Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Jealous Thirsty

I know this risks some of you saying: tl;dr, but I hope someone out there will read and offer some advice I can implement. I certainly can't ask my chair for advice (you'll see why if you read further).

My chair is out to get me, and I don't know how to deal with it. I am a director of a program, which puts me below chair status, but with certain administrative duties.

I have noticed that each time a faculty member comes to me to seek advice rather than going to her, she comes into the hallway to eavesdrop on our conversation. A few times, I've asked her to come join the conversation because it was clear she wanted to know what was going on. She also emails faculty who have come to me to ask them if they were satisfied with my decision and whether she can be of any further assistance on a matter. On the surface, this seems like a good move for a chair: to keep tabs on problems and concerns. However, in certain matters, it rankles and smacks of her not trusting me to do my job. One colleague even commented that he knows that as soon as he asks me for advice, if the chair hears of it, he will receive an email from the chair asking if SHE can offer better advice. It's a weird one-up-womanship that I don't know how to deal with, except to send people with problems to see the chair as soon as they come to see me.

What's more telling is that every time she finds out that I've published something new, or have been invited to present at a conference, I get a new task added to my workload or she challenges me on a point in front of other people (for seemingly no reason; it always happens the same day that she finds out that I've added to my CV). At first, I didn't realize this was happening. Then a colleague asked me if I had noticed how our chair gets flinty-eyed every time someone congratulates me on a new accomplishment. I had not noticed it before. I am not a braggart (in my culture, we do not promote our own accomplishments, so the only way people know what I've done is in our quarterly newsletter where everyone is required to write down what they've been working on recently, or in tenure and promotion materials).

The most recent behavior involves her making me appear crazy in front of others. A few weeks ago, she asked me to compile some data to present to faculty at our weekly meeting. I did so and sent her a copy of the chart for approval. Her response to me via email: "Fantastic, this is exactly what I wanted. Please present this to faculty next week." When we got to the meeting and I pulled out copies of the chart to share with faculty, she said, "I don't know what Cynic is handing all of you. Perhaps she can explain what it is because I have no clue," acting as if it were my idea to compile and distribute the chart. This is actually the third time she has essentially pushed me under the bus at a meeting (not just with department members; one meeting involved the academic dean, who now thinks I'm crazy!).

What, if any advice, can you offer? My chair's term is up in two years, after which point, I am likely next in line for the position (given that all other members of the department either have other responsibilities or are ineligible to be chair). I suppose I can just wait it out for two years and hope she doesn't notice me until then, but I'm worried about her seemingly jealous behavior. Or maybe I'm just paranoid and am actually the jealous one???


  1. I always have the same answer to things like this: hit it head on. It's who I am. So keep that in mind when reading this comment.

    That said, I would hit it head on. Next time you're asked to do something in a dept. meeting, print out the email requesting it. Keep it on you. When you start handing things out and the chair feigns ignorance, pull the email out. "Oh, really? I printed out the email to make sure I got it just liked you asked - here, take a look. Did I misread it? Or did you just forget you asked?" Put your chair on the spot, publicly, every time the jackass does anything even remotely inappropriate.

    And - most importantly - confront her, professionally, about her behavior. Ask for a meeting, preferably one with an outsider present, like someone from the college level. Ask, in the nicest way possible, if she thinks you're not doing an adequate job. Tell her you got this idea from the fact that she keeps checking up on your work after you've done it (gather emails from others on this, if possible, but I doubt she'll deny it if you put her on the spot). Ask her to specifically state what problems she has with anything you've done, and whether it's official policy for her to go around second-guessing you the way she's been doing. Don't let her off the hook until either she acknowledges there's no reason for this kind of behavior or gives you something you can rebut.

    If she tries to put another task on you, just flatly say you've got a full plate at the moment. List your commitments and pointedly remind her of which ones she assigned you already. If you can get a few allies to agree to help you out, mention that one of them would be willing to help and - ahem - hasn't gotten any new tasks in a while.

