Value in bad-tempered dissent?
A few years ago I was visiting an American university as the guest of its President. We were having a cup of coffee in a faculty cafeteria when a middle aged man walked in. The President turned to me and whispered, ‘This man is the scourge of my life. He publicly states his disagreement with everything I say and do. He turns up at every meeting and criticises my plans. I have devoted more nervous energy to this man than to the entire university community put together; and I resent it.’ It was a very striking and passionate statement from what I had hitherto experienced as a very even-tempered man.
But actually the President’s nemesis was not that unusual a member of the cast of dramatis personae of the academy. In fact, a whole article has recently been devoted to the ‘curmudgeons’ of higher education (in this case American community colleges). The author defined curmudgeons as follows:
‘They are highly visible on campus and can be identified easily by faculty, staff and administrators. Curmudgeons are contrarians who take enormous pleasure and pride in thinking otherwise. They can be cantankerous naysayers acting as self-appointed gadflies to the president or other leaders, including leaders of their own constituencies. Collaboration and civility do not seem to be values they hold in high esteem. They are quite vocal and opinionated and appear to prefer heated debate and prolonged circular discussion to solving problems and reaching consensus. Curmudgeons can be memorable characters with a certain flair or style, often using humor and sarcasm to play to their audiences.’
Respondents in this study overwhelmingly found the influence and impact of such curmudgeons to be negative. Some curmudgeons themselves argued otherwise, suggesting that they played an important role in restraining institutional heads as they sought to implement every new flavour of the month (or the ‘latest snake oil’ as one put it).
Of course, any university head who is honest will accept that there is genuine value in dissent, not least because it sharpens up strategy and ensures closer analysis of plans and strategies. Dissent is also in the end part of the intellectual academic tradition and should be recognised as such. However, in some cases curmudgeons, seeing the stress they can cause, become self-important and, occasionally, bullies. Some begin to see causing offence as the end rather than the means.
It is important that universities accept, respect and encourage critical thinking, when applied to corporate strategy as much as when applied to intellectual propositions. Curmudgeons, on the other hand, would do well to show respect to fellow members of the university, even where they disagree with them.