A Case for Hiring Mischief Makers

  • Issue: Volume 61, No. 1
  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.18177/sym.2020.61.1.sr.11516
  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/27041505

For all of us in music and the performing arts, this is an academic year and performance season unlike any we’ve experienced. Beyond facing challenges on all sides, there is an unremitting urgency for us to imagine and institute newly flexible systems and structures. With urgency born of financial and even moral concerns, we plan frenetically. The ground under our feet, however, remains unsteady.

It is in this slightly surreal context, and, specifically, in the context of a new hiring cycle, that we reach out to fellow deans, directors and department chairs. The need to innovate and improvise, while staying grounded in an orientation of care, has never been greater. We write to urge fellow deans and directors to take one specific and calculated risk to that end during these tumultuous times: hire faculty and staff who possess a bent for mischief.

We use the term “mischief” advisedly. Yes, it fits awkwardly within the sober culture and language of academe. But the term succinctly describes the people we need in greater numbers: those possessing not only creative playfulness but also a natural and driving impulse to nudge against tradition and, using a mix of empathy and impatience, disrupt a community’s business as usual.

What might it mean for our search committees to privilege candidates possessing a bent for mischief? And what does having “a bent for mischief” or being a “mischief maker” actually mean?

It has been our privilege to collectively serve as deans in our performing arts communities for more than two decades. Repeatedly, we’ve seen that where major innovations have occurred—whether at a program or institutional level—they have always advanced thanks to the leadership of individuals who share what can only be described as a bent toward mischief. As we’ve become increasingly aware of such individuals, we have sought to understand what distinguishes them from their colleagues, including from those whom we might simply label as innovators. We’ve found all appear to share the following traits.


Shared Traits

A fairly keen understanding of lines that shouldn’t be crossed. It might be said that these individuals seem to naturally practice what behavioral scientist Peter McGraw has called benign violations—that is to say, they regularly transgress certain social norms but not so much that their actions are truly objectionable (McGraw 2010). Oriented toward generosity, they model relatively judicious risk taking for others. An example might be a senior staff member who repeatedly navigates institutional bureaucracies by strategically exploiting relationships and understanding that small acts of rebellion—and called favors—can result in acquiring needed resources or responses without causing grave offense.

A sense of humor. Many of these bold and mischievous leaders seem to be effective in part because they consistently bring that humor to their work. They seem to possess a natural ability to build communities around laughter, joy, and finding positivity in the hard work and occasional chaos of our educational communities. Take the division chair who, when a faculty conversation grew tense as it increasingly focused on a gap between vital program needs and available finances, instinctively introduced some sardonic humor and made light of the situation, reducing tension and allowing progress to be made around planning.

Impatience and resiliency. Repeatedly, we have seen mischief makers doggedly nudge others and their community toward a goal, their impatience of a type that the late preacher Peter Gomes (with the incomparable title Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church) once described in a sermon as follows: “Impatience is not the opposite of waiting; it is the opposite of self-satisfaction.” For example, one of us worked with a program director who pushed relentlessly toward a desired major change, swiftly advancing a request up the ladder until a compromise that met the program’s needs was reached.

Resiliency is also, of course, vital in bureaucracy-laden academe, and especially now when we face a pressing opportunity to reshape systems and structures to address social injustice and racism with full honesty.

An ability to connect to others from the heart. Whether instinctively or purposefully, these mischief makers seem to understand that we are not thinking machines that feel but feeling animals that think. They understand that connecting at an emotional level is often as important as, if not more so than, employing reason. In being able to lead from both head and heart our mischief makers often refuse to look away from more difficult and intractable challenges. While they can be insistent, their possession of an orientation toward relationship maintenance and repair means they have the capacity to navigate difficult conversation with an empathy for the other. We’re thinking, for example, of a faculty member who has on multiple occasions joined in departmental conversations at particularly difficult junctures and spoken of a heartfelt experience and concern. Their comments have enabled the group to feel reconnected and allowed the planning process to progress, newly attuned to core values and working relationships.


