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Conflict in Academe

July 23, 2014

All workplaces entail conflicts, of varying scales and of varying levels of importance or unimportance. One significant factor in the quality of our work lives is not so much whether conflict exists, but how it is handled within our departments and institutions. There are some situations in which we can merely avoid conflict, and it is by far the more prudent course of action to do so. Conflicts of any variety should not be courted, nor pursued unnecessarily. But we might also do damage — to ourselves and our careers, our colleagues, students, and institutions — by avoiding conflicts at all costs and thereby allowing important issues to go unresolved, to fester and continue their harm.

We are all familiar with the trope of the notoriously cranky colleague who courts conflict — personal and professional — at every opportunity. These individuals seem, cantankerously and perversely, to relish the disputes that they manufacture. Our culture has developed many entertaining and colorful phrases to describe such people, and so I don’t need to concern myself with those folks here. I’m much more concerned about another reaction to conflict that can be nearly as toxic — perhaps even more toxic. That reaction is one of simple avoidance: all too common even among some of us who hold leadership positions and are explicitly charged with addressing or resolving a variety of types of professional conflicts.

I want to acknowledge that avoidance might be exactly the correct way to respond to some varieties of conflict, but is hardly an appropriate (non)response to all of the situations within which conflict arises. Passive reactions to active problems can also be quite harmful.

When I think upon the moments when I have felt most burned as a graduate student, and more recently as a faculty member, often the moments are traceable back to a point in time when a superior or senior colleague of mine neglected to handle a small conflict, which then grew into an unnecessarily large conflict. Unaddressed, the metastasized problems became disproportionate to the original scope of the problem, and commensurately required more time and energy than might have otherwise been necessary to arrive at a point of stasis or resolution.

With my admittedly limited and anecdotal experiences, I am increasingly convinced that an important quality for leadership, and perhaps even simply citizenship within our universities, is developing the skill of recognizing which conflicts to avoid and starve of their energy, and which conflicts to confront directly and resolve, however painfully, before they grow. Some of the conflicts that we neglect to resolve have the potential to become cancerous, growing silently, perhaps even initially unnoticed, but with potentially devastating manifestations.

Some steps for dealing with conflict include:

  • Obtain the available facts and narratives: Colleagues have an obligation to seek out one another’s perspective, or “side of the story,” when there is the perception of a problem between faculty members, or between a faculty member and another member of the university community. The paths of gossip at many universities make the cafeteria rumormongering of adolescents appear absolutely quaint. Such patterns make it even more necessary that we obtain all of the facts and all of the narratives en route to resolving conflicts.
  • Recognize the responsibilities of your position: Depending on your position, its job duties, and the parties involved, you may have an obligation to address or to help address the conflict at hand. In these scenarios, failing to address a problem or conflict might represent a failure to uphold your own responsibilities, even if you aren’t otherwise involved in the situation.
  • Follow proper channels: Universities have established protocols for dealing with many types of conflicts. These procedures are designed to de-escalate and de-personalize problems. Depending on the nature and scale of the conflict at hand, you may need to be mindful of and follow proper procedures in working toward a resolution of the situation.
  • De-escalate: One reason we may avoid conflict is for fear that a problem will be blown out of proportion. Through our language and calm approach, we can resolve some conflicts that don’t warrant fireworks simply through our demeanor and approach.
  • Escalate: Sometimes precisely the opposite course of action is in order. If someone’s actions are actively harming a student, colleague, or another member of the community, you may have an obligation — legal or ethical — to bring the situation to the attention of a supervisor or appropriate administrator. Silence can be a form of complicity, as Penn State so painfully learned.
  • The crabs and scraps test: a mentor of mine once cautioned me that much of academe consists of crabs fighting over scraps. The crabs and scraps test is a more cynical metaphor for differentiating between forests and trees, for asking oneself whether a conflict has meaningful stakes or is mere pettiness. “Don’t be one of the crabs,” he told me, which I take to mean not to arguing over the meaningless conflicts. However, the quality of our work lives is not meaningless, and we may at times need to confront problems in order to protect that quality of life.

Unfortunately, some of the features of academic life train us to be scared of and avoid conflicts. One of the unintended consequences of the dominant tenure model is that, while it does protect academic freedom, it also creates such a dramatic power differential between the tenured and the untenured that junior faculty are effectively discouraged from addressing conflict directly, for fear (whether justified or not) of upsetting those who will later weigh their tenure cases. For five or six years, the tenure-track junior faculty are bred to be meek. Even more vulnerable contingent faculty, who are often on year-to-year or course-by-course contracts, are even more institutionally discouraged from addressing and resolving any conflicts that they find themselves party to.

An unintended side effect of our current tenure model is that we are trained to defer to the authorities above us, which seems to me to counter many of the principles of inquiry and questioning that are allegedly a feature of American universities. I have to admit that a proclivity toward argument, and toward seeing argument as productive, is one of my own occupational psychoses. As someone who studies rhetoric, I am inclined to see argument as the means to resolve conflicts, and as something to be sought out, rather than avoided. I am inclined to see disagreement and argument, when carried out in good faith, as productive endeavors. Many of us have been culturally trained to see argument as rude or at least uncomfortable. Basically, I think we’d all benefit from more argument when conflicts do occur, on the very important condition that the arguments be conducted in good faith, while listening to other involved parties, and with the mutual goal of arriving at a solution.

The decision not to act is itself a type of action. When unprofessional behavior is allowed to continue because a supervisor is unwilling to confront a faculty member, essentially a decision has been made to allow the disruptive or unprofessional behavior to continue. When we fail to address a curricular problem, we allow the problem to persist. When we neglect to revise important policies out of fear of the potential rancor of debate, our policies grow outdated and counterproductive.

Academe is a weird place to work. Boundaries between friends and colleagues are often fuzzy. I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I’ve wondered to myself in the midst of a conversation, “Wait, are we talking as friends or colleagues right now?” My responses to a given situation might be different, depending on which mode I’m responding from. I think that such fuzziness is common, and significantly complicates how we do and are able to respond to conflict within the workplace. Leadership in the university itself is weird, as a faculty member may rotate into a position of authority, and simply rotate back into the ranks once that tour of duty is done. This leadership model further confuses the relationships between faculty, particularly during moments of conflict. Very often, I suspect, we avoid conflict for reasons that come from a good place, from our desire not to hurt our friends or sour our friendships. But when those same friends are also our colleagues, that dynamic may mean that we allow problems to go unresolved, and possibly to grow.

Leaders within our universities, at every level, from the department level on up, have a particular set of responsibilities when it comes to conflict. At times, it may be their obligation to resolve a variety of types of conflicts. But it may equally be their responsibility to initiate (within appropriate and productive frameworks) arguments, debates, even conflicts, in order to resolve issues and move the business of the students, the faculty, departments, and the institution forward. A total aversion to conflict is a disservice whether we are dealing with students, colleagues, or those we supervise.

 

 

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