    The thing is, harassers are trying to control your behavior and emotions. Even if she's not doing it consciously, her motivation is to box you in. The only way to beat it is to take control of your interactions with her. Do not let her define the terms of your interactions. Call attention to every suspect behavior. If she does anything - ANYTHING - to you that she doesn't do to anyone else, call her out on it, politely, and note the inconsistency. Harassers thrive on your passive acceptance of their harassment. If they had the sand to bully you directly, they'd be doing that already, so most of the time, they back down when you call them out. Worst comes to worst, you can subtly hint that you'd be willing to consult with a lawyer about any "special treatment" you're getting. But don't let her off the hook.

  2. As someone who endured years of bullying and harassment from administrative superiors while I was teaching, my advice is to start forming an escape plan. People like your chair are endlessly vindictive and will not stop until they win, even if the situation is resolved in your favour.

    Do not rely on any union or staff association to back you. They are primarily interested in putting oil on the waters and they will think nothing of throwing you to the wolves if it means the administration leaves the rest of the staff in peace. Also, don't rely on your colleagues for assistance. Some of them might be collaborating with your enemies while others may have reasons of their own to not support you.

    Is what's happening legal? Probably not, but your chair will have a way around that by claiming that it's not a legal process she's engaging in. Since that's likely the case, all rules and conventions regarding evidence and witnesses are thrown out the window:


    She's calling the shots and you're at her mercy, how ever little she may have.

    It might be a good idea to read what else Ken Westhues has to say on the matter:


    1. I'm so sorry you experienced that level of harassment. Mine isn't to a degree where I feel unpleasant about going to work, although it could get there if this behavior continued. Mine is simply at the level where I'm starting to question myself and my chair, and I want to stop that before it gets to a level where I feel harassed. Your perspective helps! Thank you.

    2. You're welcome.

      Just be careful about how you handle this. It could turn really nasty.

  3. I was thinking the same thing as Wylodmayer when it comes to the task-requests-later-denied (or at least something similar, a bit less confrontational, but perhaps also a bit passive-aggressive): start incorporating some part of your correspondence (clearly identifiable as such) on a cover sheet, to provide "context" for whatever it is you're distributing.

    Otherwise, I'd say that, although this behavior is annoying (and undoubtedly makes you somewhat less productive by sapping your energy), it sounds like you're doing pretty well just by behaving like a sane person while she behaves like a crazy one. I'm a bit less inclined than Wylodmayer and QWV to think that confrontation is necessary; it really sounds like things might run their course, and confronting her might really turn her into an enemy (the other possibility, of course, is that she starts behaving crazily enough in front of enough people that she self-destructs professionally. Hopefully she doesn't do that by making you a target/obsession).

    I do think that quiet documentation of the situation, with offsite copies, might be a good idea. Maybe forward/copy/scan all your correspondence with her to a non-campus account, and also keep notes about anything that happens verbally/in person, and describe it soon after in emails to yourself, or to close, trusted, friends, written from/to a personal account using offsite internet access?

    It does seem like she might be escalating her behavior, which is troubling, but I'd still suggest not escalating yourself, until/unless you really feel you have to, and, even then, I'd be inclined to talk to someone other her (e.g. a member of the administration to whom she seems to have painted you as crazy). If you've got a campus ombudsperson, or even a member of the counseling center who works with faculty, I might consider talking to them (though I'd also take into account the possibility that she might use your consulting a counselor to portray *you* as crazy. It sounds like there might be some projection -- she knows something's wrong with someone; she needs it to be you so it won't be her -- going on).

    Still, I'd say that some combination of caution in the face of what looks like possibly-escalating craziness and awareness that you're currently, at least in the estimation of your immediate colleagues*, occupying the sane high ground (which means you don't necessarily need to do anything other than not get dragged into the craziness) seems wise.

    *I'm assuming that the majority of your colleagues share the opinion of those who have made remarks about her to you. The other possibility, of course, is that there are factions forming. That would be a more perilous situation.

