If only kindness were tenured

I'm not sure that the stresses and pressures shaping behavior in higher education are any different than they are in other organizations, but it does seem that academia lends itself at times to particular kinds of unkindness.

We professors can be rather dismissive of our colleagues. Those in the career preparation majors often sniff at the liberal arts navel gazers, and those in the liberal arts often high hat career prep departments. Lord knows I've been guilty of this. And all this is to say nothing of the standard tensions between faculty and administration or the "two cultures" divide between the humanities and sciences.

Academic structures tend to silo people into disciplines, departments and divisions, which probably exacerbates the primus inter pares effect, a phenomemon in which people overestimate their own contribution and underestimate the contribution of others. I've seen studies that show that 80% of people rate themselves in the top 10% of productivity.

You might also say that academic life promotes the availability fallacy. In other words, I have lots and lots of available evidence that I am working hard, teaching well and carrying the institution's heavy burden. But my colleagues over there in department X? Hmmm, not so much. They must be slacking. Then there's just the sniping pettiness you find in any group of human beings. Problem is that academics are clever. Their sniping tends to hit home.

Over the years I've met two people who should have been tenured for their kindness alone. The first was a now retired department chair who never once in all the years I knew her spoke an unkind word about anyone. I'm not saying she didn't think it.  She just had the grace and forbearance not to give vent to her exasperation. The other is a woman retiring this spring.  I have worked with her closely for the past several years. Again, she has been a bulwark of caring, kindness and forbearance, qualities that show up nowhere on her vita.

Even so, such people are of incalculable value in academic life, especially at a small college.  Come to think of it, they're pretty darned valuable in general. 


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