What defines a disfunctional University Department - by Stanley Fish
All happy departments are alike. All unhappy departments are unhappy in their own way. Let me count the ways.
You know it's an unhappy department if it is fissured by quarrels the origins of which no one remembers, in part because the original combatants have long since died. In departments unhappy in this way, dead people often end up having more power (and votes) than the people who claim to be alive.
You know it's an unhappy department if its discussions are conducted in code, and procedural questions stand in for the substantive issues that are never allowed to surface. Once this decorum is established, it exerts a pressure such that no one ever gets to say what he or she really thinks; and although the ever smaller battles do get won and lost, the department always loses because its pathologies are never confronted.
You know it's an unhappy department if a mania for democracy has supplanted any sense of what the enterprise is really for. Members of this kind of unhappy department think that they are in the business of being fair and equitable rather than in the business of history or chemistry or economics. Of course there is nothing wrong with fairness and equity, but you have to have something to be fair and equitable about, and it is easy to congratulate yourself for upholding values that crowd out the values -- rigor, knowledge, judgment, truth -- that constitute academic work.
You know it's an unhappy department if its bylaws are longer and more complicated than many of the articles department members write. The general rule is that the longer the bylaws the unhappier the department. This is so because the motive for length is to take into account the interests of all factions, with the result that every turf battle, imagined slight, baseless jealousy, and ungrounded anxiety is accorded constitutional status and guaranteed eternal life.
You know it's an unhappy department if there are two of them; if, in the heat of internecine warfare, one side has declared itself independent of the other and persuaded a hapless administration to set up a separate shop. What you then have is a situation in which authority is diluted in the manner of the Avignon papacy or of the multiple organizations that proclaim three different persons the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Where you once had a single weak department, you now have two, each of which defines itself in relation to the (supposed) illegitimacy, rapacity, and duplicity of the other. Departments in this fix should, in the interest of truth in advertising, display a sign on the office door proclaiming, "Damaged Goods, all ye who enter here should have your heads examined."
You know it's an unhappy department if individual members delight in hanging out the department's dirty laundry in public for any and all to see, running first to deans and then to provosts and ultimately to trustees and the tabloid press. As despicable as this behavior is, blame should fall not on the perpetrators but on the department that cannot conduct its own business in-house and commands so little allegiance that the category "harmful to the department's interest" has no place in the minds of its members who think of themselves as acting out of the purest motives, even as they perform in ways that make both themselves and the unit they supposedly represent pariahs in the eyes of the very administrators they petition. (Nothing marks a department as a bad and unhappy one more surely than this particular version of professional suicide.)
You know it's an unhappy department if there is a departmental salary committee that works from a "price list" of activities, awarding so much for a book, so much for a refereed article, so much for an unrefereed article, so much for a footnote, so much for an appearance at your daughter's third-grade class. There is a perverse economy to this procedure, which assures that the scorecard of everyone's failures and humiliations -- along with the successes that spread pain evenly to those who haven't had them -- can be publicly displayed and given their precise monetary value down to the last penny. (This is the financial equivalent of the bylaws that are longer than the sum of all the departmental CV's.)
You know it's an unhappy department if the decision to hire turns even partly on the question of whether a potential new colleague will be paid more than long-time department members at the same or even higher rank. (This is the "fairness bogey" once again raising its irrelevant head.) The truth is that if this is not the case you're not hiring or trying to hire the right people, who, because they are the right people, will be commanding top-dollar prices in a market that is very different from the market in place when your veterans first came aboard. Given the inverse relationship between institutional longevity and current market value (the longer you stay at a place, the more you will fall behind, independently of, and indeed because of, your years of service), what is now called "salary compression" is inevitable, and cannot be corrected on the spot (although the fact of it can lead to a strategy for narrowing the gap between the newcomers and the old hands). Salary compression can be avoided by the simple expedient of only hiring at salaries in line with the salaries already being paid to those at the designated rank; but if you do that, you will be choosing from the bottom of the barrel (except in those once-in-a-while instances where a top-flight person just has to live in the area, and that won't last forever), and you will lose the chance to add new and invigorating scholars to the departmental mix -- a loss actively desired by some unhappy members of some unhappy departments.
