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Career Advice

The big chill

Secrecy, exclusion and collusion on academic committees.


A faculty member at a western college recently found herself in a teaching-team meeting where it became evident that an agenda item, vaguely described on the page, was actually related to a course she was teaching. During the discussion, she quickly realized that this item had been previously discussed by some of the other team members who argued together as a group. “It was deceitful, and I felt ambushed and incredibly disappointed by what transpired,” says Professor Hannah Wall (not her real name).

As Dr. Wall experienced, secrecy and exclusion among committee members often involve select individuals huddled together in private offices discussing contentious issues. Most likely those doing the huddling don’t see anything wrong with this. But, although the reasons for exclusion are extremely varied – from perceiving a group member as a troublemaker or a competitor, to simply not valuing his or her contribution, to not wanting to “waste time” arguing – the interpersonal consequences are similar: conflict, mistrust and considerable psychological stress and distress. A very chilly climate indeed.

Kenneth Westhues, a renowned scholar in the area of mobbing in academia and a professor of sociology at the University of Waterloo, has seen time and again the incredible stress experienced by academics like Dr. Wall. “The worst problem in my view,” says Dr. Westhues, “is when the work group includes entrenched factions – an old boys’ network or the ‘young Turks’ or ‘the feminists’ or ‘the people of colour’ or ‘the old guard’ – that vote as a bloc on almost every issue that arises, and thereby encourage other group members to form factions of their own.”

Different form of bullying

Although what Dr. Wall and Dr. Westhues describe may not be as obvious a form of bullying as screaming, threatening or using degrading language, it is bullying nevertheless. Marilyn Noble, a researcher on workplace bullying based at the University of New Brunswick, says, “From the target’s perspective, it’s all about personal diminishment – making you feel unwelcome, invisible, worthless, discounted, incompetent, ashamed and generally lousy about yourself.”

One way to avoid this form of bullying is for a team to formally discuss how it will conduct itself, even going so far as to develop an interpersonal agreement, with statements concerning transparency, inclusiveness and open and respectful discussion and debate.

Ms. Noble adds, “The goal is to make it safe to say what needs to be said at the meeting table. Otherwise, you can bet it will find voice in the hallway, the washroom, the parking lot or out in the community, where the group can do nothing about it. And what feels safe to some may feel very unsafe to others. You’ve got to remember that academia is not a level playing field.”
Although enforcing a hard-and-fast rule about discussing issues only during scheduled meetings that include all team members may not be realistic given members’ varied ties to one another, Dr. Westhues does advocate openness about the nature of earlier di scussions at the meeting itself. “If John and Barbara have talked about an agenda item before the meeting,” he says, “then they shouldn’t try to hide that fact at the meeting. They should bring the other group members up to speed on what they talked about.”

Ms. Noble agrees and urges group members to consider the reason they are talking with one another outside of formal meetings.

“When you chat up colleagues behind closed doors, what is it, exactly, that you’re trying to accomplish? Are you genuinely using them as a sounding board or reality check and seeking their problem-solving advice, or are you trying to enlist their support for your point of view? There’s a world of difference between the two.”

Hannah Wall thinks that a discussion about how to deal with potentially contentious issues may have prevented what ultimately happened in her department. “I should have been afforded the openness, transparency and respect that one would expect from one’s colleagues. I didn’t get that, and now there’s a lot of tension and a clear division in the faculty.” So, while it takes a little bit of foresight, planning and effort, part of avoiding the big chill may be as simple as making sure nobody is left out in the cold.

Carla Gunn is a workplace consultant, part-time university instructor and author of the novel Amphibian. She lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

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