Tuesday, March 29, 2016

'Climate of Fear' or 'Fear of Commitment'?

There are lot of strong statements these days about a climate of fear at UBC or the categorical dismissal of any such thing. Truth often lies somewhere in between.

Over the course of my own life I have often heard people say they feel they can't do this or that for fear of some kind of social sanction being brought down upon them.  From school to work to family life the are formal and informal mechanisms at play to shape social behaviours and attitudes. My disciplinary guild, anthropology, has studied these kinds of social pressures in kin-ordered societies - cultures within which there are no formal state institutions.

Generations of anthropologists have found that indeed human societies (within or outside of states) create rules and mechanisms for enforcing them.  Each society creates particular ways to try and constrain those who deviate from the accepted norms.  From joking and teasing to outright coercion, humans work hard to ensure that group members toe the line.  Anthropologists studying non-state small-scale societies have realized for a long time that group formation and a sense of identity and belonging has been a critical aspect of human sociability cultural stability for millennia.

Pushing social norms is often seen as a threat to social stability. But it is also an important source of innovation and change. In fact, pushing norms and challenging sacred truths is a critical aspect of human resiliency and is part of what contributes to our success (so far) as a species.

So lets turn back to this "climate of fear" at UBC.  It seems to me that it is simultaneously true and false. It is true in the sense that there is much pressure to conform as a faculty member at UBC.  It is false in the sense that if one meets the technical requirements for tenure (grants, publications, teaching) allowances are given for norm pushing behaviours.

Conforming as a faculty member means to do one's work, not cause too much of a fuss, publish and get grants. Going along to get along is a general aspect of most human work environments and it's been my experience at UBC. That's not to say people don't appreciate dissenting voices, but rather that the prevailing work place culture is one that prefers people focus on a narrow technical range of activities that define the workplace.  This breeds a form of workplace conformity in which more junior people try to ascertain (not always correctly) who the power brokers are and then to curry favour.  Conformists, it would appear,  are more likely to be afraid that if they step outside the norms they will be punished.

Ironically so-called 'excellence' is partially measured by innovation - that is, norm breaking. And it is 'excellence' that brings tenure and promotion.

The false side of the "climate of fear" perspective is that the reality is as long as a faculty member does publish when and where it counts, does get grants, and does meet the standards of teaching one can  push norms on the political front - to be a dissident- and still get tenure and promotion.

While it may be true that there are academic administrators who might wish that faculty just shut up and focuss on research I think that most are more interested in finding ways to get us to publish more, get bigger grant's and keep our students happy.  I think that UBC would be an even more interesting, exciting, and engaging place if more people threw away their perception of fear and realized that in the University of Excellence we have a lot of freedom (as long as we publish) to engage in legal acts of political dissent.

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