    P.S. If things start getting even weirder, you might want to take a look at Gavin de Becker's _The Gift of Fear_, which is mostly about other kinds of threats, but might have some relevance here (just as it has some relevance to students who seem to be possibly turning into stalkers). There's some controversy about whether his techniques work (and it's hard to follow an absolute "do not engage" strategy with your chair), but the basic "trust your instincts" advice is probably relevant. If you (and apparently some others in your department) feel something is wrong, possibly to the point of her trying to undermine your professional reputation, then there probably is something wrong.

    P.P.S. Is it too late to apply for a sabbatical/fellowship/other means of spending one of the next two years elsewhere? Of course that would probably really send her into a tizzy, so it may be just as well if that isn't a possibility.

    1. Double-C is probably a more reasonable person than I am, I'll note. This seems like good advice.

    2. My case was one in which I could never win. Any reaction made matters worse and if I'd done nothing, my tormentors would have continued.

      I remember when I contacted the institution's staff association about what to do after one incident. Its president at the time then spoke with my department head and, afterward, the latter wasn't pleased. He likened it to me kicking him in the shins.

      I heard from a later president that bullying and harassment was widespread in that institution. It was as if it was part of that establishment's culture.

      I eventually quit but did so on my own terms. My enemies won but didn't win. They got rid of me, which was what they wanted, but I was the one who determined the circumstances, which they weren't too happy with. I have no regrets about leaving that hell-hole.

  4. Thanks for the advice. I have been really careful about documenting and saving emails (not so much sending them to another email account, but saving them in a folder on my computer), and the last time she questioned me in front of others, was able to pull her email document up to say, "Just to clarify, in your email from last week, when you asked me to do this, is that not what you meant?" She quickly backpedaled and acted like I had misunderstood her questioning at that particular point in time, apologizing in front of everyone to the degree that everyone then felt sorry for HER and acted like I had been the one to be contentious. After that incident, I have resorted to copying other people on emails and whatnot for "advice" or to keep them "in the loop," but it's mostly to prevent her from acting crazy on me.

    What puzzles me is the jealousy. I'm not a confrontational person, and I am not unpleasant (I promise!). So I mostly don't understand her jealousy in the first place. Everyone likes her and everyone likes me (as in we are a friendly bunch), and everyone generally likes everyone else (except the people upstairs, who are just flat out weird, but they're not in our department). She's a competent chair and no one generally questions her leadership. She is hardworking, she is long suffering, and she is very, very nice, to everyone... but me.

    And it's not that I HAVE to be liked. Hell, half my students think I'm the devil and the other half think I'm his sister, and I'm OK with that. I'm not OK with inequitable treatment, though.

    In answer to your questions: we have no faculty/staff association or union, so if I were to complain, my only option would be to complain to my chair's superior or to the HR director. We have no sabbaticals (i.e. we get "summer" sabbaticals, wherein we are paid extra money to do research, but don't get time off during a school year).

    1. You're welcome.

      Since you don't have any organization representing you, your options are limited. You could try to approach the people you mentioned, but I wouldn't depend on that. If your chair's superior is anything like the last dean I dealt with, then you're out of luck. The man backed my department head on nearly every point and he himself disliked me intensely. The HR director was an administrative thug who went along with what the dean told him.

      My department head didn't like me for a number of reasons. I had 2 degrees when he took the job and he didn't have one. He didn't like the fact that I bought my car brand new and paid for it in cash. (Never mind that I saved my money for several years--the fact that I could do that was enough.) Worse yet, I became friends with his worst enemy at the place. The man definitely had problems.

      The assistant head also seemed to have a screw loose. He started going at me shortly after I started there and we were simply colleagues sharing an office. He started throwing his weight around after he was promoted and went off the rails when he was running the department when the DH was away on leave.

  5. Are you sure Crazy McChair is actually liked? If a few have noticed (and told you) that she was behaving oddly toward you, then they ALL are not that clueless. Most are probably scared shitless and trying to avoid her attention.

