By Ian Post
As a university archivist, I find great satisfaction in collecting, preserving, and sharing the histories of institutions of higher education. Among the archival collections, I find not only curiosity in and revere for the faculty, staff, and students whose stories I steward, but also a guilty pleasure: cheap academic drama.
While some archives have sensational collections containing letters of infidelity, risqué photos, or records of criminal activity, many records in university archives tend to be more milquetoast. By no means are the archives insignificant or uninteresting, but, rather, they don’t boast quite the same sexiness as other archives. However, what university archives do have an abundance of—and what I’ve happily consumed throughout my work—is historic academic drama of every variety.
Sometimes petty actions taken during faculty in-fights, departmental dysfunction, and flippant frustrations in academia unknowingly become part of the historical record. In the moment, excoriating letters are written, grandiose memos are distributed, and issues are ferociously brought forward in agendas and minutes (following Robert’s Rules of Order, of course). For the participants, these battles in higher education seem monumental; indeed, sometimes the clashes are significant or revealing of deeper trends. Once they enter the historical record, though, they become fabulously entertaining pieces of history akin to reality television or tabloid journalism.
Take, for example, Salisbury State College’s (now Salisbury University) library staff from 1979 to 1981, whose meeting minutes in the Records of the Library tell of excruciating meetings held to improve “interpersonal communications.” After a workshop with a guest faculty member from social work, the Acting Associate Dean paid a visit in 1981 to make the following comments: “Just because you are professionals does not mean that your ideas must be followed,” “[I] would like to hear that you have been shouting at each other and working the problems out,” and “Petty things seem to be getting in the way.” Did his advice help resolve the tensions over librarian communication? Doubtful.
Academic drama has arisen throughout Salisbury University’s history for a number of reasons, both mundane and serious. Documents show that spats have started over little things like telephone usage, room temperatures, leaving doors unlocked, excessive noises, indoor and on-campus smoking regulations, and space utilization. Incidents have also resulted from more consequential academic debates such as promotion procedures, grading systems, committee and subcommittee charges, and, a current favorite, general education reform. Former faculty and staff members leave a trail when embarking on their crusades and now, decades later, I find it amusing to follow those stories.
Evidence of past pettiness oftentimes hides among routine records in university archives, which makes it all the more satisfying to discover. It’s easy enough to find sources about campus scandals like a president’s forced resignation or controversial social media activities, so that doesn’t quite pack the same punch. There’s something intriguing about the minor quakes opposed to the drama that shakes a campus to its core. Perhaps that’s because petty drama is something that is part of the core of academic life.
University archivists like myself find joy in learning and sharing the histories of people, places, and groups within higher education. There are so many stories that weave through the past that are significant for any number of reasons. On the one hand, there are sustentative parts of an institution’s history that mark the high and low points shaping its identity. On the other hand, there is my metaphorical candy—cheap academic drama.
No institution of higher education is immune to the drama inherent in academic life because ideologues will continue to fill the ranks. When these personalities duke out their ideas, they’ll exchange furious memos and bring forth their manifestos. And, inevitably, these documents will enter the historical record for archivists like me to find—and revel in—years later.
 Professional/Reference Staff Meeting Minutes, 1979-1988, Records of the Library, [Box 1, Folder 3], Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, Salisbury University, Salisbury, Maryland.
Ian Post is the University Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at the Nabb Research Center at Salisbury University. Originally from Michigan, he earned his MSLIS from the Pratt Institute School of Information. He has worked in several archives in West Michigan, New York City, and Maryland.
2 thoughts on “TMZ University or: How I Learned to Love the Past Pettiness in Higher Education”
So true Ian! Thanks for sharing….
Here, Here, I totally agree, and applaud the resolve of those archivist that take on such projects. Count me in, I have my own passion projects within the archives and genealogy. Anniki Okoye