On Collegiality

J. Scott Turner

I once ran a project based in Namibia that involved volunteers who would pay money to assist me in my field-based research. Volunteers would come to Namibia for a two-week stint living in a municipal campground in the far north of the country. Our days would be spent on a nearby farm studying termites. Evenings would be spent around a campfire, cooking, conversing, and drinking a beer or two.

Over the course of the project, I hosted roughly a hundred volunteers, who cut across a wide swathe of professions and ages. I got to meet and spend time with a lot of very wonderful people. Human nature being what it is, though, some of the volunteers were not so pleasant. This led me to formulate what I dubbed the “Rule of One-In-Six”—one out of every six individuals you meet will be a jerk.

I want to emphasize that my Rule of One-In-Six is not a judgment of individuals. It is a statistical observation (with my volunteers forming my sample) about relationships, emerging as a natural outcome of humans seeming to coalesce into distinct personality types. The number of types is not clear: some say four, others say five, still others put the number at sixteen. The Rule of One-in-Six expresses a probability that in any group there will emerge relationships where one type of personality is incompatible with other types: narcissist versus extroverted, for example. By themselves, extroverts and narcissists can be perfectly fine people. Throw the two together, though, and the prospects worsen. I might have regarded some of my volunteers as jerks, but some of my volunteers undoubtedly felt the same about me.

I tell this story because it’s germane to the ongoing ideological war on campuses, specifically the weaponizing of “collegiality.” In a number of recent high profile academic cancellations—Stephen Porter, Scott Gerber, Matthew Garrett—alleged offenses against collegiality provided the pretext for revocation of tenure, allowing the sinner to be unceremoniously shown the door. Increasingly, collegiality is being added formally to the traditional triad of excellence (research, teaching, and service) that wins professors tenure. With the addition of “collegiality,” now only the nice may hope for tenure. Post-tenure review provides additional protection against the allegedly non-collegial, making a further mockery of tenure.

Now, “collegiality” is one of those nice-sounding words, similar to “diversity” and “inclusion.” All it means, say its defenders, is a willingness to help make an institution a better, more pleasant, and more productive place: who could possibly object to that? In reality, the word masks an agenda driven by an academic variant on the Rule of One-in-Six, which I will call the Rule of One-in-Two.

Academics arguably encompass a narrower range of personalities than the general public. Some of these are admirable qualities, like intense curiosity, obsession with problems, florid creativity, and stubborn independence of thought. Often mixed in with those are other not-so-admirable traits, like jealousy, paranoia, egomania, ruthlessness, hypersensitivity, insecurity, and vindictiveness. The selection process of academic hiring seems to select personalities where clashes are more common than among the general population. Two egomaniacs will not long inhabit the same space convivially, and egomania can often be essential for academic success. Hence, the Rule of One-in-Two.

The Rule of One-in-Two makes the issue of collegiality a fraught minefield, because roughly every other colleague you run into will be a jerk. The simple fact is that most academics do not actually like their colleagues that much. Given the choice, most academics would rather not spend time in their colleagues’ presence, or expend energy engaging them, instead preferring the sanctuary of their labs and research grants. When they do engage, the likelihood is high (approximately 50%) that the one colleague will be seeking to undercut the other. This underscores a little-remarked aspect of the value of tenure: it is not only to protect academics against their administrations, but also to protect academics against their colleagues.

This fetid underbelly of the academic life is revealed most starkly in the phenomenon of academic mobbing.1 Eve Seguin describes academic mobbing thus:

The process begins when a small group of instigators decides to cast someone out on the pretext that he or she is threatening their interests.

Their weapon is a campaign of “negative communication” about the target, which:

… consists of rumours, complaints (often anonymous), conniving looks, mocking, gossip, misrepresenting facts, insinuations, hearsay, defamation, lies, secret meetings to discuss “the case,” disparaging comments, police-like surveillance of the target’s work and private life …

In the next stage, the whispering campaign builds to:

… unjustified accusations, manipulating or withholding information, sending menacing or hateful messages, calling purportedly friendly or disciplinary meetings, psychologically destabilizing the targets by incessantly accusing them of making mistakes, intimidation, tampering with their workstation, offering to ‘help’ with so-called adaptation problems, and public humiliation.

The aim is not to correct a problem, but to:

… [frame] the target as someone who is impossible to work with and who threatens the organization.

