Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Back Porch Power

Once upon a time, a middle-aged male dean went to the women's equity organization on a college campus to give a talk about campus service and administration. The dean was a man of good will, and interested in helping women on campus. The talk was attended by a variety of people, men and women, students, staff, and faculty. One of the women asked the dean how he'd gotten started moving into administration, and he said that he'd been on the back porch of an administrator friend drinking bourbon with the guys, and the administrator had suggested he might be interested in being a deanling. And so he'd been appointed.

The dean, of course, meant well, and he hadn't (I'm sure) thought at all about how his ability to be part of the back porch power group contributed to his movement up the ladder, and at the same time prevented women from having those opportunities. And no one said anything to the dean or at the meeting, though afterwards a small group of women faculty who'd been there discussed the comment.

At every campus where I've been even minimally aware of administrative politics, there's been a back porch power group (or more), always male. At NWU, the back porch power groups (there are at least two, at different levels) choose men to appoint to deanling and interim positions, and the men then apply for the real positions, and pretty much inevitably get them. (From where I sit, it makes our "national" searches look like a exercise in waste and dishonesty. I've been told that we've actually offered jobs to people from outside, but couldn't pay them enough; funny, we can pay our porch-selected men plenty.)

Women try, with limited success so far, to fight the system. In one case, a fair bit of discussion led to the administration actually adopting a policy of announcing a position and allowing applications, rather than just announcing that an interim or deanling had been chosen. And one of those positions has gone to a woman. So there's some success, but it's limited, despite some pretty politically savvy women working hard.

One of the back porch power groups is pretty visible from my office. I first realized that it was a power group when one of the members (let's call him Joe Doe) basically said, "the guys were discussing [issue X] on the porch last week over cigars*, and we decided we should do [Y]." And Y had been done without further campus discussion. When I asked Joe why they thought they could decide an issue on the porch in an all male group, he looked astonished, and a little hurt. They (he) hadn't thought about it as an issue; there were a lot of people there and they'd just decided.

(There is one woman allowed on their porch, I will say. But Joe has told me that he just doesn't think they want another woman around. Yeah, I sort of blew up about that.)

Now, I think Joe is well-meaning. I don't think he considers himself a sexist, nor does he want to be a sexist. He's hurt that I think the porch group is sexist, that I don't trust them when he thinks I should (in a sort of paternalistic way). Joe has pretty much stopped mentioning the porch group around me. He knows it's a problem, but it's an important part of his access to power, his social scene, and his privilege, and he doesn't want to question it or give it up.

Why, Joe says, shouldn't he socialize with the people he wants to hang out with?

I understand not wanting to give up privilege. But, if I were a member of an all white group that explicitly didn't want any person of color around, and someone called me on it and told me we were being racists, I hope to hell I would take a good long look at myself and say, "Self, you're being racist. Stop now, tell the group so, and either change the group or leave."

The socializing thing may be harder for me to answer. I'm a member of a sports team made up (usually) of female members of my department. (I say usually because a high school male is participating for me while I'm gone, and another male has participated in the past, and a couple men have subbed when someone else was ill or something.) I'm a member of a casual reading group that's all female, and mostly faculty members from across campus. In each of those groups, we do discuss campus issues, and in the reading group, we've encouraged people to run for various faculty committee jobs and offered to nominate each other.

So is there a difference other than the fact that my groups don't include anyone with real power on campus?

It's good for me to be away from campus for a bit, in part because it gives me a chance to think about things without being confronted with them or having to act on them immediately. I need to work out a couple things. First, I need to not let the back porch thing irritated me as much as it has, because my being irritated doesn't change anything and just makes me unhappy. Second, I need to figure out what I can work to change, and if it's worth doing that work.

*The back porch group sounds like a return to the 50s, in a sort of straight white male fantasy of 50s academia where they can hang out, smoke cigars and drink.


  1. "So is there a difference other than the fact that my groups don't include anyone with real power on campus?"

