The Leaning Tower
by Charles McNeill
Warren Publishing

"In the past, he had wrongly assumed academics pursued the truth wherever it might lead."

The relationships between instructors working in a dysfunctional sociology department at a fictional Florida university in the late 1980s are realistically explored in this novella by educator McNeill. While many workplaces, whether in government, the private for-profit sector, or even non-profit organizations, have these ego-driven, ideological clashes that create a hostile environment for some employees but provide unfair advantages to others, this story reveals the particular problems that arise in academic settings, and in this case, with dramatic, destructive results. The drama is also a cautionary tale determined by various departmental cliques that disregard the warning signs of trouble ahead for not only department faculty but for the entire university and the outside community as well.

The story is told through the point of view of Alistair Fairbairn, a professor who gave up his career in Scotland for a career at Ocala University in the United States. He and his friend Alex Katz, as the critical faction of their department, often muse together about department politics and the many weaknesses and conflicts that permeate their academic environment. “ [Alistair] stopped to consider the scene as a whole: always waiting to take the stage were the Insiders, Radicals, Arrogant, Manipulators, and the Obnoxious, to a lesser extent the Supporters and the Vulnerables making rare, if any, appearances or comments.” In this quotation about a departmental meeting, Alistair doesn’t mention the Mafia Network, Administrators, or the Graduate Students (nor he and Alex as the Critics), but these groups also contribute to the uneasy political stew of department dynamics.

The cast of characters is large (and it’s helpful that the author has provided a character list), but due to the short novella length of the tale, Alistair is by necessity the protagonist and carrier of almost all concerns about his co-workers’ hypocrisies and the department’s welfare. There are occasional supporting observations from Alex, a formal, articulate speaker. Alistair and Alex point out the dysfunctional and destructive practices in evaluation, promotion, and tenure decisions that McNeill describes as the most politicized aspects of the department but are typically ignored by the department factions with greater power. Alistair and Alex note in clear detail the various personality quirks and ego-driven responses of personnel in various states of employment that create undeserved havoc for newcomers and deserving employees who have done all the right things but are still denied promotion and tenure: “The two friends continued to analyze the toxic atmosphere, marveling at the degree to which academics lacked self-awareness or political skills to actually bring about effective social change.”

At once satirical yet realistic, the ongoing dysfunction related by McNeill in this fictional university department is possibly inspired by his personal experiences in academia. The reality factor is strong in this story, even though it is occasionally described by telling the story rather than showing it actively. The story moves quickly to a dramatic outcome that serves as one of the novella’s most powerful scenes. Readers, especially those who have experienced life in the ivory towers of academia themselves, will find the quiet, cerebral wit and the frustrating employment scenario in this tale intriguing and satisfying.

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