Tuesday, March 16, 2010

craziest person in the room syndrome

Academia seems particularly prone to "craziest person in the room syndrome" - the phenomenon where one nut from the committee/department gets their way every time, just because nobody wants to put the time, energy, and political capital into fighting. So, the nut's agenda wins, even when it's not in the best interests of the faculty/department/university, such as when the nut wants to hire the least qualified of the job candidates, or deny tenure to a qualified junior colleague, or re-hire an emeritus professor who was forced out after being, frankly, habitually too drunk to do his job. (No, these are not fictitious examples. Our resident nut has tried all three within the last calendar year.)

I think the problem comes from the supposedly democratic structure of academic departments. Theoretically, we're all equals, with the possible exception of the department chair, so nobody feels comfortable imposing their will on others (except, of course, for the nut). At the same time, the structure is not democratic, and differences in power are very real. For example, I am the only non-tenured tenure-track person in my department. I've seen our resident nut turn on junior faculty before and drive them out of the U. I don't want it to happen to me.

Senior faculty don't have my excuse, and sometimes I want to shake them and say "What the f*&k are you afraid of?!? Tell her/him he's insane and we're not going to do it!" But, of course, they don't want to start a feud with a colleague that they may very well have to work with for 30 years, especially when that person is not rational enough to follow social norms. I don't want to attack the tenure system, but "craziest person in the room syndrome" seems like a steep price to pay.

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