    First, the above is such an interesting question, and it really gets to the heart of why academic relationships are so complex: how do we negotiate the social while still striving for inclusion and fairness? How do we get things done efficiently while at the same time interrogating our own privilege (if we have it)?

    Second, I think that this situation *should* irritate you, and it should irritate others as well. Because I think that there is a difference between discussing campus issues and encouraging people to run for faculty committee jobs and agreeing to nominate them within a social setting vs. making unilateral policy decisions within a social setting. It's one thing if they'd *discussed* the issue and then brought it to others; another to just decide without doing so. That's not just bad manners: it's wrong.

    I don't have any real answers. Let's just say that there are "back porch power groups" at my institution, too, though slowly those groups are losing some of their power with a combination of more tenured female faculty fighting to take on administrative roles and fighting for procedural equity and an influx of new faculty combined with retirements. Change, however, is slow, and combativeness only can achieve so much, but being willing to fight this sort of thing publicly does seem to be crucial. It's not enough to blow up at Joe - it's got to become a more public and widespread point of discussion and framed as one that is central to fair governance, I think.

    Again, I don't have any answers here, but I don't think you're wrong to be angered by this state of affairs.

  2. Anonymous4:47 AM

    i agree with crazy (yeah, like I know anything) that its the part where they make decisions and act on them that seems really unsettling.

  3. I (and other women I've hung about with) have pointed out equivalent groups to the guys in our lives and to the guys running our departments and schools on every campus I've ever taught on. They all react like Joe, but that can't be where it stops.

    The first time we did this, we mouthy feminists, was back in the 80s, when as graduate students in a writing program we went to the head of our writing program and pointed out that, even though more than half the program was female, only male students were winning prizes, only male students were getting fellowships, only male students were getting the internships, what was up with that? (Oddly, only male professors taught, except for one woman professor who had been on staff forever.)

    The male head of the program got furious. "What do you expect me to do?" he demanded.

    Because, you know, he was *powerless.* The world is how it is. How can we expect him to change it?

    And how can we? Or why should we? World works fine the way it is, as far as he (and they) are concerned.

    Make it not work. That's the only way we'll get change.

  4. I'm not sure that 18 months ago I would have quite understood this as well.
    While not in the world of academia ... I was in the center of my church ... then the pastor left.

    I guess I was a part of the 'back porch group' and never realized it.

    While I'm still a part of the leadership of the church, still on the board, still a children's worker, still considered one of the 'major leadership team' members, I am certainly NOT where I was ...and the lack of it is GLARINGLY obvious ..and the descrimination has become remarkable.

    I wonder, how many people felt this way with our former leadership (geesh I do hope no one!!!)

    power struggles are so much fun. *rolling eyes*

  5. This should be required reading for anyone entering their first job. . . I think most places have some version of the "back porch group" with varying degrees of power.

  6. I agree with Dr. Crazy. I think it's good that you're irritated. You should be!

    Of course you're friend should be able to socialize with whomever he wants. But when that social group ends up making decisions that affect non-participants, it's a major problem. The only reason your friend doesn't see what's wrong with the blurring of the distinction between social/administrative is because he's privy to both. I'm sure if he found that you're sports team was responsible for putting someone on that team in a position of power, he'd freak!

  7. Dr. Crazy, I agree that I should be irritated. And that we have to work systemically. Too slow!

    Anastasia, Even when they're just chatting, they have the ear of the dean, and the dean's drink loosened tongue. It's beyond just imposing a decision.

    Delagar, I'm working on making it not work. But I'm not a dean, and don't have access.

    Dreaming Again, yep, there are always power groups; but when they systemically exclude people based on race, gender, etc, then they're a problem.

    Susan, Thanks :)

    Charlotte, yes, indeed! We need a dean on our sports team! (There's a female dean in another campus college... hmmm, I wonder how the team from that college would feel if we stole their dean for our team?)