Dysfunction in the community of scholars

Having spent most of the last 35 years immersed in the university or college setting, I have slowly come to appreciate how socially abnormal this existence can be. Early in my career I believed that the academy provided the best way of life. My perspective of intellectual and social superiority was presumptuous and it is easy to see how such an attitude feeds the widespread anti-intellectual populism that has waxed and waned throughout the history of America. Indeed, the academy is under increasing assault in the present era. The enemy at the gates, who ultimately pay us, are demanding more accountability for the extreme costs of higher education. The current polarized political climate leaves us disconnected from friends and family who are not part of the world of scholars.

Although there is much that can be said and done about the economic and political forces that are undermining higher education, here I would like to address how we, the scholars, perceive each other and our relationships with society outside of the academy. These relationships are often dysfunctional because of our distorted perceptions. In the midst of rising external hostility, I believe that the survival of liberal education may significantly depend on our ability to reconnect with our humanity and embrace our higher purpose as a community of scholars.

To varying degrees scholars are internally focused on fine-scale intellectual issues. This is our job. Some are drawn to the academic way of life, in part, because they are uncomfortable or to some extent ineffective in social situations. A research question can become the scholar’s entire universe. I have found it amusing to observe how a scholar will sometimes use their narrow slice of scholarship to frame their understanding of areas completely unrelated to their expertise. Put bluntly, academics may have limited opportunities to socially and emotionally mature through the process normally afforded those who are not sheltered by the academy. Some of the most effective of us become what has been called extroverted introverts, which are individuals who can communicate effectively when necessary, but are frequently more comfortable alone.

Thus, the academic life can foster isolation and is often lacking in real community and friendship. Rivalries, social phobias, posturing, terrifying insecurities about professional standing, and bullying are common. A recent review found that 62% of higher education professionals report experiencing workplace bullying compared to 35% of the general public (Hollis, L. 2012. Bully in the Ivory Tower). Bullying was a frequent occurrence during my time in graduate school at Penn, and I have seen it repeatedly at every one of the seven institutions in my history. Typically bullying occurs among faculty, or between junior administration and faculty, and is commonly a result of a lack of emotional maturity and poor skills at social problem solving.

Not surprisingly, substance abuse is more common than is acknowledged. Booze lubricates virtually all academic social events and is the acceptable palliative for such a stressful life. Many academics eventually find their way through the social malaise that accompanies the pretense of intellectual superiority with relatively few permanent wounds and without becoming addicted. Uncounted others are not so fortunate. We romanticize and rationalize their self destruction by telling ourselves that addiction often accompanies brilliance. As is now increasingly appreciated, this is utter nonsense. Susan Cheever (2015 Drinking in America) has documented that in every case of a famous alcoholic writer, the best and only good writing was accomplished prior to the onset of active alcoholism. 

Most alarming is that an addicted or compromised faculty member is hardly ever confronted and told to seek help. Instead they are tolerated, especially if they have tenure. It is as if academic freedom includes the freedom to be hammered and hungover on the job, including the right to slowly die while one’s colleagues look the other way. Such individuals make their colleagues acutely uncomfortable, but rarely is any action taken. This is in contrast to medical and legal professions, which also have high rates of isolation and addiction, but colleagues have a legal obligation to report impaired practitioners.

The great irony of the academic life is that it should be joyous. We who have regular academic appointments have won the career lottery and have been given the greatest gift of civilization. We are paid to be intellectuals, and asked to give back in the form of teaching, scholarship, research, and outreach. Yet, a significant number of us create misery for each other because we fail to embrace the importance of community. We compete rather than collaborate, even when there are a dozen authors on a paper. Such self imposed isolation amplifies the genetic predisposition to addiction and other forms of mental illness. As an evolutionary ecologist (my own narrow slice of scholarship) I feel compelled to point out that such psychopathology reveals our failure to honor the fact that we are obligate social primates. We need each other and we need our fellows outside of the academy.

I believe that failure to embrace this reality may contribute to the downfall of our vaunted system of higher education. Periodically throughout history, scholars and institutions of higher learning have been persecuted for the grievances of society. The rise of radical conservative ideology carries with it the potential for the destruction of liberal education in America. Thus, our failure to embrace a sense of community not only impairs our humanity within the academy, it accentuates our differences from the rest of society and makes us easier to target as scapegoats. We not only fail to be inclusive among ourselves, we do not naturally see ourselves as being part of the larger world. This attitude of separateness is dangerous in a time when the value of pure research and a college degree are being aggressively challenged by politicians and the public.

I don’t have a comprehensive solution to such a widespread cultural dysfunction within the academy. I do have suggestions for faculty and administrative leadership.