Five Caveats

Before the reader dismisses the above list of traits as being suspiciously rosy, let us admit five caveats.

Roles matter. First, having a mischievous orientation isn’t always an asset. Roles do matter. While we would be happy to see traits such as obstinacy, resilience, and humor in our head of finance, we would be even more grateful to see her possessing a predilection toward caution.

Other competencies are needed. Second, having a bent for mischief isn’t sufficient on its own; competency in other areas remains critical. Mischief makers can be effective allies of action toward social justice or not. They can be poor scholars or great ones.

Permeation matters. Third, as we know from our own experiences, permeation matters. The greater the number of faculty and staff in a community with a bent toward mischief, the easier it is to further attract and hire more mischief makers. Getting started in purposefully increasing their presence within a community is key.

A commitment to inclusion is vital. The fourth caveat directly relates to the third. While permeation matters, it is even more important that an institution have a deliberate and ongoing dedication to inclusion. As we’ve repeatedly seen, without that continually affirmed commitment, an institution can too easily diminish or marginalize those, including those from underrepresented populations, who may possess a sense of humor or predilection for mischief making that is outside of the mainstream. That marginalization may happen at the same time that white and male mischief makers face less resistance from those around. Even a temporary slip-up in the advancement of inclusion can result in the marginalization of some mischief makers.

Self-care is often sacrificed. The fifth caveat is that the impatience and resilience that help mischief makers drive change also help them ignore self-care. They rarely maintain reasonable workloads and a healthy work-life balance, and can use (and need) some additional help budgeting time and personal resources. They can benefit from communities of support.

Before closing, we would add one note for readers wondering where to start in further attracting mischief makers to their communities. We would suggest beginning with the job description. Traditional college and university job descriptions have inadvertently communicated to mischief-makers that they are not welcome. Job descriptions that look like every other job description written over the past decade tell forward-thinking candidates that the opportunity represents a continuation of the status quo and the job is not for forward-thinking people. Too many of our best and brightest world-changers have given up on academia after being told or otherwise learning that they just don’t fit the mold. When rightly worded, the job description can let these previously shunned mischief makers know that they not only have a place in higher ed, but they are highly valued.

Let us confirm, in conclusion, that we aren’t suggesting that mischief makers are the only type of individuals we need in our institutions right now. But as we have repeatedly witnessed, hiring more of these mischief makers into our communities can be of great aid to our cause. Through their ability to be empathetic and their impatience, resiliency, sense of humor, and understanding of lines that shouldn’t be crossed, they can be true friends of higher education’s central cause. Beyond placing a check on follies and irrationalities, and helping to confront systems and processes that often stifle change, they help build a healthy culture of disruption within our institutions. And, often having the trust of their colleagues, they can play an outsized role in enabling innovative work to flourish.

[An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in InsideHigherEd (January 14, 2021).]


McGraw, Peter. 2010. “A Brief Introduction to the Benign Violation Theory of Humor.” Accessed March 3, 2021. https://petermcgraw.org/a-brief-introduction-to-the-benign-violation-theory-of-humor/.

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Last modified on Monday, 24/01/2022

Michael Stepniak and Brian Pertl

Michael Stepniak, Dean and Professor of Music at Shenandoah Conservatory since 2009, oversees over 200 faculty and staff and close to 700 students in 27 programs across music, dance, and theatre. An educator and performer, he is the lead author of the acclaimed book Beyond the Conservatory Model (Routledge/CMS). https://www.su.edu/conservatory/dean-michael-stepniak/

Brian Pertl is the Dean of the Lawrence Conservatory. Pertl believes that creating conservatory cultures that honor diversity, multi-musicality, creativity, exploration, collaboration, curiosity, and play along with core musicianship are key to creating musicians and entrepreneurs who will best overcome the obstacles and capitalize on the opportunities of today. https://www.lawrence.edu/conservatory/faculty/brian_pertl/node/4487

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