In multiple department meetings when this issue has been brought up, some of my colleagues have noted that this kind of work is a “good opportunity” for the adjuncts.  Good opportunity for what?  They are not on the tenure track, and their contracts do not include steps for promotion.  One colleague noted that this would be a “good opportunity” if the adjunct in question wanted to look for a tenure track job elsewhere.  In other words, this is a “good opportunity,” but not here.  In this case, “good opportunity” really means “good opportunity for someone else to do my job.”  And because adjuncts need the support of tenure track colleagues to remain employed, it becomes very difficult to tell their tenure track colleagues, “no thanks, I’m not interested I doing your job for free.”  It then becomes impossible to tell the difference between volunteering and preemptively avoiding being pressured.


When it comes to adjuncts, of course, this is not hazing.  Hazing suggests entry into the club.  When it comes to bullying adjuncts, there is no entry to the club.  This is just bullying.


So what do we do?  First, we can recognize that we do not need hazing to form group identity.  There are several ways of positively building group identity, including team building activities and the variety of kinds of collaborative work we can engage in as scholars and teachers.  I have collaborated with several colleagues on a variety of projects – an edited collection, teaching in a First-Year Interest group, new courses, and I’m now in the early stages of trying to develop a new program on campus – and they have all served to build positive relationships with colleagues across campus.  Group identity, in other words, need not be negatively constructed.  But when it is, we also need to address it directly.  Openly and directly addressing such instances would allow departments to diffuse situations before they become systemic.  And because many of the bullied cannot speak up for themselves, those of us who can speak up should.  And finally, departments and universities can undergo regular reviews; faculty members can be surveyed and outside reviewers can be brought in to assess situations.


We can do better.


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