When Anonymity Fails

Tribble’s still got me thinking, folks. Not about the propriety (or lack thereof) of academic blogging, but about the anonymous Chronicle rant.

Witness yesterday’s Chronicle Careers piece: a pseudonymous “newly tenured associate professor at a large Midwestern research university” writes of the perils of the listserv, and the ways that his colleagues, past and present, fail at moments to grasp their technological workings. A closer look below the fold.

Contained within the piece is the following anecdote detailing an email controversy at his previous institution:

One of the first postings in that controversy announced that the administration had authorized a senior-level hire in the department, but had demanded that the new hire be an internationally prominent scholar. I believe the theory was that by following the Stanley Fish model of superstar, free-agent signings, the department would elevate itself from Montreal Expos status to, say, the Cleveland Indians.

In practice, though, top scholars seem loath to moving to relatively unprestigious posts unless the money is stratospheric. Top-dog universities in little-dog states can usually afford something merely substratospheric. And so, burdened by insecurity and poor judgment, faculty members at such institutions tend to overpay for mediocrity when they hire at the senior level.

Still, a senior hire is a senior hire, and my friends there were looking forward to welcoming a new colleague. Early in the process, the most prominent full professors began jockeying to see who would be able to use the promised position as patronage.

“My good friend Professor X says that he’s really interested,” the story would go. The department had been burned by such “good friends” in the past: Those friends tended either to be very famous scholars whose friendship to our colleague was dubious (and whose interest in us nil), or run-of-the-mill faculty members who used their “friendship” to get raises at their current institutions, which they never intended to leave.

This search for an “internationally prominent” scholar promised to be a bit different, and after the initial conversations in a faculty meeting, I heard that the dean had agreed to consider two candidates. The first was a hard-working full professor at a peer institution who was known more for his editing than his writing, but was savvy, worked well with students, and would make a great colleague. His degree, however, was from a large state university, a peer institution rather than something from on high.

The second candidate, supported by a different faction of the department, was initially perceived as a dark horse: an American-born — and American-trained — scholar who had been teaching in Europe for the past 15 years, accumulating a large number of largely unnoticed publications in a very trendy area of study.

Because the dean was focused on the candidates’ graduate-school training as indicative of status, he rejected the first candidate and set his sights on Professor Europe.

Professor Europe came to the campus to deliver a scholarly paper and meet professors and students. Even his detractors admitted that the visit was a success. Professor Europe was deemed both personable and erudite, although his bearing occasioned a few snickers. I couldn’t quite figure from the messages if he stuttered or had some other quirk of presentation. In any case, the dean loved him and prepared to make an offer.

At that point, opposition to his candidacy moved from genteel to aggressive. Strenuous debate before and after the scholar’s campus visit was inevitable and appropriate. The university was planning to pay him above the normal pay scale of the department and work out a reduced teaching schedule. What went wrong after the campus visit involves the use of the e-mail list and the way that such a white-hot medium tends to inflame rhetoric and create rancor. With their backs against the wall, those opposing the appointment began posting harsh denunciations of the candidate.

All those publications? Mostly in European vanity presses.

His erudite manner? Well, if you like affectation.

His ability to attract prominent graduate students wishing to study with the master? More fourth-rate Ph.D. applicants will be steamrolling the department’s way, only this time some of them will come from Europe.

Those denunciations were answered by equally strong defenses of the candidate, which tended to focus on institutional weaknesses rather than Professor Europe’s strengths. I’m caricaturing the arguments, but they were similar to: “Look, our legislature won’t give us any money and our upper administration is made up of hacks. We should take what we can get.”

To give my former department credit, it is made up of smart people with strong opinions, and even though their comments could be passed around and commented on outside of the circle of discussion-list members — as they must have realized — one might defend the e-debate as true to the intensity of opinion on the subject.

But then there was the inevitable colossal misfire. The professor who had spearheaded the senior hire from the beginning thought he was sending a personal message to a friend. Instead it went out to the whole department (I’ve changed the names to protect the department’s anonymity):

“Thanks Bob — I am still twisting arms — but so far no one important has been opposed to Professor Europe, not even Krank, Betty, or Walter (I saw his ballot marked), Richard, Maureen, etc. Seamus is the only one I know for sure voted against him, although probably Kate and Zora did too, especially as they didn’t attend the meeting (what a surprise). Yours most truly, Juan.”

Oops.

Oops, indeed — but from a whole other place: as I read this yesterday, I had an absolute frisson of recognition. I had heard this anecdote before. This controversy didn’t take place at my institution, but instead at that of a friend, who had told me the story in some detail. I emailed my friend and got confirmation, along with a very clear breakdown of the actual members of the department to whom the pseudonyms above belong.

So: names are changed to protect the department — and yet I, an outsider, recognized the incident, and of course, the department absolutely recognizes itself.

And, more to the point, the department recognizes “Frank Midler.”

Now, I doubt they’re a vindictive bunch, and probably no harm will come to Frank from his, in fact, very good illustration of an important point about listservs, academics, and impropriety. Frank is of course newly tenured, so little harm can come to him, in any event. But what of his own impropriety? Was it appropriate for him to make public this anecdote? Should he have masked the situation a bit more, perhaps by changing more details than just the names — and perhaps by using less metaphorically appropriate pseudonyms for the folks involved?

I’m not sure where I stand on this. It is, after all, a revealing story, but one that seems to have been revealed here with more than a little spite as motivation. Perhaps Ivan Tribble was on to something in being worried about the public airing of departmental dirty laundry — but perhaps he ought to have worried less about bloggers than about anonymous Chronicle columnists.

4 thoughts on “When Anonymity Fails

  1. I recognized the part of the column about the inadvertent “ridiculous assholes” email.

    I had the same thought you did: “Why make such a fuss over blogs when something like this is going to reach such a larger audience?”

  2. KF- you’re not exactly an outsider, so the worries you raise don’t exactly apply to people like you, who are or have been at that particular institution or who have close friends there. On another of your points, The Chronicle is a newspaper and not a blog–I could have chosen less “metaphorically appropriate” pseudonyms, but I don’t see what real difference that would have made. I couldn’t change facts, including the exact wording of the message and other details of the case.

  3. Frank, I do take your point, but only as far as it goes. Yes, you couldn’t *change* the facts, but there’s no particular reason why you had to include the message itself, in its entirety. A paraphrase would likely have gotten the point across, without setting off my radar.

    But this is neither here nor there. As I said, I actually rather liked your column. My point was less about your column in particular, except as an illustrative example, than about the irony of Tribble’s accusations, about the potential for impropriety in bloggers airing departments’ dirty laundry, appearing in an pseudonymous Chronicle column. Why, in the airing of dirty laundry, are Chronicle columns good and blogs bad?

  4. A paraphrase would have been boring–and would not have gotten the point across, as the shock of that message is partly what makes my point.

    I think you–like many of the anti-Tribbleites–mistake practical advice for moral admonition. It’s not an issue of what’s “good” and what’s “bad” but what will help one’s career and what will harm it. The institution in question in my column has already done enough to harm my career (and my bank account), so I’m not too worried about repurcussions.

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