Shine a light

If you work in higher education, you’ve likely heard the story of Brian McNaughton, a chemistry professor from Colorado State University. To leverage a raise and increased lab funding, Dr. McNaughton met with his department chair and dean to discuss a job offer he had received from another institution. As it is described in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education story, many professors use job offers from other schools to negotiate better professional arrangements at their current institutions. The challenge with McNaughton’s case was that the job offer wasn’t real.  McNaughton had made it up.

Anxious to keep McNaughton and his research at the institution, however, Colorado State administrators expanded his research budget and gave Dr. McNaughton a raise. From McNaughton’s perspective, the ploy worked. McNaughton had forged a job offer that forced the institution to evaluate how much he was worth to them. And Colorado State officials had responded positively.

McNaughton’s deceit, however, eventually came to light and he is now out of work. In the Chronicle story, the authors detail how a failed marriage and an online social media campaign led to McNaughton’s ouster from Colorado State which ultimately ended his research career.  At the end of the article, the authors write:

Hardly any scientist will ever win a major prize or successfully develop a cancer drug. The odds of that are even more daunting for one who toils away at a midtier public research university. So the focus shifts to smaller wins: a congratulatory email from the dean, a steady stream of pipette tips, a few extra square feet of lab space. Maybe, if everything goes just right, there’s a new interdisciplinary program or an article in a major journal. These tiny battles for resources and validation can consume a professor, but they do little to answer what became for McNaughton an essential question: What am I worth?” (Stripling & Zahneis, 2018)

I’ve been thinking a lot about McNaughton and his search for “smaller wins.” He didn’t know what he was worth, so he sought out ways to measure that. While McNaughton’s method bore poison fruit, I know the ground from which it grew. To be clear, I don’t agree with his unethical decisions, but I totally understand his motivations. Far too many of us work in environments where we plod away without knowing that we’re valued by our colleagues, our students or our administrators. So, instead, we look for ways to find that validation.

So, here’s my charge to you. I’ve heard from quite a few people lately that there are actually people who read this blog. If you’ve made it this far into this post, I want you to take a moment and offer that validation to someone you value. Maybe it’s a colleague that shares a lab with you. Maybe it’s a former mentor who you haven’t spoken to in years. Maybe it’s an administrator who did something helpful and made your job a little easier.

Send them an email. Or better yet, write them a card.

Shine a light on their work and validate what they do. Offer them a small win. Let them know you value them. Let them know how much they’re worth.



4 thoughts on “Shine a light

  1. Great blog, Ollie! Thank you for keeping us all thinking and motivating us to become not only better faculty but also better people.

    Hope you have a good day.


    Teresa M. Hartmann, PhD, RN – Assistant Professor Department of Nursing MILLERSVILLE UNIVERSITY P.O. Box 1002, Millersville, PA 17551-0302 Phone: 717-871-4285 | Fax: 717-871-7919 | Caputo 121


  2. Way to turn the McNaughton debacle into a positive opportunity for the rest of us, friend. I’m proud to call you my colleague.

    David “Mudcat” Johnson, PhD
    Associate Professor
    School of Social Work

  3. I am one who reads your blogs with great interest! Thank you for challenging me to validate others! As is often the case, in serving others, we ourselves are blessed!
    Janine Rocke
    SFMC College of Nursing
    Peoria, IL

  4. I appreciate your blog posts as you always take an interesting angle on (somewhat) familiar topics. Right now, I’m working on creating a checklist for my online course because of one of your previous posts. Thank you,
    Madeline Craig
    Molloy College
    Rockville Centre, NY

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