Recommendations for Academic Department Chairs

The content for this post is adapted from my dissertation on faculty free speech cases. All rights reserved. Please share only with attribution.

Consider the differences between individual personalities, individual behavior, and systemic and cultural expectations when it comes to workplace behaviors. If the differences are obvious to you, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. Individual personalities and systemic/cultural expectations can both shape individual behavior, but in the end, unless someone is coerced, behavior is enacted out of one’s personal autonomy. Personalities, while perhaps grating to some, are not cause for discipline—behaviors are. But systemic and cultural expectations are collectively held and socially constructed. This means the responsibility for constructing responsible and inclusive cultural expectations is held by all members of the collective, not just those who complain. When cultural expectations change, individual behaviors likely will as well.

Any job working with other human beings will mean having to work with someone disagreeable at one point or another. Nevertheless, some work environments tolerate and support toxic behavior more than others. In academia, a culture of passivity and conflict aversion has allowed abusive, exploitative, and discriminatory behavior to run rampant for centuries.[1] Academic systems and traditions, like tenure, enable and promote conflict aversion for some,[2] while instilling hypervigilance for others.

Risk and conflict aversion among academic supervisors often affirm the myth that tenured faculty cannot be disciplined.[3] Legal scholars have addressed the legal issues that can ensnare institutions trying to dismiss tenured faculty for cause.[4] Instead, the recommendations offered here are more prophylactic in nature.

The first step is adequate training of academic supervisors in their legal rights and responsibilities. Then department chairs and deans should be trained on how to manage professionals (allowing for autonomy, while promoting collaboration and cooperation). The next step is vital: to address disagreements before they have a chance to escalate into conflicts. Supervisors can leverage options like mediation, restorative justice programs, and other alternative dispute resolution mechanisms with faculty in disputes.

The earlier an issue is addressed, the more normal and necessary the procedures for conflict resolution will become in the faculty members’ minds. Supervisors must not allow bullying among faculty. If one person finds ways to make everyone uncomfortable or upset, it is absolutely imperative to address that behavior, even though it may mean having some difficult conversations. If the faculty member is permitting or encouraging students to enact abusive, bullying, or discriminatory behavior, those students and the faculty member should be put through the appropriate disciplinary processes immediately.

One conversation worth having within a department or unit is to discuss how each individual wants to deal with conflict and/or constructive feedback. Indeed, department chairs can and should have these conversations regularly with each faculty member in the department. Academics receive criticism and negative feedback constantly, but that does not mean they take it well, especially at first. In fact, most academics I’ve spoken with have found it necessary to create buffers around receiving what they perceive as negative feedback, because their first response is commonly defensive or just to feel hurt. Is this the case for you as well? Despite our socialization into peer review and critique, many academics still take criticisms personally, especially when they relate to individual behavior as opposed to writing or an area of scholarly expertise.

Practicing offering constructive feedback in the way each department member has requested will also help the group members to gain self-awareness about their preferences both giving and receiving feedback. Likely the most important thing one can do to dismantle a culture of conflict-aversion is to model for colleagues and students an openness towards soliciting and implementing constructive feedback and an authentic desire to adapt one’s behavior to improve the overall climate for historically marginalized members of our campus communities. If a dispute then spirals out of control, or escalates into grievances or lawsuits, at the very least the supervisor and departmental colleagues will know she had done everything she could to find a solution.

To summarize, institutions can better serve their educational mission by expecting from faculty the same willingness to implement constructive feedback when it comes to their interpersonal behaviors as in their scholarly work and that they expect from their students. Frequent check-ins, frank discussions, and/or progressive discipline should be implemented whenever faculty do not meet expectations for appropriate conduct.

Tell me, how do you process criticism or feedback? Does it differ whether it’s academic or personal? Do you read it through and immediately address it? Do you read it, leave it, and come back later with a fresh perspective? Do you wrestle with each comment in your head or do you try to understand the value of the overall points first? Do you talk it over with a trusted friend or colleague before responding or implementing?

How do you wish your supervisor gave you feedback?

[1] For a complete history of how American universities were built and maintained over the centuries through the continual systematic exploitation and abuse of enslaved Black people, see Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (Bloomsbury Publishing USA Sep. 2013).

[2]  Barbara A. Lee & Kathleen A. Rinehart, Dealing with Troublesome College Faculty and Staff: Legal and Policy Issues, 37 J.C. & U.L. 359, 390 (2010–2011).

[3] See, J. Royce Fichtner & Lou Ann Simpson, Trimming the Deadwood: Removing Tenured Faculty for Cause, 41 J.C. & U.L. 25, *25-26 (2015).

[4] See, Fichtner & Simpson; Lee & Rinehart; David M Rabban, The Regrettable Underenforcement of Incompetence as Cause To Dismiss Tenured Faculty, 91 Ind. L.J. 20 (2015); Timothy B. Lovain, Grounds for Dismissing Tenured Postsecondary Faculty for Cause, 10 J.C. & U.L. [i] (1983–1984).

Published by NoraDev8

I'm a learner, writer, educator.

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