Sunday, May 15, 2022

Insufficient Sensitivity To Administrative Intent

Once upon a time I was an assistant professor aspiring to become an associate. To accomplish this I had to prove three aspects of merit. My teaching, publications and service.

My "course evaluations" were good. (Actually they were my customer satisfaction ratings. But it's far too commercial to call them that.) My publications also were fine. My problem was "service." Why was that? Well, in this institution service was largely defined as serving on college committees. And despite my annually and even eagerly volunteering for whatever committee slots were available, I never got appointed to a single one. 

Realizing this would sink my prospects for promotion, I determined to find out what was going on. Committee assignments were made by, (get ready for this) the faculty "Committee on Committees." It chiefly consisted of old boy faculty, typically alums, and a chair who distinguished herself via her knee crooking cooperation with the Catholic Brothers who ran the place. 

Favored faculty got committee assignments even when they didn't fill out the form specifying their interests. I filled them out carefully. Nevertheless, I got zero assignments. So I requested an appointment with the chair of that "Committee On Committees" to find out what was going on. When she finally granted me an interview I wasn't in the mood to genuflect. So I reminded her that year after year I had volunteered for any available committee and got precisely nowhere. Others who were indifferent still got one assignment after another. What, I asked, was going on?

Her reply was uncommonly honest. She said it had somehow been determined, presumably via hearsay, that I was "insufficiently sensitive to administrative intent." That was the poison pill.

How to respond? Here's what I did. I reminded her that my promotion was at stake. I told her that I had kept a careful record of my efforts to volunteer. Then I added that if I failed to get promoted because of my alleged "lack of service," she and the rest of the committee would hear from my attorney. I planned to sue them all for damages. 

You know, I never again had any trouble getting committee assignments. As a matter of fact, I was routinely appointed to key ones, even though I did my best to remain insensitive to administrative intent . 

My promotion followed in due course. But what do you think happened to that chair of the Committee on Committees? Yes, as I presume you imagine, her sensitivity paid off. She became the Dean of Arts and Sciences. And in this exalted office she continued to utilize truly exquisite sensitivity to administrative intent.

What can be learned from my story? That there is a fundamental, though commonly unmentionable, tension between the interests of the administration and those of the faculty? That many faculty eagerly betray their peers in order to curry favor? That course evaluations are nothing of the kind? That religious communities can be nastily exclusionary? Sure, all of these factors are pertinent. But they also are evident to anyone who actually deserves to be called “professor.“

Then what else can we learn from this tale? First, that these academic realities really do resemble the missing genitalia on anatomical illustrations. Though critical, they too still are “disappeared.” And even mentioning their absence is risky. 

Despite this risk, however, joining in the pretense that these forces are absent from academia can still be exactly wrong. There are times when it's better to walk up to the academic equivalent of these anatomical illustrations, point to the blank crotch areas and ask, “What the hell is going on here?” 

When to do that? My advice? Whenever you have more to lose, if you don’t bring it up. Summoning these covert realities to the surface produces a sobering effect. At the very least it causes power holders to pause and reflect. Just remember, though, breaking the silence will be a game changer, even if you win.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

 When “Wokeness” Boomerangs!

For centuries African-Americans have dealt with profound injustice in immoderate amounts. Ironically, however, extreme emphasis on this injustice, which is promoted by the most "woke" among us, can boomerang and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


The Thomas theorem — well known among sociologists — points to how that happens. In substance the theorem describes how, when a situation is defined as true, it is true in its consequences. That's why outcomes often depend as much on the individual’s perception of the situation, as on the situation itself. Become convinced you are a utterly powerless victim, you will be. And this is precisely how immoderate emphasis on injustice, untempered by any other considerations, boomerangs. 

Anyone who is oppressed, American-American or otherwise, will learn to discount their own agency, their ability to overcome, if they become mired in the sticky goo of poor me-ism. They will even discount their own contribution to what happens in their lives. When that occurs no victimizers are required; no necessity for an oppressor. The oppressed will have taken on that job themselves.

Consider the civil rights anthem, "We shall overcome." The emphasis of this powerful song is on "WE," not someone else. Civil rights leaders certainly did not sit around waiting for "the man"to lift the yoke. They led African-Americans in lifting it off themselves. And it is precisely this kind of single-minded effort that is absolutely crucial for anyone who is oppressed.

I spent 50 years of my life as an educator, for example. And one of the most frustrating aspects of my career was watching too many African-American youngsters turn their backs on the opportunities schooling offers. Some were even hostile to it and not only refused to learn, but did their very best to keep others from learning.

 It's certainly true that school curricula, policies and procedures are often out of step with these kid's reality. But the fact remains that slave owners punished ANY schooling of slaves for a reason. Now kids with this negative attitude require no such oppression. They maintain the oppression themselves. And all of this self-righteous, self-serving, hand wringing by the excessively "woke" only makes it worse. Whatever our school's shortcomings, and they are many, especially for kids who are poor, they still offer opportunities. Sometimes the very best opportunities these kids will ever have. But only for those who eschew self-pity, focus on their own agency, and seize the day.