Tread Lightly

Academia is often referred to as ‘the ivory tower’, where ‘ivory’ presumably conveys nobility while ‘tower’ hints at unattainability. This moniker is not helping the view of academia in today’s increasingly anti-intellectual and anti-elitist US. By many, the concept of tenure and the job security it implies are viewed as an undeserved perk that nobody else has so the no-good elitist academics shouldn’t have it either. Unsurprisingly, I am a strong supporter of tenure, for reasons that range from self-serving to objective and warrant a whole other post. Let’s just say that, in STEM fields, tenure should be thought of as part of the benefits package, a part that enables universities to recruit and keep stellar researchers who would otherwise make much, much more money in industry.

I love being a professor. I really do. I have never really thought about doing anything else and I am fortunate that things worked out so I was able to land a faculty position at a great R1 university. This is my 10th year at this place and, while I have had ‘feelers’ from other institutions, due to the family being deeply rooted where we are it’s unlikely we’ll be moving any time soon. Indeed, owing to the scarcity of jobs, extreme competition, the ability to achieve the job security of tenure at one place coupled with the generally reduced mobility after tenure, changing jobs in academia happens considerably less frequently than in ‘the real world’ (another term that I find both sad and hilarious, because it further emphasizes how surreal academia and academics are considered to be by the ‘real people’). The low mobility means you are stuck with the same people for years or decades, and in my opinion this is the primary reason why tenured folks — who could in principle raise hell and challenge administrators and fight the forces of evil such as underperforming colleagues, decreasing state support, increased overhead rates, incompetent staff, and ballooning prices at the local coffee shop — just don’t do as much as it seems they could or should. It’s because a majority of those colleagues (as well as many administrators and staff , and perhaps even some baristas) will also be around for a long time.

Walter White (Breaking Bad), a meek chemistry professor turned terrifying meth king-pin Heisenberg, is not to be trifled with.

Before you reach tenure, you keep your mouth shut so as not to aggravate the people who will vote for your tenure case. After tenure, you realize that “OMFG I am not going anywhere, but neither are they…” So there is a great emphasis on treading lightly during conflicts. I know, it sucks. At my advanced age, I have finally started to realize that maybe, perhaps, incidentally, there is an off chance that there may be some smidgen of truth that biting the opponent’s head off in a full frontal attack may not be the ideal plan A for resolving interpersonal conflicts at work. Dang.

When you get tenure, you get the dubious honor of being assigned more service tasks. I personally prefer to be on committees that may be work but at least they have some tangible impact, such as faculty hiring. These committees where the stakes are reasonably high are an excellent way to study human behavior, as I get to observe colleagues who are very skilled  versus those who are considerably less so go at it during conflict, utilizing the full arsenal of expertly crafted rational arguments alongside backhanded compliments, thinly-veiled sarcasm, and a variety of fascinating passive-aggressive maneuvers.

Here is an example: These days I am privy to some serious elbowing in terms of whom we get to interview. Let’s just say that a person from an area that should not be hiring is trying really hard to convince us that their candidate would actually fall under the areas described in the ad. The arguments go along the lines of “We have the green light to hire a candidate in the field of bunny hopping. We should bring in this candidate who works in the area of squirrel cloning, because he could also clone bunnies, and without enough bunnies nobody can investigate bunny hopping!” The truth is that bunny hoppers need the hire as they have lost some people and the prospective hire the squirrel cloners are pushing is nowhere near  what the hoppers need; the cloners need to back the eff off and let the hoppers hire just as everyone in the department had agreed on. In an ideal world, a bunny-hopping representative — or better yet the department chair — would just say “Back off!” to the squirrel cloners and we’d get back to work looking at the bunny-hoping candidates. Instead, many long emails and a lot of wasted energy are a result of the hoppers fending off the cloners’ encroachment, without anyone admitting to taking offense or starting a counter-offensive. I am on the search committee but in neither field, so I am just a fascinated spectator, on my 17th bag of popcorn while taking notes on how to tread lightly and fight without fighting in the name of long-term peace and collegiality.


  1. We have some very aggressive faculty in the field of snowflake research. I have come to realize that when they are on any sort of committee it immediately becomes a committee on snowflakes. If we are hiring in summer recreation sports, it becomes a search for snowflake specialists. If we are allocating funds for a lab where students will take classes on steam, we need to buy dual-use equipment for snowflake research. If we are discussing pedagogical methods for classes on carbon -based liquids and vapors, snowflake pedagogy fits under that rubric somehow. If we were working on putting students in internships on noble gases, the snowflake people would turn it into a snow committee.

    They don’t get why people who used to be strong supporters of snow research are now praying foe global earning to melt their glacier.

  2. Oh, and they claim that snowflake researchers are under-represented and disadvantaged and misunderstood. White heterosexual able-bodied USian cis-gendered males will talk about how misunderstood they are, while claiming to be great allies for women and minorities in STEM. If you see one of these dudes at an event for women in STEM, and his opening line is “Ladies, as a snowflake researcher I get where you are coming from…” don’t say you weren’t warned.

  3. You speak truth.

    Post-tenure I’ve been doing a lot of reading about how to deal with these kinds of communication issues because it has a huge impact on day-to-day work environment. And I hate meetings that go nowhere and are just gripe-fests.

    Half our department is good about making sure our new hires can cover our needed courses. The other half is more interested in replicating themselves and has gradually pushed out diversity. Fortunately our searches never overlap! But there’s always that danger from the squirrel cloners, especially as they clone themselves more and more. Right now the chair and dean are keeping them in check, but who knows what would happen if one of them became chair or dean.

  4. My darkest fear is indeed that a snowflake-ology researcher will be our next chair.

    If we are, say, working on a document related to tropic fish, he’ll start inserting language on snowflakes. WTF do tropical fish have to do with snow? Beats me. But the language gets in there, or language that can be stretched to sort of kind of relate to snow. And then he’ll remind us that we approved a document that is all about snow…as part of our tropical fish initiative.

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