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(1) Text of the ad that prompted this critique

(2) Basic critique, Kenneth Westhues

(3) References
for the Basic Critique

Four additional commentaries by:

(4) Noa Davenport, Consultant on workplace relations, Ames, Iowa

(5) Hector Hammerly, Professor of Applied Linguistics (retired), Simon Fraser University

(6) Heinz Klatt,
Associate Professor of Psychology, King's College, University of Western Ontario

(7) John Mueller, Professor of Educational Psychology, University of Calgary




"The Difficult Professor," a Pernicious Concept

Critique prepared for distribution to participants in the Legal Conference sponsored by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, 2-3 March 2001, Ottawa

Kenneth Westhues. Professor of Sociology, University of Waterloo

Text of the ad that prompted this critique (as published in CAUT Bulletin, October 2000):

Swan: Dealing with the Difficult Professor

Can general workplace disciplinary systems be adapted to the university context? How far can a collective agreement go in assigning rights and obligations to academic employees, faculty unions and university management? Should outsiders get involved? When should the police get a call?

This year at CAUT's Legal Conference, Kenneth Swan, arbitrator, formulates practical answers to these questions. The conference is two days of discussion surrounding the legal issues facing academics today. Other speakers will include Stephen Kelleher and Morton Mitchnick. It's a must for labour lawyers, faculty association staff lawyers and any grievance officers experienced in arguing cases.

Don't miss out! Watch for details in the coming months or call Nancy Gordon at 613.820.2270. Logon at

Basic Critique by Kenneth Westhues

Why this broadside?

When I came across the ad above in the October issue of CAUT Bulletin, I wrote to James Turk, CAUT's Executive Director, observing that from the point of view of a substantial research literature, a focus on "the difficult professor" is pernicious. I did not propose that Swan's paper be cancelled, but that it be complemented by reasoned critique. After discussion among CAUT officials, Swan and me, conference organizer Mariette Blanchette agreed to include this two-page handout in the kit for participants. This question-and-answer part is my own writing. At the end are four brief additional commentaries I invited from colleagues with relevant experience and expertise.

What does the term mean? Isn't a difficult professor one who gives tough exams?

That is the old meaning. The new meaning is similar to that of "difficult person" or "difficult employee," as these terms are used in management circles and the conflict-resolution industry (see Smith 2000, or do a web search for these terms). In his abstract-proposal, Swan offered this formulation: "an abrasive personality sometimes aggravated by substance addiction, financial or personal woes, or psychiatric illness."

Does anybody else use the term this way?

Yes. My book on the process by which professors are run out of their jobs includes this quote from a senior university administrator: "In my experience, there are some academics who are organizationally difficult people (perhaps because of personal characteristics) whose difficulties at base have little to do with the sorts of academic issues you discuss but which tend to become elaborated in an academic rationale. The personal characteristics precipitate all sorts of difficulties of human relationships in areas which have an academic content, but the real issue may not be the academic content but the difficulty and the personal characteristics which precipitate it. Such individuals may become expert in manipulating due process in order to defend themselves on issue after issue. Informal discussion with university administrators contains scuttlebutt about how every university has a couple of types like those who are 'troublemakers' who know how to go just so far and no farther, and who create a fear in administrators of taking them on because of the endless hours required by due process" (Westhues 1998b: 16).

That seems clear enough. So what is wrong with discussing how to deal with the "difficult professor"?

The concept stacks the deck against the professor to whom it is applied. The assumption is built in that his or her views need not be taken seriously, since they mask the "real issue," namely a personal problem or personality defect. To place the label of "difficult professor" on a colleague is to position that colleague outside the circle of respectability and dialogue. The concept is discrediting, stigmatizing, in the lineage of earlier terms like witch, heretic, atheist, and communist, and of timeworn slurs like troublemaker and malcontent.

Isn't the issue what one says about "the difficult professor," rather than the concept itself?

Swan has expressed agreement with my formulation of the basic priority for constructive resolution of workplace conflict, namely to keep the conversation going–to let competing positions be expressed and the evidence for them reviewed, to listen to what opponents say, to respond honestly and respectfully, to try not to silence anyone. We differ about whether the concept of "difficult professor" serves this priority. I do not believe it does. I would make the same objections if his talk were entitled "Handling the psychopathic president," "Dealing kindly with a witch," or "Is your dean a control freak?" Labels that have exclusion built into them cut conversation short. They mark the labelled person out as one who need not be listened to. Name-calling denotes a toxic workplace culture where attention has shifted from resolving issues and getting work done to infighting and one-upmanship.

