Am I surprised?

My current job has been my dream job for a very long time and as a little caveat, I would like to say that I am happy to have it. I am shocked though. Honestly shocked about all those things I already knew. It sounds strange, but there is no better way to describe it.

My job has amazing elements. The research. The teaching. The autonomy. There is one which is less lovable though: it’s university politics.

I promised myself that I would stay out of the secret meetings and the deciding-things-behind-someone’s-back. I am still trying to stay out of it. I am naive enough to believe in democratic procedures, and I am optimistic enough to believe in honesty and transparency. But I am surprised again and again, how easily one can find oneself in a situation which is dangerously close to the kind of secret power play or childish intrigue that I really want nothing to do with. If you are in academia and are not a professor yet, there is apparently no need to get to know you. It’s much easier to hold some weird premises about you and what your positions, problems and fears must be (all relating in some way to the professor you are assigned to). And then, before you see it coming, you think you have become the protagonist in a Monty Python version of House of Cards.

There were the occasions when I was off to a bad start with someone because I was associated with X, and then I found myself in the weird dilemma that I had either to defend X, thereby confirming the (groundless) suspicion that I am basically just an extension of X rather than an actual person with own opinions, or to distance myself from X, thereby confirming the suspicion that X must be a terrible person.

There were the occasions when people seemed to like me, and then everything I did wrong got blamed on X. And when I honestly defended X, because they had done nothing wrong, it was assumed that I was probably lying because I was so scared of X, who was thereby confirmed to be a terrible person.

And then there was the occasion when it was demanded that I make X stand up for something, because the only way to get it done is allegedly that X use their power to do it behind someone else’s back. And the only way to make that happen is allegedly that I use my influence on X.

You might notice that it is not even obvious how the first two of these three incidents are even related with university politics. But they are, for the simple reason that they show how within departmental politics, the content of your assertions can be completely irrelevant for the position that others assign to you. The friend-foe scheme must be maintained at all costs. And this weird situation in which everyone chooses to belief that their point has just been proven by whatever is then the context in which university politics takes place.

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