What To Do When There is an Internal Sphincter Eruption (or the Importance of Being a Good “Host” Even When There Are No Guests)

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Ann’s post here  about the importance of courteous behavior towards job candidates got me thinking.  When a school hosts faculty candidates or guests, and there is an “asshole eruption,” there is a clear need for damage control.  But what about internal eruptions — when faculty members speak live or via email to each other, inside or outside a faculty meeting?  Internal “asshole eruptions” are very harmful, too, and perhaps even harder to mitigate.

Faculty discourtesy and unprofessionalism (towards each other, towards students, towards administrators, towards “outsiders”) diminishes internal collegiality and faculty functioning.  At a Harvard faculty meeting in 2005, Dr. Caroline Minter Hoxby  (NYTimes coverage  here) explained this well, in remarks addressed to then University President Lawrence Summers.  

“Every time, Mr. President, you show a lack of respect for a faculty member’s intellectual expertise, you break ties in our web,” Professor Hoxby said to Dr. Summers, according to a copy of her remarks. “Every time you humiliate or silence a faculty member, you break ties in our web.”

Some may think that faculty meetings or email exchanges do not require the care that interactions with outsiders do — that among “insiders,” a certain level of harshness is permitted.  But  candor and free exchange of viewpoints never needs to be uncivil, rude or hostile.  Unprofessional exchanges break ties in our web.  

Incivility also can have an echo-chamber effect on an institution’s external reputation.  “Internal” conversations, debates, communications, disagreements, discourtesies inform how colleagues regard each other.   To the extent that these general impressions are shared with other members the larger community of lawyers — bench, bar and academics, would-be academics — “internal” behavior has a significant “external” impact.     I’m sure we all have heard certain other schools’ faculties being characterized as x or y.     Those characterizations are usually made by insiders, who share them with outsiders.  

None of us is perfect, and none of us can be our best every minute of every day.  Our web is fragile and requires constant reweaving.  But we should act like the colleague we want to have.

-Bridget Crawford

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