Encounters With the Usual Suspects


April 26, 2017

Just because you were invited to be an external reviewer for an academic department doesn’t mean its inhabitants actually want you there.

We wrote in The Chronicle earlier this year about the "potholes" of academic program review (or APR, as it’s known) — that ubiquitous process in which one or more outside scholars descend on a department to conduct an independent evaluation and offer remedies to whatever problems emerge. External reviewers represent a form of quality control in higher education.

Outside evaluation of any sort, no matter how well intended, can trigger a variety of reactions, from appreciative to … not. What we didn’t discuss in that first column about how to approach an APR was the list of usual suspects you may encounter — the prototypical academic characters inhabiting departments, large and small, who tend to generate more than their share of negativity.

We don’t just mean someone channeling the "loyal opposition" (i.e., the curmudgeonly colleague or contrarian who casts a cold eye on any review). There are many more exotic fauna than that in departments. The various personalities offer humor, pathos, and, very often, important insights into the workings — or dysfunction — of a given program.

Between the two of us, we’ve served as external reviewers in our field (psychology) for more than 70 programs. What follows is a field guide to some of the more familiar departmental denizens who tend to make departmental life, and consequently the APR, challenging.

The Voice of Truth. Psychologists have established that part of the human condition is to assume one’s own point of view is the truth and that others are biased, ignorant, or otherwise incapable of understanding the facts of the matter. Particularly when members of a department are at odds, separate and distinctive truths are not only abundant, but also routinely on a collision course.

Be prepared to see that phenomenon in action as a program reviewer. Both of us have been invited into a faculty office where a professor quickly closed the door, looked at us meaningfully, and then offered some variation of, "I know what you read in the self-study, but let me tell you what’s really going on here."

Professor Passive-Aggressive. On occasion, indirect social aggression can happen during an APR. One of us, after being seated across the desk from a senior member of a department, was subjected to a silent staring contest. After two minutes, the senior professor sighed, looked heavenward, and said, "I’m not sure why you’re here. I don’t know what to do with you." Identifying the fault lines in that particular department did not take long.

During a different review at a large department, all colleagues had been invited to a Q&A. Everyone sat around a large conference table except one faculty member — he sat on a lone chair with his back to the group. When invited to join, he declined, noting that he was "just listening."

Dr. Ghost Writer. This department member wants to help by lightening the external reviewers’ load — considerably. One of us was invited to do a review where a professor promised, "I’ll tell you just what to write in your report and then we’ll go out to some excellent restaurants during your two days with us — it’ll be a breeze."

It is not unusual for department heads to have particular goals that they hope will be met by an objective review, but to short-circuit the process in favor of a gourmet tour of the city’s eateries misses the point and eclipses the value of the review.

Professor Promises, Promises. Although some professors are great at making promises, they may not be so great at keeping them. They forget about meetings. Or they show up late, and once there, do their email. They ask questions that were covered while they were sending emails. But they’re so very, very busy. Technically, of course, their broken promises just end up creating additional work and workarounds for everyone else.

Dr. Deadwood. Many senior professors are remarkable for their vibrant classroom performance, untiring service, and scholarly productivity. But in any academic program review, you will also encounter some whose performance has been lackluster, at best, for years. Often they know it. One character we met along the way confessed it would be better for his department if he retired: "They could get two or three faculty lines out of my salary. But I’m not going anywhere."

The Smartest Kid in the Room. Most faculty members have spent their early lives being the smart kid in any room. Then they go to graduate school and join a faculty where they are surrounded by other smart kids. Most adjust. But some seem incapable of relinquishing their superior intellectual claims. Such faculty members tend to be chronically grumpy, particularly when their colleagues get special attention. The Smartest Kid seems never to be satisfied with being one of a gang of very smart and cooperative grown-ups.

Dr. Pangloss. It’s nice to have a Dr. Pangloss as a colleague. Like the character in Candide, this professor will repeatedly claim "that all is for the best in this best of all possible departments."

On the other hand, such sentiments, while earnest and well-meaning, can impede an APR. The presumed perfect is the enemy of the good, not to mention the need for change. If the undergraduate curriculum hasn’t been revised in 20 years, it’s high time to do something — however much Dr. Pangloss thinks everything is just swell as is.

The Untenured Miracle Worker. The UTMW works very hard, harder than a human should be expected to work in a professional context. Often a woman, she is on numerous departmental committees, several university-level committees or task forces, often runs a student club or two, has more than her fair share of advisees. She may end up jeopardizing her long-term place in the department because service displaces her scholarly production. When the time comes, her grateful colleagues will say nice things about her contributions, but with regret, pass on the opportunity to welcome her as a tenured colleague.

Dr. Devotee of the Downtrodden. A great deal has been done to make academe a welcoming environment for differences of all kinds, with more yet to do. But a perfect diversity-enriched environment may always be an unattainable goal. The Dr. Devotee denizen feels honor-bound to point out each and every shortcoming, sometimes hijacking meetings with a new complaint about his or her particular disappointments. Dr. Devotees advocate for tolerance while displaying significant intolerance and impatience themselves.

Professor Nostalgia. To borrow from the British Parliamentary system, many departments have what might be called a "shadow cabinet" — a camp of disgruntled colleagues longing for another, usually older, regime. Their leader, Professor Nostalgia, will often damn the current chair with faint praise, all the while lamenting the passing of "the way things used to be done." The problem is that, under most circumstances, the department may be moving along just fine — it’s just that Professor Nostalgia doesn’t like change and hates being out of power.

We close with a handful of tips on how to cope with all of those archetypes. If you are the department chair:

  • Warn external reviewers verbally before — not after — they meet with a challenging colleague. Forewarned is forearmed.
  • Keep meeting times with individual colleagues and the reviewer brief. If necessary, hover and rescue the reviewer for the next colleague on the schedule.
  • To ensure that one professor doesn’t dominate conversation with the reviewer, orchestrate who sits where during group meetings or at meals.
  • Finally, choose with care the faculty members who will escort reviewers to and from the airport and around the campus.

If you are an external reviewer:

  • Strive to take personalities in stride. Virtually all departments have characters (you may even be one on your home turf).
  • Don’t reveal your major concerns about the program on the fly in face-to-face conversations. Make notes along the way so you can integrate what you’re hearing after you have gathered everyone’s version of the facts. If you have serious concerns, share them privately with the chair, dean, or provost.
  • Some professors simply resent the APR process and may be demeaning, provocative, or insulting. Sometimes people act out or act up because they care deeply about their academic home or personal reputation, and become anxious in the face of change or evaluation. Always maintain a sense of humor and perspective.
  • Keep in focus the goal of improving the quality of life for all department members, even the crabby ones.

Dana S. Dunn is a professor and former chair of psychology at Moravian College. Jane S. Halonen is professor of psychology and former dean of arts and sciences at the University of West Florida.