October 24, 2003

The Story You are About to Hear is True (Dennis Baron's Dragnet)

Bad behavior was the most disheartening thing I had to face as an administrator. What I present here are brief summaries of four cases, but they are based on detailed investigations, interviews, and hearings. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. Unfortunately, that also protects the guilty.

-- Dennis Baron, "Faculty Behaving Badly"

Dennis Baron, professor of English and author of a series of columns at the Chroncle on the tenure review process (two of which I blogged about here and here), has a new column called "Heads Up." Having "just finished a six-year term as head of the English department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign," he writes in his inaugural column, he is now "ready to recollect that experience in the tranquility called research leave." Naturally, as an adjunct faculty member I am eager to know "what to expect when you become a department chair;" I intend to read the column regularly and to follow its advice closely with a view to my own professional development.

In this month's column we learn that "stalkers, rapists, and embezzlers... must be dealt with by the police," while "data fakers, plagiarists, and professors who glamorize their past" can be left to the tender mercies of the "ethics panels." Baron writes that he knows one department head "who wouldn't meet with one professor without a police escort." But apparently high crimes and misdemeanors are relatively rare: "98 percent of the faculty members in any given department do their jobs honorably and need minimal tending from administrators." Faculty not behaving badly, however, doesn't make for much of a column. Not surprisingly, Baron focuses on the remaining 2 percent. A couple of the cases he recounts are almost incredible (though at the same time, utterly believable).

One question:
Though "the names have been changed to protect the innocent," Baron writes under his own name and identifies his own institution. His colleagues must know exactly who and what he is talking about. I wonder how this goes over in his department?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 24, 2003 08:41 AM

This is the ugly side of tenure. He's probably intentionally alienating people to reduce his attractiveness for committee work, and he'll be left alone to teaching and research.

Posted by: matins at October 24, 2003 10:15 AM

Well, three of the four incidents resulted in people leaving, so he won't be running into them every day. The one involving people still there was also the most minor.

I liked this line,

One of the things you realize almost immediately as a new department head is that you are going to learn a lot more about your colleagues than you really want to know.

Posted by: ogged at October 24, 2003 11:54 AM

Oh, man. Dennis Baron. The kind of head who unilaterally forbids instructors from using instructional material developed by a departed faculty member against whom he had formulated an entirely irrational and unfounded professional and personal grudge. Dennis Baron -- the kind of head who makes sure to employ his wife as an adjunct while "non-renewing" other adjuncts with longer service to the program and/or better teaching records. Dennis Baron -- who is no longer head because even his friends and allies advised him not to seek another term.

The guy's a weasel, through and through.

Posted by: at October 24, 2003 12:34 PM

Everything the poster in #3 said. There's a reason Baron's no longer the department head. And I can't imagine his columns will do much to add to collegiality in the department, especially given that things have already been quite rocky (to say the least) for several years there.

Says Baron: "And the university proves to be a space where doing the right thing is everybody's goal, at least most of the time."

Positive Chronicle-speak strikes again. I think some of the once and former grad students and adjuncts Baron helped screw ove...I mean, "worked with," might have something to say about that.

Posted by: anonymous me at October 24, 2003 12:46 PM

Can we expect a long thread here? I'd just like to go off-topic and congratulade IA on her fourth-place ranking in the "invisible" Google. A much greater accomplishment than my first places in the "Zizka" and "hyena quoll" Googles.

Posted by: Zizka at October 24, 2003 01:29 PM

Thank you posters #3 and #4 for clarifying matters. I was wondering this too, "what kind of department head airs his department's dirty laundry in the Chronicle?"

Posted by: Matilde at October 24, 2003 01:48 PM

This is the story. Wowo. Full of intrig.

Posted by: Garbook at October 24, 2003 03:20 PM

"I'd just like to go off-topic and congratulade IA on her fourth-place ranking in the "invisible" Google."

My invisibility gains visibility...
But Zizka, first for "hyena quoll" is no mean feat!

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 24, 2003 04:50 PM

Now if somebody could quietly, anonymously collect incidents like the ones the column talks about from many institutions, it might make primo reading in the Chronicle. But from a guy writing under his own name, associated with an institution, yeah, that's pretty icky stuff, wheels within wheels within wheels. In a way, if he's honest, he's got to write about himself in a subsequent column: the faculty guy who writes about other faculty in a way that those other faculty are pretty much identifiable by name for anyone who cares to invest five or ten minutes doing so.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at October 24, 2003 05:27 PM

With some aggressive link-whoring you could become the most invisible person in the universe. You're already ahead of Ralph Ellison.

I lied, though. You're really #6. Careless scrolling on my part.

Amazingly, Language Hat is #6 in the "hat" Google. Behind Medicine Hat (twice) but ahead of all the hat companies in the world. Apparently there's a niche for a computer-savvy online hat marketer.

