David Perry

Associate Professor at Dominican University

Title Policing and Other Ways Professors Bully the Academic Staff

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"Historians value integrity, David; you should too if you truly are one of us." So wrote a senior professor, a named chair at a regional public university on the West Coast, chiding me in an email. My sin: calling myself a "senior academic adviser to the history department at the University of Minnesota" in an opinion essay I wrote recently for CNN.

This professor decided I was falsely claiming to be some kind of senior adviser to the faculty, rather than merely an academic adviser, senior in rank, assigned to work with undergraduates in the history department. By suggesting that history departments need senior advisers, he wrote, "you make us look like incompetent fools." He added: "Good for you that you have this public profile. But please don’t advance it by trivializing what tenured and tenure-track history faculty, including those at your own university, do." As for my job title, he insisted that "no such positions formally exist at universities, those that still have standards, at least."

Then he CC’d the chair of my department — the classic academic equivalent of asking to speak to my supervisor.

Professors have been policing status in formal and informal ways since at least the invention of the modern university. Their weapons of choice: job titles, honorifics, credentials, dress codes, even first names.

Faculty judgments about who deserves status are always (a) based on the fallacy that those who rise to the top of the academic-prestige hierarchy are somehow superior to those who don’t, and (b) influenced by prejudicial ideas about race, class, gender, disability, and other categories of difference. At the core of this entrenched ranking is the principle that only tenure-stream faculty members really count when it comes to measuring the value of a college or university. And academic-staff members (not to mention adjunct lecturers, who may not dare to call themselves real professors)? We should know our place.

Today such perceptions are not just wrong but also wildly inaccurate. We live in a world of professional hybridity as a normative feature of academic employment and intellectual life. Most of the teaching is done by non-tenure-track instructors (who may or may not have doctorates yet), while lots of Ph.D.s work in academic-staff and administrative positions all over the campus, often in a semi-instructional capacity. Everyone who works in academe has chosen to be part of the educational mission.

In short, treating staff members like bed bugs just can’t be tolerated.

My formal job title these days is, in fact, "senior academic adviser." I work in the history department, advising about 300 history majors and dozens more minors, promoting our programs, helping run the undergraduate-studies committee, internships, and scholarships. I also try to be a voice for the undergraduates during internal departmental discussions.

The professor who scolded me for naughty self-aggrandizement caught me, as it happened, on the first day of the semester — at a point when my office is always flooded with emails and drop-ins as students rush to adjust their schedules. The first weeks of any new semester are exhausting and are when I feel most distant from the "life of the mind." All of which meant that Mr. Bigshot’s email cut right at a vulnerable point in my armor.

I earned my Ph.D. in history at Twin Cities in 2006, and was hired by a lovely small university in the Chicago area where I progressed through tenure and promotion to full professor. Then I quit and moved back to Minnesota for a number of reasons, including the hope that my young, disabled son would receive better services there as he grows to adulthood than he would have in Illinois (where the state was racked by budget turmoil). We also moved back because my family and I thought it might make us happier. (Note to graduate students and early-career academics: It’s OK to try to be happy.)

In fact, it was a history professor at Minnesota who first alerted me to the department’s opening for a "senior academic adviser." That same historian is now, by chance, the very chair who was CC’d on Mr. Bigshot’s email. It was the chair who suggested I feel free to list my university title and affiliation when I wrote journalistic pieces. She thought doing so might even be good for the department, raising its public profile. So, without much further thought, I started mentioning on my freelance work that I was "a senior academic adviser to the history department." (I suppose the preposition "in" might have been clearer than "to." But honestly, I didn’t spend a lot of time pondering correct prepositional deployment, as it didn’t seem like something that might undermine the whole edifice of academic history.)

There’s a bigger picture here, and it’s not just that some faculty members (and, alas, some graduate students, too) mistreat staff members. We’ve all been told that the traditional career path of a Ph.D. runs from graduate school to emeritus professor. Against that narrative my own journey seems idiosyncratic. But the narrative is wrong, and probably always has been.

Vast numbers of Ph.D.s — then and even more so now — become experts in their field and go on to nonfaculty careers for any number of reasons, yet they remain teachers and producers of knowledge. These days, most have no choice but to carve out their own career path in the face of a fraught faculty-labor market and fracturing university structures. There aren’t enough tenure-track jobs, of course, but also, we make human choices to organize our lives around family, geography, or other factors. We do whatever we must to earn a living while finding ways to nourish the interests that brought us to graduate school in the first place. We remain members of our field.

That is a big part of the future of academe. If you still buy into the outmoded hierarchy of "professors versus peons," you aren’t just clinging to the lifeboat while the rest of us swim, but actively working to push the rest of us under.

Academic staff — undergraduate advisers, librarians, writing-center directors, faculty-development experts, but also folks working in curriculum management or running departmental offices — are particularly vulnerable to the direct kind of bullying I experienced in my letter. That’s because our jobs are not socially coded as valuable within academic prestige culture. We also don’t have the kind of job security offered by tenure, although that’s increasingly true for faculty members, too.

Just to be clear: I am not calling out any of my Minnesota colleagues here; I have wonderful relationships with professors in our department. But of course they know me as a whole person, including my traditional academic accomplishments, so perhaps that’s made it easier to form collegial relationships. Most academic-staff members aren’t so lucky — not because they aren’t equally deserving of mutual respect, but because they can’t hang a university press monograph around their neck to indicate their abilities according to the standard hallmarks of academic accomplishment.

Staff members usually know how academe works. Many of us are in roles that make us as much responsible for student learning as the faculty. We should always approach one another as colleagues. But all too often, that’s not the case.

After sharing this letter on Twitter and other social-media feeds, I heard similar stories from dozens and dozens of staff members, non-tenure-track instructors, and others in semiacademic positions. They related faculty behavior that ranged from snobbish disdain to outright abuse. As one poster put it on Twitter, "I wish I could be surprised by this, but I work in a university library."

Pretty much every staff member has had at least one encounter with professors who go out of their way to put us in what they imagine to be our place. Such conduct was always wrong, but in today’s changing academic world, it’s also self-destructive to our shared project.

The modern university is full of inequities that can create rifts among the ranks and lead us to forget our common purpose. Our place is in community together, working in these strange new times as old systems of employment and identification in the academy collapse.

Whatever comes next, we’re not going to build it by continuing to police other people’s titles and tattling on them to their department chair.

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