04 March 1996

The battle of the halfwits (Part 3)

In early 1996, I applied for an instructor position for a summer Oceanography course. As I was a third-year Ph.D. student my chances of getting the job were good, although far from certain. There are always people who are more qualified than you are. Besides, you never know what selection criteria will be applied.

The selection committee consisted of three positions, the course supervisor, the graduate advisor, and the department head. At the time all three positions were held by one person. You guessed it -- Al Lewis. Two years after my Coffee Delivery Boycott and half-a-year after my Open House Impertinence, Lewis felt that time for revenge has finally come.

I don't know whether I was the most qualified candidate, but I was certainly more qualified than the successful candidate, a first-year Master's student. Consequently, I filed a complaint against the decision. As Lewis was the interim department head, and my complaint was against Lewis, a review committee had to be assembled, had to review all the evidence, and had to make a decision. Colleagues investigating colleagues is always a sketchy proposition, and in the judgement of the review committee Lewis's actions were hunky-dory.

There was nothing left for me to do than to write a letter to Nature titled "Academic management"(1). I concluded:

"Academic hiring is already prone to abuse when evaluation procedures of applicants' achievements are clearly outlined. The potential for arbitrariness increases when there are no guidelines for decision-making committees. After questioning the selection process for an instructor position at the department in which I am working, a review committee concluded that: "It is a measure of our informal atmosphere and congeniality that we lack formal criteria ... "."

This was the first publication of the then newly formed Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, and it was published in Nature, the world's top-ranking science journal. Needless to say, the newly appointed department head was not happy, although I don't know whether it was my audacity that angered him, or the review committee's stupidity, or Lewis's for that matter.

But, why am I telling you this?

Because when the letter was published, I fully expected that people would see clearly now and therefore be on my side. Instead, I found myself ostracized by about 80% of the Oceanography department members, faculty, staff, and graduate students alike. I even received an anonymous handwritten note in my mailbox urging me to leave U.B.C..

There are only few of us who are willing to go to battle for the greater good. People agree with us in private, but don't want to stick their heads out, because "You never know ..."

It's pathetic really.

Which reminds me ...

There was a study that came out of Duke University in the early 1980s(2). Researchers went into schools and asked children individually to name three children they like most and three children they like least. (Of course, this was all done with the appropriate parental consent and very systematically.) They then analyzed those lists.

Now, what outcomes would you expect?

Obviously, there are those who everybody likes, let's call them the populars. And then there are those who everybody hates, the rejects. Most of us, the neglected, of course, would not make it onto any list, meaning that we are not terribly liked or disliked.

The researchers also looked at the attributes that the children of these group have, and what they found is that those liked most were perceived as being helpful, physically attractive, and leaders, while those liked least were perceived as being disruptive, aggressive, and troublemakers.

But there was another group that emerged, and that is the interesting finding of this study. This group consists of children who were found on both the like-most and the like-least lists. For example, Jack may like A, B, C and dislike X, Y, Z. Jill may like A, B, Z and dislike X, Y, C. A and B are the populars, X and Y are the rejects, most children are neglected, and C and Z are on both lists. This last group is called the controversials.

The controversials combine attributes from both the popular and the rejected children. They range from rebels for the greater good to short-tempered delinquents. Children with these combinations of attributes are always small in numbers, and they give rise to mixed feelings not only amongst their peers but also to mixed feelings within individuals.

Am I a controversial in this sense?

People either love me or hate me, and at least those who love me are unsure whether they shouldn't feel the opposite. So, yes, I am a controversial, by nature, or nurture, or both I don't know.

Now, if the Duke University researchers showed up at your workplace today, would you make one of their two lists? And if so, which one?


(1) https://drive.google.com/file/d/1gVOz05e2lD4GnjiVziSjJTHhRNHGhwv8/view?usp=sharing (Accessed: )
(2) https://drive.google.com/file/d/1xJ5EvpQK1IcUylxoTa50gOx-fUpX5nO-/view?usp=sharing (Accessed: )