Voir Dire: Truth suffers when jobs are at stake


Pamela Everett

Some craggly guys from a Greek fishing village recently told a reporter how much they love getting older because they can finally live truthfully.

They are friends because they like each other, not for political or professional reasons, and they have the freedom to say what they mean instead of something that will advance their interests or to feign agreement with someone who controls their paycheck.

In a world where we claw desperately backward to hang on to every last vestige of youth and its attendant beauty, and where truth is a rare commodity, these men are a breath of fresh air.

And they are exactly right about the freedom to be truthful—it’s situational and sadly, in the professional arena where alliances and interests are at stake, truth suffers.

I’m not talking about brash proclamations that tempt us all—“you are the worst co-worker who ever lived and your breath smells like a rotting rhino carcass”—but honest discussions about things that matter, like principles, fairness and the lost art of being kind.

But these discussions are risky and truth-seekers often pay for it in unexpected ways, including here in higher education.

I’m still new to this world but perhaps that fresh perspective is why things seem so glaring to me.

For example, the promotion/tenure process, which is basically a five to six-year probationary period during which you are wise to remain relatively silent and to cultivate as many alliances as possible, no matter how difficult.

Colleagues will eventually vote on your worthiness to ascend the ranks, and so until you don the bullet-proof tenure vest, tread lightly, if at all.

The whole process seems soul-crushing, not to mention completely wrong-headed.

How can people evaluate one’s worth to a department or an institution if they have no idea who you really are because you’ve been walking silently on eggshells all along?

When someone finally secures tenure, they probably let loose and behave normally—normally for them anyway.

And then the department is stuck with someone they thought they knew but don’t. Makes no sense at all.

Whatever the case, stories abound of promotion/tenure votes—here and at other institutions—being used to exact punishment for perceived personal wrongs, failing to support the right faction, or for speaking up.

The objective criteria is ignored. Thank you for your teaching, scholarship and service, but I cannot forget that time last fall when you disagreed with me.

Nevermind that you didn’t have an opportunity to explain your position, because we just don’t have those discussions where we might actually discover what the other person was thinking or feeling.

No, ego and pride preclude communication, so dangerous conclusions are drawn.

And then the vote.

The no vote is a bullet, but the abstention is almost worse. It’s either an unforgiveable display of indifference or a wolf’s no vote in sheep’s clothing.

And the final tally doesn’t matter, nor does the ultimate outcome because the message is clear.

You will be advanced, as you deserve to be, but your future is with people who do not support you or, as local history informs us, who will continue to work against you until the Wisner feedlot cows come home.

I don’t have the answers—other than suggesting more honesty and compassion.

But I do hope this seeming trend gets attention soon because the lives and futures of quality people—and indeed the generation whom they are teaching—can be forever changed to everyone’s detriment, while the truth becomes but a distant memory.