Unnecessary Roughness

Penalty FlagI worked for a number of years in Academia; as an adjunct, a Dean and a full-time professor. I’ve been employed by Community Colleges and a Research-I University, and I continue to look back on my academic career with fondness and gratitude for the many lessons on life I learned. This past week I remembered a particular incident that I watched unfold and reflected on what I learned as a spectator to a tremendous fall from grace.

In football there’s a penalty known as unnecessary roughness. The NFL defines unnecessary roughness as “An illegal action in football where a player uses methods beyond what is necessary to block or tackle another player”.

In football, when a flag is thrown in response to unnecessary roughness, the victimized team gains 15 yards (or half the distance to the goal line, if they are closer than 15 yards to the goal line). SportingCharts.com further explains: “[Unnecessary roughness is] considered a personal foul because they cause a higher than average number of injuries.

It’s interesting to me that in a sport where you expect people to get hurt there’s still a prohibition against unnecessary roughness, or what I call being mean for no reason.

I have often described Academia as a rough and tumble world where gamesmanship is as important as scholarship at times. Like sports, there are rules of the game, but they are often enforced unofficially and with harsher life consequences. Many years ago I watched as this fact of life in Academia played itself out. The lessons I drew from the drama have remained as profound as they were all those years ago.

This is the story of an academic administrator who took himself and his position way too seriously. Hired into a position of some power and influence, he liked to be heard at meetings, and respected (feared?) by all those around him. He was not a very nice person, and he made it clear that he didn’t care if you liked him, just as long as you did what he told you, and were sure to always call him “Dr. Smith” (name obviously changed for privacy).

“Dr. Smith” quickly made it to the Top 10 most disliked administrators in this institution, and while there is always tension between faculty and administration, instead of trying to find common ground, “Dr. Smith” seemed to look for opportunities to be a jerk. He liked making points in meetings that made him “right” while pointing out others’ flaws, and on many occasions I described his behavior as “unnecessary roughness”.

The thing about  being a perpetual jerk is that you better make sure all your ducks are in a row and that your closets are free of skeletons. When you’re mean to people; especially when you’re the kind of jerk who can make peoples’ lives miserable – just because you have that power – you need to know that someone in that crowd of miserable people is going to come after you. I’ll also add that when the crowd of miserable people is populated with academics (e.g. people who are smarter than the average bear and know how to find information that is obscure and hidden), you are playing with FIRE to continue to badger them.

“Dr. Smith” was so busy being smug about his title and credentials that he forgot that he wasn’t born with that PhD or that job title. He also  forgot, or never bothered to learn, that faculty have long memories and deep connections across institutions, states and disciplines.

After creating a lot of disharmony and discontent across the campus, “Dr. Smith” prepared to join his fellow administrators on the stage at graduation that Spring. As is customary, he wore the academic regalia specific to the institution where he earned his highest degree; his PhD. Many of these academic robes are distinctive, and can be recognized from across a large auditorium and “Dr. Smith” wore one such get-up.

As he sat on that stage with his nose in the air, the faculty and others he had run rough-shod over for the previous 2 semesters sat in the front section of the audience, and one of them noticed his robe: it was the same color scheme that his sister had been hooded with when she graduated several years ago. This made the faculty member curious, and he mentioned it to one of his close colleagues and before you know it, a small group of them was on a serious research mission.

To make a long story short, it turned out that “Dr. Smith” had not graduated from that university, but his “crime” went further than wearing inaccurate robes at graduation. Once the investigation was over (the research turned into an inquiry, which continued to gain steam until it became a full-fledged investigation), the Board found that “Dr. Smith” had lied on his application and resume about his degrees, and had never earned the PhD he wore so haughtily around campus. He was fired and very publicly denounced as a fraud (this happens more often than you might imagine*).

I have always wondered if he’d still be there in that administrative position if he had been a nice guy, who said “please call me Dennis” (not his real name) instead of correcting people and insisting on being referred to as “Dr. Smith”. I wonder if he’d have ever been found out if he had been kind, gracious and personable – working WITH faculty instead of needing to prove that he was their overseer. I have to believe that things would have been much different for him if he had cultivated the milk of human kindness in himself and with his colleagues.

In life outside of football, unnecessary roughness is still a personal foul, but the “injuries” ultimately come back to sit at the feet of the person being mean, or unnecessarily rough. If I were an executive coach (and I have no desire to be one), this is a lesson I would drive home, over and over. There’s no need to be mean, AND; if you choose to be  mean, expect that you will attract that same level of meanness back to you,…but magnified many times over.

The faculty had to live with “Dr. Smith’s” edicts, micromanaging and decisions, but only temporarily. In the end, “Dr. Smith” was the big loser and the faculty? Some of them have retired, and the rest continue to do what they were hired to do: teach, mentor and serve. As one of them told me at the time: “I’ve seen administrators come – I’ve seen administrators go,…the only constant is that we’re still here.”

The next time you have the urge to manipulate someone because you can, or to say something nasty because you’re in a position where you can get away with it,…remember the story of Dr Smith. You may feel justified in your actions at the time, but in the end, you’re the only one who’ll be hurt by the “unnecessary roughness” you perpetrate against others.


If you have the choice of being right, or being kind; choose kindness.”  ~ Wayne Dyer

Cap and Gown







* Boston Globe, ABC News, Business Insider (US Army)



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