I drafted this post a while ago, but never published it. Perhaps it’s time, as ASBMB’s publication of “A Good Little Girl” (original post here) reminded me of it. This post will likely go *poof*  in a few days. 


We voted for the promotion of a faculty member to full professor. The colleague’s record is quite strong. He commands massive amounts of funds, mostly from DoD, has a large group, and produces a lot of papers. In that regard, he’s a model faculty member. The support for his promotion was unanimous.

The colleague is a master of self-promotion. He’s what I would call “noisy.” He’s very vocal about his awesomeness, and he does not let anyone forget it for a second. Over the past several years, through my service to the department, I have been privy to just how much internal money has been spent to show this colleague institutional love. In fact, I wrote several nomination letters and assembled nomination packages for him to get internal awards, accompanied by flexible funds. (He received the awards; but, in case you are wondering, no, I never got a “thank you” for the work I put into those successful nominations).

But, when you look at this colleague’s record in detail, there are some interesting aspects.

The colleague boasts about his high student evaluations. Then you see that he has not taught an undergraduate course — any undergraduate course, let alone a required, high-enrollment one — in many years, since before his last promotion. All his teaching has been restricted to two graduate courses with 10-15 enrollment. Not exactly the world’s toughest-to-please student audience. Actually, if his evaluations weren’t great in this scenario, that would be quite alarming.

When you look at service, there is absolutely the barest minimum of service to both the institution and the department. He serves less than most of our assistant professors, and I can assure you that we really protect the time of our young faculty. Over the past several years, I offered him to serve on what I believe are the more meaningful among the university committees, and he always said he was too busy. Basically, his only service is to the profession and always in a capacity that enhances his visibility (e.g., conference program committees).

So it really pisses me off when someone comes to tell me I cannot decide to reduce my own teaching and service with “But-but-but, what happens to the institution? What happens to the students if everyone does what you propose? How can you be so selfish?” Because, of course, by being female I have to first and foremost think of my duties to others. I guarantee that no one will say a thing to this colleague who was just promoted. Nobody will even hint to  him that he mooches off others and he should pick up the slack in teaching and service. Nobody will scold him for being selfish, as long as he brings in the funds.  And that’s why this is all so fucked up. And he’s hardly the only one of his kind.

The colleague will go on his merry selfish way, with maximal free time to pursue funds and write papers and work on his visibility, and periodically make loud noises to remind us all how well funded and well published and how much more valuable than the rest of us he is. I don’t know what goes on in his head, but I bet he thinks he really is so much better than the rest of us, and I bet he believes that the likes of me actually prefer teaching required undergrad courses with huge enrollments and serving on university committees to writing papers and grants, because if we didn’t love it so much we would just not do it, like him!

I hate that selfish people prosper the most.

I hate that it is so hard for people who are not selfish to act selfish, and thus to prosper as much as the effortlessly selfish people.

I hate that women are not allowed to show that they are even thinking about being selfish without someone coming to tell them, “Tsk, tsk, tsk, won’t you think of the children?”

I hate that I am supposed to be everybody’s goddamn mother. Or secretary. (Or quiet diversity token. But that’s a story for another day.)


  1. Ugh. At the same time, I’m wondering whether there’s a way to spin this into a reason for protecting (more of) your time. Something along the lines of, “well,I was looking at those who’ve been promoted recently, and I noticed that Dr. Noisy focused on his research, national service, and graduate teaching in the years leading up to his promotion. I was thinking that perhaps I should follow that model.”

  2. I declined to volunteer to serve as department chair when the previous chair stepped down. One of my most selfish colleagues asked me why I was willing to let a very disorganized (the only volunteer) get the job instead. I said that the institution has rewarded incompetence and selfishness for years and I’m not about to try to clean up the mess that the institution made. My selfish colleague was all “So you’re going to let me and other people suffer because you’re mad at the school?” No, I’m going to let him suffer under incompetent leadership because he and his allies in department politics are too selfish to step up and do the work themselves to make the department better.

  3. Time to move. Sometimes the only wY to convince your employer of your value is to demonstrate it on the open market.

    I was recently promoted to Associate Professor, and am now a stronger believer in the saying that the institutions never give a shit about honest, non selfish and collegial types.

  4. Spot on.
    Except for that I don’t think the selfish/noisy successful scientific cash cows (and I don’t mean to downplay the awesome research they undoubtedly do) consciously think that others “like” service/teaching. I think they are mostly blissfully unaware of the fact that they could (and should) share the burden. They are scientifically silver spoon fed and unconsciously assume that everybody could/would be like them if they only wanted. It’s an awareness issue – but like so many other areas where that plays a role, it is pretty hard to get them to see life from another perspective. I honestly wish I would care less about the students and more about myself. It would make it so much easier to say no and just be ruthless.

  5. Next time someone asks you, say you’re busy but “why not ask Noisy Colleague? He doesn’t have any committees right now.”

  6. So, I am curious. What would you suggest to us administrators to do to fight this type of selfishness? There are so few rewards available in a academia. What would you like your dean to do?

  7. Profdean, much of it could be implemented at the department level, if only the noisy folks weren’t such darlings of the upper administration and weren’t thus encouraged in their belief that the department workload rules didn’t apply to them.

    I would like to see two things in my department; perhaps some departments do implement them, but mine doesn’t:
    1) Have a clearly established teaching rotation schedule, so everyone — and I mean everyone — has to do their duty teaching high-enrollment undergraduate courses. Alternatively, one could count courses in terms of workload as commensurate with workload (having to do with enrollment and course level). Teaching 100+ undergrads, many of whom don’t want to be there but they have to be because it’s a required course, and doing it with no TA is soooo not the same as teaching 10-15 grad students, so let’t not pretend both equal one course. You want to teach just these low-enrollment courses? Either teach more of them per unit time or buy out the difference.
    This also requires solid institutional memory and transparency as to who taught what when.

