Dealing with Problem Faculty in Seven Not-So-Easy Steps

Much attention has been given to the “difficult” or “disruptive” student, and rightly so. However, colleges and universities aren’t just institutions of learning, they’re workplaces as well. And like any workplace, there are colleagues who are a joy to work with, and there are colleagues who can poison an entire department.

You know the types. They’re the bullies, jerks, passive-aggressives, poor performers, prima donnas, gossips, saboteurs, etc. They can drain your enthusiasm and can cause serious morale issues.

It’s no wonder then that in a 2009 survey of nearly 3,000 academic chairs, the number one concern had nothing to do with funding, accreditation or strategic planning, it was “dealing with problem faculty.” The survey conducted by Dr. Kent Crookston of Brigham Young University revealed a universal challenge that many new chairs, often thrust into their new positions with little if any leadership training, aren’t prepared to address.

Based on his experience as a department head and dean, and through insight gained from literature on leadership, Crookston offered guidance for restoring civility in an online seminar titled Seven Steps for Dealing with Problem Faculty.

While noting that it’s not “seven easy steps,” Crookston shared his approach as follows:

  1. Evaluate yourself and your perceptions
  2. Listen
  3. Operate from mission and values
  4. Rely on policy
  5. Build trust with colleagues
  6. Clarify expectations and consequences
  7. Take appropriate action

“Problem behavior and civility have emerged as a focus area that has been too-long neglected,” says Crookston, who advocates a unit-wide approach. “Problem faculty can be terminated, and U.S. courts generally support schools that let people go for incivility even if they are otherwise performing well. But, unless there is a systemic change in the culture that produced the problem, their departure only creates a vacancy.”