Disrupting Networks of Negativity in Higher Education

Positive networks of diverse support disrupt negativity

TIE’s webinar this week on “Equitable Staffing Models in the Current and Post-Pandemic Landscape” was terrific! I could not be more grateful for our dynamic panelists and the more than 750 attendees. Chris Bourg (MIT), Theresa S. Byrd (University of San Diego), Terry Snyder (Haverford College), and Elaine Westbrooks (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) candidly and courageously discussed a series of poignant concerns, such as equity between support staff and administrative staff, privilege within academic libraries and the academy, racism, rankism, and white supremacy. Each of the panelists provided thought-provoking points as they continue to advance transformational excellence within their respective libraries.

During the webinar and post-event, Theresa Byrd’s statement on how hostility within academic libraries disables behavior and undermines leaders’ ability to enforce and support equitable staffing models reverberated in the digital discourse.

Yes, to Theresa’s remarks.

I often share with colleagues that the hostility I have encountered in academic libraries is far worse than the behavior I experienced in journalism or corporate marketing. There is no doubt in my mind that this hostility was racially motivated. As a result, I understand why BIPOC flee the information professions in mass with no desire to move up the ranks.  

Sadly, cruelty in higher education remains a conundrum that plagues the sector. Name the discipline, department, laboratory, or center, and you will uncover scores of gruesome stories of mistreatment, even during the COVID pandemic crisis. Kindness is not generally supported within higher education as some consider it a trait to cover up weakness.

There are scholars who contend that individuals within higher education tend to conflate cruelty, hypercriticism, and acerbic tones with intellectualism (paywalled). Other scholars are less generous and argue that higher education rewards “jerks,” leading people to believe that being a hostile workplace agent is a pathway to power and/or promotions. Whichever side of this argument gels with our sensibilities, I doubt that anyone can deny that academic workplaces are generally toxic and need to be fixed sooner rather than later.

How should we approach this heavy lift?

First, academic leadership must assert zero tolerance for negative behaviors that erode the heart of the organization. Robert I. Sutton, professor of management science at Stanford University and New York Times best-selling author, levels this suggestion more assertively in his 2007 book The No Asshole Rule (paywalled) and its 2017 companion survival guide (paywalled). Sutton suggests that addressing the “persistently nasty” who routinely make others feel bad, humiliated, and oppressed is a start. Minette Drumwright, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who focuses on ethics, leadership, and communication, takes it a step further, asserting that it is essential to identify and disrupt “‘networks of complicity.'” As a burgeoning management network scientist, this notion makes a lot of sense to me.

No one person or group of people is responsible for the ugliness in academic workplaces. Instead, we must first acknowledge the degrees of agency, activities, and complicities that develop into negativity-fueled networks. Once we identify these factors, we must work to deconstruct them.

For leaders, this means getting more comfortable with showing people the door, no matter how talented or productive they are, when they are persistently nasty or continuously diminish their colleagues. By taking these steps, we can strike another blow to eroding the systemic nature of workplace inequality in higher education.  

Sign up for Toward Inclusive Excellence (TIE) new post notifications and updates.

Interested in contributing to TIE? Send an email to Deb V. at Choice dvillavicencio@ala-choice.org with your topic idea.

Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.