What if the shoe fits? Some professors really are difficult.

Many fewer than is commonly supposed. A large body of experimental research in social psychology documents what is called "the fundamental attribution error," the common human tendency to overestimate the extent to which behaviour reflects underlying personal qualities (abrasiveness, for instance, or mental imbalance), and to underestimate the extent to which it reflects the particular situation or context. Malcolm Gladwell provides a lucid summary in The Tipping Point (2000). Nisbett and Ross (1991) is a classic academic source.

Then why is the term meaningful to administrators?

It simplifies their working lives. Less time, skill, and energy are required to write off a persistent critic as a "difficult professor" than to rebut the critic's arguments. Chalking up dissent to the dissenter's real or imagined flaws of character relieves overworked administrators of uncertainty and ambiguity. It lets them feel good about themselves.

But faculty association lawyers, grievance counsellors, arbitrators, and other conflict-resolution professionals also find the term meaningful. Why is that?

In part because they unconsciously accept (as we all tend to do) the viewpoints of regnant elites — here the senior administration. While going through the motions of a "fair hearing" for Professor X, they have often internalized a definition of the dissident as (to use the colloquial expression) a pain in the ass who is his (or her) own worst enemy.

Another reason why conflict-resolution professionals often form negative personal impressions of a professor who is at odds with senior administrators is that they encounter the professor in a context likely to bring out unattractive qualities. They have not seen the professor at home, in class, or on the tennis court, nor in the workplace months or years earlier, before the troubles. Usually, they meet the professor only after he or she has been under the gun for an extended period, and now faces the prospect of some kind of humiliating termination of career. Crankiness, defensiveness, suspiciousness, disorientation, and paranoia are among the traits that tend to surface in such a situation. Legal expenses may have put the professor in a financial bind. He or she may be losing sleep, drinking too much, or taking anti-depressants. The professor may come across as an "extraordinarily difficult person," when in other contexts he or she is engaging and affable.

You're saying it's hard to decide who really is a difficult professor, and who is not.

I'm saying there is no need to decide one way or the other, that this is a question you should not answer, if you want to act constructively toward settling the grievance or resolving the dispute. Personal characterizations of the parties involved, whether negative ("difficult professor") or positive ("man of impeccable integrity"), tend to make things worse. The idea is to keep your eye on the ball, not on the person throwing it.

Is this just your opinion, or is it supported by research?

The most relevant body of research, better known in Europe than North America, is on workplace mobbing, the process by which co-workers and managers gang up on an employee. The target is ostracized, punished, humiliated, and effectively destroyed. The late Heinz Leymann, a Swedish psychologist, published dozens of studies of the fairly predictable pattern this process follows, its causes, and its disastrous effects not just on the targeted worker but on the organization (see 1990, 1996, Leymann and Gustafsson 1996). Noa Davenport and her colleagues summarize Leymann's, their own, and others' research in their easy-to-read paperback, Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace (1999).

Surely workplace mobbing doesn't happen in universities.

It happens in all workplaces, especially under conditions of stress and ambiguity, and especially to employees who cannot be summarily fired. Australian physicist Brian Martin has done insightful research on the fate that befalls academic dissenters and whistleblowers (see 1997, 1999). Helen Garner has written a stirring account of an administrator mobbed at the University of Melbourne (1997). Philip Roth's latest novel, The Human Stain (2000), is a compelling fictional account. Michiel Horn (1999) and John Fekete (1994) have described dozens of cases in Canadian universities, though independently of Leymann's work. I apply his theory explicitly to Canadian academic life in my recent book (1998b) and current writing.

What does this research have to do with the problem of "dealing with the difficult professor"?

In today's universities, placing the label of difficult on a professor commonly forms part of the mobbing process. If the label can be made to stick, the professor's credibility is lost and the way is paved for eliminating him or her from the university. Lawyers and other conflict-resolution professionals need to be aware of how this happens, lest they become unwitting participants in needlessly destroying a professor's career.

But maybe the professor's career deserves to be destroyed.

