ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

The Collegiality Trap

July 1, 2005 by ACTA

As debate continues in Indiana about whether untenured IU law professor William Bradford has anything to worry about from senior colleagues who vociferously oppose his pro-war politics, KC Johnson goes to the heart of the matter at Cliopatria. Johnson's point is that the question is not whether Bradford's colleagues will deem him collegial despite their ideological differences, but whether it is ever ethical to use "collegiality" as a criterion for tenure review. Drawing on a recent InsideHigherEd piece on collegiality by psychologist and tenure coach Mary McKinney, Johnson parses the problems with an assessment system that not only facilitates petty politicking and spineless conformism, but in so doing also undermines the exemplary independent-mindedness that lies at the heart of the academic ideal. The conventional wisdom is that the tenure system is needed to protect free inquiry, but as Johnson shows--and knows from experience--it can also be used to undermine it.

McKinney's piece, it should be noted, doesn't take a position one way or the other on whether collegiality should be used; rather, it's a "how-to guide" for untenured faculty working within an institution that uses the collegiality criterion, either formally or informally.

A lot of McKinney's rules (i.e.--don't whine, look for a mentor, be a good listener) are common sense. Others strike me as more off-putting: "the rules of collegiality are similar to the rules of dating"; "sometimes, make your concrete, focused compliments in front of a third party (such as right before a faculty meeting begins)"; "if there are 10 people at the meeting, make sure that you speak less than 10 percent of the time"; "avoid campus when you've got to write and reserve tasks that require less focus for your office."

McKinney sounds like she's quite good at what she does, and I have no doubt that someone who followed all 15 of her rules would be likely to get tenure. That said, McKinney's rules also offer insight on why the use of collegiality is such a dangerous criterion.

First, several of her rules amount to advice to suck up to figures in power and show deference, whether appropriate or not, to those in authority. Obviously, no one, junior or senior, should go out of their way to attack people. But the principle of academic freedom depends on the argument that faculty self-governance is the best way for the academy to function. Will someone who has spent six or seven years of his or her life as an untenured professor following McKinney's collegiality rules suddenly be likely, upon receiving tenure, to function as an autonomous unit within a self-governing structure? Or is it more likely that this professor, having received tenure by engaging in self-censorship, deference, and not challenging those in power, will continue to do so upon receiving tenure?

Second, McKinney's rules illustrate the subtle but pervasive bias against research inherent in the use of collegiality as a criterion. She advises untenured professors not to come to the office to do writing or scholarly-based activities, since senior colleagues like to stop by and chat. But for many untenured faculty, especially those with families, the office is a refuge from distractions and a good place to write. Moreover, as she herself concedes, we all know of people who have followed the "pro-collegiality" path to compensate for mediocre or worse research records. That's not exactly something the academy as a whole should encourage.

Collegiality has become a common enough criterion in tenure cases that in 1999 the American Association of University Professors published a statement about the dangers therein. Noting that "collegiality is not a distinct capacity to be assessed independently of the traditional triumvirate of scholarship, teaching, and service" but "is rather a quality whose value is expressed in the successful execution of these three functions," the AAUP warns against establishing collegiality as an independent category of professional assessment:

The current tendency to isolate collegiality as a distinct dimension of evaluation, however, poses several dangers. Historically, "collegiality" has not infrequently been associated with ensuring homogeneity, and hence with practices that exclude persons on the basis of their difference from a perceived norm. The invocation of "collegiality" may also threaten academic freedom. In the heat of important decisions regarding promotion or tenure, as well as other matters involving such traditional areas of faculty responsibility as curriculum or academic hiring, collegiality may be confused with the expectation that a faculty member display "enthusiasm" or "dedication," evince "a constructive attitude" that will "foster harmony," or display an excessive deference to administrative or faculty decisions where these may require reasoned discussion. Such expectations are flatly contrary to elementary principles of academic freedom, which protect a faculty member's right to dissent from the judgments of colleagues and administrators.

A distinct criterion of collegiality also holds the potential of chilling faculty debate and discussion. Criticism and opposition do not necessarily conflict with collegiality. Gadflies, critics of institutional practices or collegial norms, even the occasional malcontent, have all been known to play an invaluable and constructive role in the life of academic departments and institutions. They have sometimes proved collegial in the deepest and truest sense. Certainly a college or university replete with genial Babbitts is not the place to which society is likely to look for leadership. It is sometimes exceedingly difficult to distinguish the constructive engagement that characterizes true collegiality from an obstructiveness or truculence that inhibits collegiality. Yet the failure to do so may invite the suppression of dissent. The very real potential for a distinct criterion of "collegiality" to cast a pall of stale uniformity places it in direct tension with the value of faculty diversity in all its contemporary manifestations.

Some might say that the AAUP's statement is alarmist in its vision of a bland and brainless academy of Babbitts. But the fact that there are now people in the business of coaching junior faculty in the etiquette of tenure--and even to present that etiquette as a professional version of "The Rules"--suggests that the AAUP was right on the mark. Bradford may not have been denied a promotion at Indiana, but he is right to worry that the word "uncollegial" has been applied to him in a formal evaluative setting.In academe--to continue McKinney's dating metaphor--that label is the kiss of death.

But the malicious use of collegiality criteria can only happen effectively in the confidential setting of the formal review process. Now that Bradford's story is in the media, things are bound to play out differently. Bradford has been blunt: he told Indianapolis' WISH TV that "Florence Roisman's trying to allege that because I have viewpoints that are different from hers in terms of the war on terror - she thinks it's an aggressive war; I think it's a just war, to liberate the people there and help enhance our security. Because of that difference of opinion, I am a bad person. I am an uncollegial person. I need to be politically cleansed." And administrators have been correspondingly clear about their intention to give Bradford a "fair shake": "there will be a number of people looking at [Bradford's case] and a number of people beyond the law school that will be involved in the decision," a spokesperson told WISH TV.

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