Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Asking for a friend: Drunk in a Midnight Choir crowdsources an ethical dilemna

So imagine that, in the not-so-distant past, in a department noted for its virulent dysfunction, you had someone on your committee who could generously be described as well intentioned but terrible. Let's call them WIT.

WIT taught a mandatory course that would have been laughable had it not required attendance at an ungodly hour and a fuckton of busywork. (We're talking teaching Praxis in Hamsterfur Weaving Today from a 20 year-old textbook with five subsequent new editions laughable.) 

While teaching said mandatory course, WIT displayed some seriously shitty politics in a discipline where such things are hands-down baseline unfuckingacceptable. WIT was, to put it mildly, unreceptive to gentle attempts to point out the shittiness of said politics. WIT played favourites and held grudges. If you were a favourite, you got gift-wrapped A+s and glowing recommendation letters. (WIT's colleagues would often spike letters for the same students in an attempt to mitigate this/fuck with WIT's reputation, but that's another rant.) WIT was, in short, great at buying dinner, but lousy at doing their fucking job. 

As a committee member, WIT was a great cheerleader who offered no constructive guidance or feedback on research that was squarely within their disciplinary purview. The other committee members *may* have chosen the student's thesis defence as an opportunity to point out WIT's ineptitude (did I mention the virulent dysfunction part?). The student, to put it mildly, did not appreciate being the terrain upon which this war was waged, and fled, degree in hand, hoping to quietly go about their life and business, and trying to never have to be drawn into a discussion about WIT (or even admit to knowing them) ever again.

Alas, it was not to be, for when the time came for WIT's tenure file to be adjudicated, the department chair went to the trouble of tracking down the (former) student and requesting a "confidential" appraisal. 

There is no way this coincidental. 

There is no way the appraisal would remain confidential. 

It is tough to say whether said appraisal would even matter, as WIT has a proven track record of attracting grant $$$$, and money may well speak louder than the active disdain of WIT's colleagues.

On the one hand, the (former) student's ethics dictate that submitting an honest appraisal is the right thing to do. 

On the other hand, they have been trying so very hard to stay above the fray for a long time and do not wish to be sucked back in.

They are also well aware that they are not above occasional acts of pettiness, especially when there is deemed to be just cause. 

So...if you were the friend I'm asking for, what would you do? And how would you phrase it?

Please be creative (yet honest)...and pass the fucking bourbon.  I̶m̶m̶a̶ er, my friend will need it.




  1. Cya. But if that's not an issue, honesty is the best policy.

  2. Cya. But if that's not an issue, honesty is the best policy.

  3. I don't claim to be in any way gifted at dealing with departmental (or any interpersonal) politics, and I share your (friend's) preference for doing the right thing, and telling the truth, and all that. So I respect the impulse.

    That said, I don't see any upside to responding to this request. The department is doing a lousy job of protecting its students from faculty feuds, and a student who survived the process nonetheless doesn't owe it anything. And, as you note, it's highly unlikely that the opinion of a former student will make a difference in the tenure process, given this guy's prowess in getting grants. So all that you(r friend) will have accomplished will have been to create a document that won't improve the situation, but might well come back to haunt hir.

    As you also note, this is basically equivalent to a dysfunctional family trying to draw a fortunately-escaped adult child back into the craziness (or an ex trying to restart a dysfunctional romantic relationship, or whatever metaphor works for you). You've escaped; don't be drawn back in. And don't forget, you were mistreated by the other faculty members as well as by WIT (a defense is no place to air faculty conflicts; either one intervenes to help a grad student with an incompetent advisor well before the defense, or one holds one's peace during the defense).

    As for how best to say "no," maybe others will have ideas for the best approach. I can imagine a number of approaches, from saying frankly that, given the tensions evident at your defense, you don't want to get caught in the middle, to ducking the requester's calls/emails, to stalling, never quite saying either yes or no, but making sure the deadline goes by with no word from you. (There's also the possibility of damning with faint praise --"he was so encouraging" -- but even that is dangerous, in part because it's difficult to do well). I'd go for a frank but minimally (if at all) explained "no," since that's usually the best way to end an exchange with the boundary-challenged (though it may take several repetitions to several different people before they go away for good).

    If you absolutely feel you must do something, I'd suggest agreeing to talk, confidentally, to one person outside the department (probably a member of the committee who makes the university-level tenure decision), but not to put anything in writing. But even that seems byzantine, and potentially dangerous.