Nietzsche urged distrust of all those in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. If a professor's career is to be destroyed, it should be by evidence of failure to meet the requirements of the job, not by pejorative labels like "difficult professor," that are so vague and general as to make defence impossible.

Judith Wyatt and Chauncey Hare, in their perceptive analysis of Work Abuse (1997), point out that some workplaces fall into a pattern of chronic scapegoating. One employee after another is singled out as the "bad guy" and subjected to collective exclusion and punishment. My research has turned up many academic departments that exemplify this pattern.

What can a conflict-resolution professional do to help?

A basic rule is to partialize, defined as "breaking down a huge generalization by naming some specifics in it" (Bly 1996: 29). "Difficult professor" is a huge generalization. If somebody uses the term, ask for specifics and discuss them one by one.

"She keeps writing nasty memos to the dean." Okay, how many memos? What are the dates? Let's read them together. Is there evidence for what she says in this paragraph? What response did she receive to the point she makes here? Which would you say is the nastiest paragraph? Which is the least nasty? Has she ever written a friendly memo to the dean?

Questions like these depersonalize disputes, divide them into manageable pieces, turn the mutual butting of heads into conversation, and often engender creative solutions to organizational problems, solutions that let everybody win.

Any other rules?

Here are three more:

Protect freedom of speech, via e-mail and in every other way. Give weak arguments a chance to be publicly set forth so that everyone can see how weak they are. Subject strong arguments to the same tough public scrutiny. The result will be surprising new arguments better than any yet made. That is what a university is for.

Keep academic organization loose. A tight ship cannot be a university. The latter differs fundamentally, as Swan has correctly pointed out, from a business or industrial plant. It has to be full of contradiction and brimming with debate in order to fulfill its public purposes.

Focus attention on these purposes, like educating youth, producing useful knowledge, and above all seeking truth. When administrators and professors lose sight of the public purposes they are paid to serve, when they turn in on themselves, they are quickly at one another's throats.

Are you making these rules up?

Not at all. They are part of the package of Enlightenment values that remain the foundation of our civilization.

One thinker whose name keeps cropping up in current writing about how to make our workplaces more productive, constructive, and decent, is Martin Buber, the German-Israeli philosopher and sociologist who insisted that the basic reality of human life is not the group (as corporatist thinkers would have it) nor the individual (as if we could be divided into good guys and bad guys) but the connections we make with one another (see 1955). Buber is the main source for my essay on the basics of workplace relations (1998a, available on the web).

Buber's work also underlies the practical guide by sociologist Daniel Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue (1999), a quotation from which is a fitting conclusion to this critique:

But if participants are hanging tough on their fixed positions, new contrarian perspectives may help to break up old patterns of thought. And if contrarian participants become obstructive, other participants (or a facilitator) can guide them back to dialogue. (1999: 141)

References for the Basic Critique

Bly, Carol, 1996. Changing the Bully Who Rules the World. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.
Buber, Martin, 1955. Between Man and Man. Boston: Beacon
Davenport, Noa, Ruth Distler Schwartz, and Gail Pursell Elliott, 1999. Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace. Ames, IA: Civil Society Publishing.
Fekete, John, 1994. Moral Panic. Montreal: Robert Davies.
Garner, Helen, 1997. The First Stone. New York: Free Press.
Gladwell, Malcolm, 2000. The Tipping Point. Boston: Little, Brown.
Horn, Michiel, 1999. Academic Freedom in Canada: a History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Leymann, Heinz, 1990. "Mobbing and Psychological Terror at Workplaces," Violence and Victims 5: 119-126.
Leymann, Heinz, 1996. "The Content and Development of Mobbing at Work," European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology 5: 165-184.
Leymann, Heinz, and Annelie Gustafsson, 1996. "Mobbing at Work and the Development of Post-traumatic Stress Disorders," European J. of Work and Organizational Psychology 5: 251-275.
Martin, Brian, 1997. Suppression Stories. Wollongong, NSW: Fund for Intellectual Dissent.
Martin, Brian, 1999. The Whistleblower's Handbook. Annandale, NSW: Envirobook
Nisbett, Richard E., and Lee Ross, 1991. The Person and the Situation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Roth, Philip, 2000. The Human Stain. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Smith, Gerry, 2000. Work Rage. Toronto: HarperCollins.
Westhues, Kenneth, 1998a. "Building Relationships Where People Are Real," Good Work News Issue 54.
Westhues, Kenneth, 1998b. Eliminating Professors: a Guide to the Dismissal Process. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen.
Wyatt, Judith, and Chauncey Hare, 1997. Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It. Rochester, VT: Schenkman.
Yankelovich, Daniel, 1999. The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Additional Commentary by Noa Davenport

