Spotting Your Enemies

Brian Taylor

November 07, 2010

"Behold [I am] the Underminer. I am always beneath you, but nothing is beneath me!" That's from a scene at the end of The Incredibles, but it could just as easily have been a line uttered in a satirical movie about faculty life.

Scene: The assistant professor sits down for his very first faculty meeting, with some satisfaction, after being hired right out of a doctoral program. He is a member of the club. He gets to speak; he gets to vote. At the meeting, a dispute breaks out, albeit a lopsided one. A senior professor introduces a proposal. The entire tenured faculty opposes her idea. Tempers run high and the tone gets caustic. The assistant professor is aware that probationary faculty members should stay out of fights but he, too, opposes the measure so he speaks up strongly against it. The vote is many to one.

On leaving the meeting, our young hero catches the beleaguered full professor singling him out for a dagger-eyed glare. The junior scholar gulps in realization: He has just made an enemy.

This is the second in a series of essays on one of the most sensitive topics in the world of promotion and tenure: how to handle conflicts among faculty members. In the first column (The Chronicle, September 24), I offered some ways to avoid battles. Here I focus on the types of enemies you may develop on the tenure track, even if you try not to, and how to deal with them.

In the above scenario (based on a real-life situation) the assistant professor had joined the majority. But the outvoted senior, whatever resentments she felt against her colleagues, was especially irate at the idea of a "pup" helping veto her pet project. What kind of an enemy would she be toward him? How lasting would be her enmity? Would it affect anything—from his morale to the eventual vote on his tenure case? More on that later.

But first, let's consider the various species of enemy, as supervillains without costumes or henchmen.

Turfmaster: Some faculty members are innocuous so long as their own sacred terrain of curriculum, teaching assignments, committee chairmanships, budget lines, and graduate-student advisees remains inviolate.

An assistant professor told me that he once remarked offhandedly at a curriculum-committee meeting that the basic textbook being used for an intro course had been superseded by better texts. The abbreviated coughs and lowered eyes around the room should have been warning for what came after. A senior faculty member popped in the young scholar's office that afternoon to drily inform him that the text in question was one he had used for years and "nothing, repeat nothing" was wrong with it.

To some extent, whether or not turfmasters are long-term enemies depends on how important you feel it is to fight the battle on their turf. In this case, the probationary faculty member was not teaching the intro course and had no plans to. So he backed off and told the turfmaster, "That's fine with me. I'm sure you've compared the texts more thoroughly than I have." The turfmaster was assuaged and dropped the matter; he proved to be quite cordial and reasonable on other topics farther from his heart.

Prickly pear: We have all met people, not just professors, whose shoulders are weighed down by enormous chips or whose insecurity drives them to see every conversation as a test of their prestige. They are never wrong, and they see even the slightest disagreement with their views as a personal affront.

Prickly pears, while impossible to evade completely, can be neutralized by making your contact with them as straightforward (and brief) as politely possible. Never tease or joke with the prickly pear; avoid playful banter or double-entendres. Never try to engage them in a true intellectual exchange.

On the other hand, you don't have to surrender your integrity. There is no need to be obsequious or to pour on false compliments. Be businesslike and keep your own counsel.

Big bully: Among the supervillains of academe is, unfortunately, the proverbial bully. This is usually a senior professor so bereft of conscience and honor that he enjoys picking on people he thinks he can persecute with impunity. He perceives graduate students and assistant professors as the ones least likely to fight back.

All faculty members and students have human, civil, legal, and institutional rights. If you are truly harassed, your university and the court system give you options. But here I am referring to the everyday sort of bullying: the snide comment, the disparaging remark, the implied insult. Bullies survive because they are adept at not crossing lines that will land them in actual legal or disciplinary trouble. They can, nonetheless, make your life miserable.

