Putting a Tourniquet around a Wounded Department
I have been invited to a large number of colleges and universities in the United States, Asia, and the Middle East to speak about the deleterious effects of having an uncivil, non-collegial person as a member of a department. It has been shown that one toxic person can essentially ruin a once-great department: people in the department disengage, do not teach or conduct research as well as they did in the past, stay home more often, have greater stress, take more personal and sick days, etc. The following is a partial list of strategies that have proven successful since I began studying this phenomenon in 2001. Spoiler alert: the problem is getting much worse!
First and foremost, encourage all faculty members and professional staff to take personal responsibility for the quality of their academic community and the professional behavior of their colleagues.
I am amazed when faculty in a department think that it is the sole responsibility of the chair to address this issue, which affects the entire department. More than 96 percent of chairs have not been trained or educated in being an effective chair. We can assume that the overwhelming majority of chairs have little or no experience in dealing with a venomous person spewing poison. Additionally, a person can also be non-collegial if he or she does not contribute equally to the over all efficacy of the department; e.g., not advising students, not serving on committees, not attending department meetings, refusing to collaborate with their colleagues, etc.
The following strategies will help counteract the incivility often found in a department:
- Include the expectation of civility, collegiality, and respect in the department’s mission statement.
- Prominently feature the importance of collegiality in position announcements for new faculty.
- Encourage search committees to specify the importance of collegiality in interview comments and questions. Caution: you need to go beyond “Are you collegial?” Obvious answer: “Yes, I am most collegial.”
- Clearly state expectations for collegial behavior for faculty, staff, and students in the faculty handbook and, if possible, the contract.
- Establish collegiality as a criterion for reappointment, tenure, and promotion in rank.
- Establish a department code of conduct.
- Establish a department code of ethics.
- Determine consensus regarding department policies relative to facilitate a more collegial department.
- Establish the importance of working in a collegial department.
- Discuss what collegiality means, what constitutes collegial behavior, and what comprises non-collegial behavior: we want positive and productive dissent but not personal insults and bullying.
- Gather documented support from key stakeholders (faculty, deans, provost, HR, etc.) that non-collegial behavior will not be tolerated.
- Provide professional development workshops to all members of the department on topic of collegiality.
- Build a supporting coalition of informal and formal peacemakers in the department.
I realize that some (most?) of the above strategies will not be possible without the support of the administration, the CBA, or other avenues unique and distinct to specific institutions of higher education. My hope is to present some ideas and options to help departments foster a more civil environment in a proactive way so that one toxic individual does not heap venom on his or her colleagues.
Robert E. Cipriano is chair emeritus in the Department of Recreation & Leisure Studies at Southern Connecticut State University and senior partner in ATLAS–Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services–an international consulting organization providing services to institution of higher education. He is a board member of Academic Leader. He has written extensively and provided workshops for a large number of institutions of higher education on collegiality and civility in higher education, managing conflict, and improving access to higher education for individuals with disabilities. Contact him at: email@example.com