Campus Should Foster the Bully Pulpit, Not the Bully

Incivility has no place within college communities. It sucks the joy out of academic departments, provides an awful example for our students, and impedes honest face-to-face discussion of real issues. We should call incivility what it is – at the minimum, a breach of community, and at its worst, bullying.

September 27, 2012

We write as presidents of liberal arts colleges across the Midwest. Our seven colleges--Alma College, Augustana College, Gustavus Adlophus College, Illinois Wesleyan University, Luther College, Washington & Jefferson College, Wittenberg University--have worked together over the past seven years on projects funded by the Teagle Foundation to assess the nature of our students' learning and the possibilities for meaningful change in our common approach to faculty work.

Inside Higher Ed invited us to begin this blog on the topic of the challenges before colleges like ours today. Given the changing landscape for higher education--and the particular challenges for liberal arts colleges like ours, we will have no shortage of topics to discuss. We invite reader responses through the comments section and hope to make this a conversation amongst ourselves and with our readers.
In a November 2011 piece for Inside Higher Ed, I wrote, “Shared governance is threatened by deep suspicions between many faculty members on the one hand and some trustees and senior administrators on the other.” In my many years as a faculty member and now as a president, I’ve come to realize that these suspicions can breed incivility. At Augustana College, we are working to embrace shared governance and manage road bumps, including incivility.

Incivility has no place within college communities. It sucks the joy out of academic departments, provides an awful example for our students, and impedes honest face-to-face discussion of real issues. We should call incivility what it is – at the minimum, a breach of community, and at its worst, bullying.

The first step in effectively calling out incivility is to define what it isn’t. Aggressive debate, prolonged debate, and passionate and emotional debate do not constitute incivility and, in fact, are part of the culture of many of our institutions. And we need to tolerate skepticism, a certain degree of cynicism and even petty or ham-handed politics. But, in my view, the following cross the line because they interfere with respectful face-to-face communication and effective shared governance:

  • Public or private insults, character assassination, rumor-mongering and other gratuitous ad hominem attacks.
  • Losing one’s temper, yelling at colleagues (personally or by e-mail), belittling colleagues and caustic sarcasm.
  • Taking disagreement with colleagues to students, outside class or (worse) in class.
  • Misrepresenting facts or positions with alumni, trustees or friends of the college, to the injury of others or to avoid the hard work of face-to-face communication and civil debate over issues within the governance systems of the college.
  • Manipulating the press to make a point, especially by misrepresenting facts or positions, or engaging in ad hominem attacks.
  • Anything that approaches workplace harassment, recognizing that the definition of such harassment is the abuse of power in workplace interactions.

Second, we must be vocal about what incivility does to our community. In my 27 years in higher education, I’ve seen the pernicious impact of incivility. Good faculty members and administrators can be driven from their positions or their institutions due to stress. They may develop stress-related health problems. Shared governance is sacrificed when face-to-face communication and effective group deliberation are bullied to the sidelines by incivility.

Perhaps saddest of all, such malicious course behavior drains the delight from our shared endeavor. During these difficult times in higher education, joy in one’s work and fulfillment of one’s calling must be fostered and cherished. Taking the joyful energy out of an institution eventually takes a heavy toll in recruiting and retention, precisely because of its cost to the morale of the 99 percent of faculty and staff who are collegial.

Third, presidents need to respond unequivocally to incivility, particularly when it amounts to bullying. In my experience it is fairly rare for colleagues to call out one another. While vice presidents and supervisors also should be on guard against bullying, presidents are particularly positioned to call out such behavior in those egregious cases that breach community. Here are the guidelines I try to apply:

  • Don’t stoop to the level of a bully. We should always hold ourselves to the highest standards. If hot under the collar, respond later.
  • Don’t reward incivility by being intimidated by it. Don’t fear standing up to incivility for fear of angering the faculty giant. The faculty giant is likely as frustrated as you are with incivility.
  • Visit individually with senior administrators and tenured faculty who are not civil. It is important for them to know that their conduct violates community expectations. I insist they communicate face-to-face with those with whom they disagree. When they do, often those who have been uncivil appropriately apologize, which enables everyone to move forward.
  • Talk publicly and consistently about the terms of engagement on difficult issues. Use critical thinking without being critical. Disagree without being disagreeable. Attack ideas and positions, not motives and people. Engage in face-to-face debate.
  • Those who are repeatedly uncivil, after warning and documentation, should be removed as promptly as possible from the community. Removing tenured faculty members for incivility is nearly impossible, but should be put on the table in egregious cases. There is no room for bullying in academia.

Let me offer two cautions. Though coarse behavior should be addressed, it is important not to confuse incivility with aggressive and passionate debate. Extreme care must be taken, in addressing incivility, not to chill dissent and debate, nor to discourage legitimate whistleblowers. Second, it is important to remember that those who are not civil are not always wrong. We must be willing to swallow our pride and consider the merits of good arguments, even when they are proposed using damaging language.

Our work to advance shared governance is not finished at Augustana College, but often we do rise to the occasion. For example, in our informal gatherings known as “Friday Conversations” at the end of each busy week, faculty, staff and administrators enjoy snacks, drinks and even childcare while discussing a topic related to higher ed in general, or our college in particular. Sometimes the topic is straightforward and informative, at other times it concerns a weightier and more complex issue. Suspicions are aired, positions addressed, and these may lead to a heated debate. Sometimes the conversation advances an argument; sometimes the conversation is tabled for another day. Yet the tenor by the end of the gathering is often convivial, and always collegial.

I think organized yet informal gatherings such as our Friday Conversations are uncommon among institutions of higher education. I see them as emblematic of how Augustana can approach high standards for good shared governance, and how any college community can communicate at its best through stressful times.

Steve Bahls is president of Augustana College, in Illinois.


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