April 28, 2011

Professorial Rights and the Obligations of Academic Deans

By Jerome A. Popp, Professor Emeritus, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville


The concept of academic freedom, as it has traditionally been conceived, is a general freedom of inquiry inherent within the status of university professor. In the language of freedom, academic freedom is the freedom to investigate and to teach about problems of shared concern, and the freedom from interference in the pursuit of those activities. However, as the term 'academic' suggests, academic freedom is a concept whose meaning cannot be established apart from our understanding of the nature of academic institutions. John Searle's ontological theory of society and institutions has given rise to an extensive literature in contemporary philosophy, social theory and legal scholarship. An important consequence of his thesis is its provision of a basis for a more complete analysis of academic freedom in terms of the specification of the rights, duties, obligations, and protections inherent in the institutional status of professor.

This analysis is timely, given the numerous reports of academic bullying now appearing in the media, because it allows us to understand the nature of the violations of these rights, duties, and obligations. Beyond the identification of the various transgressions involved in the phenomena of professors attacking professors, this analysis suggests that the curtailment of these attacks falls within the duties and obligations of academic deans. It is further suggested how academic deans may detect the presence of such attacks, so that they may address them in an expeditious manner.

Brief Review of Searle's Social Ontology

As Searle says, we live and function in a sea of institutions. To understand the nature of these institutions, including societies themselves, it is necessary to understand three concepts: (i) status functions; (ii) collective intentionality; and (iii) deontic powers. These ideas are also required to fully understand the nature of professorial institutional status. Since some readers may not be familiar with Searle's ontology of institutions, this review includes, where appropriate and helpful, quotations from Searle's 2010 statement of his theory [1].

Status Functions. Institutions such as currency, baseball, police officers, and prime ministers, like all institutions, are created by status functions that are recognized or accepted within the minds of the members of society. Status functions create some status Y for some X (person--senator, activity--baseball, or thing--dollar bill) in a given context C. When the Founders ratified the Constitution, they created the status of, inter alia, president, senator, and representative. In the language of Searle‟s analysis, the Founders created these and other status functions through a “status-function declaration.” We collectively recognize or accept these statuses, because of the legitimacy we give to the Constitution.

Collective Intentionality. In theory of mind, the term “intentionality” refers to intentions, desires, beliefs, attitudes and so forth. The basic concept or foundational idea upon which Searle's theory is built is collective intentionality, that is, the commonly shared intentions, desires, beliefs, etc. that make society possible. Status functions and deontic powers are created by, and exist within, collective intentionality. Searle's account reveals that the collective intentionality that forms society exists prior to society's institutions, including the institutions of government. (Note that this view is a rejection of the old Social Contract Theory that holds that it is governments that create societies.)

In his original 1995 statement [2], Searle holds that collective intentionality is composed of a primitive form of we-intentionality that cannot be reduced to I-intentionality. To understand this thesis, think of a track and field team. The various events in a track meet require quite different intentions, desires, and beliefs. The events of the pole vault, the shot put, and the 100 yard dash, for example, require intentionalities that have little in common. I-intentionality is what is required for individual successes. The members of the team, nevertheless, do share a collective intentionality, because the members of the team share the belief that each participant desires to make a contribution to a team victory. This belief in a shared or common desire creates the team‟s collective intentionality.

Compare the collective intentionality of the track team with that of a theater ensemble. With the exception of handoffs in the relays, the track meet requires no explicit cooperation,which contrasts markedly with the kind of participation required in the presentation of a theatrical totality. Members of the ensemble are required to have in mind the aesthetic totality to which they aspire to create together. Actors who cannot grasp the complexity of the desired totality may not be able to contribute fully to that product. When audiences detect “upstaging” in a player, they are noticing the presence of an I-intentionality, which stands out against the backdrop of we-intentionality present in the other players.

What is the source of the we-intentionality in members of the theatrical ensemble? Each player has an understanding of the aesthetic totality that the ensemble seeks to create for the audience. Moreover, each understands, at least to some minimal degree, the aesthetic whole and their role in the creation of it. Evidence of the presence of the shared knowledge of the aesthetic totality presents itself when the not uncommon anomalies or glitches in performances occur. These are resolved by various creative adjustments by the participants that overcome these difficulties—often so well that only the most informed audiences can detect their repairs.