Regarding the topic, OK, OK -- academic life is famous for cattiness backstabbing, conniving, and vendettas, but Dennis Baron seems to have taken it up a level by broadcasting his anonymous grudges nationally. Let's give that boy a big hand!

Posted by: Zizka at October 25, 2003 11:39 AM

I'm going to take a controversial stance here and say that we'll never fix the problems in academic without airing out the laundry. Part of the reason people get away with doing what they do in academia is that everything is always kept so quiet. I don't know how I feel about Baron's column. He should try not to be defamatory, but we have to remember that truth is not defamatory. On the other hand, if he's a backstabbing, power-abusing bastard, himself, well, I'm sure people will start pointing that out -- and writing stories about him on their blogs and such. In the mean time, blowing off the stench in the academy might be a good thing. About his colleagues knowing who he's talking about in the column -- trust me, they already know.

Posted by: Academy Girl at October 25, 2003 12:46 PM

I also think it would be a good thing to hear two-fisted true tales of academic misbehavior, but I actually think the ones Baron is talking about are probably the less common kind, and are kind of grungy and sad and ugly. What might be much more interesting (and typical) would be tales of how unscrupulous people ambitiously maneuver for advantage within the system, construct paper enemies, work to minimize labor loads, and so on.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at October 25, 2003 12:53 PM

*nod* But the people busy fighting those battles are, I think, unlikely to (a) think that writing for the Chronicle is the solution, and (b) actually take time to write for the Chronicle.

I have a friend who works at a university and who routinely tells me stories of hair-raising mismanagement there (I am by way of being a sounding board). He has tenure and is nearing retirement, so is not concerned about his own career except insofar as he's not ready to retire just yet, isn't prepared to seek another job, and is being made miserable by the situation. I have been suggesting that he talk to the Chronicle, write for the Chronicle, anonymously mail non-privileged yet incriminating documents to the Chronicle -- whatever! -- for years. Nothing doing.

Posted by: Naomi Chana at October 25, 2003 08:12 PM

Amazingly, Language Hat is #6 in the "hat" Google.

Good lord, you're right! I should start selling hats myself.
*visions of $$$*

As for the topic, I agree with Academy Girl: air it all out. Let's see, as Burroughs put it, "what is at the end of every fork." There's almost as much mystification in the academy as at any given imperial court.

Posted by: language hat at October 25, 2003 08:28 PM

Baron may very well be an awful despot. It may be in very poor taste for him to give out juicy and carefully edited summaries of some of his adventures as a department head. However, better that than silence. Anecdotes like his are entertaining to suckers like me.

Is any bureaucratic institution or large company somehow less plagued by backstabbing or bad blood than higher education? I somehow think not. This isn't an excuse for tolerating bad behavior by faculty, but merely an observation.

Posted by: better left nameless at October 26, 2003 12:25 AM

God I miss chatting up the secretary and faculty at my alma mater. Hearing who did and didn't get tenure (and the reasons why, which are so often unbelievable), the development of inter-departmental or inter-personal politics, the peccadillos of the various faculty, staff, and students. . . Ah, those were entertaining times. As for airing things out, I'm all for it.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at October 26, 2003 07:12 AM

"Is any bureaucratic institution or large company somehow less plagued by backstabbing or bad blood than higher education? I somehow think not."

I agree. But I do think there is something peculiar to the academy: not the misbehavior itself but the means of dealing (or not dealing) with the misbehavior. The collegial model -- faculty (ie, "regular" faculty) are equals, faculty aren't managed in a top-down way but are rather supposed to be more or less self-governing -- can make it very difficult for people to intervene even when they think they should.

"What might be much more interesting (and typical) would be tales of how unscrupulous people ambitiously maneuver for advantage within the system, construct paper enemies, work to minimize labor loads, and so on."
Not exactly "true tales," of course, but I think this is the stuff of the best novels of campus life.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 26, 2003 09:22 PM

At my alma mater there was a faculty member who was quite the Don Juan. The faculty secretaries had an agreement that if he was in the room, none of them would leave any of the others alone with him.

At some point the school started beefing up its program (English) and noticed that his publications were mostly in tiny English-language journals published in Yugoslavia and China. So he was sweating it.

Then they did a formal check of his credentials. It turned out that not only was his PhD fake, his B.A. was too. He was a smooth talker, all right.

True story from a school which probably underranks yours, wherever you may be. He's gone now though. He was a fun guy to drink with.

Posted by: Zizka at October 26, 2003 10:13 PM

"You're really #6."

Okay, still some work to do with the term "invisible." But I'm #1 for "adjunct."

Lh, you could start an online shop called The Language Hattery.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 27, 2003 10:28 AM