Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Assessing Collegiality in the Workplace: Holy Grail or Red Herring?

Universities can be notoriously un-collegial places to work. This is especially true for women in academe. Today's post examines discussions and initiatives about collegiality in educational settings and reflects my December 2013 Women's Caucus column for the NAEA (National Art Education Association) NAEA NewsThe image below expresses my own thoughts about women's work in the ivory stable; the detail is a little pun for my art ed friends. 
Milking the Red Herring. (2013)
From Peasant Woman Milking a Cow. (13th century England)

Detail: The Holy Pail

The term collegial is derived from the root word college, and from the Latin word collega, meaning “colleague”Rightly so, an expressed desire for respectful, supportive, engaged colleagues permeates schools' and universities' mission statements and evaluation policies. By all accounts, collegiality amongst faculty members is seen as essential for the productivity and well-being of an educational institution and the people who work there. But the fact is, toxic co-workers and incivility pollute academic departments across the US. Noncollegial co-workers bully their fellow faculty members and students, gossip, complain incessantly, resort to threats and personal attacks to get their way, refuse to share equitably in menial departmental tasks, and execute a host of other destructive behaviors in pursuit of their own needs. Universities are legally empowered (and some would argue morally obliged) to evaluate and hold faculty members accountable for their collegiality (or lack of). Apparently, the jerk-problem in academia has gotten so bad that there is currently an initiative afoot (and for sale) to assess an individual faculty member's collegiality in university settings as a criterion for promotion.

The goals of promoting collegiality and holding faculty members accountable for their behaviors toward one another are both laudable and much needed. But many challenge the idea that collegiality can be objectively assessed via standardized matrices and direct attention instead to ways that institutions militate against collegiality. It is important to note that in choosing this profession aspiring scholars/educators have envisioned as the core of university life the rigorous pursuit and advancement of knowledge in a creative, intellectually challenging environment. They aspire to make a difference in the world. What disillusioned academics have found instead are grueling workloads, job insecurity, inadequate compensation, a capricious and opaque system of institutional rewards and punishments, a worksite mired in conflict, and administrative bloat and ineptness. The problems resulting from entrenched institutional policies and practices that at best can be described as deeply flawed are now compounded by strained resourcesdiminishing public support, and a relatively new competing paradigm that positions the enterprise of public education as a business venture rather than a common public asset. Budget cuts, institutional red tape, inequitable work loads, demands to publish, and mind-numbing committee work are now commonly shared sources of stress for faculty members across types of institutions. Intensified public attacks on the work university faculty is an additional stressor. In such an environment, collegiality, which is fundamentally about how faculty members treat one another, is significantly compromised. 

Bad faculty behaviors in academic institutions are exacerbated by the fact that the lynchpin for attempts to maintain a civil, collegial atmosphere in the university worksite is the departmental chair, someone who is oft times a former faculty member who is given tremendous responsibility and power but who possesses minimal administrative skills, receives very little training for the job, and holds limited power within the larger institution. Worst, yet, in dealing with departmental faculty bullies and even exhibiting bullying behaviors themselves, mid-level administrators may in fact be part of the problem, not part of the solution. University Human Resources departments (often stated in university policies and procedures manuals as the best place for faculty members to report bullying and seek redress) may also be perceived by faculty members as ineffective and more interested in protecting the institution than the well-being of victims of bullying. 

Conducting an evaluation of individuals' social interactions in absence of full consideration of the institutional and administrative policies, procedures, and contexts in which the performance of their responsibilities occurs is inherently hypocritical, conceptually unsound, and bad social science. Usage of standardized collegiality metrics for promotion or merit considerations further erodes one of the purported strengths of the academy: academic freedom, discourse, and dissent.

Understanding and promoting collegiality in the Ivory Tower is an important but complex matter. Assessments of collegiality pose particular issues of concern to female educators. Any institutional evaluation of a female faculty member's collegiality must include consideration of workplace-embedded gender inequitiesgender stereotypeswomen's professional communication styles,  and the institutional contexts in which women conduct their business. The facts clearly warrant such consideration: women educators earn less across academic disciplines and at every level of teaching, they hold lower ranks and fewer positions of power within their educational institutions, they are bullied more and supported less than their male counterparts, they endure longstanding institutional policies that are inherently anti-family, and gender stereotypes, discrimination and evaluation bias continue to impede women's advancement in the workplace. 

In conclusion, attempts at capturing collegiality on a standardized matrix designed for efficient assessment of an individual's performance of their responsibilities and then using that measurement in faculty evaluations is an ill fated endeavor with little promise of improving the working conditions of female faculty members. As a largely female-dominated profession art educators need to conduct and disseminate research that focuses on how female educators’ experiences within varied institutional contexts, pre-k through post-secondary, impact their productivity and performance. The most relevant studies from the discipline of art education addressing this concern are either a quarter century old (Rush, 1989) or they just don't dig into workplace inequities impacting female academics (Milbrandt & Klein, 2010).  Most of all we need to understand how our own workplace conditions shape our social interactions and both facilitate and impede our success.

Endnote: The Holy Grail - Red-Herring title for this post captures my thoughts about attempts to assess collegiality in terms of any faculty member's behaviors, male or female. 


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  1. A provocative and incredibly well researched article, Dr. D. These problems are so pervasive and so real, and universities (and schools) so unwilling to act to control incivility and the widespread "jerk-problem." (After awhile, one begins to wonder how it is that universities attract these people, and provide such a haven for spoiled brat behavior). As you note, there may be institutional constraints that contribute to bad behavior. I am not sure that interpersonal nastiness is justified, however, by that fact. We are all fighting our own private battles . . .

    1. Thanks. The really odd thing is, the kinds of un-collegial behaviors we see all too often in colleges (college->collegiate->collegial) are not tolerated in the private sector/business environment. I agree with you, universities facilitate and even reward bad behavior. And those given the job of managing faculty in departments (mid-level administrators) are ill prepared to deal with bullies. I had always envisioned the university setting as a critically important place of creativity, community, collaboration, and intellectual advancement. I still hold that ideal dear to my heart.

  2. First of all...hello to you Dr. Delacruz...I love your site, very interesting article too... I'll be back to spend more time here for sure...(please pardon my tangent as it may be off in another direction but your article provoked it, particularly the idea that a lack of admin skills may be part of the "jerk" problem...

    In the Education College where I’ve worked the chair and many admins have advanced degrees in public administration and business. The result it seems is the business model gets applied ad nauseam leaving education theory in the dust with many educators in adjunct roles (me included) with nominal influence at the college. Because too many people see good administration as strictly a bottom-line issue the human element becomes a part of the machinery (the over-head) and then some jerk tells you can’t work any more than 12 hours a week or “we have to give you benefits.” All too often it takes a jerk to make a business or college profitable, and my experience has shown that there are a lot of jerks in the private sector/business ( jerk behavior is tolerated if it makes money). So, could it be that it’s the profit motive that’s really at the root of this jerk-problem?