Kissing Up, Kicking down and tenure.

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.

7 thoughts on “Kissing Up, Kicking down and tenure.

  1. “as I heard one chair put it, “I have to obey my boss.””

    –Who is a department chair’s boss?

    –And is the chair technically the boss of all of other faculty in the department?


  2. In many, and perhaps most or all US universities there are deans, who oversee clusters of deppartments often called colleges

  3. Folk tale: A rich man wants to be sure that the woman he marries isn’t after his money. So he sets a condition: to marry him, a woman has to spend a year going door to door begging with him. A woman volunteers and manages to last the year. On the last day, at the last minute of the last hour the man says to his fiancé “OK, the year is exactly up–NOW! No more begging.” The woman, frustrated, turns to him: “Can’t we just finish this block.?”

    After sucking up in school, in college, and above all in grad school and as junior faculty, it can be hard to adjust to tenure.

  4. “Kiss up” is something that most people have to do to some degree, unless they’re at the top of whatever hierarchy they’re a part of.

    “Kick down”, on the other hand, isn’t particularly necessary. I don’t really see an excuse for it other than just being a jerk.

  5. Academiclurker, I’d love to hear whether you think kissing up is more that being polite. Could you give us an example of when it seems necessary?

    I don’t really get kicking down. Maybe for some it’s a style of pseudo-leadership. As I think of this, I remember some women friends telling me that their household help complained about how their male partners treated the help. One can imagine snide “it seems like you have a hard time learning, because I told you before…”. Maybe people like that think they can be self-indulgent and get away with it.

    I think some in the military think being on the receiving end of it is character-building. And it may produce habits that are good to have in battle.

  6. The more I see (by aging, by studying the subject of trust, by teaching and coaching in business), the more it becomes clear to me that both sucking up and kicking down are sub-optimal strategies, not only for the whole organization, but for the sucker/kicker (and of course the suckee/kickee).

    The far better strategy for success is caring, empathetic truth-telling. Forthright honesty and integrity, coupled with a genuine concern for helping people deal with uncomfortable truths, ends up generating respect for all.

    If someone tells you you “have to” suck up (or kick down), tell ’em you don’t HAVE to do anything but pay taxes and die. (And the tax part may be disputable).

  7. In my experience, the majority of human beings suck up & kick down to some degree, even those who don’t realize it.

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