Dealing with dissent

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When it comes to faculty dissent, my perspective is perhaps somewhat unusual if not unique. As a department chair and dean, I often encountered dissent when presenting and enforcing administrative policies that in some cases I didn’t agree with, either. And as a faculty member, I have on occasion played the role of dissident myself.

In both situations, I’ve had many opportunities to observe how various leaders, from chairs to presidents, have dealt with dissent. Three strategies seem to be most common.

Some leaders try to punish or make examples of people who openly disagree with them. They might be somewhat limited in what they can do, because of tenure, academic freedom, and other faculty rights, but administrators can always find ways to make someone’s life miserable, if they want to: less-than-desirable teaching or committee assignments; arbitrary denial of legitimate requests; sudden, strict application of previously ignored “policies.”

This is a risky tactic, because at some point it becomes apparent to everyone what’s going on. Of course, some administrators might think that’s a good thing, that occasionally you have to “knock some heads” in order to get everyone else to “fall in line.” But what often happens is that even those faculty members who basically agree with the administration, or who don’t care for the dissident personally, begin, over time, to side with him or her against what they regard as petty and vindictive treatment.

Meanwhile, the administrator in question may find his or her moral authority slowly draining away. That’s why, in my experience, those who take this approach often end up being more damaged professionally than the person they set out to punish. Another way some administrators deal with dissidents is simply by ignoring them–and I mean ignoring them altogether. They don’t speak to them, don’t respond to their e-mails, don’t acknowledge them in any way. They decline to put them on committees, refuse to recommend them for assignments, and fail to recognize their positive accomplishments. In short, they act as if they don’t exist.

This strategy, too, is unlikely to work, because it’s almost impossible to completely ignore people who work in your department or on your campus. In fact, truly committed dissidents are often especially difficult to ignore, because they’re always in your face. Trying to act as if they don’t exist is liable to infuriate them even more, leading to further confrontations. Also, even dissidents (and sometimes especially dissidents) make positive contributions, and the administrator who refuses to acknowledge as much ends up looking like a churl.

Lastly, some leaders deal with dissidents by attempting to win them over, to co-opt them and thus bring them into the fold. This is often accomplished through bribery, by offering them choice assignments or placing them on “key” committees where–perhaps after many years–their voices will at long last be heard. Or so they think. In reality, this is usually just a ploy, an attempt to make the dissident think that he or she has a legitimate opportunity to effect change when in fact the outcome has already been determined and the administration has no intention of considering opposing viewpoints.

The reason this strategy usually fails is that few genuine dissidents fall for it, and those who do end up angrier than ever once it’s clear that they don’t really have a voice.

The best and most effective leaders eschew all three of these strategies. Instead, they try to treat dissidents, as much as possible, just like everyone else. Such leaders tend to be open-minded, inclusive, and collaborative anyway–that’s what makes them effective–and so they listen to dissenting voices just as much as they listen to any other voices–no more, perhaps, but certainly no less.

In the end, these leaders may end up making decisions that the dissidents approve of, because (and let’s not lose sight of this point) the dissidents are often right. But even when they make decisions contrary to the dissenting point of view, at least the dissidents feel that their voices have been heard, that they’ve been taken seriously, and that they are free to speak out again on the next issue.

Indeed, the very best leaders welcome a healthy dissent, because it keeps them honest and because they understand that, if no one is questioning what they’re doing, they’re probably not doing anything worthwhile.

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