    2) Service roles consolidated and with people staying on committees for terms of fixed duration, but longer than 1 year. Fewer committees, with well-defined charge, and with a fixed number of people rotating on and off each year, so that some memory is retained. Right now, there are way too many committees, way too many pointless meetings, everyone is shuffled around every year with seemingly no system, and overall too much time and effort is wasted. It should not be too hard to ensure everyone is on a given small number of committees, each committee assignment meaningful and substantial.

    As to the rewards, the noisy people already earn the highest salaries at their respective ranks and get the most frequent raises and retention nuggets (e.g., intramural research dollars, equipment). Is that not enough reward? Not teaching tuition-paying undergrads should not be a reward option at a university.

  8. One tiny grad class = one large undergrad class when assigning workloads in a lot of departments, partly because some people like it that way and partly bc it’s so tedious to count the details. A few semesters ago, we had a huge bump in enrollment that began to separate the small/large class sizes even more. I made a web scraper of our public data to calculate student hours per prof at my place. It should be roughly proportional to actual workload, and tuition $ brought in, though we don’t really break it down that way.
    It communicated what was going on, and I do think it helped specific things happen (but those things might have happened sometime anyway.) I hope we can spot when new hires start carrying huge teaching loads and plan for balance.
    If it looks like I disappeared this semester, it’s because of sabbatical, not the magic of data-driven persuasion!

  9. Kind of like the good little girl post, it sounds like you are envious of the people who don’t care what people think and go on their merry way. Resenting others for not changing their behavior is fruitless in my experience. If you want to be more selfish or less of a good little girl despite the consequences (people may think you are selfish), then go for it, perhaps it would ease some of the mental anguish you feel. I am not condoning his behavior, but personally, life is a lot easier for me when I accept that some people will not change of their own volition. Or you could talk to him.

  10. Man, xyk, this post makes me sad because it’s true.

    I think feeling this way in grad school, and knowing it would get worse, is a big part of why I didn’t stay in academia after grad school. And (regardless of what choice I or any one person makes) it’s sad because we need good science professors like you who have high standards and care about teaching. Reading your posts make me wistful because I wish I had you as a professor or advisor in undergrad/grad school.

    Thank you for being awesome and caring. I’m glad there are people like you and your students are lucky to have you.

  11. Also wanted to add to J’s comment–resenting others for being selfish may be fruitless, but it’s not wrong. And sometimes feeling resentful and figuring out where those feelings of resentment are coming from can lead one to at least think of solutions. And as xyk pointed out, there are some steps that could be taken to make things at the university level more fair. Complaining (and coming up with productive solutions to said complaints) seems like a necessary part of any positive change.

  12. One thing I kind of like about our department– we’ve been putting $ amounts to major service commitments. So our chair makes more than 2x what I make (and I make a lot) and teaches less than I do and does less research than I do. I am fine with that. We also seem to be fine with our deadwood taking on greater service roles (we currently have a bunch of “assistant deans”), and not fine with lazy deadwood who don’t do research either. And we’re good at putting things that are truly administrative on people whose sole job is administrative. Our administration may be bloated but so long as I don’t have to fill out forms, I’m fine with that.

    So I guess I’m fine with people who are doing a lot of research and bringing in a lot of money doing less service, because some of that money goes to compensate people who are doing more service and bringing in less money.

    I say this as someone who does a small amount of random service each year (this year I’m doing the seminar series with a heavy assist from an admin assistant, also have a couple of curricular things that aren’t a huge time commitment) and a bit more of the kind that only a professor can do (e.g. being on tenure and job search committees). I have a lighter load specifically because of the amount that my less research active colleagues have chosen to do.

    I am also purposefully waiting to go up for Full because there’s a lot more required service at Full. I want two more of my assoc. colleagues to be full before I try to go up even though I’ve checked all the boxes.

  13. It really pisses me off when bad behavior is rewarded (like when people deliberately do a bad job at service/teaching and get less of it as a result). I believe in the mission of ProdigalU, and in the importance of both teaching and service (at least the bits that keep things working–I hate useless “advisory committees” and “exploratory committees” that are just meeting generating time sucks) towards accomplishing that mission. The solution to this isn’t that everyone become an asshole, it is that people like “noisy” are actually held to their commitments. We actually have a small number of mostly useful committees in the department, so the service expectation is not especially onerous. Folks who don’t do what they are supposed to do should 1) not get merit pay (merit should not be given to those who don’t do adequate teaching and service, regardless of how special their research is–if they are so full of research money, they can buy out instead of getting to have their research money AND avoid teaching and service) and 2) not get plum assignments. Departments should be policing their own, since they know the situation best.

    Like N&M, we have useful deadwood, who do extra service and/or teaching in place of active research (which frees time for the rest of us), and useless deadwood, who do nothing (and the worst of these show up at just enough meetings to make trouble). Luckily, we have less and less of the latter since I joined ProdigalU. We are all appreciative of the former, as it is great to have more research time.

  14. If you do extra service and teaching in place of active research, IMHO by definition you’re NOT deadwood! At least not overall. (Maybe “second growth”?) Indeed, people who do this can be crucial to a department, especially if they have extensive experience in how to be most impactful and effective in service and/or inspiring in teaching.

  15. What Anon for this one said. a) Nobunny should try and save colleagues from their own selfishness and b) you don’t need them as much as they need you

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s