What to do about an icy climate?

A reader on this post asks an excellent question, and I’m hoping others who are wise will have some useful thoughts. The question is what to do when faced with a really awful environment in one’s department, which includes denial that there is a problem. Is a climate survey useless? What are other first steps one could take?

19 thoughts on “What to do about an icy climate?

  1. Act with resolve and patience. Everyone is delusional and difficult with respect to certain topics. Think of whatever topic that might be for you and think about how you would need to be treated in order for you to talk to someone sensibly about that topic. Try your best to act in that very manner toward those you perceive to be delusional and difficult with respect to bias issues. It may be best to start with those who are the least delusional and you may find that they even become allies. The most trenchant, if you face them head on, will just say things like, “We aim to treat everyone based on merit, so we don’t need to think about minority issues.” For such positions, a Socratic approach might work (“What makes you think that you treat others based on merit?” etc.). If you grow more visible within the department, don’t be surprised if certain members of the department (especially junior members who may see you as “overshooting your position”) try to undercut you whenever they can. For this reason, taking steps to ensure your personal sanity are key. That is, make friends outside of the department, take breaks from the department, recall the relative importance of this department to your overall life, etc.

  2. I am in a woman-unfriendly faculty. It’s not so much that people in my faculty are misogynist (although some of the older ones are), but just that they don’t realize that women get left out, for instance in mentoring (the overwhelmingly male faculty tend to mentor only the male postdocs and grad students – female PhD students tend to drop out more). They do not actively recruit female faculty members. They think that by letting some of them to the interview stage (but not hiring them), they have done enough. At the risk of going behind people’s backs, one of the female postdocs has started a wonderful initiative of a society promoting the rights and concerns of women within our university. I hope that this will improve things. In the past, however, I’ve noticed that the people who attend meetings like this are female grad students and postdocs, alas, not the senior males who seem blissfully unaware of the problems.

  3. I think we shouldn’t think of a pole as a strange and maybe magical thing. Think of it as an anonymous conversation. You can in fact have a questionaire that asks for more descriptive reactions. If you understand the various mechanisms of sexism, you’ll know some of the signs to probe for.

    Nonetheless, I’d strongly advise expert outside help, though that might be very expensive. Maybe someone who is involved with the nsf advance program could help for free?..

    There is a real danger of a backlash. If you are dealing with men who aren’t questioning their own attitudes, then you may find they have some very unpleasant models in their minds. Remember Hilary Clinton. The men could experience the women as nagging wives. Whiners who want special perks.

    So if you want to change things, I’d approach it more indirectly. E.g., have a women’s support group. See what resources your university has. Check out women in the faculty governance group. Is there a women’s studies program?

  4. Does the university have an ombusperson? Is there a long history of this climate? If so, perhaps consider a hostile environment claim to the affirmative action office. When I was in grad school, a group of women grad students succeeded in such a claim to the extant that a full professor feminist philosopher is required on the faculty at all times and has been now for more than 20 years.

  5. It’s tough not to let that dynamic get you down. From a motivational point of view, I have found that finding friends/mentors from other departments to be a wonderful way to create my own community for commiserating, advice, and comparing alternative models of how to manage an academic career and department life.

  6. I posted this on the other thread, but I’m copying it here. I’m a big believer in surveys.

    I think doing a survey is very helpful. It gets a conversation going and gives everyone in the department a shared point of reference. I helped to write and run one last year here at CU. We based the survey questions on the Rutgers survey, but expanded a lot of them, including expansions to ask about race, religion, sexuality, and so on. I built the survey in Qualtrics, which I would highly recommend. It’s very professional, easy to use, and gives you some powerful analytic tools.

  7. It’s possible that a climate survey could be useful in larger departments with graduate students (where this addition of numbers further anonymizes respondents), but I would suggest that it’s completely implausible in smaller departments, especially ones without grad programs. I have worked in a department in which I was the only woman and the only queer person, and in which the climate was truly awful. I think the most important thing for me was developing allies and a support system outside of the department. And, ultimately, being fortunate enough to find a position somewhere else.

  8. If the situation were to fail (despite the surveys, one’s resolve and other efforts, et al.) to improve, would transferring to a different program be a viable course of action?

  9. I think surveys should be approached with caution in icy climates even if the survey can be designed to tease out accurate information where it’s likely to be withheld by respondents. I say this primarily from the standpoint of a respondent and it seems to me there are 2 broad categories of likely student respondents in an icy climate, both of whom can be harmed by the survey.

    The cynical respondents – those who see the survey as vain exercise and will give politic, anodyne answers – may nonetheless feel more deeply alienated and cynical from doing so. That is, the survey may register as coerced participation in a whitewash, asking students to collude in maintaining the department’s collective delusion that all is well.

    The naïve respondents – those who take the survey as a meaningful expression of the department’s interest in making climate better and so give honest answers – are likely to be deeply disappointed and may even feel betrayed when the department either ignores the data gathered to continue on as always or, worse, engages in backlash behavior that worsens an already bad climate.

