Tradition, deference and collegiality in universities

When I was a student in the mid-1970s, I was elected class representative and had the pleasure of attending staff meetings in my department. This was an era that still had traces of the spirit of 1968 and student revolt, and I saw my role as being one of asserting student rights and generally questioning tradition. So what struck me most immediately when I attended my first staff meeting was the extraordinary level of deference and formality. The head of the department was addressed by all staff by his surname and rank, and indeed occasionally just as ‘Professor’.  When he showed a desire to speak everyone else fell absolutely silent. When he declared (as he sometimes did) that ‘I think we have now decided this issue’ (when, more often than not, there was nothing resembling agreement) everyone murmured assent, even those who moments earlier had expressed a contrary view.

When I became a lecturer a few years later my experience was similar, though it has to be said that my head of department did not particularly expect deference or formality – but he often got it anyway. Much more striking still was what happened when the head of the university – the Provost – appeared: there was a hushed silence, and it would never have occurred to anyone to address him as anything other than ‘Provost’.

Recently I attended a meeting in another university and was astounded to find these traditions still in good health: formality and deference were still much in evidence; except that now there were signs of a cynical undertone that accompanied the deference.

In my own case I strongly discourage anyone from addressing me as ‘Principal’, and indeed was equally discouraging of the address ‘President’ when I was in charge of DCU.  If we are to be a real university community we should not maintain such symbols of hierarchy. In any case, formalities and rituals may also be signs of a dysfunctional organisation, in which outward deference masks inner hostility, and in which tradition hides interpersonal strife and aggression. A senior academic in an English university has pointed out that, in their own interests, university communities need to get better at recognising the legitimacy of the roles played by their members, including senior members. He then adds:

‘If that also means a little less phoney deference and a little more genuine dialogue then that might also be the sign of universities maturing into the 21st century. The alternative – an increasing polarisation that leaves us ever more vulnerable to external intervention – will make it much more challenging for us to nurture those values that brought us into academe in the first place.’

Universities need to recover their collegiality. Or perhaps more accurately, they need to discover it, because I am not convinced it was ever really there in the first place. Not really.

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5 Comments on “Tradition, deference and collegiality in universities”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Hmmmm, if your hoping for a return of the olden days with some sort of ‘oh, captain my captain’ form of address. Meah, I’d say it’s unlikely to get off the ground; here anyway. FvP seems a happy medium between the informality of Ferdinand and the formality of some sort of title.

  2. Steve Button Says:

    Having worked for most of my adult life within Industry on joining a University I was and still am amazed by the lack of any meaningful staff consultation which exists within such establishments. Endless meeting yes but meaningful? I think not.
    Decisions are taken by senior teams, endless so called consultative meetings are called with staff and nothing actually changes or appears to. The closest analogy I can find to this is what used to go on and still does to a lesser extent within the Medical profession where the Consultant knew no wrong and woe betide anyone who questioned them. The Legal profession or more precisely the Bar have similar problems at least in Ireland where they have a particularly archaic and ripe for modernisation system.
    My partner who is a Barrister has attended countless meetings within the Legal establishment in Ireland where for years a small clique at the Bar have held sway over the lesser Barristers and called the shots. She alone stands up and asks the awkward questions and is congratulated by her colleague after the meeting. Those same colleagues don’t open their mouths to support her during the meeting of course for fear of being shunned or more precisely not being given any work. Luckily she has another source of income so is free to say what needs to be said.
    I fought against such ingrained attitudes and cultures within the medical profession when my wife was ill but I fear that this same deference towards the upper echelons within Academia is still alive and kicking and if anything growing ever stronger. I have very grave doubts if this culture will ever change as there are so many vested interests and power blocks desperate to protect their empires.
    I do hope Ferdinand that your post will help to open up some meaningful discussions on this topic and in the end make a difference but I fear that nothing will change.


  3. I certainly don’t want a return to the hierarchical deference that you discuss, but there’s an equal and opposite problem. At my place, it’s all first names and no titles. Which is fine: I’m a democrat. But in many ways, when senior management ‘chat’ to us in a matey all-in-this-together way, it feels like an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. The institution functions as a deeply hierarchical structure: there isn’t any meaningful consultation, and the friendliness seems like an attempt to fake collegiality, or to enmesh us in decisions in which we had no part. It’s a simulation of democracy rather than an actual one.

  4. Jilly Says:

    I tend to agree with Plashing Vole, in that (perhaps thanks to the ethos of modern concepts of ‘management’ as a discipline in its own right), there is no inherent connection between the style of interaction within an organisation and its actual structures of decision-making. Plenty of organisations – both academic and other kinds – make quite a show of first-name terms, and ‘informal’ modes of address, but maintain all power in a small number of hands. In those cases, ‘informality’ is window-dressing and everybody knows it. I think that’s potentially quite destructive of real collegiality in and of itself, because it requires people to both accept the structure of power while simultaneously pretending it’s not there. At least open displays of hierarchy have a certain honesty to them.

    I would also make a sharp distinction between formality and deference – they’re not the same thing at all. Formality can simply be a useful register for certain kinds of encounters or occasions, those which are themselves conducting formal business, for example. My own institution is not at all deferential, and most of the time it’s not formal either – but on occasion it is, and I think that’s a useful way of maintaining a professional, non-personalised approach to discussions. So on those more formal occasions, I would address as ‘Professor so-and-so’ a person who I’d been chatting to earlier on and addressing as John. It makes a clear distinction between casual chat and formal college business. It doesn’t, however, in any way deter me from speaking up to disagree with ‘Professor so-and-so’ if I feel the need to, despite the fact that I’m more junior. But it does help to prevent our possible disagreement from being personalised, so that we’re free to chat again in an entirely collegial way next time we meet. In other words, formality has its uses, and informality can be either risky or disingenuous.

  5. john Bisset Says:

    The thrust of this blog post is so at odds with my recent experience that I wondered whether this is deliberate irony.

    Like Steve Button I strongly doubt whether this closed culture in academia will ever change, I see no sign within the senior academics I know to suggest that either pomposity or the expectation of deference is in any way reducing. In comparison with any industrial setting with which I have experience, the sensitiivity and touchiness of some academics is truly astonishing. This inhibits criticism, which may of course be the intent. Fortunately, not all are so hidebound, so there may be hope, however faint.

    Collegiality ? That would be nice. Not a trace that I see. The disconnect between operational and senior management staff is typically too great. Polarisation describes it well. That is the crux of the issue, in my view.


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