Saturday, February 17, 2007

Stop Me Before I Slap Myself

In a recent post I suggested that the real quality of a law school is assessed by examining what goes on day to day. I listed a number of items and asked readers to rate their own law schools. The bad news is that my own School scored quite high (low is better). The surprising news to me, although I have heard all law schools are pretty much the same, was that we are not alone. There is one item that I should have included on my list of 10 questions and, if I had, I am sure that my School could have distinguished itself.

Gossip. All Schools have it and, let's face it, sometimes it is juicy and fun. Sometimes it is even true. A great deal of the time it is the work of bored and nasty people who want to be authorities on something -- anything.

At my School, just in the last few weeks, I have heard the following:

1. The Dean will tear up the ballots on a faculty candidate if the results are not to his liking. (Not much of a rumor because a good rumor needs to be plausible.)
2. Someone in the Administration is having an affair with a secretary. (Plausible but unconfirmed and a generic rumor.)
3. One faculty candidate was only invited to campus because the Committee mistakenly believed he was an African-American. (Plausible but uncomfirmed. This rumor was traced to the originator who conceded, "I might have said this" but it remained a rumor.)
4. A faculty member is teaching from bar review materials. (Plausible but not juicy.)
5. Professor A slapped Professor B.
6. Professor A did not slap professor B. (Stalemate rumors.)
7. Professor C is only teaching the course he is teaching to keep Professor D from teaching it.
8. Professor E voted for a candidate the Dean favored after being promised more money for a Center.

And there are the more general ones:

1. Professor F has an alcohol problem.
2. Professor G practices law most of the time.
3. Professor H is homophobic.
4. Professor J is racially insensitive.
5. Professor H eats way too much Italian food. (O.k., this is one I made up and spread around but it just did not seem to have legs.)

Different people are authorities on each of this. Ask them how the know and 99% of the time they heard it from somewhere else. Mostly, but not always, rumors seem to be about people who are threatening in one way or "outsiders." In fact, standing out in almost any way is a good way to be a rumor target. I once voted again a current facutly member for tenure and it seemed like I earned my own white-collar-personal-gossip stalker for years.

One thing gossip tells us is that people have time on their hands. The second is that at some point it begins to undermine the ability of a faculty to cooperate sufficiently to do what is best for stakeholders. Incorrect information becomes the basis for actions.
Gossip depends a great deal on the "knowing better, doing nothing" crowd. For example, at my school a faculty member publically stated a rumor as fact and the do nothing crowd let it pass without comment. (Not people to get in a foxhole with!)

How to control it? That's the hard part. It serves some kind of need. I once took it upon myself to trace a rumor to it orginator who did fess up but then yelled at me about something else and, I feel confident, immediately found sympathetic ears in order to hatch new rumors. Unilaterial action is not the answer. Like any addiction, group intervension might work.

So, how does a law school cure itself of its gossip addiction? Is there Law School rehab? Can you do it in a day?


Blogger Nancy Rapoport said...

I agree that gossip can end up being toxic at any institution. As far as I know, there are only two things that anyone can do to stop the spread of gossip: don't do it, and don't spread it.

But there's a difference between gossip and information, and the difficulty is in drawing the line between the two. Information gives people a chance to hear what may be developing; and I guess gossip is just mean-spirited.

So, with some of your examples, perhaps the ones that deal with a person's character are most appropriately classified as gossip (e.g., whether the dean would tear up votes; who's sleeping with whom; etc.), and the ones that have to do with work-related strategy (OK, I'm stretching here--maybe the one about someone teaching a course to prevent someone else from teaching it?) are information.

On the other hand, the administration needs info on anything actionable, some of which may also intersect items of a more gossipy bent. If someone's sleeping w/someone else on the wrong end of a power differential, that could be a sexual harassment problem. If someone's having a problem with alcohol or drugs, the information helps the admistration get that person to the right counselor.

I've been at three institutions, two of which engaged in very little gossip. There were gossip-mongers at all three of the law schools at which I've worked, but at two of them, the gossip-mongers were typically ignored and therefore didn't have much power. At the third institution, there were many more people who wandered the halls with what I considered malicious intent, and I wasn't a witness to any ostracism. Schools do have personalities, and--just as in real life--if a school wants to change its personality, it has to change its habits. It's that old lightbulb joke again: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but the lightbulb really has to want to change.

2/18/2007 8:44 AM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Thanks Nancy, On some faculies, a collective decision to change is like trying to lose weight or stop smoking. There is one thing I should have added. Gossip sometimes fills a gap left by an administration. Either by neglect or a misplaced emphasis on secrecy the administration allows the misinformed to fill in the blanks.

By the way, when I was at Houston the gossip level was pretty high but nothing like FLA.

2/18/2007 11:17 AM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2/18/2007 7:39 PM  

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