Deontic Powers. Status functions always carry with them, “without exception,” deontic powers. [3] “That is, they carry rights, duties, requirements, permissions, authorizations, entitlements, and so on.” According to Searle, “the test for whether a noun names an institution is whether under that description the object named has deontic powers.”[4] Searle's favorite example of deontic power is promise making. When we make a promise, we feel an obligation to keep it, that is, to fulfill the conditions of the promise. If we do not keep the promise, we feel badly about it. What makes us want to keep our promises, and feel deficient if we do not, is our recognition of the deontic obligation at the heart of promise making. Young children show their grasp of this deontic force when they ask, “You promise?” Stated differently, children understand the institution of promising, because they grasp that an obligation is being created.

“It is because status functions carry deontic powers that they provide the glue that holds human civilization together.”[5] These deontic powers, which inhere within institutional statuses, may be of two types: positive deontic powers--rights, and negative deontic powers--duties and obligations. [6] It is by means of this account of deontic powers that we transition from the language of academic freedom to academic rights, duties, and obligations.

As Searle says, “once we get clear about their ontological status, the existence of rights is no more mysterious than the existence of money, private property, or friendship.” Moreove… rights, such as property rights and marital rights, are status functions; that is, they are deontic powers deriving from collectively recognized statuses. They are deontic powers that are imposed on people and can function only by collective recognition or acceptance.” [7]

“The important thing to emphasize is that rights are always against somebody.” [8] If X has a given right, then we know that other people have a corresponding obligation. “To have a right is to have those people, against whom you have the right, obligated to you, and the obligations derive from some status you have.” [9] “Because of your position in an institution, whether it is family, private property, citizenship, or membership in anorganization, you have rights, as well as duties and obligations, that are attached to the position you are in.” [10] Searle's analysis of institutions and their concomitant deontologies provides us with a basic and useful framework for understanding the nature of professorial status.

Professorial Status

Recall that the general idea of a status function is that some status Y is imposed, through collective recognition, on X in context C. When Y is professorial status, the status function assigns this status to persons in universities who fulfill the conditions of assignment of that status function. Inherent within the status of professor are positive and negative deontic powers. To understand professorial status is to understand these powers.

Positive deontic powers are negative rights, which are characterized as follows: “X has a negative right against Y to perform act A implies that X has a certain status S, which places Y under an obligation not to interfere with X‟s doing A.” [11] To know if and how this negative right is violated, it is necessary to have a clear specification of A. In the case of the negative deontic powers of professorial status, A is the duties and obligations of professors, which may generally be characterized as follows:

(i) adequately represent to students, at the appropriate level, the methods and content of the academic disciplines taught;
(ii) investigate problems of shared concern by means of the methods and content at the growing edge of one or more academic disciplines, and to make the results of these studies available to students and others who might have interest in these studies;
(iii) make themselves vulnerable to criticism from competent national and international inquirers in the professor‟s field of expertise by presenting their suppositions, evidence, and arguments in various professional meetings and media.

Note that faculty in what are thought of as teaching universities are not excused from the duties and obligations inherent in the negative deontic requirements of their status as professor.

Faculty in teaching universities, qua professors, have an obligation to: (i) teach well, (ii) participate in some fashion in the investigations of significant problems, (iii) maintain a familiarity with the growing edge of their teaching field, and (iv) find ways to have their conclusions, especially those taught in their classes, publicly exposed to adequate criticism. The latter is typically achieved by means of local, statewide, or regional professional meetings or associations. Note that the point is to have a peer review of presentations so that clarifications and omissions can be articulated by competent others in ways not possible in the typical classroom.

Accepting the institutional position of professor is to make an implicit promise to accept the negative deontic powers of the status of professor

Academic Bullying

If professors have the right to investigate problems of shared concern by means of acceptable methodologies, then all other institutional statuses (students, professors, chairpersons, deans, and higher administrators) have the obligation not to inhibit or restrict such legitimate investigations. There are numerous ways in which the right of professors to pursue their duties and obligations can be inhibited, undermined, or restricted. The most heinous of these is the violation of the negative rights of professors by, of all people, other university professors and administrators. While it is frequently emphasized that the status of professor carries with it the right of non-interference, the activities of academic bullies are often conveniently ignored.

While there is now considerable discussion of the damage done to students, faculty, and programs by professors violating the rights of other professors, and neglecting their own obligations, there are no clear attempts to view these cases in terms of an adequate social ontology. Searle's general account of social institutions provides the resources necessary to identify and explain the kinds of institutional failures that allow such professional misconduct to occur.

