Archive for May 28th, 2007

2 + 1 = Politics

“Whenever you get three people in a room, you’ll have politics.”

These wise words were uttered to me by my graduate advisor a good 15 years ago. I was in graduate school working on my Master’s Degree in Biology, in my first year. The department was small — 11 faculty, barely an equal number of full-time graduate students, and a handful of part-time graduate students, along with about 200 biology major undergraduates (most of whom were pre-med). The faculty, in particular, were a small group, and what surprised me about this group was how intensely political and divided it was. There were a pair of ecologists (of which my advisor was one), a botanist, a parasitologist, and then a bunch of molecular biologists. The molecular people were very clique-ish, and they didn’t seem to like people who weren’t molecular biologists (at least, as potential faculty). They especially did not like ecologists.

After living in this environment for nearly a year, and noticing how nasty things had gotten in the department, I expressed my surprise to my advsior. After all, this was a small group of people. I’d expected there to be less political nonsense in a small department than there would have been in a large one. That’s when my advisor said, “Oh no. Whenever you get three people in a room, you’ll have politics.” He explained that with two people, you didn’t usually have politics — either the pair gets along, and they work out whatever differences they might have by mutual agreement, or they don’t get along, and they usually then sever the relationship. (That’s generalizing of course, but in the main it is not a bad generalization). But once you have a third person, now if there is a disagreement between person A and person B, each one will bend the ear of person C, trying to get that person on his side. With a majority (2 to 1), you can now get what you want done. “As soon as you have more than two people,” my advisor went on, “you have a situation where people potentially have to vote on something. And that means each side has to win votes. In other words, you have politics.”

Politics, in general, have always been distasteful to me. It’s not that I mind the idea of people on two sides trying to each make a better argument, and win the votes of the others. If it worked out like that, I’d say that’s a fine way to run a system. The problem is that, although it’s supposed to work out like that, most of the time it doesn’t even come close. Instead of people “voting for the best argument,” you have them doing favors for each other (“you vote my way on this, and I’ll vote your way on that”). You have people bribing each other, or blackmailing each other, to get their vote. This was never more visible to me than in that dysfunctional little 11-member department, where they were all “wheeling and dealing,” all maneuvering for advantage.

The reason I find such business distasteful is that, as the people in the “power” positions are wrangling over who wins and loses votes, the rest of the people involved are, usually, suffering. When the “molecular voting bloc” in my old department denied my advisor — one of the best teachers among them and, as a result, quite popular with the undergraduates — tenure, it was the students who lost out. A good teacher was tossed aside because of politics, not because he was a bad teacher or a bad scientist. And when politicians in government “wheel and deal” with each other, it’s usually their constituents (or the constituents of other folks) who end up suffering, not the politicians themselves.

Unfortunately this just seems to be human nature. As my advisor said, as soon as you have three or more people trying to decide something, you get politics of one form or another. I’ve just always found it a shame that people can’t discuss an issue, vote on what they honestly thing is the best solution (rather than voting favors for each other or something like that), and getting things done accordingly. I often wonder how much better off the world would be if we ran governments like that, instead of how we do — with wheeling and dealing going on in the cloak room, or the like.

Of course the reason I’ve been thinking about politics and people lately is that I am up for a job as a faculty member, and it’s in a department not too different in size and makeup (lots of molecular biologists) from the one I started out in all those years ago. When I saw the makeup and size of the department, before I interviewed there (by reading their website), I was actually rather worried. Was this going to be another dysfunctional political situation? It had all the earmarks of the other department. I was pleasantly surprised when I went on the interview and met everyone though. They certainly did not seem to be like that other department at all, and were very welcoming.

Interestingly enough on the way to the airport after the interview, a friend of mine who is a faculty member there, discussed it with me. After I told them that the department members all seemed so nice, he said, “Yes, they seem nice.”

I looked at him and asked, “Are you saying they’re not?”

“Well it’s not that,” he responded. “It’s mostly fine, but there are occasionally some politics here and there. It’s nothing too severe of course, but there is a little.”

“Oh well,” I said in reply, “whenever you get three or more people in a room, you have politics.”

And he smiled, because he had known my advisor, and remembered him saying that all those years ago.

I have no idea (yet) whether I will get the job for which I was interviewing that day, but if I do, I can only hope that, although there will inevitably be some politics, there won’t be too much of it. As far as I’m concerned, the less politics the better.

Maybe we should all try to work only in groups of two!

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