Thursday, October 26, 2006

What does Jeff Skilling have to do with faculty hiring and dean searches?

In a Jurist Forum piece earlier this week, I reacted to Jeffrey Skilling's use of the word "disappointed" to describe his 24-year sentence. In between my paragraphs excoriating him for what he allowed Enron to do, I wedged in a reminder that demonizing him is unfair. From my obsessive reading about Enron, I formed a picture of what Skilling was like as a person. That picture may be true, but I'll never know. And having been on the ugly, receiving end of email and web-based attacks in the not-so-distant past, I felt an obligation to highlight the fact that he's not a demon but a human.

Why remind people of this fact now? Because it's hiring season in law schools. Search committees, especially those looking for lateral hires, will have plenty of opportunities to get references from a wide variety of sources. If you're on a search committee, you'll hear from the candidate's references and from the candidate's colleagues who weren't listed as references. Aside from the usual caution of "outing" lateral candidates before they're ready to be outed -- also a problem in dean searches with candidates who are sitting deans -- I want to call your attention to a wonderful article from the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the April 14th issue, John Gravois wrote a piece called Mob Rule: In department disputes, professors can act just like animals. Gravois discusses the research of Professor Westhues at the University of Waterloo. Here's a quote:

A mobbing is like a tornado spun off from a spring rainstorm -- a fervent collective assault that escalates from an ordinary conflict.

What happens in a mobbing is that everybody gets lined up on one side, with one or a few targets on the other side who are demonized as being beyond the pale.

This article is juicier than I've described, and it makes for important reading for search committee members. As they start to hear about a potential lateral candidate's behavior, they should be careful to listen for certain tropes. It's always possible that the discussions of a candidate's personality are accurate, and that the candidate is truly a piece of work. (Search committees should also beware the unanimous but extremely vague praising of a candidate, on the off chance that the candidate's current colleagues want him off their hands as soon as possible.) The more nuanced the references' comments are, the less likely it is that the candidate is being mobbed. I can assure you that law schools aren't immune from mobbing behavior, and laterals are at a disadvantage if they're trying to move away from such behavior. Perhaps the best advice for members of search committees is twofold: read Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink, to get a feel for your own reactions to a candidate, and then think about the context of any reference's comments.

It's also dean-search season (although I don't think that there's ever an off-season for dean searches). Mobbing behavior can certainly apply to administrators, and now dean candidates also have to worry about stealth mobbing attacks on the Web. Another important Chronicle article, Unleashing the Vitriol, discusses the new tool used by cowards with an axe to grind. When they want to trash a candidate, they blog about unsubstantiated rumors -- often anonymously -- to the search committee, which necessarily slows down the process and also endangers the candidate's chances. Don't get me wrong. I'm in favor of getting information about sources other than the candidate's suggested references, and I'm in favor of tracking down rumors. Committees and faculties must do due diligence on their candidates. But because the Internet raises the stakes on a game of "telephone," any unsubstantiated (or substantiated but disputed) allegations can take on a life of their own. (As I was coming home to Houston this morning, I read about Stephen Colbert's use of "fill in the blanks" interviews with politicians as a way to create new and obviously untrue rumors. I love The Colbert Report -- though not as much as I love The Daily Show -- in part because Colbert's satire strikes so close to home to some "real" news shows.) Like Colbert's televised mock interviews, blogs can create and spread rumors quite efficiently. My advice for search committees? It's important to check out rumors, but treat the anonymous ones with some skepticism. In a few cases, the bloggers are anonymous because they truly fear retribution; often, though, anonymous comments are the last refuge of bullies.

More on my advice for dean search committees later in the year (after I finish some long-overdue drafts).


Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Thanks, Nancy. Very interesting. My sense is that there is "mobbing" as described in the article and also "civil" mobbing in which individuals who do not confrom to norms- knee jerk politics, log-rolling, etc. - are gradually marginized while everyone else smugly adheres to self-serving definitions of acceptable conduct. I plan to get to this on my next post on the dangers of civility.

10/26/2006 9:09 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Jeff, looking forward to your next post! I wonder whether we in law schools generally have a difficult time setting boundaries for decent behavior, and also whether the boundary-setting ability improves if a school moves away from an "independent contractor" model to a "shared enterprise" model.

10/26/2006 9:15 PM  

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