Faculty: creating purpose and wellbeing

I suggest that faculty leadership convene a discussion with rank and file about the higher purpose and mission of the academy. We need to get back to first principles rather than focusing on protecting our privileges. Most academics know that tenure is seen by the outside world as an unearned sinecure, rather than necessary to protect academic freedom. We should begin a dialog among ourselves that will lead to clarifying and demonstrating our value to society. In the halcyon years following WWII, we were given the resources to win the arms and space races. The spinoff benefits to society were manifold, but today we face a much graver challenge.

Developing a sustainable relationship with our planet in the face of rapid ecological and climate change is the greatest challenge in the history of our species. As scholars and teachers we have a critical role to play in addressing this crisis. Indeed, higher education must provide the foundation of a sustainable civilization. Let’s quit fighting over scraps and the perceived insults of society, and fight for a future for everyone. Focusing our scholarship and teaching on this challenge will clearly demonstrate our value. Moreover, it is hard to imagine what would create greater solidarity than a shared purpose of this magnitude.

Secondly, I believe that faculty leadership should develop the human infrastructure and processes to mentor young and seasoned scholars alike in the art of collaboration and community building. This process could be expert advised and foster an understanding of workplace wellbeing and human connections. Workshops designed to help create a healthy academic life could be part of new faculty orientation. Adjunct faculty should be welcomed into this process because they are a big part of the faculty cultural milieu.

Often our closest associates are scholars within our disciplinary specialty. Ironically, we may barely speak to the faculty member in the lab next door, but we might communicate several times a day with a collaborator on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. While this enhances research in a specialized area of inquiry, it often does not facilitate interdisciplinary scholarship, which is the foundation of problem focused sustainability research and education. Thus, building community among the scholars within an institution can facilitate discovery and research in areas that are arguably critical to the survival of civilization. The close collaboration of the humanities and social sciences with the physical and natural sciences is necessary if we are to craft proactive adaptive management of human and natural resources. I suggest that the first place to build these bridges is at one’s home institution.

I suggest that faculty take some elements of the business world as a model for how to be better citizens. Businesses routinely hold open houses and community events in order to give the public a broader understanding their goods and services. The proprietors and employees are almost always present at such events. Although universities have many venues such as museums, galleries, concerts halls, and the like, only rarely are the rank and file faculty present at events in these spaces. More facetime with faculty would help create bonds with the public. Such public relations efforts and marketing involving faculty are increasingly necessary to maintain and increase enrollment at many institutions. Faculty engagement with the public will be necessary outreach as the importance of education and research become central to the sustainability challenges facing civilization.

Administration: changing the reward system

The single most important thing that administration can do to foster a more humane, civil, and inclusive workplace is change the reward system to recognize contributions of value that are presently minimized or not recognized at all. I will always remember the day that my chair frankly admitted to me that it was important that my teaching “not suck”, but otherwise I would be evaluated on grants, publications, and production of graduate students. While I do not argue that these metrics are indicators of scholarly performance, I believe that effective outreach and teaching should be given far more credit. Not coincidentally, these are two activities that tend to break academic isolation. Not all faculty are good at all things. Thus a more flexible and individualized annual performance review could be developed to acknowledge such varied contributions.

Changing the performance expectations for deans and chairs to include intangibles related to social connectedness could have an enormous impact on the culture of the academy. Explicit expectation of human sustainability and fostering meaningful community connections among scholars and the external community could be part of every contract for these administrative positions. Metrics for assessing such performance are well developed in more enlightened corporations and could be adapted for higher education. Evidence of bullying should be assessed and the perpetrator dealt with swiftly. Deans and chairs can do much to foster a more compassionate and humane academy, but only if they understand the importance of doing so and are rewarded accordingly.

Having been president of Unity College has changed my perceptions of what it means to be faculty. Although I believe that grants, publications, and graduate students remain important performance measures for many faculty, this by no means applies equally to all areas of scholarship. It is obvious that large grants are not equally available to faculty in the humanities and sciences, respectively. The liberal arts remain the foundation of a comprehensive undergraduate education, and administrations simply must foster excellence among the scholars that form this part of an institution. More importantly, it is usually pointless for the administration to demand higher performance in the production of grants and publications. Either the scholar him or herself provides this pressure in abundance, or not, and there is no uniform way to measure this productivity across the various disciplines. In many ways, the job of administration is to provide an environment that can ameliorate the inhumanity and isolation of the academy while fostering the creativity that comes from collaboration and thriving sustainable communities. As has been demonstrated by successful progressive corporations, if we take care of these intangibles first, higher productively will likely follow.