Bullies never reform; only in inspirational movies do they have a change of heart. If you can't avoid them, the most direct form of protection is to put yourself under the aegis of someone the bully does fear. It is one of the most important yet unwritten duties, for example, of a department chair to protect students and junior professors from bullying of any kind. A similar role should exist for the head of the promotion-and-tenure committee. Ideally, senior scholars should converge to defend the juniors when they are put upon by a supervillain. Alas, the ideal is not always the reality. Timid chairs may not feel like "interfering."

Still, you can try to find someone with stature at your university, if not in your department, who can implicitly or explicitly help you persuade the bully to cease and desist. The good news is that most bullies are cowards and will stop picking on you if you stand up to them with a champion at your side.

Dr. Chaos: Some people seem to thrive on conflict and want to start battles for no practical reason, even against their own self-interest. Chaos villains are an especially treacherous breed because of their random words and actions. They are very hard to plead with, buy off, or even threaten. A senior friend described the 40-year career he witnessed of one such pandemoniac: At every faculty meeting the latter would declare a pressing emergency issue and ascribe blame to someone else. Junior faculty members were rattled when they found themselves the target of his unforeseen attacks.

Over time, however, like an oyster neutralizing grit, the other faculty members in the department adapted. They secretly agreed to add half an hour of "ranting time" to faculty meetings and quietly precounseled tenure trackers to just grin and bear it when the ranting began. Dr. Chaos would spew forth; everyone would sit quietly, catching up on work they'd brought intentionally for this time. When he was spent, the real business would begin. Junior faculty members knew that it was a seasonal storm that would have no lasting effect on them. In any vote, including that for promotion and tenure, Chaos was always vanquished by order.

The scenario with which I began this column turned out for the best for the assistant professor because our hero learned he was faced by a chaotic foe. In practically every faculty meeting, the senior professor was a vocal outlier. The young scholar found that he lost nothing by joining with everyone else in voting against her; but he was prudent enough not to lead the countercharge in the discussion. Chaotic enemies, blessedly, have poor attention spans and tend not to focus on any single victim for long.

The Deal Maker: The easiest enemy to mollify is the horse-trader, the one who puts up a front of antagonism while actually just shopping for a deal on a particular issue.

A doctoral student described how she was mortified when one such full professor strongly critiqued her research presentation. Another senior scholar advised her, "Just cite him once in the paper and see what happens." The student tested that theory, sending her critic a copy of the research paper, completely unchanged from the text of the presentation except for adding a reference to one of his journal articles. He responded with, "Much improved. Good work."

Deal makers may or may not be conscious of their dishonorable trading, but since to them life is a bazaar of deals to be made, it is not too hard to figure out what they want. The question, as always, is what price you are willing to pay for peace.

The Smiler: When Chaucer described the "smyler with the knyf under the cloke," he well understood that some enemies do not make direct attacks. Sneakiness and deception are their watchwords. For that reason, they are especially dangerous because unlike cranky and irascible old faculty salts whom everybody knows to beware of, the "smyler's" air of geniality and benevolence may lure in the unsuspecting graduate student or untenured faculty member.

In countering the smiler, information is the best preparation. The deceiver has probably deceived somebody else before and not waited for you to show up on the faculty to start his career of villainy. As a rookie, you want to spend your first couple of months, not gossiping, but at least getting some sense from others about who, among the senior professors, has a record of true decency and able mentorship versus those who are users, takers, and tricksters.

The enemies of your tenure-track years may be fleeting or implacable. They may be minor obstacles overcome by a kind word or a nod of agreement on a minor issue. Or they may turn into major hurdles that require you to choose whether to give up a portion of your dignity to mollify them or even to put up a fight (preferably with powerful allies).

Advice about avoiding villains is only helpful up to a point. If you find yourself in a truly dysfunctional culture where the villains outnumber the heroes, you might try to move out (although the job market will make that difficult). There comes a time when everybody needs to stand up to persecution.

Fortunately, unlike the stereotype in literature and movies, outright villains in academe are a small minority of our population, no greater or lesser than in any other workplace. If you are lucky, you may meet only a handful of them in your career. And even then, you can often divert or defuse their villainy. A fight-or-flight response is not your only option.

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