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How to tackle incivility among faculty members

Bad Professor
June 15, 2012

WASHINGTON -- A faculty member suffers numerous slights and instances of bullying from senior colleagues en route to achieving tenure. But once he gets there, he metes out similar treatment to less-experienced faculty members, thus creating a spiral of negativity that sullies the whole culture of the department.

The example was one of several used by two speakers – Lisa Wallace, associate professor of communication studies at Ohio University-Chillicothe, and Amy Thieme, associate professor of communication at Eastern Kentucky University – Thursday at a session here at the annual conference of the American Association of University Professors that explored incivility and bullying in the academic workplace.

Their solution: a clear policy that sets out expectations for faculty behavior.

Wallace and Thieme said they became interested in the topic as they explored bad student behavior. “I was interested in the way we treat each other, and what is embedded in our systems that might be contributing to this culture,” Thieme said. As they talked, they were interrupted frequently (but politely) by assorted faculty members, many of them eager to share their experiences of how they had been treated by colleagues and administrators.

Some mentioned how they had been accused of bad behavior when they confronted colleagues who were behaving unethically; others mentioned deans who made life unbearable for tenured professors until they resigned.

Thieme wondered if the tenure structure had anything to do with tensions between senior professors and less-experienced colleagues, and whether the competition for resources in a department leads to incivility. When a negative culture takes root in a department, it could lead to stress, loss of work, faculty members withdrawing from collegial discussions or more faculty members indulging in uncivil behavior, the authors said.

“Student handbooks have civility policies, but faculty handbooks usually don’t,” Wallace said. When she asked for a show of hands of those whose universities had civility policies for faculty, only one person at the well-attended session raised her hand.

The speakers said that universities ought to have a distinct policy on incivility and bullying, separate from hate speech or anti-harassment policies that exist at every institution. “There should be a clear set of expectations, and consequences for bad behavior,” Wallace said. Any policy should have clear protocols and graduated sanctions, with expectations built around appropriate behaviors.

The AAUP, however, has worried about "collegiality" issues as a criterion when it comes to tenure.

"[C]ollegiality is not a distinct capacity to be assessed independently of the traditional triumvirate of teaching, scholarship, and service. It is rather a quality whose value is expressed in the successful execution of these three functions," the organization said in a 1999 statement. "A distinct criterion of collegiality also holds the potential of chilling faculty debate and discussion."

The authors said they hoped that their work would throw a spotlight on the issue and more people would start talking about it, leading to development of policies in the same way that sexual harassment policies developed in the workplace. “I hope that it leads to recognition of the harm this can do to an individual, an institution or its culture,” Wallace said.

“Beginning with a positive goal of civil engagement might be the best approach to dealing with the difficult and often ambiguous issue of incivility as the practice of civil engagement supports the historic view of academe as well as the espoused values of many institutional cultures,” wrote the authors in their paper.

Tom Hubbard, professor of liberal arts at the University of Texas at Austin, who attended Thursday’s session, said the definition of incivility needs to be clear. “If the definition is not specific enough, there is potential for misuse in an effort to try and stifle minority opinion,” he said.

For example, he said, if a few faculty members protest a change of curriculum that a dean is proposing, could that be called uncivil behavior? “I have seen that happen,” Hubbard said. “One way out might be to have strong faculty grievance procedures with a neutral faculty committee judging an incident,” he said.

Another faculty member had a simpler idea. He suggested following the ideas in a book called The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t by Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University.

 

 

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