The “Teacher’s Pet Syndrome” Comes to Our Colleges

Inside Higher Ed has yet another sob story about yet another report — this one from Harvard’s Voices of Diversity project — lamenting that “[w]omen and students of color continue to encounter psychologically damaging racism and sexism on college campuses, creating a climate where students struggle to graduate and are unsure who to turn to for help.”

Affirmative action, the report argues, is not enough. “[O]ne cannot assume that increases in numbers of students of color have been accompanied by adequate changes in what has been called the ‘chilly climate’ for students of color and for women in undergraduate populations at predominantly white institutions.”

The study, based on information from only 200 students at four institutions — Missouri State University, two “anonymous” public institutions, and an elite private university — chronicled such horrors as a “Latino student” reporting that “while hanging up posters in a dormitory, a white student mistook him for a custodian.”

Although the report notes “the increased subtlety of many expressions of bias against members of historically mistreated groups” (is that “increased subtlety” progress or retrogression?) and the Inside Higher Ed discussion states that the prevalent “microaggressions” are “more covert than blatant forms of racism and sexism,” their effect is allegedly devastating. “A Latina senior named Gladys,” for example, “described feeling “overwhelming emotion” when faced with racist and sexist incidents, then feeling weak because she isn’t sure how to react. ‘I go nuts, I do,’ she said. ‘It hurts so much, so much. It’s indescribable the way it makes you feel. Your whole body becomes hot and your eyes automatically become glassy, because you just feel so inferior.’”

It is not necessary to belittle the anguish of glassy-eyed Gladys or the resentment felt by another Latino student who “said that, while hanging up posters in a dormitory, a white student mistook him for a custodian” in order to suggest that the efforts devoted to bringing about climate change on campus may well actually be making the “chilly climate” even chillier.

Those efforts — being ever more solicitous of the fragile sensitivities of minorities easily bruised by even the subtlest of microaggressions — serve  to reinforce the already present and indeed prevalent notion that minorities and women are a preferred, protected class, like the teachers’ pets we all remember (and some of us were) from our school days. And like teachers’ pets, they receive the taunts — sometimes subtle, sometimes not — from the non-preferred who resent the special treatment of others.

There is a good deal of evidence to support this notion, aside from common sense and memories of school days. The “teacher’s pet phenomenon,” notes one academic study, “is a cause of classroom conflicts and impairs classroom morale.”

Management literature as well is filled with admonitions against playing favorites, some of which is summarized in a perceptive Forbes article on favoritism in the workplace. “It’s like the old familiar teacher’s pet syndrome from grade school,” says workplace expert Lynn Taylor, “making others who are equally or more qualified feel as if the boss is not playing fair.” According to Roger Kahn, star of MTV’s Hired and author of Hired! The Guide for the Recent Grad, “[i]t’s important for employees to distinguish favoritism from performance recognition. By not treating everyone equally, a manager is fostering a sense of resentment and separation that can de-motivate employees and damage team unity.”

Workplace expert Ed Rigsbee offers ten tips to managers. Here’s one: “assign tasks fairly based on ability and past performance. Be careful of the teacher’s pet syndrome. Discrimination for whatever reason is destructive to workplace harmony.”

Barry Hannin, author of A Manager’s Guide to Guerrilla Warfare, makes the same point (p. 36): “Treat employees equally. Showing favoritism or the ‘teacher’s pet syndrome’ can destroy an organization.”

Since the last third of the last century American colleges and universities have institutionalized the “teacher’s pet syndrome” by systematically preferring some students over others based not on performance but identity. It should not, therefore, be surprising that this institutional favoritism has produced a “chilly climate” of resentment on the part of the non-preferred.

Trying to combat that “chilly climate” by trying harder and harder to ferret out ever more subtle examples of bias and stamp out ever smaller particles of “microagression” has by now taken on the features of the clueless person trapped in a hole trying to escape by digging deeper and deeper.

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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