We suck at (academic) politics

We suck at (academic) politics

Ninety percent of the time if you were to read a blog post about academics and politics it would be a rant about “identity politics.” This isn’t going to be that kind of post. No, what I’m talking about here are “academic politics” in general. Since academic politics might involve trying to get an academic institution to change to be more inclusive there is obviously some overlap between the two, but academic politics might just as well be about funding a new research center, labor practices, rules for academic promotion, etc. My contention is that most academics are pretty bad at this kind of thing. This applies not just to anthropologists, but anthropologists, despite their training in the art of ethnography, are surprisingly bad at the skills that are required to advance their own agendas at a faculty meeting. As the child of two academics who has spent most of my working life in academia, I’ve seen my friends and colleagues repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Here are the five mistakes I’ve seen repeated most often. I’m sure our readers will have many more they can add in the comments…

The biggest mistake, by far, is a total failure to campaign for a new policy before introducing it at a faculty meeting. If you want to get your colleagues to do something differently, take some time to speak to each of them individually about your idea before the meeting. Even the people most likely to support you will be better prepared to offer that support if they know what is coming in advance. And many who would normally be on the fence will be happy to support you if you just take the time to ask. It is true that doing this might also harden the opposition, but having some advance discussion with your colleagues (even if it is just sending out an email outlining your thoughts) will greatly increase the chances of success.

The second biggest mistake is to fail to account for unintended consequences of your proposed changes. No mater how noble and well-intentioned your proposal might be, there will almost certainly be some negative consequences as a result of the change. The most obvious example is with regard to money. Rarely does funding a new program happen without cuts being made elsewhere. But it could also be an increase in the administrative workload for everyone involved, or perhaps just the administrative staff. For these reasons it is important to not just talk to those making the decision (i.e. other faculty) but also the support staff involved in budgeting and administration, as well as the students themselves. If they can offer concrete suggestions for how to make your program work it will not only have a greater chance of success as a result, but your anticipation of these problems will help persuade your colleagues that your plan is achievable.

The third mistake is to make everything into a crisis. Institutions are resistant to change, and academic institutions (still modeled in many ways on ancient monasteries) are particularly bad in this regard. For this reason, expecting them to change overnight doesn’t help, and can often make things worse. It is like trying to steer a semi-trailer the way you steer a motorcycle. You have to settle in for the long haul and plan on exerting steady pressure over an extended period of time. Sure, there may be particular junctures where creating a crisis might help energize a movement for change, but nobody has the energy for constant crisis and making everything a crisis will likely exhaust your allies as much as it alienates your enemies.

The fourth mistake is to assume that it is enough to be on the right side of history. Politics is an art, and it takes skill. Just having the moral and intellectual high ground is never enough. Unfortunately people are often so convinced of their essential rightness that they take any suggestions with regard to the art of politics as an attack on their goals.1 Intellectuals of all political stripes suffer from this problem more than others. We would rather be “right” than win.

At this point I should pause and acknowledge what many academics will say in response to the last two points, which is that institutional barriers to change and discussions over political tactics are often used as excuses to sideline and delegitimize reforms. This is true. But the truth of this statement doesn’t mean that one can ignore these factors either. The need to exert steady pressure over a long period of time (mistake number three) requires one to essentially build a movement (mistake number four). This requires allies, it requires skill, and it requires patience. Having an atmosphere of constant crisis in which everyone has to acknowledge the essential rightness of your claims does none of these things and will likely undermine your goals.

Finally, the fifth mistake is to expect others to do your work for you. While it may be arguable that they should implement the changes you are asking for, in my experience only those truly committed to the success of any proposed project will actually see it through. For this reason, it is generally a bad idea to propose any changes unless you yourself are willing to do the work to ensure its success. Yes, in an ideal world others would be persuaded by your arguments and would embrace your goals as their own. This might happen sometimes, but the most likely scenario and the one most common in academic institutions is for others to give lip service to your goals while quietly ignoring them or even actively undermining them. If you want it to succeed, be prepared to follow through. Even worse, if you constantly come up with more ways to make other people’s work more difficult without stepping forward to help, you will find that very few people are left who are willing to go to bat for your proposed solutions. On the other hand, if you volunteer to do the work, people will be surprisingly willing to support you in doing the job however you think best.

  1. I fully expect everyone I ever worked with on any committee to be offended by this post. 

4 Replies to “We suck at (academic) politics”

  1. A sharp and long overdue analysis. To which I will add a matter of particular concern to scholars in the humanities and social sciences, including, of course, anthropologists. Our rivals/potential allies in STEM fields have natural advantages over those of us used to lone-wolf pursuit of our own hobbies. They are used to working in teams whose members spend time together in their labs, sharing equipment and running joint experiments on which more than one individual’s success depends. They are used to taking collective action, utilizing the skills that Kerim describes so well here. We may joke about herding cats. Their troops, packs and prides, as well as the material advances they produce, give them an edge that occasional individual brilliance will never overcome.

  2. @John Interesting comment. Here in Taiwan (as I’m sure you know) the government encourages joint research projects in the social sciences. I haven’t been part of one myself, but most of my colleagues have participated in at least one or more joint projects.

  3. @Kerim. What does participating in a joint project entail? I am thinking about the difference between “joint”projects in which people work independently and cobble together a joint report of some kind and projects in which teams are expected to produce an emergent result that no individual could produce alone. A typical product of the former would be a collection of papers only loosely connected by a nominal shared theme. When I think of the alternative, I think of the advertising and marketing campaigns I worked on at Hakuhodo and imagine laboratories producing new technologies. In the social sciences/humanities I think of archeology and a few notable examples of collaborations between anthropologists and historians, e.g., the project on traditional Chinese funerals organized by Woody Watson and Carol Embree. These, however, seem exceedingly rare.

  4. These points also apply to lots of other types of institutions — unions, religious congregations, civic associations, political movements, youth development organizations — the list goes on. Thanks for this quick summary.