Friday, July 26, 2013

Inheriting the Earth

I came to my current career as an academic relatively recently. I may occasionally bitch, but I really like it, and I intend to do it until someone makes me stop. People ask me what I like about it, knowing that it's not the money or the prestige. The work is endless, the politics are as bad as any corporation, the bureaucracy is stifling, and I'm sitting in an office chair that is likely as old as the building it's in. But that describes most every job I've ever had.

I like the work, I like being on campus, and I like the people. One thing I like about the people is that they are smart. And many of them are good, in the old fashioned sense of the word. I was reading an article yesterday about how a disproportionate percentage of bosses are psychopathic bullies* when I realized something that may outweigh even the smartness and goodness. With a few exceptions -- mostly in the non-academic parts of the organization -- our campus has very few Montgomery Burns' in management or leadership positions. We have our share of Michael Scotts, but that just makes it fun to come to work.

As a boss, I'm what you would call an agreeable sort. An employee told me once that my greatest talent was the ability to chew someone out without them feeling like they had been in trouble. I think he meant it as a compliment. Anyway, I have never seen the need to be a bully or a weasel at work, and I don't really like being in the sort of environment such people create.

Everything I need to know about business I learned from
beating up other kids in kindergarten. Image from here.

Too many businesses love these people. Bosses proudly use words like "aggressive" and "decisive" to describe their abuse of the people around them, and their complete disdain for any life outside of the office. They win big (usually on the backs of what a former colleague called the "worker bees") because they take big risks. They lose big as well, but usually manage to deflect that onto someone else, or jump ship before the hammer falls. Agreeable leaders tend to do just as good a job -- without the drama -- but that doesn't really seem to matter in our "nice guys finish last" society.

Campus has largely been a haven from that sort of thinking. Our leaders are mostly painfully polite. Our meetings are civil and pleasant, even when we argue. The last chancellor who asked someone to cancel their vacation got fired.**

This is one thing -- though far from the only thing -- that worries me about the current trend to make educational institutions more businesslike.  Put aside the small detail that schools don't operate like businesses, and treating them as if they do will not produce desirable results. I'm afraid that the push for "results" will bring larger numbers of "aggressive self-starters" to the academic world. While that may sound like a good thing, I promise you it is not. I just hope it takes a while. I would hate to have to start another career.

* Surprised? Yeah, me neither.

** He didn't really get fired for that. It was just a typical example of his style, and one of his final acts.


  1. Chis, what you have written here is great, great, great! And I am not over stating it in the slightest. My working life, at least the last 20 years of it, was spent in an environment exactly as you describe business. I like to refer to it as CorporateAmerica. I think it is only the work ethic, ingenuity of American workers and technology that have kept business afloat and it is despite the likes of Donald Trump. jeez. It hurt to even see his name in print.

    I shudder at the thought of our learning institutions running more like corporate America. While they likely could turn out more graduates at a lower cost - because hey, get more out of the workers you have, there is no problem with overtime, it is cheaper than hiring more workers. What would we do with them? We already have a wealth of people who only want to sit on their ass, belittle others and say things like, "I don't care how you do it, just get it done." That's because they don't have a clue how to do it.

    1. In case I wasn't clear, I meant colleges turning out more Donald Trump types...

    2. Thanks, David. I don't write much about the Corporate America problem -- and all that goes with it -- because I get too aggravated, and I don't think anyone wants to read a 10,000 word diatribe on how our society seems to be focused on all the wrong things. Maybe after a few more years when I can shake my cane at everyone.

  2. i also work in a somewhat sheltered research environment - and have had the good fortune to work for mostly smart, decent people. ambition that is rewarded at the working level - is the ambition to make a difference.

    sadly at the senior leadership level, we've seen some rather debilitating changes over the past 10 years -- geographic mobility has become the litmus test. if a climber is willing to uproot a family and leave town, accepting any assignment offered? those are the folks considered for the most senior positions - the true impact of this 'careerist' development strategy is now being felt and i'm worried that the damage can't be undone...

  3. One of my biggest disappointments in the working world was working for a (nameless but they are located in AR), large non-profit dedicated to helping low-income people around the world and recognizing the complete and utter disregard they held for the slaves, err, workers. It was a 99 degree difference in how hey they operate and are viewed in the world and it was disheartening to see the big worm in the apple. As I grow older and seem to suffer fools even less gladly than in my younger years, I doubt I would have lasted as long as I did there. Because the higher-ups were, of course, the worse offenders. I can't even look at Trump. ((shudder)).