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Good Soldiers or Good Actors? Fit, Turning a Blind Eye, and the Politics of Obligation in Academia

by Autumn Cyprès - March 01, 2013

Discussions about professionalism and obligation are rife within academia. However, conversations examining the intersections of politics in academia and the duty owed to the profession are less prevalent. This article seeks to raise questions about the contours of professionalism relative to the politics of tenure and promotion. Such considerations are framed within organizational hegemony, and the social constructions of professional identity.

Because the obligations of the professoriate are at once societal, academic, and personal, there is a litany of research that assesses what it means to be professional locally as well as situationally (Bruhn, et. al, 2002; p. 467). Colloquialisms referring to professionalism are used often in Tenure and Promotion committee meetings; they include terms such as “superstar” or “good soldier.” Discussions of this kind have noticeably migrated to the literature about obligations of the professoriate.  A literal example of this rests in the phenomenon known as Good Soldier Syndrome, which refers to one in academia who models an obligation to altruism, conscientiousness, civic virtue, and neighborliness (Organ, 1988).

However, there are circumstances when an incongruity exists between how one believes they are being perceived in terms of professionalism and the reality of one’s professional reputation. Bolino (1999) distills this idea into the question of whether one is a good soldier or a good actor. This article considers some differences between the two by asking questions relative to the everyday politics and obligations of the professoriate.


Ask junior faculty members what is foremost on their mind, and odds are that they offer an answer that refers to their quest for tenure. For a junior faculty member wanting job security, nothing is as coveted as the social and professional capital that tenure grants. The road to tenure can be understood as a political game in which junior professors seek to demonstrate an understanding/observance of the unspoken and spoken rules of acceptance for the academic community they serve (Tooms and English, 2010). Tenure is the award that announces to all that you fit your program, department, college, and university. Hegemony (the socio-political phenomenon in which power is held by one group over another without force) and the social construction of professional identity serve as the context for those who set the rules of gaining tenure (Tooms and English, 2010). The rules of how to fit are sometimes written; often they are cultural expectations that become understood over time.  The plethora of articles and university workshops dedicated to teaching, research, and service is one way that the rules of fit are explained; feedback in annual review documents is another. The hallway ethnographies conducted by those who vote on tenure dossiers also play a role in this high stakes game of job security. Thus, the quest for tenure (and the professional capital that goes with it) expands from ticking off accomplishments on a vita to include a game of politics.  

Ironically, once tenure is earned, some professors see this as license to observe a personal agenda that may not be at all related to the Good Soldier Syndrome. Because departments consist of both senior and junior faculty members (with their own professional agendas), we have to wonder what happens when the obligation to fit is incongruent with the obligation of one’s conscience? Here lies the murky world of questions about obligation and the illusion and reality of being a good soldier.

Navigating the paths of obligation is not easy. Extreme examples of attempts to negotiate such waters include Adolf Eichmann’s explanation that he was being a good soldier and simply following orders by engineering the annihilation of thousands of Jews (Arendt, 1963). Arendt’s powerful argument was that evil is not always hugely visible. It can be found in the banality of everyday actions which even include the virtue of obedience (Arendt, 1963, p. 247).  

This purpose of this article is not to indict good actors in academia as evil. But Arendt’s arguments give pause for thought concerning the banal and everyday choices we make and how they result in the construction of our professional identity as good actors or good soldiers. Consider this: Dr. Jones, a full professor, shares an elevator ride with Dr. Sharon on their way to teach class. Dr. Sharon has spent the last several years preparing a dossier for consideration for promotion to the rank of full professor. She is the youngest member of her department’s tenure and reappointment committee; Dr. Jones is the eldest. Dr. Jones says, “I know we are in different programs but I need a favor.  I need you to support my junior colleague in the Tenure and Promotion Committee meeting next week. Our program needs him.” Dr. Sharon believes the junior faculty member in question has a barely acceptable track record in terms of teaching and a weak record of publication. While she has not shared her opinion with anyone, Dr. Sharon is anything but confident in this colleague’s trajectory. Dr. Jones is also acutely aware that the Tenure and Promotion Committee meets in the morning to vote on tenure and then again in the afternoon to vote on promotions to Full Professor. Because the committee is considering her own request for promotion, Dr. Sharon will attend only the morning meeting: Dr. Jones will be present at both meetings. Even though Dr. Sharon believes her dossier is strong, Dr. Jones, within a two-minute elevator ride, has brought a puzzle requiring her to consider what it means to be a good soldier.


Turning a blind eye is an idiom that describes the ignoring of undesirable information. It refers to a career moment in one of history’s most decorated soldiers, British Admiral Horatio Nelson. During the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker sent via signal flags the message to Nelson’s ship to withdraw at his discretion. As his men waited, Nelson put a telescope up to his blind eye and said, “ I really do not see a signal.” He turned a blind eye, and went forward with his attack. History remembers this event as Nelson’s most hard fought and heroic battle. Nelson’s exemplary career as a good soldier is permanently lauded in London’s Trafalgar Square.   

Is turning a blind eye being a good soldier in our profession? When we think about being a good soldier should we also consider the differences between complicity and turning a blind eye? Arguably, complicity is the bigger sin against the obligation to ensure rigor in student learning. What if Dr. Sharon sought advice from another colleague in the department about Dr. Jones’ request? Should the colleague tell Dr. Sharon to go along and pass the student to help ensure Dr. Jones’ support for the tenure and reappointment discussions? Is Dr. Sharon’s colleague turning a blind eye or being complicit?

Lastly, we consider the department chair in this scenario, who knows of Dr. Jones’ history of leaning on junior faculty but does not confront him because he believes there is really nothing he can do because Dr. Jones is a tenured, full professor. Dr. Jones has earned a reputation for being a bully and confrontational. Truthfully, the department chair is busy arguing with the dean over funding for his faculty, and the thought of wrestling one more time with Dr. Jones seems like a waste of time and effort. Battling with the dean appears to be a better investment with a more hopeful outcome for the department. Is that department chair a good soldier or a good actor? What if the chair’s vita demonstrates a lengthy service and publication record and strong teaching evaluations?  Can a professor be a good soldier on paper but in reality only a good actor?

Machiavelli would say that we have no choice at times but to be good actors. And we do so in the name of self-preservation. One could also argue that all the questions above have fluid answers dependent on context. Our point is to ask if the search for the line between good soldiering and good acting is still a viable part of our obligations to the professoriate. An obvious point of closure to this puzzle would be an impassioned call for self-reflection, and the engagement of dialog about embracing accountability.  Instead, we wonder if the search for margins of tolerance in good soldiering has diminished because everyday politics has rendered such efforts as banal.  Such is the unspoken politics of the professoriate.  


Arendt, H. (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York, New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Bruhn, J. G., Zajac, G., Al-Kazemi, A.A., and Prescott, I.D. (2002). Moral positions and academic conduct: Parameters of tolerance for ethics failure. Journal of Higher Education, 73,(1), 461-493.

Bolino,M.C. ( 1999). Citizenship and impression management: Good Soldiers or good actors? Academy of Management Review. 24(1), 92-98.

Organ,D.W.(1988). Organizational citizenship behavior: The good solider syndrome. Lexington, MA: DC. Heath.

Reader, W. (1966). Professional men: The rise of professional classes in nineteenth century England. New York, NY: Basic Books.  

Shils, E. (1983). The Academic Ethic: The report of a study group of the International Council on the Future of the University. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Tooms, A. K., & English, F. (2010). Who fits? A dialog on the politics of identity negotiation. Education Policy, 24(1), 35-50.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 01, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17040, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:19:58 PM

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