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So Little at Stake?

October 2, 2009

Henry Kissinger is reported to have said that the reason academic quarrels are so bitter is that there is so little at stake.  Academics are often quick to take offense, even at actions, comments or questions not intended to be offensive or insulting.  According to some commentators, incivility among academics, euphemistically called a lack of collegiality, is becoming increasingly common.  Multiple causes for this have been cited, including increased workloads, individualism, expectations, etc.   The adoption of a more corporate ethos and administrative structure by universities has also been frequently cited as a cause.  It is each person for themselves in the modern university.

Collegiality is increasingly being touted as a criterion that should be considered in making tenure decisions.   It is not collegiality, of course, that will be considered in making tenure decisions, but perceived non-collegiality.  You will never be tenured because you are a nice person.  For many faculty, collegiality smacks of conformism, inflexibility, and political correctness.  A requirement for collegiality, it is rightly feared, will ultimately be used by administrators, especially department chairs, as a way to control or eliminate troublesome faculty, i.e., their vocal  critics and detractors.   Incivility in academia rarely translates into fist fights,  shouting matches or any kind of bullying.  It usually is expressed as a form of shunning.  I’ll illustrate using an example from my life.

When I was still an assistant professor, one of my colleagues worked in an area, seed science, that was also of  interest to me.   He had worked for years on studies of environmental actors that control the germination of the seeds of weed species in order to better predict weed species numbers in crop fields.   At the time, I was interested in environmental factors that controlled the germination of the seeds of wetland species.  We shared one other important characteristic, we were both Canadians.  At first we got along very well, and he offered to let me use equipment in his lab to carry out some of my research: an offer that I readily accepted because my lab had little more than empty shelves in it at the time.

Our relationship remained cordial for a number of years. Then one day after a departmental seminar that he had given, I asked him, what I thought was an innocuous question, “Was weed science really a distinct science?”  What I was getting at was, did weed science really have any theories or concepts that were fundamentally different from those held by plant ecologists who were also interested in and studying factors controlling the establishment of plant species.  It seemed to me that, other than his applied orientation, there was not much difference between his scientific outlook and even his experimental approaches and mine.   He, however, interpreted my question as an attack on his discipline; that I was implying that weed science was somehow inferior to ecology.  He never answered my question.  He just walked away obviously angry and upset,  and we never spoke again for many years.

At first I felt very awkward at faculty meetings and in other settings where I ran into him.  Although I was upset by our falling out, I never tried to explain the intent of my question or to apologize to him.  Our department eventually split with the applied people forming a new department.  Both departments remained in the same building and, in fact, all the faculty members in both departments remained initially in the same offices and labs.  We were on different floors, however,  and rarely ran into one another.  Kissinger is right.  In the end, there was little at stake.  He moved on with his life, and I moved on with mine.

One day I found out through the local grapevine that he had been diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer.   Other than the feeling sorry for him and his family, I did nothing.  Shortly after learning that he was dying, I ran into him while picking up my mail in the departmental office.  Much to my surprise he started to talk to me.  Specifically, he wanted to apologize to me for taking offense at my question 20 years ago.  He explained to me that he had worked very hard during his professional career to make weed science a more rigorous and scientific discipline so that it involved more than just developing and testing herbicides.   I explained that I had meant no disrespect when I asked the question, and that I certainly had not been trying to belittle his discipline.   In a matter of a few minutes, twenty years of misunderstanding was cleared up.  Why hadn’t we been able to have this conversation twenty years ago?  I later learned that he had also approached several other faculty members with whom he had also quarreled to make peace with them.  He died shortly after our reconciliation.

This type of incivility, shunning, does have its negative consequences, personal and professional.  However, they are minor and easily handled.  Academics are fortunate because they can pick and choose to a large extent with whom they want to work and to interact.  In my experience, shunning is fairly widespread, and I can’t imagine a department of any size that does not contain at least a couple of faculty members who do not talk to each other.   This is certainly true of my department.  The bottom line is that the main duties of faculty are teaching, research and service.  Collegiality refers to relationships, not duties.  Being a nice person is not essential for being a successful teacher, researcher or committee member.  Incivility is a form of social friction.   As long as it does not result in actions that can get someone arrested, it is best to ignore it.  It might be possible to reduce incivility, but it can never be eliminated.   Given the fact that universities are incapable of dealing with the most obvious faculty deadwood, incivility is unlikely to be a problem for which an acceptable solution can ever be found.  As my mother would have said, learn to live with it.

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