    Long story short, giving surveys doesn’t just collect information, it expresses something – ostensibly a commitment to make things better based on the responses gathered. Where that commitment is not part of the department’s orientation and sustained by action, giving surveys can do damage even if they succeed in collecting real information.

    For what it’s worth, I was in a department that maintained, simultaneously, a climate I found horrifying and a collective myth that we were uniquely collegial. It is much better now but I find it significant that much of the improvement has been woven into the myth. Substantial changes are largely incorporated into the old myth: We do all sorts of things that are better not because there was anything wrong with us, but as fresh iterations and confirmation of our collegiality. So if the denial takes the shape of a myth that all is well, the more you can rhetorically present real changes as mere elaborations of the myth, the better things might go. Instead of challenging existing self-perception, you seek to extend it in novel, more fruitful directions.

  10. I’ve read the first 10 responses– a couple of them say what I’d emphasize. Find allies in whatever places you can on your campus — whether it’s faculty in other departments, an ombudsperson, or someone in HR or in student services. Strategize with them about what has and hasn’t worked so far in their parts of your campus.
    Then when you can find one colleague in your department who seems amenable at least to reading some articles, start giving this colleague appropriate pieces such as Sally Haslangers’ and Jenny Saul’s.
    When possible try to have allies with you in this work. It’s more depressing to do it alone!

  11. I’m the original poster, and I should say– I’m faculty. Students have come to me on condition of absolute anonymity & I’ve been myself the target of some truly vicious and outrageous forms of the hostility, which have to do with both sexism and sexual orientation. More than that, even about why relevant administrative resources outside the dept are not available (they’re not) I can’t say without giving too much away. I’m slowly figuring out ways to protect myself & my own sanity, but the students– I feel just awful, horribly guilty, that the fact of the matter is that I can’t protect them. Not really. Not outside my office and classrooms. There are colleagues who are not discriminatory/problematic actors in that way, and who treat the students well. But they’ve shown no spine in standing up to the problem actors, are very invested in image in the ways of which #10 speaks, and in deep denial. I feel like if I could somehow make progress with the denial (hence the initial interest in surveys, though I think for reasons #10 touches on, they’d do nothing here), I could get a wedge in the other ways (of course, the investment in image and not wanting to stand up to the problem may well be motivating the denial, in which case, I have no idea how any progress could be made).
    I want to do something. But I feel at a loss. My students, however, are in a worse position. So I think it’s up to me to figure something out.

  12. I’m really sorry to hear this! But, first, I just want to say that while I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say the climate in my program is icy, I had some really horrific experiences my first year in grad school, made worse by the fact that being in a new place I had no idea who I could talk to, what I could do, or if there were even allies in the department. It was the solidarity (even if they didn’t know it, and even if they couldn’t do anything had they known) of two faculty members in particular that got me through it. Just, that time in their seminars– even for only a couple of hours a week– were such a relief and such a comfort; it made the broader circumstances infuriating rather than depressing, and gave me enough safe-space so to speak, that I felt I could navigate the rest. So, don’t underestimate how much good you are doing.

    Obviously, what can be done will be entirely context dependent, and it’s really hard to know what will work, but one thought is that someone could recommend a survey be done of undergraduates. Some programs already do this (and more should– even if they aren’t trying to get at climate problems!). It’s important for obvious pedagogical reasons to know how undergrads are faring and there tends to be more of them which would mitigate some problems that might happen at the graduate level. It could be a way to get the conversation going and provide impetus for change in a way that doesn’t require grad students or faculty to voice concerns.

  13. Perhaps it would encourage the more decent colleagues for you to present them with some of the stories in question. Of course, this could not be done with the stories you have received so far, since those were given under the guise of anonymity, and one never knows how they might accidentally betray identity. Instead, maybe you could have a sort of survey that you administer where students are encouraged to write down their stories without any identifying information and to submit them to you. This could be unofficial for just the students you already know. Then you could (personally, without letting them make copies) present these to some sympathetic colleagues, suggest that something needs to be done, and ask for their advice on the matter.

  14. Thanks for the fuller description of your situation. I think it helps to know as many facts as possible because generic solutions can backfire rather all too easily in some circumstances.

    Are you tenured? If not, I would be extremely cautious and I think the best you can do for your own protection is to hold socialish events so students can vent or have some sense that they are not alone or that there are safe places for them.

    If you are tenured, then the first step I would have thought is to get some faculty/administrative allies because you can’t really change climate unless enough people are willing to play ball. Can you approach the most sympathetic faculty member and tell him/her stories, as Carolyn suggests, not about current students if that will lead to identification but stories concerning past students without identifying them? You can also relay stories from What It’s Like and then say that your own graduates have told you similar stories in your own dept just so people can get a sense of the degree of the problem.

