Grappling with academic politics
There is a famous quote, attributed to Harvard professor Richard Neustadt, that ‘academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small’. It is certainly true that personal hostility and intrigue are not wholly unknown occurrences in universities. In my experience, this becomes a dominant culture in some departments, or on some committees, while it can be completely unknown in others.
In its most recent issue, the US Chronicle of Higher Education has an article from a senior academic in the University of Iowa in which he classifies the different types of people you can find in academic life and who may be best avoided by those not wanting to become the embroiled in fighting or intrigue. These are the ‘turfmaster’ (easily offended when someone offers a contrary opinion relating to their area), the ‘prickly pear’ (nursing chips on their shoulder), the ‘big bully’ (essentially cowards), ‘Dr Chaos’ (with a fondness for random battles), the ‘deal maker’ (horse traders by temperament), and the ‘smiler’ (duplicitous and manipulative).
In my experience most academics don’t belong to any of these categories; but it is easy to identify someone we have met or known who does, and it is easy to see how much damage they can do. The academy will always be a place where unusual personalities appear; but ti would be better that they were eccentrics rather than manipulative or aggressive.