ask a scatterbrain: when you just disagree

This, from a fellow junior faculty member at another University:

I’m serving on a committee that has just been asked by upper administration to strategize how we can pursue a new aim they’ve settled on on for the university. Here’s the thing – I don’t agree with the new aim. So, developing a strategy for it isn’t high on my priority list. What can/should a junior faculty member do when serving on a committee that’s asked to do something by the administration that they don’t agree with?

6 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: when you just disagree”

  1. I’d ask a trusted senior colleague at the institution, if you have one, regarding the politics of the situation. I’m not a faculty member but from other organizations–sometimes it doesn’t matter what you think and you just look obnoxious by speaking up; other times you’re seen as courageous and get points for it. One consideration might be whether there are other committee options where you think you can make a better contribution–you could push for this with or without disclosing why you want to change.

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  2. This is a great sociological question. The choices are exit, voice, loyalty. Resign from the committee on principle, speak up and say why you disapprove of the plan, or don’t say anything and be a good team player and help implement a plan you disagree with. Or a combination: speak up to say why you think it is a bad idea, then if overruled, do your best to help the project anyway. This is often a very ethical position: I’m thinking of cases where a department chair personally opposes a hire or promotion but, once the vote is taken, does his/her best to prepare the best possible case for the College. I’ve taken a similar stance in a nonprofit group about a project I opposed: once the vote was taken and we decided to do it, I did my best to help it succeed. Or speak up and then resign from the committee if you lose the discussion. This also can be an ethical position, if you feel that the goal is not only something you don’t prioritize, but actually think is immoral or wrong.

    Another option is duplicity: keep your opinions to yourself but experience incompetence about accomplishing the task. This is often the option taken by folks who feel relatively powerless or are afraid of the consequences of open disagreement.

    Being untenured raises the stakes, of course, but we all face these choices often in any of the groups we are in.

    I’ve taken some hits for being seen as confrontational and difficult but, on balance, it is my impression that people have appreciated my exercise of “voice” — speaking up when I think something is a bad idea. What I do next (withdraw and leave the project to those who support it, or pitch in a help if you are on the losing side of a vote) depends on my feeling about the project and relation to the group.

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  3. I don’t think it’s incumbent on any member of a faculty, tenured or not, to work on strategy for a goal s/he doesn’t agree with. But voicing that position over and over again on a committee would make one pretty unpleasant. I guess I’d say once, “look, folks, I just don’t think this is a wise direction for the university to go, so I’m going to have to bow out of this strategy process.”

    Of course, if you don’t just disagree with the strategy but believe that it’s in some way ethically or morally wrong, it’s entirely appropriate to continue to say so vocally, but probably not in the context of a committee charged with implementation.

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  4. If this is a university- or college-level committee, why are you, as a junior faculty member, serving on it? (Serious question: at my uni, service to the college or university is actively discouraged, and certainly not expected, until after tenure.) If it’s a department-level committee, why is the upper admin directing it?

    As you can guess, I vote for “exit” rather than “voice” or “loyalty.” Forget the ethical issue of implementing something you don’t agree with, this is about protecting your time and mental energy.

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  5. Since we don’t really know why shakha’s colleague disagrees with what, it’s kind of hard to say. People often disagree with policies or actions for pretty silly reasons, many of which are built on slippery-slope logical fallacies: if we do X, then Y will inevitably result. I agree with olderwoman: if serious harm is likely to follow, then refusing to participate is the ethical thing to do. But IF it’s a typical policy dispute–where multiple courses of action will have both positive and negative consequences–and IF it’s something of a democratic process, then I think you’re somewhat obligated to your fellow colleagues to go along with the majority (if for no other reason than to create extra work for them). That’s democracy, right? The losers don’t withdraw their participation just because they lost. You fight again another day. Besides, willful incompetence is probably not a good strategy for getting tenure.

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  6. I’d also ask someone else in your department if you have not already. Sometimes it seems like a bad idea but someone can explain how it is a good idea from some other institutional perspective. It is a good chance to learn about what your university values and why.

    Yes, if it is immoral you cannot do it.

    But if it just seems stupid (as the recent Responsible Conduct in Research requirement seemed to me at first). But then I learned more about the NSF audit process and I end up still thinking it is silly, but understanding why the university has to comply.

    So, like everyone else, I think it depends on: the nature and strength of the objection; whose policy you are objecting to (do others in the department think it is a dumb policy from central campus or would you be bucking the people who would be voting on your tenure case); and other variables.

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