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The Rise of Incivility in Higher Education

Institutional Culture

The Rise of Incivility in Higher Education

The Rise of Incivility in Higher Education

A campus culture that values collegiality is among the most important contributions a university can make. Departments within institutions of higher education recognize the desirability of a collegial and civil environment for faculty, students, and professional employees in all areas of academic concern. It is desirable that the collegial system of interacting be developed, maintained, and strengthened throughout the university.

The landscape of higher education is rapidly changing for the 5,758 public and private colleges and universities in the United States. In 1975, local and state governments supported public colleges and universities by providing 75 percent of their budgets; today, that figure is down to 23 percent. This has forced institutions of higher education to dramatically raise tuition and fees for students. The cost has been quick and histrionic: In 2008, there were five colleges and universities that cost $50,000 or more per year for tuition, room, and board. Just one year later that number jumped to 58. From 1982-2007 tuition rose 439 percent while family income rose 14 percent. A ballooning of student services and an expansion of IT and safety/police have also contributed to the high cost of a post-secondary education. Additionally, there are significantly more mid-level management positions (e.g., assistant to the dean, associate deans, associate provost, director of HR, et cetera) that also contribute to the escalating costs.

Meanwhile, many students and their parents think that the high cost of college entitles them to lodge complaints with the institution regarding various aspects of their education experience. Students make formal accusations about professors because they received a grade less than an A; they believe they are entitled to a grade of A simply for attending class. Faculty members are also drawn into this scenario: professors assail those colleagues they think give every student an A, support students instead of their colleagues when there is an appeal made against a faculty member, or complain that students are not “ready” or motivated to be in college in the first place (i.e., they are accepted into college because the college needs students).

Factors that contribute to incivility

It’s against this backdrop that we’ve seen a dramatic rise in incivility in the academy. Here are just some of the things I feel are contributing factors (not a complete list):

  • Economic uncertainty
  • Mandate to do (much) more with (much) less
  • Shift to online teaching
  • Bureau-pathology—universities are under-led and over-managed
  • Corporate culture influence
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Unmotivated students and faculty
  • Perception by faculty that students are less qualified
  • More rigorous standards for tenure, promotion in rank, and reappointment
  • Email as the primary mode of communication
  • Faculty work scrutinized and evaluated by peers
  • Greater number of mid-level administrators
  • Attacks from inside and outside the university concerning basic tenets of tenure, shared governance, and academic freedom
  • Number of non-academic people into key roles in the university – e.g., presidents, provosts, and academic deans
  • Retirement benefits, along with fringe benefits, dwindling at an alarming rate
  • University budgets being cut dramatically
  • Furlough days becoming the norm, along with no pay raises for faculty and staff
  • Heavier teaching loads and larger classes
  • The hiring of adjuncts has mitigated against the hiring of more full-time professors
  • The pressure to accept more students, including those who may not be “ready” to attend a university full-time.

Behaviors that promote collegiality

The university should acknowledge the value of collegiality and place great emphasis on the ability of each faculty member to contribute to a positive environment in which all persons are treated with respect, civility, and dignity. In this environment, all opinions—whether dissenting or affirming—are valued and respected. Collegial faculty work toward common department goals and the resolution of issues and concerns that routinely arise in academia. Collegiality extends to interaction between faculty members, faculty and staff, faculty and students, and faculty and administrators.

Based on these basic tenets, evidence of collegiality will include such indicators as:

  • Collaborative and active participation in committees, workgroups, and other mechanisms used to further the objectives of the department and university.
  • Demonstrating flexibility in setting and meeting departmental, university, and personal professional goals.
  • Displaying a pattern of good judgment in dealing with others.
  • Following through on tasks and deadlines to the greatest extent feasible in order to further departmental and university goals and objectives.
  • Maintaining constructive professional relationships within the department, as well as within the college, university, and the community at large.
  • Communicating in a clear and respectful manner with all constituents of the department including other members of the faculty, students, and staff.
  • Making oneself accessible to colleagues, students, and staff through a sufficient number of office hours and in maintaining a visible presence on campus.
  • Avoiding inconsiderate or self-centered behavior that results in crises, severe inconvenience, or professional disadvantages for members of the faculty, students, and staff.
  • Refraining from displays of anger, abusive language, inconsiderate behavior, irritability, or similar activities that impede the professional function of the department.
  • Displaying positive attitudes.
  • Demonstrating appropriate levels of responsibility with respect to one’s work in the university.

Accepting and sharing responsibility for creating a productive environment within the department and university is viewed in terms of how well we carry our fair share of the workload. The challenges faced by universities in the twenty-first century cannot be successfully mastered nor can the effects of dedicated professionals be sustained when attitudes and dispositions of personnel within departments are divisive, uncompromising, and inflexible or reflect a lesser degree about the importance of that salient, fundamental hallmark of successful interactions in academe that we call collegiality.

Robert Cipriano, EdD, is professor emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University and senior partner in ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership, and Assessment Services, an international consulting business in academic training in higher education.


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