Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Life Lessons from a Chaired Professor

With a new year come new resolutions, reflections, and a fresh start.

I recently finished reading the book, "Composing a Life," by Mary Catherine Bateson, which I had purchased in my favorite bookstore at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge. In the book, Bateson, the daughter of the renowned anthropologist, Margaret Mead, writes about the creative potential of the complex lives that we live today through the prism of her own experiences, and those of four of her friends: Johnnetta Cole (a scholar and administrator), Joan Erikson (a dancer), Alice d'Entremont (an engineer), and Ellen Bassuk (a medical doctor). Interestingly, three of these women (Cole, Bassuk, and Bateson) had been Fellows of the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe, which is now the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard (I was a Fellow there from 2005-2006).

Both Bateson and Johnnetta Cole (who after being at UMass Amherst assumed the presidency of Spelman College) lived for a time in Amherst and even on the same street. Bateson was a faculty member at Amherst College and then became Dean of Faculty (but only for a relatively short time). In the book, Bateson mentions quite a few people that I know and speaks very highly of Esther Terry, who was a long-time faculty member at UMass, and even Barbara Osborne, a renowned biologist with whom I have served on several committees.

What is remarkable about the book, is not only the insights into achievement, especially of females, who, inevitably, must deal with various life interruptions, but also observations on academia at large and the climate for females. Frankly, it seems to me that we are at a turning point. Despite more integration of females into academia (as well as minorities) I am seeing a decrease in diversity when it comes to administration at various institutions, including my own (although I do celebrate the female presidencies at such Ivy league universities as Harvard, Princeton, Brown, and UPenn, and even MIT, and, more recently, at UConn).

Some direct quotes from the book are below (I will not editorialize and to find many more you will just have to read it):

(p.86): The academic world is notorious for the nastiness of the power games it plays, sometimes for such very small stakes. But in general, it is every man for himself -- unless the issue is one that threatens their common dominance.

(p.98): A quote from Johnnetta Cole in discussing a general ed requirement that was the result of educational reform at UMass that she led: But by that time I think I had a pretty fair understanding of how things work in the academy. Some of the stuff was incredibly nasty, with all the things you know about and went through at Amherst -- distinguished colleagues grinning in your face and going behind your back and stabbing the hell out of you.

So my advice as a chaired professor and one who continues to be amazed by what she continues to observe and experience:

Academic bullies, sadly, exist, and they may even be administrators who practice such tactics as exclusion, not sharing of information, hoarding of resources and picking the best of the crop (in terms of courses and remuneration for themselves). Realize that the academic world is not just your department. Noone gets "known" by just sitting in one's office (although at the beginning of your career you should definitely be seen a lot at your institution).

Meet the top researchers in your field at conferences and at professional meetings. They have risen to the top not just because of their intellects but also because of their integrity. People invite those whom they trust both intellectually and professionally (and who are likable).

Become involved in professional societies, agree to referee papers and to serve on journal editorial boards and conference organizing committees.

Seek out successful "peers" that you can relate to (both within your institution and outside) and support one another.

Balance your work life with family and friends and include some special interests in the mix (from exercise to art and music -- travel is a reward for success in your profession and will naturally come if you work hard).

Keep your sense of wonder -- in the questions that students raise -- in the smiles that are shared and in the discoveries that you make and that you read about.

Advocate for those that you see being discriminated against and, if you are one of them, speak out and document what is being done to you. Some universities have faculty unions and many have an ombudsperson.

Be a mentor to students and junior faculty, who will most likely sense any negativity or unfairness. Students are much wiser than some faculty recognize.

Congratulate those who have achieved -- kind words and acknowledgment can make a big difference.

Recognize that academic envy can pollute collegiality and an organization's effectiveness and esprit de corps. Nurture other talents within yourself rather than engage in craving (rather than celebrating) other's achievements. They worked hard for them and deserve recognition.

Each day is a new beginning with new people to meet, new papers (and books) to read and write, and new opportunities that fall into your lap -- take advantage of them, but do so wisely, remembering that we all have a limited time budget and need to allocate our resources wisely.

And remember that even the Nobel Laureate in Economics, Sir Richard Stone, was marginalized by many of his colleagues before he received the Nobel Prize.

So, do the best work that you possibly can -- in teaching -- in research, and in service and make sure that your conscience is clear and that you retain your integrity.

Those that make the best leaders lead by generosity of spirit, integrity, reciprocity, and inclusion.