Amoebas, Sexual Reproduction, and a History Department

Amoebas, Sexual Reproduction, and a History Department

            I have spent a significant amount of my life in faculty meetings.  Time that might have been spent in meaningful activity. Hours that will never be returned to me.

            But faculty meetings did provide ample occasions for extended reflection on what was going on around me, and thoughts often emerged that were best kept to myself.  I generally won the internal struggle and kept my mouth shut, but occasionally I could not prevent the words from escaping.  One such occasion occurred, when, after considering the strengths of several colleagues for tenure, promotion, or some other reward, the conversation focused on praising the exceptional virtues of one member of the department, who, instead of remaining on campus, teaching, and doing committee work, had had a series of grants that allowed him to absent himself for several years in order to produce a series of publications. Unable to restrain, I mused aloud that we had reversed Woody Allen’s dictum, since in our department 90% of success was not showing up.

            This unwise and intemperate observation was the result of thinking about sex for many hours during faculty meetings. These reveries were less erotic than biological and had to do with reproductive strategies. The hiring, tenure, promotion, and salary decisions that my department made were a form of reproduction. We were creating the social organism that would follow us in the future. But, sadly the model for replication resembled that of an amoeba, more than that of a human.

            Like asexual organisms, the department was unconsciously acting to minimize variation. It had an idealized vision of its future that involved only one variable – the maximization of the production of effective research.  When it set about making decisions that would shape the department’s future, this was the only virtue that was really taken seriously.  Like an asexual organism, the department was dedicated to making as many copies of that ideal form as possible.

            But, in fact, research was only one of the essential functions that the department needed to perform. In prioritizing a single form of behavior – the ability to produce prodigious amounts of research – it was systematically selecting a personality type that focused on that kind of activity and tended to ignore other needs. If the ideal had been fully realized, the department would have been filled with individuals, who, like the colleague who rarely even resided in our town, would do nothing to contribute in other ways to the wellbeing of the social organism.  There would no one to teach our courses, to recruit and train our Ph.D. students, or to serve on the various committees that were essential to the life of the department.

            Ironically, the department only succeeded because it failed to realize its ideal of a workforce of perfect researchers. A sufficient number of those who were hired and allowed to remain in the institution were unable to remain oblivious to the needs of those around them and, therefore, did the (generally unrewarded) work that allowed the institution to survive.  But this only occurred at the cost of considerable injustice.  Those who ignored their students, failed to make real contributions to departmental service, or received external support that allowed them to remain away for years at a time tended to receive both praise and material rewards.  Those who made personal sacrifices for the sake of the institution were often ignored, which engendered bitterness and conflict.

            This injustice was particularly troubling because it had a gender dimension.  Women, it appeared, found it more difficult to consistently give the pursuit of personal fame on the national and international level a higher priority than the needs around them.  Early in my career the cost of such responsibility was magnified by the collision of the demand for female representation on every committee with the small number of women who were actually present in the department, producing extra demands on their time and energy.  But even when the gender inequality became less severe, more women continued to devote hours to keeping the ship afloat, and this prevented them from making the full commitment to research that brought praise to many of their male colleagues.      

           Even if one puts aside all such questions of justice, there is a very serious problem lurking in the future for such departments.  So long as the environment remains relatively stable an organism – whether biological or social – can generally continue to survive by repeating the same patterns generation after generation.  When, however, there is a radical change in that environment, adaptation is necessary, and that is very difficult for a population that has little variation.  It is for this reason that hundreds of millions of years ago the sexual revolution in biology changed the rules of the game in order to assure that there would be enough variability to allow the species to adjust to environmental changes.  Through the regular recombination of genes, there will always be a range of traits spread across a population. 

         There is every reason to believe that the environment that surrounds and sustains higher education around the world is experiencing extraordinary change.  Forms of support that have long been taken for granted are disappearing. New expectations are being brought to the evaluation of universities, and we are no longer being given as much freedom to determine our own priorities. There is good reason to believe that the personality traits needed to make the necessary adjustments and to explain them to a broader public are not those most likely to appear in individuals, whose primary focus is on producing scholarship that will make their personal reputations on a national or international stage.

            Under the circumstances it would be wise for departments like mine to draw inspiration from the sexual strategies of natural species and to pursue strategies that assure the presence and the nurturing of a broad range of personalities. We could recognize and reward a spectrum of skills and orientations that would allow us to adapt more successfully to new environments.

          There are, however, three related obstacles to such a development.  First there is the dominance of the cosmopolitan over the local within the value system of academia.  Recognition from a distance always trumps local concerns, and it is automatic for many in our tribe to give priority to the book acceptance or outside offer over anything that is done to serve the interests of the home institution.

            Reinforcing this obsession with distant approval is the shame culture that, as I have argued in an earlier entry, dominates so much emotional life in our universities.  Shame is incompatible with accepting the notion that there may be many honorable ways to serve an institution, since it tends to see everything outside a single imagined ideal as worthy of contempt.

            Finally, both of these tendencies are strengthened by the strongly hierarchical nature of so many academic institutions. To believe that there are many different roles within an organization, all of which have equal value, is difficult to reconcile with the desire to establish a clear scale of more and less valuable individuals.  What happens to one’s imagined position within the local social hierarchy if there are multiple ways to gain respect? And the recognition that there is more than one way to be excellent can threaten a faculty member, whose sense of relative self-worth depends on the belief that, however shameful it may be too be stuck in a university that is not Harvard or Oxford, there are faculty at other institutions who have even less status on the research scale.

            For all of these reasons it may be difficult for traditional research universities to respond to the changes that lie ahead.  But, if the obsession with external validation, shame, and hierarchy were overcome and a more pluralistic vision of faculty roles was embraced, these institutions might not only be more successful, but they might also be much more pleasant places to live.

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