You know it's an unhappy department if the department turns its administrative and collective eyes away from the misdemeanors and possible felonies of a rogue member -- someone who fails to meet classes or office hours, someone whose instruction bears no relationship to what is stated in the course catalog, someone who hasn't been to department meetings in years because they are scheduled on days when the dog must be taken to therapy, someone who votes (usually negatively) on personnel matters without ever having met the candidate or read the materials, someone who eats up a disproportionate share of department resources (telephone, copying, travel, secretarial time) while reserving the benefit of grants and research funds jealously to himself, someone who involves students in projects for which she is being paid by outside agencies, someone who involves students in his or her personal quarrels, someone who harasses and makes life difficult for people (staff members, students, junior colleagues, women, men, anyone), someone who is quite possibly a sexual predator, someone who regularly and semi-publicly displays contempt for the attributes (religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political views) of those he hates or fears. When such a person is not called to account for his or her behavior, the result is not simply that someone has gotten away with something (or with many things); the more significant result is that a cancer has entered the department's bloodstream, infecting all of its activities, including those far removed from the behavior that has been allowed to continue. Such a department is rotting from within and it will only be a matter of time before there is nothing left but ruins and shards and disease.
You know it's an unhappy department when the person who answers the phone (if the phone is answered) does so in languid, lugubrious tones and displays energy only when he or she is unable to answer your question and takes genuine and animated pleasure at being unable to direct you to someone who can. This is not a staff failure; it is a failure in training, supervision, and ethos. The performance of a staff member is an index of the degree to which a department knows its business and is concerned that it be done professionally. Bad staff performance is a sure sign that Conrad's flabby devil has found a home and taken over.
In the same vein, you know it's an unhappy department if the halls it inhabits are lined with old, decaying furniture, the lights are out, and the offices are empty.
Obviously this taxonomy is far from complete, and I invite readers who do not recognize their own unhappy departments in this partial inventory to send in additional items. Meanwhile it is perhaps time to speculate on the reasons why so many (certainly not all) departments are unhappy. One reason is an attachment -- often not recognized by those who feel it -- to a bad history that might include a grand fight in a meeting 15 years ago, a soft-core decision to promote someone who now spits out the corrosive venom of a person who knows that he or she is here only by virtue of an act of condescension bitterly resented (this kind of resentment will outlast plutonium), a determination to settle old scores again and again and again, the perception of favoritism, the reality of hard times with its attendant deprivations and scarcities. What is curious is that after a while this structure of discontents is the only thing some department members are content with; in fact they love it and don't want to give it up. Once on a site visit, I asked an assembled department if it wanted to move ahead with new projects and renewed vision or if it preferred to go on as before and make its pain its treasure. The response was a little like Jack Benny's famous answer to the question put to him by a thief. "Your money or your life?" Like Benny, they wanted to think it over.
Now I'm not saying that there is no substance to the memories and investments that unhappy departments finger and caress. Bad things do happen (many inflicted by forces from the outside), but a good and healthy organization will face them down, regroup, and gather itself for the next chapter in the fight for good and glory. But it is unlikely to do so in the absence of strong and encouraging leadership, and that is a second key reason why unhappy departments tend to persist in their unhappiness -- the want of a leader who can break with the past and turn negative energies into positive resolve. Just how a leader does that and with what resources garnered from what coffers is a long story, filled with as many hazards as hopes, and it is a story that must wait for another column.
One more thing: Some who read this column will be moved to respond by saying (or writing), "You know it's an unhappy department if Stanley Fish is its chair." I just wanted to say it first, although, of course, it wouldn't be true.
Stanley Fish, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes a monthly column for the Career Network on campus politics and academic careers. His most recent book is How Milton Works (Harvard University Press, 2001).
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