There are a growing number of accounts of professors and other teachers being subjected to psychological attacks, currently labeled “bullying,” and sometimes “mobbing,” by those studying this phenomenon. From the Internet and other published accounts of professors attacking professors, it is reasonably clear that the gravamen in such attacks is the violation of the attacked professors‟ negative rights. In the case where there is only one professor infringing on the rights of another professor‟s conduct, pursuant to the deontic demands of professorial status, it is typically managed through the more familiar institutional channels or interpersonal devices. What we learn from the reports of bullying is that there are cases where several professors have been involved in these violations. The collection of Ys engaged in an attack on Professor X are known as, in the lexicon of political activity, a power group. Since the goal of such groups is to achieve something against the public good, they are conspiracies.

Why do some professors bully their colleagues? What is the point of creating such a conspiracy? Cui bono? As one writer puts it, what we have is “the envy of excellence.” [12] What activates professors‟ attempts to drive away other professors who are meeting the obligations of their status? Note that it is not the nonperforming professors who are targeted for removal, because there are normal review procedures that can be used to remove them. It is the professors who do satisfy institutional expectations, and thus cannot be removed for cause, whose presence poses a threat to their attackers.

It is not uncommon to find that some professors are fulfilling the duties and obligations of their institutional status, and are highly competitive with their colleagues in publications, recognitions, and rewards. Even if such competitions may at times exceed the norms of scholarly conduct, they do not give rise to academic attacks. It is generally recognized that there are mutual benefits to be realized by working in the presence of other inquirers. Enthusiastic inquiry attracts like-minded people who want to share their ideas with interested others, as the numerous Internet postings by professors verifies.

From what we know from the growing number of accounts of academic attacks, it seems that such attacks are undertaken by professors as a defensive maneuver to conceal their own deontic transgressions. When some professors are not fulfilling their obligations, their derelictions become most obvious to students, their colleagues, and administrators when they are in the presence of professors who are performing in ways appropriate to their status function. Thus, the attackers and their enablers do profit from the conspiracy created, in that when the performing professors are driven to resign, non-fulfillment of the responsibilities of the attackers status becomes less obvious under the new local norms.

Thinking within the context of Searle's social ontology, what is created is an illegitimate, covert institution. It is an institution because it is a social fact created by a limited collective intentionality that identifies a leader by means of an informal status function. It is a covert and illegitimate institution, because the collective intentionality that sustains it are intentions and desires that its members know are incompatible with the nearly universal collective intentionality that creates the professorial status function. The attackers apparently have no sense of failure in violating the deontic powers of a legitimate institutional status.

The deontic content of professorial status places the attacking professors and their enablers in a double bind. That is, if they understand the deontic content of professorial duties and obligations that is inherent within their status, then they are knowingly violating explicit academic principles in ways that are harmful to professors, students, and the institution in which they have status. On the other hand, if they do not have knowledge of the deontic responsibilities they incur as professors, they contravene the conditions of assignment of that status. Not to understand their academic duties and responsibilities is obviously grounds for dismissal. Yet, in some institutions, those who do perform their duties and obligations are targeted for attack by those who do not.

When professors are attacked, they experience cognitive, emotional, and biological consequences. Note that the attacks in question are not cognitive criticisms of a professor's arguments and conclusions. It is the stock and trade of professors to hear, “I disagree with your conclusion” or “Your suppositions are all wrong.” We may have an emotional response, as well as a cognitive one, to these are highly cognitive objections, but the attacks mentioned in the various reports of “bullying” are psychological attacks that are based on a different methodology.

The effectiveness of such psychological attacks is explained by basic biology. When a person is attacked physically or psychologically, there are three alternative responses: fight, flight, or endure and hope to survive. The flight response should be exercised quickly to be effective. To fight back successfully is difficult, as we shall see. To endure the attack is the most biologically costly.

The biological consequences of these attacks are increased blood levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and epinephrine, which can cause high levels of anxiety. When a person is attacked and cannot take flight, there are significant negative effects on the cognitive and emotional functioning of the targeted person. It is this degrading of cognitive functioning that reduces the attacked professor's ability to fight back effectively. Ineffective efforts encourage the attackers and further reduce the ability of the victims to defend themselves.

