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.

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16 Comments on “Value in bad-tempered dissent?”

  1. Ernie Ball Says:

    Dissent is part of the academic tradition yet all of the actions of some of the recent crop of administrative bureaucrats in these islands have been to ensure that dissent is stifled. You know the tricks: the false (because unidirectional) “consultation processes,” the use of temporary and zero-hour contract staff (by definition precarious) to replace permanent academics while administrative bloat continues apace, the constant “restructuring” exercises so that nobody knows if their department will continue to exist, never mind their job, etc.

    The fact is that administrations and college presidents everywhere are like your friend: they don’t like dissent and they don’t like academics reminding them of what the purpose of a university is or who are the people who really matter in it: the students (first, always) and the academics. For the one fact that makes them most insecure is that the administrative layer could disappear overnight and everything would continue as it was. They are inessential. All the more reason to make sure nobody is in a position to point that fact out.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    The post gives the impression that the quoted article portrays curmudgeons in an entirely negative light, and yet at the end the author lists “What I Have Learned About Curmudgeons” which is entirely positive.

    The most constructive attitude towards curmudgeons is the one by the following College President:

    “Curmudgeons should never be confused with whiners. It is easy to mistake their independence for hostility or simple negativism. Yet they can be reliable friends and forceful allies.”

    Finally, if like me, anyone else is fascinated by the etymology of the word curmudgeons, have a look at

  3. cormac Says:

    I have been a member of our college’s Academic Council on and off for 12 years, and have played the role of both impatient, irritated curmudgeon and pleasant mild-mannered academic. My experience is that it makes no difference – administrators and managers listen politely, and then completely ignore every suggestion i have ever made. Every colleague I consider a ‘do-er’ (anyone who has a regular experience of the classroom) has had the same experience..

  4. Vincent Says:

    I wonder how being a cranky little sod would work prior to tenure. I suspect the crankiness is a relationship to the volume of soft soaping done before that date.

  5. Ernie Ball Says:

    Meanwhile, here’s a real dissenter’s view of what governments and professionalised university administrators are presiding over. If anything, Eagleton understates things here.

    Congratulations are du to Ferdinand and all the Presidents and Vice Chancellors in these islands: you’ve succeeded in destroying a centuries-old institution and shackling it to the transient needs of contemporary capital. But wait, don’t tell me: “not to change wasn’t an option.” Case closed, I suppose.

  6. E du C Says:

    Most curmudgeons, of whom there are many, work not for the university but at the university and unfortunately in my experience of managing them usually end up with the poorest student evaluation scores, least impressive research records etc. but then blame it all on the neo-liberal paradigm and other evils.

    And yes the easiest and most cowardly way of getting shut of these pests is by restructuring them out.

    In truth, as I approach my 50th year on the planet I am increasingly and slowly becoming apprised to the happy reality that academia just doesn’t work for me. The priority of thought over action makes too many of us antisocial, unpleasant and uncooperative.

    And finally, who in their right mind would want to be a University President?

  7. Eddie Says:

    Different from the article theme
    THE reports:

    Scottish universities attack governance bill
    Scotland’s universities have called on the Holyrood government to put on hold an overhaul of governance in the sector after the proposals met with significant resistance (

    Interesting to read what Pete Downes, the Principal of the University of Dundee says about the bill.

    Where is Mike Russell when we want him?

    • anna notaro Says:

      are you sure Eddie your contribution is really ‘different from the article’s theme?’ You might be the King of curmudgeons 🙂

      • Eddie Says:

        Oh, you must be one of those who simply say YES to anything to please those in power in order not to offend them! Careers on built on such approach!!

        • Eddie Says:

          Corrections: “says” and are”

          • Eddie Says:

            I was simply a messenger!
            BTW, socialists and leftists have fascinations on kings and queens! The otherday, Ms Sturgeon was beaming when some one shouted: ” You are the queen of Scotland!

        • anna notaro Says:

          aha! aha! you have no idea how far you are from the truth, but thanks for the laugh!

          • Eddie Says:

            Laugh? I was serious. My orginal post did not concern you at all. I for the one who should laugh seeing how predictive you can be!!

        • anna notaro Says:

          Since you seem unable to follow the thread of your own comments, (or get irony) I shall then explain to you that my laugh was in response to your gratuitous assumption that I was “one of those who simply say YES to anything to please those in power etc,” not to speak of your mean-spirited insinuation towards my career. Seriously, I would urge you to refrain from making any similar assumptions.

          • Eddie Says:

            “Since you seem unable to follow the thread of your own comments”
            If you say this to your students, you will be in big trouble in your university.
            BTW, I would urge you not to make any such silly response to what was a THE article which did not concern you at all.

  8. no-name Says:

    “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…. Curmudgeons, on the other hand, would do well to show respect to fellow members of the university, even where they disagree with them.”

    Significant pressure within organizations, through group-think, for example, stifles dissent. Pressure groups themselves have a habit of becoming bullies; although frequently, when they coincide with the groups in power, they are able to feel that their behaviors are not bullying behaviors, by definition, because they are in power. They show disrespect for their fellow members of the community every time they use as among arguments for their ideas specious claims that “everyone else of importance” thinks the ideas sound, that “no one else has expressed this dissent before”, that “all other top universities are doing the same thing”, that not pursuing the ideas will cause the department or university to be “left behind”. The “everyone else is doing it” argument, where it does take root, is a central component in the development of bubbles that ultimately burst with messy effects, as when banks adopted the argument in starting to turn mortgages into securities. Adults tend to chide children and adolescents for using the argument, while blind to its role in their own thinking. It is a category of disrespect to present ideas to colleagues that are merely borrowed from others without thinking them through with reference to the local context where it is proposed to apply them. It is a deeper disrespect to suggest that colleagues should adopt such ideas. Groups have more power than dissenting individuals, and groups abuse their power when they label a dissenter “curmudgeon” in order to stifle dissent further. Risk of having the label applied to dissenters inevitably discourages dissenters from expressing their dissent: their career progress is impeded when the label sticks to them.

    Discouraging expression of dissenting analysis is not helpful to the overall system. In fact, discouraging expression of dissent is detrimental to the health of the overall system. By applying the label “curmudgeon” to individuals, power groups bully those individuals and cause harm to everyone. Suggesting that the label might be applied to some harms everyone.

    Is there not ample historical evidence that greater progress has emerged from acting on closer inspection of the ideas of dissent than from following the wisdom of the lemmings?

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