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Why Mediation and Conflict Resolution Services Matter for Faculty

Higher education researcher William Tierney (Tierney, 1988a) reiterates the importance of understanding and attending to the different organizational cultures found in higher educational settings. As Tierney reports, when film star Spencer Tracy was asked for his advice on acting, he remarked, "Just know your lines and don't bump into the furniture." Tierney elaborates, suggesting that,

"On the stage of organizational culture, such advice is wholly inadequate. Participants within collegiate cultures have few if any written scripts prepared by an author to go by. And as for the furniture, the most visible props--role and governance arrangements--are not the ones we tend to bump into. Rather, we most often trip over perceptions and attitudes, the intangibles that escape our attention even as they make up the fabric of daily organizational life." (p. 2)

As Tierney suggests, getting to know one's own campus, and the norms and values of the people working in different domains is important to prevent lots of awkwardness and miscommunication. In addition to the importance of cultural factors in understanding and resolving disputes, paying attention to perspectives of different campus constituencies can be key to the success of campus mediation program development efforts.

In addition general arguments in favor of mediation, there are a number of rationales that can be related directly to the concerns and perspectives of particular campus constituencies. This page suggests some of the reasons why faculty may want to support and use mediation and other related conflict resolution mechanisms rather than relying on avoidance or more contentious and adversarial approaches.

Faculty Autonomy and Productivity

Faculty members are central actors in any university system, and most faculty endorse a collegial rather than bureaucratic model of interaction and decision-making. However, the doctoral training of faculty may not have prepared them, or their most significant colleagues, to handle conflicts collaboratively.

Often dissertation research and writing, key developmental experiences for faculty, are very isolated experiences, where skills for working with others are not essential. Also, as Leal (1995) points out, during graduate school training,

"A part of the ritual--continued in greater intensity throughout an academic career for many--is the ability to withstand the criticism of colleagues in open discussion, usually at professional presentations, as well as the ability to confront colleagues regarding the shortcomings of their research. In many instances this makes for the development of individuals who welcome confrontation and collegial conflict. This developmental experience leads to incongruity for faculty members, who must operate in a collegial environment." (p. 20)

Processes such as mediation and group facilitation services can help increase faculty members effectiveness as participants in a collegial, consensus-building environment. Training in these skill areas can also increase faculty options when faced with challenging situations.

The existing style of university governance and administration can influence the facultyís experiences with conflict as well. Walter Gmelch from the Center for the Study of the Academic Chair notes that

"In anarchical institutions of higher education, where faculty have a great deal of autonomy, the potential for interpersonal conflict increases since roles and expectations become less clear and more difficult to monitor and supervise. On the flip side, this autonomy also reduces faculty's potential intrapersonal conflict. The key is to capture the energy from autonomy and synergistically transform it into productive ideas for the department." (Gmelch, 1995 p.38)

When budgets shrink (perhaps due to cuts or inflation) and expectations expand many universities choose to move to a more bureaucratic and tightly-coupled approach to management. During periods of such as these, administrators often tend to use more centralized decision making tactics.

According to higher education theorists (Zammuto & Cameron, 1985), they use more and more administrative discretion and apply less consultative processes. Some possible negative behavioral effects of these kinds of conditions are as follows:

  1. Latent conflicts already existing are exacerbated by decreasing resources,
  2. Conflicts become more frequent and intense due to various interests not being met,
  3. The role of the political strength of various constituents as a factor in resource allocations increases,
  4. The organizational climate is effected,
  5. Organizational cohesion is reduced, and
  6. There is a decline in commitment to the organization.

This tendency toward centralization and increased bureaucratization of decision-making also irritates or angers faculty members who still feel that they are professionals and thus should be relatively free from the impacts of discretionary decisions made by administrators without their input.

Higher education researcher Kim Cameron (1983) argues that administrators tend to focus on efficiency at the expense of effectiveness when facing decline and to respond conservatively rather than innovatively. Cameron gives some reasons why he thinks administrators may react rigidly. He explains that the stress of facing decline compels administrators toward engaging in anxiety reducing behaviors at the expense of problem solving behaviors, reducing the risk of mistakes by becoming more conservative, restricting the communication network, reducing the number of participants in decision-making, enforcing rules more closely, rejecting disconfirming or contradictory information more readily, and perceiving tasks to be more difficult. They also may cling more to sources of political support, whether or not these sources promote good decisions.

These tactics can't help but create new sources of stress and tension in the campus community, and may actually reduce decision-making quality and increase conflict, while blocking the development of ADR approaches.

If the university system is tightening up it's coupling, resulting in increased levels of hierarchy and supervision of faculty, mediation makes sense particularly for conflicts between faculty and administrators. On the other hand, if the organization is loosely coupled, and the autonomy of faculty is rather great, mediation can perhaps be most valuable for disputes between faculty members, or faculty members and university staff.

In any case, mediation services for disputes involving faculty can be appealing to faculty for a variety of reasons.

  1. When conflict between faculty members are resolved appropriately, the need to involve administrators in faculty conflicts is greatly minimized, maintaining higher levels of autonomy.

  2. Many faculty departments rotate the role of chair among their more senior members. Chairs report that dealing with interpersonal conflict among the faculty is second only to bureaucratic red tape and paperwork as the major source of dissatisfaction with their jobs (Gmelch, Carroll, Seedorf, and Wentz 1990). The availability of designated faculty mediators can reduce this strain on faculty chairs, and prevent them from having to make decisions that may haunt them when they return to the faculty and must deal with the "losers" in other contexts.

  3. Faculty engaged in joint research or writing projects or team-teaching efforts can be more productive when conflicts that arise are managed directly and in ways that preserve the possibility of future working relationships.

  4. The relationship between faculty and their student assistants (graduate and undergraduate) can be complex and fraught with potential conflict and misunderstandings. Mediation can provide a private, informal way to address problems that might otherwise escalate to more formal campus grievance systems or lead to withdrawal or delayed graduation of students and/or damage to faculty reputation.

  5. Faculty members often have limited access to various kinds of valued staff support. If these relations go sour due to unresolved conflict, it can have negative impacts on the kind and quality of support that is forthcoming.

Mediation and other collaborative processes can be very useful for faculty, providing a counter-balance to departmental cultural forces supporting high levels of criticism and the development of unnecessarily "thick skin." These processes can also provide ways for faculty to maintain valued autonomy and collegial decision-making norms within their spheres of influence.

References

  • Cameron, Kim. "Strategic Responses to Conditions of Decline." Journal of Higher Education 54, no. 4 (1983): 359-80.
  • Gmelch, Walter H. "Department Chairs Under Siege: Resolving the Web of Conflict." In Conflict Management in Higher Education, edited by Susan Holton, 35-42. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1995.
  • Gmelch, W. H., J. B. Carroll, R. Seedorf, and D. Wentz. Center for the Study of the Department Chair: 1990 Survey. Pullman: Washington State University, 1990.
  • Leal, Raymond. "From Collegiality to Confrontation: Faculty-to-Faculty Conflicts." In Conflict Management in Higher Education, edited by Susan Holton, 19-25. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1995.
  • Tierney, William G. "Organizational Culture in Higher Education: Defining the Essentials." Journal of Higher Education 59, no. 1 (1988): 2-21.
  • Zammuto, Raymond, and Kim Cameron. "Environmental Decline and Organizational Response." Research in Organizational Behavior 7 (1985): 223-62.