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Volume 3, Number 1, Oct 2002

Mediation: An Effective Way to Restore Collegiality and Shared Governance in Dysfunctional University Departments

by Jetta Todaro, M.A.; Cheryl Brattlie, M.A.; and Joseph H. Stafford, Ph.D.


Conflict happens everywhere; however, in a higher education setting, there are factors such as academic freedom, tenure, and a peculiar governance structure that may under various circumstances open up creative possibilities to a mediator.

Traditionally, university faculty have focused on teaching and research, but now institutions of higher education are placing more serious emphasis on the notion of service or "community" service which often includes collaboration between or among departments or with other universities and agencies. While the traditional responsibilities of teaching and research may be oriented to smaller groups and can be more solitary in nature, current trends indicate a growing need for faculty members to communicate more effectively within and between groups, and to find ways to become more efficient. Departments may add members, increase their diversity, separate or consolidate or reorganize, and as responsibilities become more complex, resources typically become more limited, and perceptions by educators that they are not respected by others continues to grow. An alternative departments have when faced with these challenges is to become dysfunctional (or more dysfunctional) by denying, avoiding, or somehow accommodating conflict --- the latter typically accomplished by "negative" means.

The traditional organizational structure and administration and management of a college or university can, by its nature, create dysfunction. Dysfunction in any group can lead to problemsolving methods that create even more dysfunction and acrimony. As mediators, the authors have witnessed all the favorite ways of dealing with conflict and a few less conventional: avoidance; denial; increased sense of competition (aggressiveness); marginalizing or isolation of members of the group; unsatisfactory compromise or accommodation; legal action (or threats of legal action); and yes, reported violence, perceived violence, or threats of violence.

While some colleges and universities still prefer to eschew contentious environments, others are addressing the increasingly competitive and complex campus workplace by providing professional growth and development opportunities. These efforts include providing organizational, management, presentation, communication, leadership, or consulting skills for new and experienced faculty, or for graduate students who aspire to become educators. Still others choose to confront certain ongoing conflicts directly, providing the means by which faculty, and sometimes staff, can address serious conflicts in a more productive, lasting manner, while providing the means by which the group can establish working guidelines and ground rules for future interactions.

Academic interests

What are the interests of universities in the development of problemsolving models, and what are the interests of faculties (faculty members) in learning how to collaborate and problem solve in different ways?

In a modern, complex, higher education environment, faculty members often want more information about routine, departmental business; input into decision making regarding the administration and management of the department; input into budget processes and staffing decisions - both faculty and administrative; action on quality of life issues (space, teaching assignments); as well as information on how departmental changes might influence who has power, who doesn't, who gets resources, i.e., money and recognition.

Mediators may be called upon to assist faculties in discussing difficulties in separating "academic freedom issues" from "administrative governance" or management issues. Academic freedom can be seen as an excuse for taking a certain action. What are the issues related to: academic freedom for individuals vs. the collective interests of the academy; or conflict between group rights and responsibilities and individual rights and responsibilities? The Academy has held as a strong core value that an individual faculty member has certain rights to express opinions and controversial views. Sometimes the protection of individual rights and associate responsibilities to pursue the truth as opposed to what may be good for the organization as a whole must be explored.

Mediation as an intervention in this setting calls for mediators to assist a potential client in deciding if and how to use this kind of interest-based problem solving by an impartial third party to address departmental/faculty disputes. There will be questions about: using an external impartial third party as opposed to an internal party who "knows us;" whether this is counseling or therapy instead of direct problem solving; what this interest-based vocabulary means; the difference between positions and interests (often a new concept); and questions on where the money for the intervention is going to come from.


Of the "roadblocks" encountered, five stand out because they have, in this mediator's experience, occurred more often in higher education settings than in other settings. Anticipating them empowers the mediator and the process.


Reluctance, strong verbal resistance, (and several times downright obstreperousness) toward participating in the problem solving sessions. Faculty members will express disagreement with a process in which they will be sitting across the table from someone with whom they have a strong difference of opinion. It may come in an initial refusal to meet, or it could be stated in the meetings that the process is a waste of valuable time.


Lack of understanding or a resistance to the concept of what confidentiality means in a group mediation. WHO can speak TO WHOM about WHAT and at WHAT POINT become valid interests. This discussion can also be a way to stall the meeting process.


Participants will try to control the environment of the sessions to the degree that they feel out of control of the process. There may be attempts both prior to and during the meetings to change the geographical location of the meeting(s), table arrangement, the seating of groups of faculty or staff, groupings of people within information gathering or brainstorming activities, or time of the sessions or breaks.


There may be attempts to disrupt the trust the mediator needs to establish between him/herself and the participants. "Ex parte" conversations or communications prior to, during and following sessions, either in person or through e-mail, can occur. These attempts can subvert the mediator's efforts to be impartial and can make it necessary to address why some people have certain information and not others.


Mediator credibility is sometimes challenged in order to stall or caste doubt on the process. This can occur because of a lack of information about the experience and background of a professional mediator, or because lack of understanding of the interest-based problem solving conducted by an "outsider."

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Page last updated 11/27/2005

A project of Campus Conflict Resolution Resources.
Supported by a FIPSE grant from the US Department of Education
and seed money from the Hewlett Foundation-funded CRInfo project.

Correspondence to CMHE Report
(Attn: Bill Warters)
Campus Conflict Resolution Resources Project
Department of Communication
585 Manoogian Hall
Wayne State University
Detroit, MI 48201.

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