I heard the phrase “kissing up and kicking down” first during discussions about John Bolton, a Bush nomination for the US representative to the UN. Its meaning is probably obvious, but in case it isn’t, here’s a very brief explanation. It means being super nice to people with power over one, and taking it out on people over whom one has some power. The power needn’t be much more than a matter of rank or class. Someone who is rude to the cleaning staff, while super nice to higher administrators is following the pattern.
Bolton was said to kiss up and kick down; regardless of whether he actually did, the pattern can account for all those times when someone whom you know is a real sh*t is praised lavishly by people in important positions in one’s work or politics, etc. So one day I was thinking about this, and I thought I should ask whether I follow the pattern also. In fact, as a number of people at my university will affirm, I tend to kick up and kiss down. That sounds, I reflected, like a bad life strategy.
So I decided to discuss with various friends whether this was a bad strategy. And everyone said “but that’s what you are supposed to do when you are a senior tenured academic.” Is it?
We’ve gotten some correspondence here at FP that suggests some people do kiss up and kick down, and in particular, those who are department chairs, or otherwise in positions where having power can be important to the individual. And as in the case of Mitch Aboulafia at Penn State, a chair who supports faculty or students over the administration may have a short career as chair. (See our post here.) One person writing to us claimed that department chairs are too often prone to sell out in order to protect their power, and that this is having a bad effect on philosophy. Certainly one bad effect is that the old guard can keep a new area of study in a weak position, and this sort of action may accumulate across universities.
One question I have for our readers is whether they think it is true that, as I heard one chair put it, “I have to obey my boss.” Indeed, surely some of us have seen chairs quite happily engage in illegal activities because the “boss” wanted it. And one can understand at least one motive for doing colleagues in; namely, the dean or comparable administrator has the goodies. You have to be good to get them.
Looking at this topic isn’t just a matter of describing bad chairs. There is a larger problem. The justification for tenure is in part that it allows one to refuse to kiss up. But that supposes that getting fired is the only negative event we’d need to guard against.