As U.S. universities embrace the New Gilded Age, what institutions will help us to grow a better society?

Suffice it to say that American higher education, as a general proposition, is embracing the values of the New Gilded Age. A growing number of American colleges and universities are degenerating into career training centers, touting unpaid internships while charging sky-high tuition, neglecting the liberal arts, and loading up on well-paid administrators and exploited adjunct faculty while shedding full-time professors.

These trends are disturbing in and of themselves. Moreover, they raise a challenging question: If universities are heading in this direction, what institutions, structures, and networks will help us to blend research, theory, and service toward creating a better society? And how do we create decent, paying, sustainable jobs to support this work?

Of course, the fate of the public intellectual in higher education has been a subject of debate for some time now, especially since the 1987 appearance of Russell Jacoby’s important book, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Among other things, Jacoby posited that sharp trends toward narrow specialization in academic scholarship were creating a professoriate that is less relevant to the major public issues of the day.

Yup, one could argue that part-time college teaching jobs, unpaid internships, “non-stipendiary” fellowships, and assorted volunteer gigs offer outlets for expression and creativity. And between individual blogs, sites like The Huffington Post, and free websites, there’s no shortage of online venues for publishing or sharing one’s work.

The problem is that most people have this weird need for food, shelter, and clothing. “Exposure” and “contacts” don’t pay for those basic necessities. A little bit of job security wouldn’t hurt either.

During the coming months, I will devote some space to exploring this and related questions, incorporating a variety of new and emerging voices on public intellectual life in this plutocratic, New Gilded Age. In doing so, I’ll be talking about educators, researchers, activists, practitioners, writers, artists, and others who share a common, understandable concern that our society has no place for them.

As a central part of this inquiry, we need to consider strategies for change. Is it possible to reverse the bad course taken by so many standard-brand universities? Or do we have to think about creating new, sustainable entities that embrace a different, better set of values? If so, how do we go about this?

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To the many readers who follow this blog because of its focus on issues such as workplace bullying, employee well-being, workers’ rights, and the like, stick with me on this one. Research and ideas matter, including within the realm of dignity at work. However, mainstream academe has not been a major driving force in calling for a more humane workplace, which means that we have to identify, support, build, and create the institutions that are eager to do so.

On leadership: Climbers up the greasy pole, the power of listening, the value of experience, and more

Great leaders, even good leaders, are all too rare these days. From a selection of past blog posts, here are some ideas about leadership, how to sort the wheat from the chaff, and what leadership qualities are best for our organizations and society at large:

1. You want good leaders? (2010) — Folks, I’ve been pushing the article discussed here for years. It’s an address by writer William Deresiewicz to West Point cadets. Here’s how I intro it in the blog post:

Attention organizations: If you want good leaders, then don’t promote the kiss ups, the kick downs, the scheming hoop-jumpers, and the ambitious conformists. Instead, select folks of genuine vision, courage, character, and good judgment.

Don’t take my word for it. Instead, read this remarkable address to West Point cadets by writer William Deresiewicz, titled “Solitude and Leadership,” and published in the American Scholar. It’s worth reading in its entirety.

Deresiewicz writes brilliantly, insightfully about a crisis of leadership in America whereby “excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole.” It screams with truth. If you read one article on leadership this year, maybe this decade, make it this one. Take a look at my short summary and then read the whole article.

2. Want a better company? Listen to your employees! (2010) — There’s nothing radical about listening to your employees and giving credit when it is due. Peter Drucker said it for years:

The late Peter Drucker, management guru and author, likely would approve of these practices. In his book Managing for the Future (1992), he extolled the virtues of employee input and participation in problem solving.

Early 20th century industrial theory, he noted, believed in “the wisdom of the expert” and regarded mid-level managers and rank-and-file workers as a bunch of “dumb oxen.” World War II changed that philosophy, however, for when all the experts were in uniform, “we had to ask the workers.” Companies quickly learned that input from workers could increase productivity and improve quality.

3. Great organizational leaders empower and enable others (2011) — Quality leaders know that it’s not all about them:

But when it comes to leading organizations, the ability and willingness to encourage, support, mentor, inspire, and permit others to do quality work is the key to success. These leaders allow people to run with things, responsibly but enthusiastically, and sometimes the results can be extraordinary.

4. When survival is at stake, we need grounded leaders (2012) — We may be swept away by folks who exude vision and charisma, but especially during tough times, we need leaders with strong inner cores:

But I confess that my own experience has taught me also to look closely at leaders who guide their organizations through difficult times with integrity and wisdom.

