A sample selection from Kenneth Westhues, ed., Workplace Mobbing in Academe: Reports from Twenty Universities, Lewiston: NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1998.

From Chapter 9, "The Power and Powerlessness of Academe," by Melvin D. Williams, University of Michigan

I have been in academe most of my adult life and I have written two volumes on the subject – The Ethnography of an Anthropology Department and An Academic Village (Williams 1993, 2002). Having given considerable thought and analysis to the “prosecution” of professors I have concluded that the central administrative phenomenon involved is power or the fear of its absence (insecurity).

What kind of personalities subjects themselves to years of additional schooling after twelve years of obligatory education? What kind of personalities will endure the torturous years of graduate school? Perhaps, it is those who have severe feelings of inferiority and who are forced to prove to themselves and to others that they are not inferior. How do these kind of people adjust to a little power and authority? Many academics have experienced a youth of relative weakness in athletics and general physical prowess. They have neglected a life of concentrated physical activity for a life of the mind that seemed to be more appropriate to their abilities. Such a youth and subsequent life leaves a gnawing suspicion of impotence and any confrontation physical or political may lead to an imminent threat to one’s security. Such a threat often results in administrative overkill as the administrators circle their wagons to protect their fragile authorities and egos and to give a clear signal of their superior power to all who witness their actions.

In addition to the neuroses described above, many administrators have chosen administration to capitalize on their failed scholarly careers. Some mathematicians believe that after age thirty-five their most productive research careers are behind them. Scientists with large research facilities often discover that their most productive grantsmanships are behind them. Teachers discover that they are burned-out in the classroom, have writers block, or no new ideas. Such human resources in academe may have tenure and cannot be retired. They often are accepted into administration. So now you may have insecure administrators who have failed in previous positions.

I do not want to appear overly harsh on academe. Most humans are insecure (Williams 1998). They have animal bodies and spirits that commune with God. They struggle to manage their bodies (e.g., “sex, death, and digestion”) or they are victims of “biophobia” all of their lives (Gray 2002, Williams 1996a, 1996b). That struggle keeps them insecure. Such insecurity plagues the human enterprise (e.g., classicism, racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, sectarianism, ageism, nationalism, disableism, and speciesism [CRESSANDS]). Most humans are insecure but for the reasons I have stated academics have even a greater vulnerability.

I have witnessed cruelty in academe that continues to appall me even as I describe it here. A dean at a midwestern university had a friend and running partner in the sociology department. The partner had a wife in the same department that was being reviewed for promotion. The dean wanted to demonstrate his friendship and his power through his support for the wife, as both men were too insecure about their masculinity for such affection and support between them. The dean made every effort to show his support for the promotion of the wife without violating protocol. He was seen eating with her in the sociology building and in other contacts that were clearly designed to send his message to faculty who would vote. But senior faculty in the sociology department were reluctant to be persuaded by the dean and not the dossier. They denied the wife the promotion. The dean took this action as a personal insult, notwithstanding that no one had been told to vote for the wife. He began to pursue all of the vulnerable professors for revenge. They all had tenure so he had to use other approaches. He did. As one example, he had the university foundation cancel a house lease on one of the professors, effective immediately. The professor had one month to move his family and his belongings. He had to move into a hotel and put his belongings in storage until he found other lodging. He had depended on the goodwill of the university and overlooked a clause in his lease that allowed this to occur. The victim never recovered from this violation of academic collegiality. He moved to another university as soon as he had the opportunity.