    A second step: Can you try to figure out what is motivating the denial? One motivation for denial among faculty is the thought ‘Oy – I don’t want to open up a can of worms’. If people can be either sufficiently outraged or convinced that incremental steps are all that are required of them now, they might be more amenable to doing things. Another motivation for denial might be that they don’t want to be associated with feely events if those are represented as the only way of addressing climate concerns. So if you take incremental steps – which is what makes the most sense – I think it’s best to start with something that is ‘hard-edged’ like a survey or data-gathering. The danger, as you yourself have noted, is that if most are in denial and the others are too afraid to say anything, the survey results could be used to further perpetuate a climate of chilled speech on these issues. So you’d have to do groundwork before any such survey and see if people were willing to speak up. If faculty saw that some group of graduate students were facing serious climate issues, that might form the needed crack in the wall.

    A third step: If in your judgment things are really hopeless and the denial runs too deep, you might try to convince your Chair to allow an outside person visit the department to talk with the graduate students to get a sense of climate concerns. There are such people trained to ensure confidentiality, and such a person could then report to the faculty what she finds. This might get a conversation started. Down the line, if things don’t improve, you could get your Chair to agree to an external climate review — like a regular external review but for climate issues. There is such a program in the works but not up and running just yet. You can present the idea of having an external person as a way to get an objective measure. If the climate is fine, then what do they have to lose?

  15. The above suggestions seem good to me– and regarding Carolyn’s idea, if current students aren’t comfortable with you sharing stories to motivate your potentially sympathetic colleagues, are there any alumnae who might be? One thing I’ve found is that once you get a small group of people together, those who might be sympathetic but seem to have less spine find a bit more courage in numbers, and that makes it easier to get things going.

  16. My sense is that collegiality can operate for some as such a foundational element of personal and group identity that defending it against challenge can become almost savage. So too, there can be a self-sustaining dynamic to denial and inaction in purportedly collegial environments. It isn’t simply that people want to retain a treasured myth and self-image, but that they alibi each other’s inaction. Each person who sees others denying a bad climate and declining action feels more justified and sanguine in his or her own inaction– their collegiality includes a trust in each other so they’ll trust and mirror the (non)responses they see from each other. Perversely, the fact that the problems you describe sound pretty egregious may entail that getting others to see the problems is more difficult than if they were milder: The more awful the problems are, the more difficult people operating with the collegial myth will find it to believe in the problems (and the more you’ll be like the proverbial atheist living among the believers). Still, strategically, if you can get just one person who enjoys some moral authority with the others to tip and support you, that can start to shift things in the right direction.

    If you think what I describe above tracks with how your department operates and sees itself, I think I’d suggest, as others do, starting with finding one or 2 colleagues to tip but trying to tip them in the gentlest way possible. Don’t tell them about the most severe problems (which they may feel most compelled to deny), but start with something milder and more easily entertained. Or perhaps don’t even raise the problems at all, but use the growing resources of the profession to your advantage – find some suggestion on the What We’re Doing blog or on FP that you think might target some of the problems and suggest it for your department, presenting it as the sort of thing “good departments like ours” are starting to do. Given the problems you suggest, this sounds like mild stuff in response, but my own experience is that where denial of big problems runs deep, the hard work of convincing people of those problems is, well, incredibly hard. Convincing people of problems while simultaneously protecting fearful students is harder still. So, I guess I’d think carefully about ways to get strategies for change going while circumventing the need to convince people of the problems.

  17. I think it is very important to realize that a philosophy department is part of a larger institution. I’ve been doing a fair amount of research on academic mobbing, and also on institutional structures that hold implicit bias in place. (you can find some of it on this blog just by searching under “mobbing”; it’s not very original, but there’s now quite a bit of common knowledge in place.) If a department is not pursuing diversity, the institution is tolerating that. And it is hard to believe that any administrator has now missed out on the fact that diversity is a very big thing. So we can infer something about their values.

    I think the very standard advice is that either the victims and the mobbers are separated OR there is considerable institutional effort made to change, starting perhaps with an external group coming in to talk to the department about fundamental things, such as respecting other people.

    I hate to say it, but I am dubious about a single person getting very far changing things, while that single person may put herself at considerable risk.

    I think the psychological and moral problems behind situations like these – either actual mobbing or an icy climate – are fairly considerable. A lot of people have found that going to HR or the affirmative action people is much worse than useless. A lot of institutions are dedicated to self-preservation. People who articulate problems are quickly called trouble makers and if possible, gotten rid of. I remember (years ago) someone was complaining that she never got a merit review of her work. One official told me that she didn’t really deserve the legally required merit review. She went to HR to complain and she was fired.

    I doubt she had the funds to try a legal challenge.

    One thing a single person can do is to help other victims. Support groups, etc. A lot of the suggestions here are about things like that. Some people – perhaps someone from women’s studies – are political activists and may really try to help. Unfortunately, that’s just the sort of person who ends up getting mobbed. Don’t think the deliberate ignorance and bad behavior in academia are just a surface phenomena. You might be lucky and find it is, but you very well might not.

  18. Just so I look more consistent in my comments here: I think a survey in an icy climate is not impossible, as I said above, but the backlash may be really bad. What’s I’ve tried to indicate in my last comment are some of the factors holding the icy climate in place and that will make those providing the backlash very protected.

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