The best of these leaders arrive at tough decisions fairly and then stand behind them. They take responsibility for measures that may be painful. They don’t seek glory, but rather carry a sense of duty. And their actions are guided by qualities of vision that may have to be temporarily sacrificed during their tenure.

5. Great leadership rarely appears overnight (2012) — Lessons for today on the value of experience from an excellent book about U.S. Navy admirals during the Second World War:

In many historical accounts of the Pacific naval war, these men are presented to us as fully-formed leaders. The Admirals, however, begins with their early lives and careers, and it is chock full of accounts that show us how many of their critical successes during the war can be traced back to their pre-war education, training, and experiences. When they had to step up, they were ready.

. . . In today’s society, we worship and celebrate youth, and this extends to those we anoint as leaders. All too often, in every sector of society, we elevate people to senior leadership positions before they are ready, and not infrequently we pay a price for their inexperience.

6.  On leadership: Genius makers vs. vampires (2013) — You may see some people you know in one of these categories:

The genius makers are “excited about revealing others’ smarts,” “open to creating a shared vision,” and engaged in “creating organizational energy.”

The vampires are “obsessed with proving” their own smarts, focused on others’ flaws, and committed to “sucking the lifeblood out of innocent people.”

Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance

If national studies on workplace bullying and job dissatisfaction are any indication, a lot of people are dealing with lousy workplaces. These experiences can cause no small amounts of anxiety and stress, resulting in significant human and organizational costs.

Of course, the easiest antidote to a bad workplace is to leave it, hopefully for something better, but the exit option often must be weighed against other factors, especially in this difficult economy. Indeed, we know that a lot of people are staying at workplaces they don’t like for lack of better choices.

In terms of energy levels, these realities can leave people in a state of utter despair or recurring anger and conflict. For folks in these places, getting to tolerance is a goal worth pursuing.

What do I mean by “getting to tolerance”? It means being able to deal with the undesirable aspects of your workplace without them constantly taking you down a notch, or at least bouncing back after a bad day there. It means being able to do your job well, perhaps even with some enthusiasm and satisfaction, despite the negative aspects of your work environment. It means not taking the bad parts of work home with you every day. It also means being able to develop and weigh future options in a constructive and hopeful way.

Compared to despair or anger, tolerance is a big step up on the energy level scale.

That said, getting to tolerance often is easier said than done. None of these possibilities are necessarily ideal, but here are some potential avenues:

  • Re-negotiate, with yourself, how you regard your job and even your career. Zero in on what you like about your job. Or, conversely, consider the pros and cons of emotionally detaching from your work.
  • Create an in-house, informal support group of fellow workers who share your values and concerns. Be smart and careful about advertising this.
  • If you regard your job in the context of a career, create meaningful connections related to your profession or trade outside your workplace. Build a positive external network of people who share your interests.
  • Plan exit strategies, whatever they may be, while revisiting the “Should I stay, or should I go?” question. Don’t make it just about removing yourself from the bad stuff. Plant the seeds for potentially significant, positive changes.
  • Engage in mindfulness practices, such as meditation, to take the edge off the most stressful aspects of your work experience. For example, Thich Nhat Hanh’s Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day (2012), concludes with a chapter “Thirty Ways to Reduce Stress at Work.”
  • Pursue hobbies and avocations outside of work that provide meaning, engagement, and satisfaction.
  • Seek counseling or coaching if you believe that professional help and guidance may be useful.

A final point: I’m not suggesting that you stick your head in the sand and talk yourself into thinking that nothing is wrong. Especially if you work in a place where bullying and intimidation are standard operating procedures, you’ll have to keep your wits about you. There’s a sensible midpoint between willful ignorance and hyper-vigilance, and that’s probably the best place to be in a bad workplace.

I’ve been studying, experiencing, and writing about the world of work for too long to suggest that there are easy ways for people to deal with less-than-wonderful workplaces. For some, however, getting to tolerance is a worthy and achievable objective, and reaching that point may be the portal to something even better.

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The references to energy levels in this post are inspired by Bruce Schneider’s Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), and insights from professional coach Kerri Myers.