There is not much that I can add to Westhues's clear and comprehensive critique why the term difficult should, in the context of organizational human interaction, be considered wrong. I simply want to stress his point that the concept camouflages, more often than not, one's own, management's, or a colleague's responsibility in the interaction with the person or professor said to be "difficult."

In addition to the advice or rules Westhues offers for how to go about resolving workplace disputes constructively, particularly in the context of escalating conflict or in a mobbing, these simple additional questions could be helpful: How do our rules or values, how do my or our actions, contribute to the situation or conflict at hand? What can we do, what can I do, to contribute to a solution?

The focus and emphasis in the analysis and in seeking solutions should primarily be on the constellation of circumstances and not on individual idiosyncrasies. Not the person should be considered difficult; the situation should be.

Additional commentary by Hector Hammerly,

Bright young people forgo lucrative careers for Academe in search of freedom, truth and justice. Many are disappointed as they see colleagues labelled and destroyed, inconvenient truths suppressed, and kangaroo "justice" practiced.

Many universities lack effective mechanisms for either campus dialogue or prompt internal conflict resolution. Instead, some administrations spend enormous amounts on arbitration and litigation to silence critics–an abuse of legal process and of taxpayers' dollars. Some administrators even violate civil law and rights in pursuing their targets.

All universities have mature, responsible professors. Couldn't such faculty resolve conflicts? If only administrators didn't see professors as their enemies!

The crux of university difficulties is that a Ph.D. in English, Physics, Education or Linguistics, even when an accomplished scholar and teacher, is in no way professionally qualified to manage a university, a faculty or a department.

The solution is challenging but feasible: Anyone aspiring to be a university administrator, at any level, should be required to complete a one-year program in University Administration. In addition to a course in Conflict Resolution, the program would offer courses in Administrative Ethics, Communication, Academic Freedom, University Finances, Democratic Administration, Research, Teaching, Public Relations, etc. That might help us back to first things first.

Additional commentary by Heinz Klatt

If I were to attend the CAUT conference, I would be looking on the programme for talks that deal with the other half of the issue: the "Difficult Administration." For any academic body to meet and dwell upon the problems that are created by some members of its own group, without dealing with the problems that are created by those who warrant the existence of the group, assumes innocence on one side and guilt on the other.

Difficult means irksome for someone who feels justified to consider himself without reproach, yet one set of idiosyncrasies conditions another one. In a two-day conference there should be space and time for a more balanced approach such as "The Difficult Professor vs. the Difficult Administration." If we do not remind ourselves constantly that most often "difficult" professors are made "difficult" by the institution rather than born or hired as such, then we grant management undeserved immunity and prejudge the guilt of the so-called difficult professor.

Additional commentary by John Mueller

It is a sign of the times that one has to remind people, as Westhues does, to focus on the issue that is raised rather than the person raising it, that is, to partialize and depersonalize the alleged problem. Accusations of racism or sexism, protestations of hurt feelings, and so forth, have become the easy way out in terms of dismissing challenges to conventional wisdom. Their advantage is that they avoid confronting the accuracy of a challenge, whether the challenge is to the status quo, resistance to some fashionable change, or a mere request for accountability.

The difficult professor seems another convenient stereotype in support of intellectual and managerial sloth. As such it avoids the unpleasant prospect that perhaps the messenger is correct, that perhaps it is the workplace or manager that is difficult or even pathological rather than the worker. Recent research on burnout suggests that far more responsibility deserves to be placed on unhealthy aspects of the workplace rather than shortcomings in the worker (see C. Maslach & M. P. Leiter, The Truth about Burnout, Jossey-Bass, 1997). Are there similar reasons to believe that difficult professors are symptoms of workplace problems rather than the causes?

The surest way to corrupt a youth
is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem
those who think alike than those who think differently.

(F. Nietzsche)