    Really, just don't do it. In between the feelings of responsibility and the fantasy that you might somehow have been handed just enough power to get revenge, I think you already know that's the choice you need to make. All that's really left is coming up with a suitably innocuous, and brief, reason to repeat ad infinitum/nauseum until the requests stop.

    If you're still looking for a job, or might do so in the future, you also need to find new referees. But that's true once you're a few years out of grad school anyway, and doubly true if hiring departments know that your grad department conducts its feuds in part through such letters (and I'm sure people have noticed that by now).

  4. Cassandra has articulated the proper approach. Too often these things get caught in a cycle of escalation, and there really is only one way that your comments will be used, and that's negatively. Seriously, what do you have to gain by responding to the request? Maintaining your integrity? I'd have to ask - if it truly is meant to be confidential, then the circle of integrity extends from yourself to the chair (doesn't seem to include him/her I must say...). If it leaks, then you risk getting associated even more strongly with one side or the other, and for a young scholar that can be damaging.

    My own experience is that these sorts of things have a way of sorting themselves out despite the politics. If he's a terrible professor then eventually it will catch up to him. He'll either be buried where he can't damage students or he'll get denied tenure through legitimate means. Confidential in this situation means utterly meaningless in the greater scheme of things. Your comments couldn't be used in any useful sense. If your comments alone resulted in denial of tenure then the department's case against tenure is weak at best.

  5. Hang up the phone. Delete the e-mail. Sleep soundly.

    1. OMG! Someone stole my phone and my computer crashed!

  6. If this WIT has a talent for finding money, (s)he might get tenure despite what anyone says. Hey, (s)he might end up in admin----probably will. As C.S. Lewis describes one such process "The Head's friends saw that the Head was no use as a Head, so they got her made an Inspector to interfere with other Heads. And when they found she wasn't much good even at that, they got her into Parliament where she lived happily ever after."

    Ignore the request. There is no upside to getting involved again. If you cannot dodge the requester, you might offer words of appreciation for everything that was done for you by the Committee, and say that you choose to focus on the positive aspects of dysfunctional U.

  7. There is so much other information they will consider for the tenure file. Your comments will either be one more small piece of damning evidence or a small note made on the side.

    In other words - your comments won't make or break the tenure application, and it sounds like there are no other benefits to being honest for you. I say just politely decline the request. No need to ignore emails or phone calls. "Dear Dr. Chair, I really appreciate the request, but I'm simply too busy right now."

  8. Agreeing with all the previous comments: decline the invitation to write the letter. It wouldn't remain confidential, and given the difference in seniority in the profession the letter-writer has nothing to gain, and potentially much to lose. (Unless a very positive letter could be written, which isn't the case here.) One problem, though, is that declining to write a letter (especially if this is WIT's only student) would itself be a strong statement against WIT. So it could be that a better strategy (in terms of not getting involved at all) would be to write a brief, vacuous, completely useless letter.

  9. "I am so sorry, but I am unable to write a letter at this time."

  10. Yup, what others have said. It is a request. You are not required to provide the letter. Either ignore the request, or, once prodded too much, give a simple response that you decline the request to provide a letter, using F&T's wording, which suitably gives no specific reason for declining.

  11. Thanks, everyone.

    It seems to be a matter of choosing Scylla or Charybdis...because the Chair is the kind who will go all great-vengeance-and-furious-anger on my ass/reputation (Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction style) if I appear not to be on their side.

    I mentioned the dysfunction, yes?

    1. Does this university by any chance possess an ombudsman? Not sure how much good (s)he could do, but it might be worth a try.

      Beyond that, the only solution I can think of is energetic networking with people outside your grad department. This sounds like enough of a mess that word of the department's dysfunction is likely to spread well beyond the department (without, fortunately, your needing to play much of a role in spreading the word); the best you can do is probably to stay above the fray, and cultivate contacts who can assure others that you did so. With any luck, the Chair's attempts to smear you will be extreme/obvious enough to undermine themselves. People who engage in this kind of dramatic conflict are rarely good at subtle tasks (and undermining one of your department's own grads without undermining the reputation of the department itself is actually a bit of a tricky task).

    2. Either approach is, admittedly, a gamble (the Scylla and Charybdis metaphor definitely works), but keep in mind that people who make unreasonable requests are rarely satisfied at others' attempts to fulfill said requests. Even if you write a letter that seems to you to support the Chair's view, I wouldn't put it past him, especially if WIT's tenure bid succeeds, to blame you for not being critical enough. I'm still voting for don't get drawn back into this.