Doing emotional and biological harm to others is clearly immoral. Reducing the cognitive function of a professor is an attack on the mind, which, in a university of all places, should be a high crime. The results of the psychological attacks also, of course, have negative consequences for students and society. Unfortunately, Searle misses the point that the effects of words in a sustained attack can be physically harmful. He says that the effects may be, “psychological states of the hearer and not forms of physical damage. I may be annoyed, exasperated, infuriated, or simply hurt by what you say, but all the same, I am not bleeding and no bones are broken.” [13]

However, Macgorine A. Cassell reports that the following consequences are known to result from attacks on teachers: “stress, depression, suicidal thoughts, reduced self-esteem, self blame, phobias, sleep disturbances, digestive problems, musculoskeletal problems, social isolation, family problems, post-traumatic stress disorder.” [14] In some cases, there may actually be internal bleeding. From many accounts of bullying, it is clear that the traumas that lead to serious distress, and worse, are not the result of physical contact, but of language use.

If the public accounts are correct, then not only are the professors who psychologically attack their colleague abusing their status as professors, but they reveal in their publicly observable behavior that they do not respect the deontic nature of the institutional status they enjoy. People who never feel remorse, betray the trust of others, and use others for their own narrow ends, have never internalized the idea of deontic force in human affairs; thus, they are not part of “the glue that holds civilization together,” but are part of its solvent.

Deontic Powers of the Status of Dean

Within universities, there is the familiar institutional status of dean that, as noted, has positive and negative deontic powers within it, which means that there are negative and positive rights as well. As Searle says, We ought never to allow ourselves to speak of human rights unless we are prepared to state (1) whom the right is against, (2) what exactly is the content of their obligations to the right bearer, and (3) exactly why the person against whom the right exists is under those obligations. [15]

If we should be this precise about our assertions of human rights in general, surely we should be as precise in the narrower scope of rights contained within a specific type of institution. In this analysis, we are not concerned with deans as the bearers of rights, but with deans as having obligations with regard to professors who have rights against them.

The deontic aspects of the status functions that create the academic status of deans includes, inter alia, pecuniary duties and obligations, that is, fiduciary responsibilities that redound to tuition fees, endowment funds, and the use of tax monies−in the case of public institutions. Deans and chairpersons have an oversight role with regard to both the protection of negative rights, and the professorial fulfillment of duties and obligations. Deans and presidents should be acutely aware of the positive and negative deontic powers of professorial status, and those constitutive of their own positions.

As we have seen, professors have the negative right of noninterference, and their attackers have the obligation not to violate that right; but when that obligation is ignored, to whom should professors under attack turn for relief? Who in the institution has the obligation to enforce the noninterference of the negative rights of professors? It is, of course, chairpersons and academic deans.

Within this discussion we exclude the chairperson; if a power group exists in any department, the probability is that the chairperson is either a participating member of the power-group, especially if the chairperson is elected by the department, or is a hostage of it. Note that the chairperson is the first person with the status and obligation to report to professors that they are not satisfying their duties and obligations of their status. Since the chairperson may well be under the control of the attackers and their enablers, the focus here is upon the deans, because they are one step removed from the academic units in which the conspiracies exist. However, the following points are applicable to chairpersons as well as deans.

When all is said and done, everyone, in every department of every university knows the names of the good and poor teachers within their unit; everyone knows, consequently, candidates for attack. Why is it that deans do not know this? The best answer seems to have two parts: on the one hand, the creation of a covert and illegitimate group is the product of intelligent, though misguided people, who set out to undermine the function of a university; on the other hand, deans may not be looking for such covert institutions, because of ignorance, or because of the politically messy process of correcting the situation that might require the dismissal of a faculty members for cause. By the time an attacked professor seeks protection from the dean, that dean is already politically behind in the process; nevertheless, the existence (and perhaps tolerance) of such conspiratorial groups of faculty is a failure of a dean's obligations. We know from the reports of attacked professors that this failure of deans does occur.

What are the positive and negative deontic powers that inhere in the status of dean? Given the reports being made public, a major deontic problem in some universities is that no one assumes the responsibility to enforce the noninterference obligation. Professors who attack professors damage the academic institutions that employ them. Those with oversight responsibility who turn their backs on the issue are also enablers of the attacks by the quasi-professors. Who has the obligation to remove or at least curtail the ability of these faculty members to damage the institutions that pay their salaries?

