Blog confidential: A Machiavellian performance

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online

March 18, 2010

This week: A Machiavellian performance

In 2006 and 2009, I organised two conferences that turned out to be the largest in my academic field for decades. The speakers were internationally renowned and delivered stunning keynote speeches, and there were tie-in publications linked to each event.

In the run-up to the first conference, I was supported by my academic team leader, whose style of leadership was empowering, supportive and "can do". Sadly she left in late 2007 and was succeeded by a relatively inexperienced internal appointment - an academic underachiever with a "can't-do" attitude.

From his first day in the post, he bombarded me with emails, demanded weekly meetings and seemed to be striving to undermine the second event, despite the first one's success. Ultimately it matched the first, but no thanks to him.

Last month, the second tie-in publication was due out and I decided to organise a book launch. The publisher said it would help, another university agreed to provide financial support (one of its professors chaired the conference and contributed a chapter to the book) and our students were very excited about attending. A local bookshop said it would host the event.

The team leader refused to open his wallet and make up the remaining shortfall - about £80. I stumped up the cash and thought his unwillingness to contribute was disappointing.

The launch went like a dream, until midway through he had the nerve to show up, pour a glass of wine and raise it in my direction. The goading was manageable, but made me feel uncomfortable.

However, the situation has since deteriorated: he has planted miscellaneous invoices that don't belong to the conference account and claims the event made a loss.

He has told everyone in the department about this, news that has reached the dean, who seems to have taken his side. I have asked to see the accounts and been refused, but I and the administrator have meticulously checked things and know we made a small surplus. His actions seem Machiavellian, vindictive and malicious. I would like to see him punished, but how?

This is indeed terrible behaviour. He should feel lucky to employ someone with such entrepreneurial flair. He has acted dishonestly and should face disciplinary action.

However, a word of caution: you should know that if you go down this road, it may backfire. His wrongdoing does not necessarily mean he will be held to account. The dean is implicated and if both face damaging allegations, the system may turn on you. I have seen several Nineteen Eighty-Four-type scenarios in the academy where 2+2=5.

The union will go only so far. Remember what Michel Foucault said about power: it "flows through a network of disciplinary codes and institutions. Norms and standards are replicated and disseminated through schools, medicine, law, prisons, religion. If questioned, they will turn on the accuser."

Whistleblowers rarely triumph. If you act you may be punished. With your excellent track record, why not move?

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