Disgruntled, tenured, and silent in the academic workplace

As some readers are quite aware, these are trying times at many universities, private and public alike. Finances are precarious, budgets are tight, and cutbacks are often the norm. At some schools, board members and senior administrators have turned into micro-managers. Highly paid senior administrators are proliferating at many universities, even as full-time faculty and staff are being laid off. Many will hire pricey consultants to help them do the work that they are not competent to do themselves, despite their hefty paychecks.

Instead of best practices winning the day, some of the worst excesses of private, non-profit, and public sector management seem to be festering in all too many institutions of higher learning.

In response, the voices of accountability, or at least those of the devil’s advocate, should be the tenured faculty. As I wrote in one of this blog’s most popular posts, tenured faculty typically have gone through a rigorous review process spanning many years, resulting in job protections much greater than those of the average worker. This includes the right and privilege of academic freedom, which is among the qualities that make colleges and universities different from many other workplaces.

In fact, the term “faculty governance,” a supposed bulwark of higher education culture and practice, relates directly to the exercise of academic freedom. It anticipates an active role for faculty in determining the future of an institution, and this may include questioning, probing, and criticizing proposed and adopted policies within the university.

But there’s a kind of hush…

All too often, however, certain tenured faculty remain silent. They may deeply object to what is transpiring around them, out of principle and/or self-interest. They also may enjoy additional institutional privileges, sometimes by dint of accomplishments, other times because of connections, and on occasion due to demographic status. If they would only speak up, they could make a difference.

But rather than jeopardize their privileges, they have nothing to say.

While others are questioning unwise and/or unfair practices and policies, they are nowhere to be heard. Oh, they may grouse in private, perhaps vehemently so. Maybe they’ll send a (private) e-mail of support to one of the “dissenters,” “rabble-rousers,” or “bomb throwers,” but when it comes to publicly aligning themselves with those who are sticking out their necks (sometimes on their behalf!), they stay mute.

If letters of protest are circulated, they may consider signing, but not until confirming that many others have signed on ahead of them. If a resolution criticizing a bad administrative move is being considered at a faculty meeting, they’ll wait a half second to see how others vote before raising their hand. If a close colleague or co-worker faces retaliation or termination and approaches them for help, they may express sympathy, while adding it’s a shame that there’s nothing they can say or do.

They obviously had the intellectual chops to get tenure, but in the aftermath of obtaining that brass ring, they’ve decided that it’s wiser to conduct themselves on a risk-free basis. If there are battles to be fought, let others step up to the challenge.

Over the years I have talked to faculty at many different universities about this dynamic. It is not uncommon, especially at more dysfunctional institutions.

The perks of silence

The disgruntled, tenured, and silent will stay in their offices, with fingers crossed that no one comes for them, while continuing to collect and enjoy the perks of silence.

The least admirable of these folks will kiss up to the very people whose actions they so (privately) criticize.

This is, of course, their right. Tenure does not oblige one to exercise the freedom of expression bestowed by that status. Nor does it prohibit anyone from stroking the egos of those they silently oppose. After all, why risk retaliation and sacrifice one’s privileges — earned or not — when others are willing to do so?

5 responses

  1. In the authoritarian, hierarchical cultures of universities, I would not expect anything different from what you have described above. And regarding “disgruntled faculty,” I have noticed that it’s not uncommon to find they, at one time, had deep convictions and challenged status quo in some way. As a result, were hurt in the process.

  2. There is another side of this. Some professors believe tenure ensures entitlement. Emtitlement attitude creates problems. But the darker side is the parttime professors who don’t have benefits and paid per class.

  3. I recall during my undergraduate studies, there was a full-time non-tenured professor who essentially was a bully in that department, and her colleagues enabled her.

    One of her most fervent targets was a tenured professor. This particular non-tenured professor applied more than once to gain tenure and was denied.

    The tenured professor endured unthinkable bullying by this woman and the other members of the department enabled her.

    I recall one instance when one of the enabling-co-bullies-posted something on this professor’s door that was of a disgusting nature.

    I was surprised by my response because I was spontaneous about it. I told him that the poster needs to be taken down or I will report it to the appropriate person(s).

    It was quite evident that the student body was obviously included in witnessing the bullying of this professor, who was an exceptionally bright woman with a doctorate degree in her field and well liked by many students.

    After that incident I became a target, as well. I had a 4.0 average and this professor attempted to bring my grade average down. I had to address the inappropriateness of his methods in doing so, because they were faulty at best.

    In the end every student in that class-for that course-received an A.

    I wish I was that successful in my own bullying experiences as a long-time employee.

    Bullying can do so much damage to someone, as we all too well know.

  4. Bullying. I had successfully defended and uploaded my dissertation… I have an learning disabilities. When I asked for a few of my ADA rights, the department turned on me, as i was told: “talking about those things turn them off”. I became the first person in the history of the department to through bureaucratic manipulation was denied my Phd. The students and professors who told me they were outraged… in the end refused to testify at my OEO hearing.

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