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On workplace bullying: Jonathan Martin gets a new job, an op-ed from Connecticut, and progress in Massachusetts

Some items of note in the realm of workplace bullying:

Jonathan Martin traded to San Francisco 49ers

On occasion, workplace bullying stories have a good ending, or at least a hopeful one. Jonathan Martin, the NFL player whose claims of severe bullying and abuse as a member of the Miami Dolphins were validated by a league investigation, recently was traded to the San Francisco 49ers and has received a warm welcome. As John Breech reports for CBS Sports:

“I can tell already that I’m going to get along just great with those guys,” Martin said of his new teammates during a conference call on Thursday. “I’ve felt a warm welcome from the entire 49ers community, fan base, coaching staff, everybody. I’m just looking forward to the future and getting back to playing football.”

Connecticut Mirror op-ed on workplace bullying

Katherine Hermes, a history professor and long-time advocate for the Healthy Workplace Bill, penned a very compelling op-ed on workplace bullying in the Connecticut Mirror, citing the suicide of a dear friend that was associated with being severely bullied at work:

There are problems great and small, global and local. But when you are the target of a bully, the problems are so personal and isolating that a wider world ceases to exist. My friend Marlene was a conservationist, a birdwatcher, a lover of literature and film, an enthusiastic cook, a traveler, a scientist—but once the bully had hold of her, a suicide.

Her death catapulted me into a movement, founded by the Workplace Bullying Institute, to try to stop workplace bullying. I discovered that workplace abuse was not illegal unless the campaign of destruction was directly related to the protected status of the person being bullied. If the bully did not harass the target because of race, religion, sex, age, and so forth, it was legal conduct.

Healthy Workplace Bill makes progress in Massachusetts

The Healthy Workplace Bill, introduced in Massachusetts as House No. 1766, has been favorably reported out of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.

There’s still a long way to go — the bill must be passed by both the state House and Senate — but getting a favorable report out of committee is an important and necessary step. To become active in the MA Healthy Workplace Advocates, go to the website and sign up for alerts and/or join the group’s Facebook page.

A question full of possibilities

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If you had nothing to prove, nothing to achieve, if you had all that you needed, what would you love doing?

Gloria S. Chan, personal coach and consultant

Ever since Gloria posted this question on her Facebook page earlier this year, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

Until now I haven’t attempted a full answer (more on that below), but I think it’s a brilliant way of getting us to think about how we want to spend the rest of our lives.

For the many people who have found this blog because of bad experiences at work, this may seem like pie-in-the-sky stuff. I understand, but I’d ask you to give yourself permission to think in such ideal terms. The process of recovery and renewal from an abusive work experience involves getting beyond “mere” survival. It’s about reclaiming one’s life and finding fulfillment and even joy in it.

Allowing ourselves the luxury of answering the question means that we’re open to better possibilities. The question may not seem realistic in light of one’s current circumstances, but perhaps that’s the point: It’s an invitation to think beyond our normal, common, well-defined constraints. For some readers, those perceived constraints may be grounded in personal setbacks. In any event, breaking through those boundaries and limitations may be the key to moving forward in a big way.

Answering the question

Yup, right now I still have some things I want to prove and achieve. The work I’m doing on topics related to this blog is a central part of my life purpose, and I don’t see myself moving away from it any time soon.

That said, it would be a bit inauthentic for me to ask you to engage in this exercise while dodging it for myself. So, here goes:

First, I love to sing. I’ve been taking a weekly singing workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education for many years. Every week, each member of the class performs a song of their choosing to piano accompaniment, and then we are coached by our instructor in front of the group. My repertoire tends to come from old standards: The Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Frank Sinatra stuff.

If the informal reviews are accurate, I’m a pretty good vocalist. If I had more free time, I’d want to do more singing, in more venues. Maybe even do a CD, even if just for friends & family.

The second is working with animals. I’ve always loved dogs, and in recent years I’ve grown fond of cats, too (despite a pesky cat allergy). However, my travel schedule is brutal at times, and keeping a pet at home is simply unrealistic, at least from the standpoint of providing a good home to an animal.

So, I’d love to be around animals more and to promote animal well-being. That would bring me great joy.

I won’t ignore those two wishes. In fact, writing about them will help me to keep them close.

And you?

Now it’s your turn. Give it a try, and then see where it takes you:

If you had nothing to prove, nothing to achieve, if you had all that you needed, what would you love doing?

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About Gloria Chan

Gloria recently launched a new career as a personal coach and consultant after a successful turn as a lawyer and senior Congressional staffer. Her impressive resume aside, she’s worked through genuine personal challenges and knows that personal transformation is not easy. Her own story is contained in Sarah Prout & Sean Patrick Simpson, eds., Adventures in Manifesting: Conscious Business (2013). It’s a good read.

