Tracy Ford has just completed her PhD and is searching for a full-time position in a university. She is a much sought-after young academic as she has published six articles and presented at a national conference. Also, she has experience in teaching in an adjunct position, and her evaluations were outstanding. She is attending a national conference and is searching job listings for a position. One university catches her eye, and she is excited, as it is in the part of the country where she wants to reside, and the position sounds as if it was written specifically for her. Tracy discusses with colleagues the department where she will be if she is offered the job. The response by everyone she speaks with is the same: WARNING. TOXIC. STAY AWAY. People explain that the department is lethal and dysfunctional. Members of the department are in open warfare with each other. In sum, it is an awful place to work. She does not apply, and no one else does either.
Incivility is on the rise in our country. Academia is no exception to this phenomenon. Uncivil behavior may be subtle, but its effects are not. The following is a telltale, albeit partial, list of the devastating effects of working in a parlous department wrought with uncivil and noncollegial behavior:
- Older, more seasoned faculty worn down and becoming disengaged from the department and the institution
- Increased absenteeism and tardiness
- Diminished work quality of once-productive faculty members
- Poor advisement of students
- High turnover by faculty—young, untenured faculty leave the university entirely
- No department celebrations or social alliances
- Increasing faculty isolation and alienation
- Increased illness and health issues
- A greater number of grievances filed than in the past
- Lack of or minimal attendance to scheduled faculty meetings
It is somewhat mystifying that two departments seemingly identical in their composition and demographics can be completely disparate in their climate and culture. Each department may have eight faculty members, 150 student majors, and approximately the same composite makeup of the faculty (age, ethnicity, and educational levels); however, one department is enthusiastic, collaborative, supportive, engaged, and intellectual (faculty members clearly enjoy coming to work), and the other department is isolated, deadening, toxic, and depressing (faculty members stay away as much as possible—they unmistakably dislike coming to work). The salient difference may be that, in one department, a faculty member treats his or her colleagues in demeaning, degrading, noncollegial, disrespectful, and uncivil ways. This lack of civility and collegiality can deleteriously affect the department, its students, professional staff, and other faculty members, leading to a dystopian culture.
The above constitute the emotional, physical, and mental health effects of having a noncollegial person in the department. Incivility in the workplace, whether subtle or overt, has proven to be a destructive force. A positive change in the culture of the department can act as white blood cells that will heal the department. If the culture is allowed to remain unchanged, the noncollegial elements will persist as malignant cells that will continue to sap a department’s strength.
Colleges and universities throughout the United States are hard-pressed to function effectively because of a lack of adequate funding. During the mid 1970s, local and state government provided 75 percent of budgets of state institutions of higher education. Today, local and state governments support only 23 percent of the budgets of state institutions. The remainder must be made up by nongovernmental sources. Intuitively, I believe that an uncivil, noncollegial person causes a college or university a significant loss of money and resources. This is in addition to the poor reputation that the entire department or university has to bear.
I attempted to analyze some of the financial damage associated with failing to reign in a person who is so destructive. The following is a partial list of the costs that a mean-spirited, toxic person who refuses to collaborate and consistently causes problems produces. People reading this article may even place a dollar amount next to the items displayed, and they may vary from university to university and/or from one part of the country to another:
- Costs for Employee Assistance Programs that institutions maintain to help employees cope with personal issues
- Time spent by human resources staff
- Time spent by department chair, deans, and faculty members
- Time spent by provost and president
- Time spent by anger management and counseling services
- Legal costs for internal university lawyers and outside counsel
- Time spent aiding students, staff, and faculty members who have been victimized
- Time spent interviewing, recruiting, and educating/training replacements for the departed uncivil person
- Faculty burnout, leading to decreased commitment and increased distress
- Time spent calming or disciplining the uncivil person
- Time spent by search committees charged with hiring new faculty members and staff for people who retire early or seek employment elsewhere
- Compensation for both internal and external consultants, therapists, and mediators
- Settlement fees successfully litigated by an alleged uncivil person (claims of wrongful termination)
- Medical costs of stress-induced physical and psychological illness
- Payment for leaves of absence requested by victims
- Time spent and costs associated with grievances and litigation
I am relatively certain that this partial list can be expanded based upon each institution’s unique characteristics, culture, and commitment to address this situation. In the final analysis, all members of a university community should take a consistent and proactive stance in reducing or eliminating toxic, uncivil, and nasty people hell bent on producing chaos and dystopia in what should be a pleasant work environment. Perhaps assessing the costs that toxic people have for a university can motivate administrators and faculty to band together to work toward addressing this problem.
Robert E. Cipriano, EdD is professor emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University, a senior partner at ATLAS (Academic Training Leadership & Assessment Services, an internationally recognized consulting firm), an advisory board member of Academic Leader. His most recent book is titled A Toolkit for College Professors
(Rowman & Littlefield 2015). Contact him at email@example.com.