The “framing” paints the target as someone who:

… is a troublemaker, doesn’t listen to advice, is detrimental to the organization, isn’t a team player, is mentally ill, asks too many questions, doesn’t share the group’s culture, has a difficult personality, resists injustice, isn’t social, or is a bully.

According to Seguin:

[Being branded] a bully is especially strategic because it transforms aggression into mock justice. [Emphasis mine.]

Seguin’s outline will ring depressingly true to anyone who has been the target of an academic mobbing.2 A wise college administration will recognize these tactics for what they are—petty academic squabbles —and will either ignore them or refuse to give them sanction. Wise college administrations are presently thin on the ground, though. When a cynical administration sees academic mobbing as a useful tool to advance a political agenda, often positively self-described as a “transformative” agenda, this is a recipe for a truly toxic academic culture. To see the end point of that culture, look no farther than South Africa’s University of Cape Town, where a series of “transformative” Vice-Chancellors colluding with campus activists have essentially destroyed that university.3

Academic mobbing is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on for as long as there have been universities.4 What is new is college administrators allowing, and encouraging, academic mobs to rampage unchecked on our campuses, as long as the motives of the mob coincide with the interests of administrations and governments. The Rule of One-in-Two is why the academic colleagues of Amy Wax, Scott Gerber, Stephen Porter, Matthew Garrett and hundreds of others are enthusiastic supporters of forcing their colleagues out of their tenured positions.

What to do? A clue may be found in the so-called Sayre’s Law, which states that:

The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.

That may be so, but Sayre’s Law contains an unstated corollary, to wit:

The politics of the university are made toxic when the stakes become high.

Unfortunately, it is the corollary, rather than the law itself which describes the present state of most universities in the United States. Money and power have increased the stakes of academic controversies dramatically. This is the reason we cannot expect the universities to reform themselves: administrations, funders, and faculties are wrapped up in a massive grift that rewards all for toxic behavior. Detoxifying the academy will mean cutting off the oxygen that is fanning those flames. That now comes largely from government funding of universities. That will mean taking a hard look at how universities are funded.

Sayre’s Law is not a novel insight into the sordid undercurrents of the academic life. In 1765, Samuel Johnson put the matter aptly, if not succinctly:

It is not easy to discover from what cause the acrimony of a scholiast [i.e., an academic in Johnson’s parlance - JST] can naturally proceed. The subjects to be discussed by him are of very small importance; they involve neither property nor liberty; nor favour the interest of sect or party. The various readings of copies, and different interpretations of a passage, seem to be questions that might exercise the wit, without engaging the passions.

But whether it be, that small things make mean men proud, and vanity catches small occasions; or that all contrariety of opinion, even in those that can defend it no longer, makes proud men angry; there is often found in commentaries a spontaneous strain of invective and contempt, more eager and venomous than is vented by the most furious controvertist in politicks against those whom he is hired to defame.5 [Emphasis mine.]

We are funding the defamers.

1 See: Seguin, E. (2016) Academic mobbing, or how to become campus tormentors. University Affairs / Affaires universitaires. Prevost, C. and E. Hunt (2018). Bullying and Mobbing in Academe: A Literature Review. European Scientific Journal, ESJ 14 (8). Westhues, K. (2008). The Anatomy of an Academic Mobbing: Two Cases, Edwin Mellen Press. 

2 In the interests of full disclosure, I have been such a target. 

3 Benatar, D. (2021). The Fall of the University of Cape Town: Africa's Leading University in Decline, Amazon Digital Services LLC - KDP Print US. 

4 A famous example is the vicious campaign against Edward O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology, sparked by his Harvard colleagues Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould in collusion with the activist group Science for the People (SftP). Lewontin and Gould heaped venom on Wilson, culminating in shock troops from SftP disrupting one of Wilson’s lectures by dumping a bucket of ice cubes on him. The vitriolic campaign continues beyond Wilson’s recent death. See: https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/self-righteous-vigilantism-in-science-the-case-of-edward-osborne-wilson/https://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/online/the-last-refuge-of-scoundrels/.

5 1765, Mr. Johnson’s Preface to His Edition of Shakespear’s Plays by Samuel Johnson, Page lvii, Printed for J. and R. Tonson, H. Woodfall, J. Rivington, etc., London. (Google Books full view).

J Scott Turner is Director of the Prometheus Project at the National Association of Scholars. He is also the author of The Extended Organism. The Physiology of Animal-Built Structures (2000, Harvard University Press).

Photo by Adobe Stock

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