Academic deans might expect that any attacked professor would report the situation to them; however, professors may feel, for several reasons, that such reporting is a redoubtable task. (i) Being attacked, as noted, creates biological changes that, when intense and sustained, lead to panic attacks. Anxiety may be seen as a sign of personal weakness by the professor and by others. Professors want to be seen, in the face of their attacking colleagues, as remaining strong. (ii) The victim may fear that the dean is a member of the power group or at least is a knowing enabler of it. (iii) A professor may fear the actions taken by a sympathetic dean. (iv) A self-respecting professor who has made major presentations to important groups, or who has successfully engaged in high-level professional activities, will not want to have the attackers find that they have been so effective.

It is likely that the percentage of attacks actually reported is low; it is also likely that bullying is going on in many academic units where it is unnoticed and unexpected by deans. Since the functioning power groups will seek to keep their activities stealth, deans should be aware of certain observable indicators of the presence of professors attacking professors. Some of these are, for a given professor: (i) marked reduction in publication and paper presentation; (ii) decrease in teaching quality; (iii) frequent cancelling of classes; (iv)noticeable lack of attendance or participation in meetings; (v) talk of, or planning to leave teaching; and (vi) observing that a professor‟s achievements are conspicuously ignored by the professor's colleagues and department chairperson, while lesser accomplishments are publicly praised.

Given that attackers are most likely to be found in the population of underperforming professors, and given that underperforming professors are often paid as well as or better than performing professors, especially when chairpersons are enablers or worse, it is now time to reexamine employment and retention policies for both professors and deans. It is time that the leadership in universities recognized that a high percentage of nonperforming professors creates a potential pool of enablers who will readily support those who violate the rights of their colleagues, in exchange for their own protection.

If the collective intentionality of a given university holds that the institution is basically a teaching university, and does not consider it an obligation of faculty to expose the content of their teaching to competent national and international critical review, then academic deans should be aware that any professors who do expose themselves to such evaluations are candidates for removal through psychological attacks. It is also the case that professors who are viewed as both well informed and popular are potential targets. Faculty who find they are not popular with students and who may not enjoy teaching are potential attackers of their colleagues who do, as is suggested in the reports of academic bullying.

The focal point for improvement is, of course, the tenure decision. Giving tenure to nonperforming professors suggests that what is dispositive in the process is membership in an illicit collective, and not what is done to fulfill the obligations of professorial status that determines such decisions. Many of the nonperforming professors would be performers if they knew that such membership would not guarantee them tenure. Given the growing number of discussions of attacks on professors and other teachers, we know that students and society deserve better from their educational leadership. If free and energetic inquiry cannot be protected in universities, then can it be protected anywhere?


[1] Searle, John R., (2010), Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization, (Oxford University Press).
[2] Searle, John R., (1995), The Construction of Social Reality, (New York: The Free Press), p. 25.
[3] Making the Social World, pp. 8-9.
[4] Ibid., p. 92.
[5] Ibid., p. 9.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., p. 176.
[8] Ibid., p. 177.
[9] Ibid., p. 178.
[10] Ibid., p. 179.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Kenneth Westhues, The Envy of Excellence: Administrative Mobbing of High-Achieving Professors, Tribunal for Academic Justice: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005.
[13] Making the Social World, p. 190.
[14] http://www.gimi.us/CLUTE_INSTITUTE/ORLANDO_2010/Article%20450.pdf,p. 5.
[15] Ibid., p. 185.


Zaphodora Beeblebrox said...

Your "illegitimate, covert institution" is the result of the idealized (in more than one sense) de jure institution's failure. Your conclusion aligns with Searle's point about universities being primarily socialist institutions (i don't know whether he wrote it down anywhere, I heard it in a lecture.)
There's no motivation to perform and the job security given to substandard professors is a deontic right that other people have to "pay for." The attackers have the motive to create a system that protects their indolence, because it's lower effort than actually performing. But this is the case with all politics, I think it would be more interesting to examine this subject in a number of settings -- not just academia -- and see what changes and what stays the same. I'm curious as to why you chose the word "bullying" though?

J. Popp said...

Searle would definitely say that universities are socialist institutions, because all institutions are socialist in the sense that language itself is socialist. Some politicians have tried to gerrymander the meaning of the term ‘socialist’ to suggest that socialism means that individuals are made subservient to society, but it makes no sense to set the concept of the individual against the concept of society. Individuals create societies for the betterment of individuals. The original meaning of demokratia is the power of the people to get things done. The ways that societies of millions of people can function is by means of their institutions.
The term bullying may be more familiar in descriptions of school-yard or bus-stop behavior, but it is also being used by those studying the attempts of academics to drive out professors who teach well and publish. The literature shows that, unfortunately, this goes on in many other kinds of institutions.