    And let's be clear... she's 2 steps from being fullblown nuts. She is bullying you and she's gaslighting you. She is slowly eroding your colleagues' faith in you. And she sounds quite skilled at it if she truly was able to make you look crazy for doing as she asked and then making you look mean for confronting her about asking you to the task.

    Watch your back.... there's blood on that dagger tickling your spine! I can guarantee you're not the first person she's done this to. This level of crazy doesn't spring from nowhere.

    1. Oh....and the eavesdropping... shut the door in her face!

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. It might not be that the colleagues are clueless. Instead, they may have an attitude of "She leaves me alone, so why should I bother about what she does to someone else?" On the other hand, some might figure that the chair is doing to CC what they themselves would like to do. (Academics can be quite a nasty lot.)

      The chair may well be bonkers, but that doesn't necessarily mean she'll be removed from her position. My last department head behaved as if he had bats in his belfry and I'm sure that his masters knew that. However, he was probably useful because he did things for them, so they weren't about to sack him.

  6. It sounds like a puzzling situation. The obvious explanation is, indeed, that she's jealous of your professional success, most likely because she feels inadequate in that area. Why she's decided to compare herself to you (as opposed to other equally-successful members of the department, whom I presume exist) is the mystery. I'd guess it has something to do with common interests, and/or your common gender (how many other women are there in the dept.?), and/or your relative ages, and/or, possibly some cultural and/or ethnic prejudices she holds, or can invoke, making you a convenient projection screen for her insecurities (this last, too, would be more likely if your department is less diverse in backgrounds, less likely if it's something of a melting pot or salad bowl or pick-your-metaphor). It almost certainly isn't anything you did, or said (though she may be fixating on something); it's probably that you've accomplished something she thinks she should have, but hasn't (or not to the same extent/as well), and something about you makes your accomplishment rankle more than others'.

    As far as coping goes, it doesn't sound like you're going to gain anything by confrontation (in fact, the one time you tried even a mild confrontation, you came out feeling like you'd come off as the crazy/difficult one, whether or not that's actually true). Trying to avoid the situation in the first place, with ccs, etc., sounds like a good strategy (though it, too, might get a bit annoying to your colleagues after a while). It's hard to tell from one episode whether she's deliberately (though perhaps unconsciously) trying to goad you into acting in ways that might make it seem like you're the one creating conflict, but I'd watch for that possibility. I've known one person (in a family context, not a professional one, but I'm not sure it's different, especially since this person had greater power than I) who did that. The fact that the bad behavior stemmed from her inner turmoil, and that I knew it, didn't make her any easier to deal with (and yes, she sometimes got me to play the role of the angry, hysterical, one).

    It might make sense to ask a few colleagues you trust if they know what's going on (perhaps couched as you're wondering if you did something to offend her, and perhaps waiting until they bring up the subject). Of course, what they think is going on may or may not be actually what's going on, but at the very least you'd get a better idea of what others are thinking (and whether they have any preferences as to how you should deal with her -- which doesn't necessarily mean you need to take that approach, just that you'd know how they feel, and could take that into account). The danger of too many inquiries of that kind (especially ones initiated by you) is that it could up the drama/gossip/possible faction-forming quotient, which may be what she unconsciously wants, and won't be good for the department.

  7. Overall, I think it's a good thing that you think that your colleagues like each other (and you), and think of your department as basically functional. That's a good frame of mind from which to approach the problem (well, unless you know from past experience that you're given to denial and/or obliviousness in bad interpersonal situations; in that case, it probably would make sense to assume that the situation is worse than you're perceiving it to be). I think it's also good that you're thinking like/as a future chair (as long as you can do so without making it too obvious, which might make you come off as entitled or arrogant, but from what you've said of your character and habits, I suspect that's not a major danger). If you think of the problem as how to preserve the current collegiality and functionality of the department, I suspect you'll have an easier time deciding how (and whether) to react, short and long-term. That might mean occasionally shrugging off situations that seem to put you in a slightly bad light, on the grounds that they don't really matter in the long term. If she's just offloading temporary insecurities on you, that should defuse the situation, with no real harm to you. On the other hand, if your shrugging off relatively minor provocations leads to her creating more and more serious ones, until she gets you to react in some obvious way (preferably one that she can point to as evidence of your instability, tendency toward conflict, etc.), then you've got a serious problem, and all the warnings about documenting, seeking help, and making an escape plan apply.

