Should Academic Centers Be as Contentious as Academic Departments?

The downsides of playing nice.

February 20, 2018

How are traditional academic departments and academic centers different?

I’ll give you one difference, based on a sample size of 1 (me).  Academic centers are far less contentious than academic departments.

And I’m not sure if that is a good thing.

First, some quick definitions.  For academic departments, I’m thinking of traditional disciplines.  The chemistry, history, sociology, economics, English, and political science departments….etc. etc. etc.   For academic centers, I’m thinking of the institutes, organizations, units, and centers that are not traditional departments - and don’t usually offer majors or classes - but where academics tend to work.  Think centers for teaching and learning (CTLs).  Or maybe institutes and organizations dedicated to a particular field of interdisciplinary research.

My own personal experience of life in a traditional academic department was that interpersonal conflict, between faculty within the department, was business as usual.

The academic department where I worked as a non-tenure track full-time visiting professor, as I began my academic career (at a different institution then I’m at now), seemed to be built on factions, alliances, and mistrust.  Some professors in the department had not spoken to some other professors in the department for years, perhaps decades.

Faculty meetings, depending on who showed up, were often characterized by passionate arguments.  A core group of faculty in the department seemed to rise above the drama, getting most of the work of the department done.  Other faculty members, those long-tenured, were able to teach their classes and do their research without any effort (or desire) to contribute to departmental business or the work of their colleagues.

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

This all sounds worse than it was.  Looking back on this experience, I’d say that working in this academic department represented one of the most exciting and productive times in my 20 year academic career.  The department might have had its dysfunctions, but the intra-departmental conflict also brought individual faculty members together.  The presence of such strong feelings and not infrequent expressions of hostility had the effect of bringing some departmental colleagues together.  One needed to build alliances, support allies, and find mentors to survive.  If some groups in the department had strong beliefs about the ways that teaching and research should be done, than you were forced to make choices and pick your people and perspectives.

I’m not claiming that a toxic environment is good for an academic department.  And for sure, departmental politics in some departments can turn toxic.

What I am saying is that a certain degree of strife, passion, conflict, and oddball perspectives can be helpful.  Those faculty at the margins of departmental business sometimes had the best ideas.  Those who banded together to develop new courses, or work on research together, felt bonded to one another.

Academic centers, again in my experience, are far less contentious organizations.

Folks who work in academic centers seem to work well with each other.  Collaboration, collegiality, and a positive attitude are necessary attributes if one wants to keep working in a center or an institute.

Perhaps that is because the people who staff academic centers, even if they have PhDs, most often do not have tenure.   There is nothing like the absence of lifetime employment protections to convince everyone to play nice.  The fact that many professors spend decades in the same academic department can’t do wonders for collegiality.  If familiarity breeds contempt, imagine what can come out of decades of departmental slights and miscommunications.

The other reason why academic centers may be (if my experience is generalizable) less contention than academic departments is that the work is different.  Almost all the work of the professionals in a center or institute is collaborative.  Teams work on each project.  Partnerships across the campus are normal and necessary in moving anything forward.

By contrast, the work of many traditional academic can be more solitary.  Or, as is often the case, the academic collaborators are peers at other institutions.  This of course depends on the discipline, and the world of research is certainly moving towards ever larger research teams.  (And most research productive academics also manage graduate students, labs, etc.).  But it is probably not too much of a stretch to say that traditional academic work is likely to be more solitary than the inherently team based and collaborative work of those who work in centers.

Or maybe academic departments are more contentious than academic centers comes down to historical differences in scholarly methodologies and perspectives.  The quantitative researchers not giving respect to the qualitative researchers, and vice versa.  The Supply Siders vs. the Keynesians.  The postmodernists vs. everyone else.  I don’t know.  Arguments within disciplines can become heated, and oftentimes personal.  Those disciplinary fights can spill over into intra-departmental unrest.

While I do like the norms of collegiality and positive behavior in academic centers, sometimes I miss the creativity that can come with conflict.

I’m not sure that academic centers are as able to absorb the non-traditional people and ideas as traditional academic departments.  I like the trouble makers and the outliers who make their ways as professors.

The combustible mix that is many academic departments may make for sometimes challenging work environments, but at the right levels it may also lead to original thinking.  Being forced to defend one’s ideas and methods amongst long-term peers may just lead to better ideas and methods.

Difficult people sometimes make the worst colleagues, but the best non-traditional thinkers.  Those with difficult personalities do not fare well in the collegial world of academic centers.

We know what we are gaining in terms of the functional families that are most academic centers - but what are we losing?

What differences have you observed between how the people in academic departments and those in academic centers work with one another?

How much conflict do you witness in your academic department or center?


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