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Graphic courtesy of FreePik.com

New WBI workplace bullying survey: Infographics show why we need the Healthy Workplace Bill

As reported here earlier, a new scientific public opinion survey on workplace bullying in the U.S. conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute shows that bullying at work remains a serious problem in the U.S., that employers are doing little to stop it, and that the American public strongly supports workplace anti-bullying legislation. The 2014 survey, done in conjunction with Zogby Analytics, surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults in late January.

The overall survey results strongly point to the need for passage of workplace bullying legislation.

For those who would like a more visual presentation, here are four infographics prepared by the WBI team that highlight important survey findings. First, we see the prevalence rates, based on a definition of bullying that parallels the language of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, which serves as the primary model for law reform efforts across the country:

2014prevalence

Next, we see that supervisor-to-subordinate bullying remains the most common scenario:

2014rank

Third, we see that employers aren’t exactly rushing to stop bullying at work when it occurs. Here is the breakdown of employer responses to reports of workplace bullying:

2014employer

Fourth, we see that the most common “resolution” of workplace bullying is the target, rather than the perpetrator (“P” on the pie chart), leaving the job:

2014stopped

Finally, WBI also surveyed the respondents on their potential support for the Healthy Workplace Bill. Here is their summary, posted to the WBI webpage, which shows overwhelming public support for workplace bullying legislation:

Question: Do you support or oppose enactment of a new law that would protect all workers from repeated abusive mistreatment in addition to protections against illegal discrimination and harassment?

Strongly support – 63% Somewhat support – 30% Somewhat oppose – 6% Strongly oppose – 1%

It is clear that the American public wants to see worker protections against abusive conduct extended beyond the anti-discrimination statutes – 93% support specific anti-bullying legislation.

Legislation designed to provide that protection – the Healthy Workplace Bill – has been introduced in 26 states (as of the date of this Survey) but has not yet been enacted into law.

Furthermore, 50% of Survey respondents self-defined as Conservatives strongly support the Healthy Workplace Bill. With such little opposition from those expected to oppose the bill, it is a certain conclusion that now is the time for passage of this new law.

Worth watching: Robert Reich’s “Inequality for All”

How much inequality can we tolerate and still have an economy that’s working for everyone and still have a democracy that’s functioning? Of all developed nations today, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income and wealth by far, and we’re surging toward even greater inequality.

-Robert Reich, from “Inequality for All”

If you’re looking for an informative, insightful, and lively take on the challenging question of how the American economy threw the middle class under the bus, Robert Reich’s 90-minute documentary, “Inequality for All,” fits the bill.

Reich is now at UC-Berkeley, teaching courses in economics and public affairs, after many years at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a term as Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton. A prodigious author, he turns to the documentary form to deftly blend economic data, income trends, political changes, tax policy, and personal stories & interviews. It’s not pure wonkishness; the film also tells us something of Reich’s interesting life story, too, and several segments exhibit his sharp wit and self-deprecating sense of humor.

As is the skill of a gifted lecturer, Reich packs a lot into the documentary in a way that doesn’t overwhelm. You’ll learn about the impact of globalization and technology on American jobs, how lower tax rates on the wealthy have had a negative correlation with overall economic health, and how the U.S. economy in 1928 (the year before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression) looked eerily similar to that in 2007 (the year before the Great Recession). You’ll also hear a wealthy CEO talk about the destructive aspects of extreme wealth concentration, and you’ll listen to stories of people trying desperately to stay in the nation’s middle class.

I have a few quarrels with the film. For example, I think Reich was a little soft on the reasons behind the virulent anti-union tactics of some American companies during the past few decades. I also believe that he needed to spell out the fuller implications of globalization for workers everywhere.  But I recognize that choices must be made to keep a documentary within a watchable length, and overall it makes very good use of our time.

“Inequality for All” opened in theaters last year, and it is now widely available in various DVD, on demand, and streaming formats. I just watched it this week, and I am happy to recommend it.

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One of the extras in the DVD is deleted footage about Reich’s 2002 campaign for Governor of Massachusetts, in which he made it onto the Democratic primary ballot but did not win the nomination. Reich uses a chunk of the segment to explain how personally difficult it was for him to spend so much of his time chasing down people for campaign contributions.

I volunteered for Reich’s campaign the day I read an announcement of his candidacy, and I served as a Reich delegate at the Democratic state nominating convention. The deleted documentary segment doesn’t fully convey the way in which he attracted a lot of supporters who had felt alienated from party politics in Massachusetts, not to mention the fact that he ran a very respectable campaign despite getting in the race late and operating with a shoestring budget.

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