Guest post: WMU’s Communication Problems and a Culture of Fear

by Cathryn Bailey, Ph.D.
Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies
and former Associate Dean, WMU College of Arts and Sciences

Cross-posted at FliptheW.

In the years leading up to, and in the wake of, the faculty’s no-confidence vote in the provost, there’s been a lot of talk about a communication problem on campus. It’s a label I’ll accept if we can agree that this isn’t merely a cosmetic flaw to be remedied, say, by town hall meetings where those in charge pretend to listen. I’m more inclined to say we’ve got a fear problem, one that correlates pretty neatly with the institution’s reliance on a rusty, traditional power model, one that’s hierarchical, unidirectional, and has clearly defined rules of engagement. One expression of this is the expectation of managerial compliance the provost openly referred to in his message to CAS faculty and staff a few weeks ago.

According to this model’s dictates, when I’m with a higher up – and we should always be clear about who’s who on the food chain – my role is passive. I am to be talked at, explained to, given advice and schooled. I can ask questions of clarification, but not substantive or fundamental ones, and I must accept whatever is doled out to me in the guise of a response, whether or not it’s relevant, ethical or even makes sense. My primary function is to nod in agreement, thereby providing reassurance to the guy in charge that he is, in fact, in charge. The pervasiveness of this rickety power model helps explain why some of our leaders look so puzzled, irritated, or even visibly angry, when confronted with real questions about such issues as the academic program review, the university’s football program, budget and finance decisions, or gender equity. They seem to see such questioning as at best impertinence and at worst a violation of WMU’s social order.

I know I am not the only one who has noticed that when questions and concerns are presented to some of our leaders, or when they address groups of us, their tone frequently ranges, and can shift instantly, from jocular uncle to disappointed dad to pissed-off coach to irate general. It isn’t just one or two leaders, but, increasingly, this communication style seems to have become part of the WMU administrative ethos. It’s become pretty standard for some of them to bark out talking points and manage questions or concerns rather than actually listen to them and thoughtfully and spontaneously respond. If you haven’t experienced this first hand recently, get yourself invited to a Wednesday afternoon administrative Academic Forum, often a virtual parade of such didactic performances.

Too many of our campus leaders seem to have taken on the terrible burden of believing it’s their job is to know everything and to then fling that knowledge at those below. Their omniscient pretense is further reinforced by vague, dangled secrets and obfuscating references to complicated reports that staff and faculty couldn’t possibly be trusted with or expected to understand. That more of us haven’t been asking tough questions all along has, of course, been vital to maintaining this dynamic. It’s especially demoralizing to look around the room and see an audience nodding in drowsy approval. As if they were part of an actual dialogue.

It’s partly because I think there’s a gendered dynamic associated with this communication style that I find the handling of gender equity – with respect to both faculty and staff – to be so troubling. From where I sit, it looks like the women and men who care about gender equity are, in pretty standard fashion, being intimidated, ignored and shamed into silence. The very dynamic that created the problem they’re taking issue with in the first place – an objectively demonstrable social and material power imbalance – is being relied upon to keep them in line. Here, the woman’s expected role is one of passive acquiescence and polite helpmeet. That so many women have internalized these lessons – yes, we often are afraid and do doubt our own worth – makes this a predictably effective and especially offensive strategy.

What I think is most important about what’s happening now across campus, most visibly in the College of Arts and Sciences but across other colleges as well, is that some individuals and groups are challenging this dynamic. There is increasing recognition that we must insist on being treated like respected collaborators if we are to meet our responsibilities to each other and to the university. And the campus leaders who seek more from us than passive acquiescence – and I hope there still are such leaders at WMU – deserve our honest, robustly engaged partnership, in dialogue and in action.

That I have recently watched my immediate boss lose his job for speaking up suggests that I am not exaggerating WMU’s authoritarian dynamic. That I am contacted daily by individuals from across campus who whisper both their support and their terror speaks painful and embarrassing but also hopeful volumes. Those of us who speak up already know that there may be consequences. We may be vilified as disloyal, or dismissed as impertinent and naive. Women who speak up may also be dismissed as bitchy or hysterical. Certainly, it’s not much of a challenge to construct rationalizations for why we need not listen to those whose views we’ve already decided we care nothing about.

But despite the fear, we must continue to demand and expect more in terms of collaborative dialogue and shared governance. Our commitment and loyalty to higher education, to WMU, to our students, and to one another requires such vigorously engaged participation. Exceptional work is being done all around us by staff, faculty, students and administrative colleagues whose expertise and wisdom are necessary to make this place better. What if WMU colleagues across all levels acknowledged our shared vulnerability and felt empowered to communicate authentically about the real problems that urgently need our attention? What if we were not afraid?

2 thoughts on “Guest post: WMU’s Communication Problems and a Culture of Fear

  1. Three cheers, Cathryn, for such a well-stated and direct assessment. What continues to break my heart is that all of this is happening under the all-consuming conversation of renovating the university culture, of “moving forward” into the 21st century to escape the doomsday predictions of the irrelevance of our mode of higher education. Whence do we draw our confidence of growing as an educational institution if we are still holding onto administrative dynamics of years past?


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