Creating Faculty Collegiality: Strategies for Department Chairs

Incivility in higher education has flourished in recent years, fueled by a convergence of factors ranging from the infiltration of a more corporate culture and a system that rewards individual accomplishments above collaboration to decreased state funding coupled with increased workloads and expectations. For department chairs, leading teams of educators during such a difficult time can be wrought with unexpected challenges and frustrations.

Indeed, department chairs often cite “conflict” as a top reason for stepping down from the position. Even one toxic, uncivil, non-collegial person can destroy a once-great department, says Robert Cipriano, professor and chair of the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Southern Connecticut State University. Cipriano has conducted research and written extensively on the topic of collegiality and found that collegiality ranks fourth, behind teaching, scholarship and service, as the most critical factors affecting personnel decisions and tenure.

Collegiality as a University-wide Policy

In an Oct. 2008 online seminar titled Faculty Collegiality: A Tourniquet for a Hemorrhaging Department, Cipriano talked about the fact that, despite its significance, very few higher education institutions specify collegiality as a criterion for personnel matters. This is a mistake.

In order for universities to foster a collegial environment they need to formally develop and adopt university-wide policies that promote civility, Cipriano says. He also urges institutions to offer workshops to all faculty members on the topic, encourage faculty to hold each other accountable for professional standards of behavior, and establish collegiality a criteria for tenure.

In addition to the university-wide mission statement, Cipriano recommends that each department chair develops a mission statement for the department that includes guidelines for collegiality. This statement builds consensus about future direction and priorities of the department and offers blueprint for decision-making. Finally, for a department to operate in a civil, respectful manner, the chair must set the tone and provide proactive leadership in collegiality.

Signs of Incivility in Academic Departments

If this seems to be placing too much emphasis on something as simple as “playing nice,” consider the following. According to Cipriano, misunderstood, disrespected, and disenfranchised faculty and administrators leave universities, most often citing conflict and miscommunication. Lack of civility also leads to disengagement. Productive faculty who experience a negative, often traumatic incident in their department or college simply disengage from collegial discussions, campus and department service, department socials, and faculty mentoring.

14 Warning Signs of Incivility:

  1. Low morale
  2. High turnover
  3. Increased early retirement
  4. Increased absenteeism & tardiness
  5. Diminished work quality of once-productive people
  6. New faculty struggling to survive
  7. Increased illness & health issues
  8. Working from home more than usual
  9. Lower or poorer work quality
  10. Increasing faculty isolation and alienation
  11. Low degree of meaningful faculty participation in governance activities
  12. Poor faculty performance patterns
  13. Low research productivity & poor teaching evaluations
  14. Consistency of poorer faculty evaluations