Kingdom Building and the Rise of HR Enforcers

September 2022

Discipline of Faculty-Member Behaviour Used to be Rare

Decades ago, a very senior faculty member in Canada had achieved singular superstar status in her field. She had won all the rewards, rank and recognition on offer. Invitations to speak, research grants and honours were sprinkled as rose petals before her feet. She flew as high as Canadian academics soar.

In time, as sometimes happens, her waxed wings fluttered too close to the sun. A conscience-bound former colleague stepped forward to allege fraud. From his retirement that afforded him the time, he painstakingly set out his doubts about the integrity of her published research over the years. He claimed, among numerous other irregularities, that some of her data and conclusions were “taken from thin air”. An expensive, thorough internal investigation was launched. The faculty member was steadfast in both her denials and her refusal to defend herself and to co-operate. Therefore, the investigation had to extend further afield to co-authors, former students, and others. Administrative records were scoured for evidence that might authenticate her research. She hired a lawyer to push back. The due process lasted almost two years.

Eventually, the investigating Committee concluded the colleague had committed gross academic misconduct. Following the internal procedures for such cases, the Committee, the Dean and the President all independently took the extraordinary step of recommending to the university’s Board of Governors that she be dismissed from her tenured professorship for this reason. Unanimity on something like that at universities comes around about as frequently as Halley’s Comet. This was an era when the termination of a tenured professor required proof of something close to conviction for mass homicide. The case was covered across Canada.

Then, after the professor grieved her dismissal, the President blinked. He called off all discipline, citing the exorbitant cost, length of time and emotional rancour of the arbitration. Suddenly he was not as certain the investigation report would justify the termination. A secret deal was made to fully abandon all disciplinary process and let her quietly resign her post at the beginning of the next year with her reputation intact.

The President declared that no culpability would be imputed to the faculty member but he decreed ‘all issues remained undetermined.’ The only thing resembling discipline at the end of the day was directed toward others. The whistleblower colleague, all members of the investigating Committee and anyone else who participated in the case were warned to keep quiet about the whole matter.

They were not so readily silenced. Committee members shared how they were betrayed and outraged that the process was thwarted. The retired whistleblower colleague claimed the President acted secretively and unethically. He blasted the President’s decisions as against the public interest and a perversion of justice.

How, in a generation, did Canadian universities go from refusing to invoke discipline to address and sanction the most egregious academic misconduct to embracing discipline as the first default go-to instrument to enforce ideological conformity on campus?

Modern Management of Faculty Members by Discipline

Last year, in his article titled “Discipline and Punish” in this SAFS Newsletter, Mark Mercer decried the increasing trend of disciplinary processes being launched by academic institutions for various purposes including to exact vengeance and suffering, comfort complainants, deter others, signal the institution’s virtue, and intimidate professors. The imposition of workplace sanctions by academic supervisors has become a modern management tool – an “attack dog” strategy. It is impossible to get precise statistics due to privacy of personnel matters, but readers will know of colleagues against whom the cudgel has been brandished.

In earlier times, “performance management” was wrapped up in regular merit reviews. Academic institutions historically enjoyed among the flattest of hierarchies, there were no speech codes and debate flourished. Academic administration was ‘service’ in the purest sense. Professors far preferred to do their own research and teaching than work on curriculum and timetables. Still, they reluctantly agreed to put their academic careers on hold and took their turn as department chair, dean or a role in central administration. That service was a sacrifice, a duty. Administrative roles bore much responsibility but virtually no authority. It was not a crown.

Administrators listened, discussed and resolved concerns with their colleagues. These rotating academic supervisors were not interested in building empires, or legislating pronouns, fonts in course outlines and the precise wording of land acknowledgements. Competition and merit prevailed. Universities valued the clash of strong perspectives and opposing theories. Individual idiosyncrasy, found in the academy in lavish proportion, was abided and largely ignored. Viewpoint diversity flourished. After a term or two of this goodwill service, academic administrators returned to their research and teaching and someone else stepped up.

This model has largely been replaced by the elevation of academic administrators to the level of minor deity. People speak of going to graduate school today to become deans and presidents. Scan the landscape and see that many of these administrative positions are filled by relatively new and inexperienced faculty members who choose never to return to teaching and research. Their teaching and research are often consistently among the weakest in their schools because they offer something more important in modern academe: loyalty and sycophancy to the imperial boss.

By stealth, modern administrators build expensive sprawling kingdoms of ancillary dominions and populate them with other academics and professionals to micro-manage teaching, research and student life. Accordingly, margins on course outlines, research grant applications, student events and clubs, purchases and expenses, contacts with alumni, conferences and public presentations, email and letter styles and room bookings must obtain approval from tiers of academic bureaucrats. I am aware of a case where eleven different staff members were involved in merely setting up a trifling internal research grant.

Of most relevance to this article are the central human resource departments (HR). These have enjoyed explosive growth and fortification. Powerful, proficient and well-resourced, as part of the colossal bureaucracy, HR stands by to do the bidding of academic bosses who do not want to, or who cannot, manage professors. Often deans are too busy expanding and overseeing their kingdom that they have no time for pesky discussions with individual faculty members about neutral language, why walking in the Pride Parade is not optional, or offended feelings.

I am aware of a case where a student complaint about one slide used in one class went directly to central HR. An unidentified HR staffer produced a formal reprimand letter after speaking to exactly no one. The letter quietly made its way to the professor’s mail tray. The professor thus became aware of the discipline before she was even informed of the student’s complaint. When she later asked the dean whether he agreed with that process and discipline, the dean replied without hint of irony, “HR told me to sign that letter.”

Chairs, deans and provosts increasingly dispense with the phone calls and meetings with faculty members and proceed directly to suspensions and even dismissals of these colleagues. HR takes its orders from chairs, deans and provosts, and sometimes even acts on its own. With a roster of compliant external investigators pleased to profit from the discipline industry, personal torment against independent-minded faculty members is unleashed and indefinitely prosecuted to obtain the pliant academy these managers seek. The public institution brings to bear its considerable weight against the frequently hapless and outmatched union and individual faculty members forced to scratch their way back.

Any real underlying issues are rarely dealt with since the endgame of invoking discipline is to bring faculty members to their knees until they submit or quit. The academic manager achieves a subservient professoriate without the need for true leadership and people skills. This leaves more time and energy to build the kingdom.


‘Management by discipline’, the widespread use of discipline against academic staff on Canadian campuses is a relatively recent tactic. As the case described above illustrates, a few decades ago, excusing objectively appalling academic misconduct seemed preferable to running an arbitration. Terminations of tenured faculty were in the hands of Board of Governors. Today, termination decisions generally reside with deans, provosts and human resource units.

Several reasons explain this management by discipline. To begin with, there are far more rules, standards and prescriptions in play on campus today. The more rules, the more offenders. Faculty members will not comply to all these controversial social rules, especially those that challenge their principles and consciences.

This micro-management has been promulgated by an expansive array of administrators who are not primarily engaged in effective teaching and research. Discipline has become easy, commonplace and effectively outsourced as a function of the burgeoning HR function. Yet, it is also expensive and destructive of trust and relationships in this people-sensitive industry. The micro-management and its enforcement are products of the new paradigm of academic administrator – ‘manager’ more than ‘leader’ – who is most focused on building and controlling the kingdom.