Friday, February 12, 2016

My Two Cents

A long time ago, in a museum far, far, away, I was giving an orientation tour of the collections for a newly appointed senior administrator. The head of human resources accompanied us, and at one point he interrupted my spiel to give her his take on our science program. “They’re our rock stars,” he said, referring to the museum’s curators. “It’s our job to support them.”

To be honest, some of those curators thought they actually were rock stars. They certainly tried to behave like one. There were times when this was quite fun. There were times when it was not fun at all. Bad behavior can be very entertaining, provided that you are not the victim of it.

That comment came back to me quite forcefully this week, as I read the articles in Science and the Washington Post describing allegations of sexual harassment at a major natural history museum.  This is not the time or place to delve into the specifics of that incident. But there are things that need to be said, more generally, about what this tells us about how some museums are run.

I thought long and hard before starting this post. At some level, I didn’t want to lay as much as a finger on such a messy subject. But if this blog is about anything (other than fossils, dumb cryptozoologists, and the vagaries of Federal funding) it’s about responsibility in the way we look after collections. And that responsibility extends to the way we treat the people that care for the collections.

In museums with tenured academic staff, be they university or freestanding, there are two categories of people. There are curators, and there is everyone else. As the man said, these curators are the rock stars. They are defined by metrics of achievement: publications, research funding, awards, and publicity. They come up through a grueling and intensely competitive career process that favors the alpha dog. The prize at the end is tenure. Once tenured, they cannot be dismissed from their position without just cause. In practice, they are unlikely to be dismissed at all.

Then, there’s everyone else. As that distant administrator once said, and as many tenured curators firmly believe, our job is to support the rock stars. Unless protected by a union contract, we’re employed at-will, which means the museum does not have to establish just cause for firing us, or even warn us in advance that we are at risk of being fired. In principle, I could be fired for writing this blog post; in some institutions, I actually might be, a risk that was pointed out to me by my previous employer.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that a two-tier structure like this is ripe for abuse. If you set up a system where you create a high profile class of people, who are outstanding talents in their field; set them apart from all other staff in the institution; send out the message that they are critical to the wellbeing of your organization; place them in positions of authority; and then make them more-or-less immune from any consequences of their bad behavior, you've created a potentially toxic situation in which bullying and harassment are not only possible, but are almost inevitable.

Many people who have worked in a museum in this country, including some of you reading this blog, will have either witnessed or experienced this. It might involve being summarily overruled on a question of professional practice. It might mean being yelled at in public, or sent bullying emails. It could be having to listen to inappropriate, dismissive, or offensive comments about yourself or others. In some cases, it could even mean assault or sexual harassment.

Museums are not the only places where this can happen. It can occur if you work in a bank, or a car dealership, or a supermarket, or pretty much anywhere. But that doesn’t make it OK, and it doesn't mean that we should shrug our shoulders and say it's just the way of the world. We should be better than that. And we certainly shouldn’t tolerate it because, as institutions, we value the contributions of the perpetrator more than those of the victim.

Towards the end of last year, Yale was embroiled in a firestorm over free speech that spilled out into the national press. One of the things that struck me forcefully was the response of some of my friends on the faculty, who were deeply upset that their students, boiling over with anger at longstanding issues of race and inequality, were shouting down other faculty members. A couple of things emerged in conversation.

First, there was a strong sense of closing ranks. There's a genuine, but largely unspoken tradition of faculty solidarity within universities, that was clearly on display. At some gut level, my colleagues seem less bothered about exploring the underlying injustices that sparked the protests, and more concerned with the infringement of the faculty's right to be listened to with respect. It was couched in terms of the need to protect free speech, for sure, but it was also more than a little tribal. Second, I couldn’t help but get the sense that they were upset because, in their minds, they were the Good Guys. Why are these kids beating on us?

If you're a faculty member reading this, I'm afraid I have some bad news; in the cases of harassment and bullying I’m discussing here, you are not the Good Guys, and however much you may feel oppressed by your administration, crushed by your tenure process, ground down by your teaching load, and underappreciated by your students, you are not the victims. You are a very entitled minority and you are a big part of the problem, either because you act badly yourself, or because you tolerate others’ bad behavior in the name of collegiality, faculty solidarity, or a reluctance to let central administration mess with the way your govern your affairs. But you can also, if you choose, be part of the solution.

The system of academic tenure was created to defend your academic freedoms; to be able to work, teach, publish, and speak out on whatever subjects you want without fear of censure; rights that all of us, myself included, would defend passionately. It was not intended to give you a free pass to behave like an asshole to your colleagues, staff, and students. Not only do you have a responsibility to the people that work for you, but you also have a responsibility as a mentor to the next generation of curators and academics; your grad students and postdocs who are watching how you behave towards your staff and colleagues, and who are modeling their behavior on you.

The way forward is to have faculty, be they curators or anyone else, make a clear, unified, and unambiguous statement that the protection provided by tenure applies solely to academic freedoms and that anything else, be it bullying, sexual harassment, or any other form of inappropriate behavior, will be subject to exactly the same disciplinary processes, the same sanctions, that apply to your non-faculty colleagues. That they will not turn a blind eye to bad behavior in the name of faculty solidarity. or to preserve their independence. And that they will go to their administrations and charge them with implementing those principles. Because ultimately, unless some people get fired for their actions, nothing is going to change.

I firmly believe that, one way or another, these changes are going to come. And it’s far better for our community if our tenured colleagues are seen to lead them.

2 comments:

  1. I agree with you and would like to add that all employment, in my view, should have "tenure" in the way you describe (employees shouldn't be able to be dismissed without just cause).

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  2. Thanks for this. I agree, and would add that those with tenure (and others!) should fight for the right of all employees to become tenured, i.e., that they shouldn't be able to be dismissed without just cause.

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