  8. By the way, has Academic Monkey stopped by these parts lately? It sounds like you could use some (additional) solicited advice.

  9. Since you sound as if you have tenure, your position differs from QWV. I like CC's advice, and also CC's advice. Since she seems to respond to direct confrontation by escalating to as to make you sound crazy, I really like your tactic of (for example) if she asks you to provide tables or data for a meeting, do so and send it to her.

    When she emails you back to say "fantastic, this is exactly what I wanted, thanks so much,", email her to say "great! I'll email this stuff around now so that people can print it off if they want to before the meeting." And then DO THAT RIGHT AWAY, BEFORE she can write back to say "oh no don't bother, wait until the meeting so that I can stab you in the back, mock you, and make you look like an over-officious idiot".

    And when you email the stuff around, forward the table / document/whatever WITH her mail saying "fantastic, this is exactly what I wanted" attached. Perhaps as if by accident. Still, there it will be.

    I wonder if she wants to keep on being chair after her term is up, and sees you as a potential threat? Though why anyone would want to keep on being chair is a mystery to me. But obviously she is feeling competitive with you for some reason.

    re: all the other stuff, I think keeping emails, copying some to colleagues whenever there is the slightest professional excuse to do so, and aside from that, visibly being the sane one is the best bet. I think this includes not bringing up the problem except perhaps in the vaguest terms. "Not sure what's going on with Chair, there have been some odd things recently." And let them pick up on it. And only if you feel as if you have to do so. Otherwise, just let her sail on by, let her look crazy, but document, document, document.

    A question it has just occurred to me to ask: do you want to be chair?She may be trying to discredit you. Though more likely she thinks that you're trying to discredit her, and is trying to get in first. But if you don't actually want to be chair, then her behaviour is inconsequential. If you do want to be chair, though, you may have to be even more visibly sane.

    1. Thanks! I don't have tenure, but that's because it's not something my SLAC offers (That's a whole another problem; we have something that counts as "seniority" but none of us have job security and everyone is on an annual contract contingent upon funding).

      She has served multiple terms as chair now, so is the ONLY chair that most of the department has known. She has declared publicly that she DOES NOT want to be chair again and that in no way would she do so again (she was kind of forced into the position when several senior members retired; and now, I'm in a similar position in that there are really no eligible prospects for chair in our department except her and me). So I suppose that may seem to her like I am waiting to take over the throne, but I don't want to be chair. My personality is not suited to be chair, not is it something I want to do. But given our dept. circumstances and personnel, I am considered the "runner up to the throne."

      I am attempting to be visibly sane and I appreciate the advice.

  10. Oh Cynic, I feel your pain. I had a jealous, undermining (full) Professor when I was Assoc. Prof, but actually chair of the Department. So she had a lot of power, and undermined my leadership -- either by not co-operating or consulting with me, or towards the end of my term, openly questioning my actions in staff meetings.

    When I called her on not consulting with me when she wanted to make major changes in our graduate program, her response was "So I have to ask you every time I have an idea?" Well, no, just let me know what you're thinking of doing, and maybe -- you know colleagues & all that -- we could work on it together, or at least as head of the whole department I would know what's going on. But oh no ... that was undermining er position as professor.

    And she's a famous international feminist scholar. I was a relatively junior female colleague. Actually, she's a cow (and that's an insult to those lovely animals).

    But ha ha, I went from that job straight into quite a nice named full professorship at one of the top universities in our research area. She is still at a small regional university and no-one will give her a job to get out of there. Karma