It's Not Your Fault

Brian Taylor

May 31, 2011

The assistant professor had heard the advice from his mentors often enough for it to stick: Your efforts to earn tenure should never be diverted or delayed by needless personal or political squabbles. Yet now he seemed to be engaged in a cold war of petty disputes with a senior faculty member.

Whether the subject was a curriculum change or a new logo for faculty business cards, he and his newfound nemesis fell on opposing sides. The assistant professor grew wary of faculty meetings and weary of the constant tension.

His nagging thought was, "Where did I go wrong?"

Graduate students and probationary faculty members, when finding themselves in a fracas with a student or colleague, often blame themselves. And sometimes you are to blame. Being self-aware enough to recognize that is as important for your career as it is for your private life.

But just as often, it really is not your fault: Other people and forces are the villains.

I assign guilt with caution, as should you. Blame is not an end itself but a means to a solution. Sometimes the fixing of blame alone is enough to help bring about peace, as in, "Hey, I think you think I'm trying to supersede you as the main instructor of this course. Not at all, but I like the class and would love to learn from you, someone who has taught it for so long." Alternately, just figuring out that somebody else is the problem can ease your mind, which, on the tenure track, is a boon to success.

That said, here is a taxonomy of conflicts for which you bear no responsibility though you may be involved.

Primordial conflicts. A decade ago, when I first started studying the culture, personalities, and politics of promotion and tenure, I was struck by the remarkable similarities between the problems faced by doctoral students and probationary faculty members, despite wide variations of discipline and institution. It turns out, both the Ivy League chemist and the community-college French instructor encounter certain situations and human dynamics that are eternal.

One such is the tension between the new and the status quo. In pedagogy, for example, young scholars are enthused, almost evangelical, about teaching. They are full of energy and great (to them) ideas. Senior scholars, on the other hand, may still love teaching but have accumulated both a set of tried-and-true practices and a degree of cynicism about the success rate of even the most eagerly applied classroom experiment. Naturally, such competing mindsets will chafe at times, so don't be surprised when they do for you.

Symbolic feuds. Sometimes, when you are the victim of what you perceive to be an unwarranted attack, the perpetrator is striking out not against you personally but rather against what you represent.

Take the case of the senior professor at a small liberal-arts college who treated an assistant professor curtly from the day he started on the tenure track. A few months later, after the young hire shared his bewilderment with colleagues, they cited the main issue that galled the older professor: salary compression. Newly hired faculty members were being paid at market rates, which meant their salaries were close to that of the senior professor who had been at the college for decades.

It was actually a relief for the young assistant professor to learn that the conflict had nothing to do with him as a person, just him as a part of a cohort.

Proxy battles. Certain conflicts are not your fault because you are simply an innocent bystander or a collateral victim in someone else's war. Years ago, a friend who is a community-college dean described a department in which nearly everyone who was hired in one area of specialization had to choose a side in a longstanding feud among the senior faculty members. The newcomers had not volunteered for the army but rather felt conscripted. Eventually, though, as a generation passed, the cohort of associate and assistant professors rebelled in the cause of peace and suppressed the conflict.

Caustic cultures. Everyone in academe is aware of certain departments whose members seem perennially at odds. Behaviorally challenged and downright mean senior professors, battling year after year with each other or with the administration, perpetuate the unhappiness.

Newbies either get caught up or hurt in the stream of backbiting and invective.

Fortunately, dysfunctionality on such a scale is hard to keep secret. Part of your academic job search should be to learn where not to apply, because no offer, no matter how tempting, is worth immersion in a hellish environment.

Jealousy and envy. A few years ago I wrote a column about job searches titled "You Were Too Good for Us." I described an occasional phenomenon in which faculty members intentionally avoid hiring the top candidate because she or he would be seen as too challenging, raise the bar too high, or, more practically, would not be likely to stay for long because of loftier ambitions than the local department could support.

The same green-eyed monster curses people once they land on the tenure track as well.

An assistant professor at a regional state university described a direct relationship between the number of articles she published and how badly she was treated by a few senior faculty members. No amount of amicability or trying to stay out of people's way rectified the situation. The senior professors were jealous and expressed it through gossip, sarcasm, and actively undermining her work. Her eventual recourse was the only one that brought her tranquillity: She left.

Difficult people. A sad but true realization that eventually comes to all of us, except for the most rosy-lensed optimist, is that some people are persistently ornery.

A doctoral student in a Canadian program told me how he had been driven nearly to tears by the irascibility and quixotic nature of his adviser until finally some other faculty members set the young hire straight: "That's the way Professor Pugnacio is. He'll never change; grin, bear it, and graduate." Indeed, the student found it liberating to accept that the rocky relationship wasn't his own fault and that generations of previous graduate students had survived the ordeal and actually gained quite a lot from a "tough old bird" who was also a great scholar.

On the other hand, some people are just plain jerks. You will never convert them to amity and virtue, so don't waste psychological manna trying.

There are cases where you are probably at fault, and in a future column I'll focus on them, as well as on the many ways to resolve conflicts regardless of who is to blame. But sometimes the quickest relief comes from merely figuring out that a single tussle or a longstanding feud is not your fault but rather originates in the minds, culture, politics, or economic situation of others. So don't bang your head on the office door trying to uncover what you did to create an enemy. Sometimes the enemy is the problem, not you.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. He writes the "P&T Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book on promotion and tenure was just published by Harvard University Press.