Posted tagged ‘collegiality’

Tradition, deference and collegiality in universities

December 1, 2011

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.


Collegiality, the frank expression of views and the university community

August 17, 2011

A recent short news item in the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education caught my eye. A professor at Santa Barbara Community College had written what is described as a ‘scathing internal memorandum’, seriously attacking his head of department and accusing him inter alia of ‘lewd behaviour’. The whole episode made its way into the Californian courts, and there not was ruled that there was no defamation because the memo had been written ‘without malice’.

I won’t suggest whether the court was right or wrong, not least because I don’t know enough about the details of the case to be able to do so. But it does strike me that what one might euphemistically describe as frank expressions of opinion are common currency in academic exchanges of views, partly because academics are encouraged to present and defend their views and positions in a robust manner. For anyone involved in management positions in universities it is not a rare experience to hear from colleagues who have been hurt or who feel stressed by such experiences.

Of course as academics we value freedom of speech and academic freedom. But I wonder whether we sometimes care enough about the way in which the exercise of these freedoms can undermine those other key characteristics of successful academic institutions, collegiality and goodwill. Is it really an expression of academic freedom to launch personal attacks, and is there not a risk that these will generate an atmosphere in which less forceful faculty retreat from participation in discourse so as not to find themselves in the firing line? In fact, can this problem be aggravated by the use of email, particularly when widely circulated, to launch harsh criticisms of others?

I am quite willing to believe that the Santa Barbara professor did what he did without malice. But I don’t think he was setting a good example. And I don’t think people should hide behind academic freedom when launching personal attacks.

Integrating the academy: the case of ‘non-academic’ staff

November 18, 2008

One of the refreshing aspects of my university, DCU, is that it makes few distinctions between those employees who have academic tasks, and those whose work is administrative, secretarial, technical or professional. There is no hierarchy of decision-making that places the latter groups in a less favourable position. This is significant, because in every other university I know there appears to be open or subdued warfare between academics and others.

I recently attended a meeting of one of the learned academic bodies and was astounded to hear a very senior professor from another institution argue that administrators were a cancer in the academic system, but I was even more alarmed when that statement was greeted with mutters of approval by many others present. Academics, the speaker suggested, were entitled to expect priority support and, more or less, an obsequious caste of non-academics seeing to their needs. More nods and sotto voce statements of agreement.

One of the key requirements for any successful organisation is that its key members and employees see themselves as being in the same family, group or team. I have seen more energy wasted in in-fighting between groups than I care to remember, and it helps nobody. But there should in any case be an ethical principle that expects and observes basic equality between different types of staff, whoever they may be.

In the case of universities in Ireland, the issue has been raised recently by the Minister for Education and Science as to whether the proportion of administrative and support staff is higher than it should be, and higher than would be the norm in other countries. On the whole, the reverse is true, and we are always at some risk that we cannot properly provide necessary support services as a result. The Minister intends to look at the details more closely, but that is what he will find.

Of course academics are usually the front line staff who provide the teaching and research functions that represent the university’s core business, and all staff need to recognise that and work accordingly to facilitate this function. But we are all part of the collegiate group, and nobody should be allowed to look down on people in other parts of the organisation. I believe that, by and large, we have got this pretty much right in DCU.

One way in which we might express this better is by finding an expression that is better than ‘non-academic staff’ for those who are not professors, lecturers or researchers. It is demeaning to define a role by saying what it is not – there must be a more positive way of expressing it. Maybe something we can try to get right in our next strategic planning round.