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Why Constructive Conflict Resolution Matters to Staff and Administrators

As individuals who work on campus know, colleges and universities are complex organizations. Theorists have struggled to adequately describe their essential features, characterizing them as complex bureaucracies; as collegial communities of scholars; as political environments made up of competing interest groups; and as "organized anarchies." Recognizing this complexity, administrators must use all the tools at their disposal to function effectively within them.

Mediation is Good for Administrators

From the point of view of an administrator, mediation and other forms of constructive conflict resolution may be useful for a broad variety of reasons. For one thing, internal, low-level resolution of disputes is clearly preferred to more costly options such as internal upheaval, bad publicity, or litigation. And litigation is a real concern these days. The number and cost of lawsuits involving colleges appears to have increased, as evidenced by a rise average legal defense costs for private colleges and universities nationwide some 250% in the five years between 1992-97.

Well-coordinated systems for resolving issues internally may be desirable on both philosophical and practical grounds. On the philosophical level, a stated goal of resolving conflicts in-house may express the institution's belief in its duty to protect the rights of its members from unfair institutional or individual policies and practices. On a practical level, adding mediation and other informal channels for conflict management may better serve the desires of campus constituents (Rowe, 1990 and 1997). The internal adjudication forums found in most grievance procedures, when combined with mediation options, can provide a fair and flexible the means of resolving conflicts within the institution, making successful resolution more likely.

The legal environment for mediation and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) seems to be improving as well. Federal and state law increasingly supports ADR, creating a better legal environment for the growth of programs. For instance, the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1991 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 endorse ADR to resolve discrimination and equal access disputes. The Administrative Dispute Resolution Act of 1990 strongly suggests enabling settlements at the lowest level.

Similarly, in May of 1998, President Clinton issued an executive order requiring all Federal agencies to take steps to promote greater use of mediation, arbitration, early neutral, agency ombuds, and other alternative dispute resolution techniques, and promote greater use of negotiated rulemaking. Within the legal profession, a recent American Bar Association poll (Reuben, 1996) of a representative sample of lawyers revealed that 51% of those polled favored mediation over litigation, while only 31% preferred litigation. Recently ombuds practitioners have begun pioneering work on establishing confidentiality shield laws for campus ombuds that if successful will most certainly benefit mediation program efforts as well.

During times of decreasing enrollments or increased competition for college-bound students, concern among campus decision-makers about retention of students also often increases. Less than 15 percent of all student departures result from academic dismissal (Tinto, 1987). Instead most students leave college voluntarily due to a variety of concerns that include conflict or feelings of isolation. Nationwide, only about 50% of all doctoral students will complete their graduate programs. Conflicts with faculty are cited as one of the two most important reasons that they leave their graduate programs (Nerad and Miller, 1996). Mediation provides an additional tool for preventing students from leaving due to unresolved or painful conflict experiences by facilitating the airing of concerns that need to be resolved. Folger and Shubert (1985) found in their study of student grievance mechanisms on 20 colleges and universities that mediators addressed a much wider range of student issues than did other dispute resolvers, helping to get at disputes that might otherwise fuel attrition.

Mediation is Good for Staff

Mediation can serve those who staff a college's offices and support programs in two ways. First, it can provide additional resources for handling conflicts that are brought to them -- whether those conflicts involve students, community members, or supervisees. Second, it provides resources for resolving conflicts in which they are themselves involved. Some of the particular benefits of mediation for staff vary based on the particular role the staff member plays on campus, as noted below.

Residence Hall staff, when supported by their supervisors to do so, often appreciate the option to refer appropriate cases to mediation. It can free up their time for working on educational programs and other tasks and educate students about the availability and value of non-hierarchical, self-directed conflict resolution.

Student counselors, or employee assistance program staff often hear about interpersonal conflicts where they cannot intervene due to their lack of access to the second party. While both parties to the dispute may be needed to solve the problem, because of the confidential nature of their work and the limits of their mission, they may have no mechanism for creating a neutral forum. The availability of mediation services can remedy this concern.

Campus police and security personnel often appreciate being able to refer recurring conflicts to mediation, rather than waiting for them to escalate to the point where it has become serious enough to warrant an arrest. This is often true with respect to noise complaints.

Staff members in conflict with other staff members may not feel comfortable taking their disputes to someone in the same supervisory chain, or may be reluctant to let these others know about all the problems involved in the dispute. Reasons for reluctance include uncertainty as the neutrality of the supervisor, concerns about confidentiality and the impact revealing oneself may have on future actions of the supervisor, power and authority imbalances, and the perceived skills and temperament of the supervisor. Mediation is often seen as a welcome confidential and informal means for resolving disputes.

There are also staff conflicts that, without mediation as an alternative, have no place to go on most campuses. A typical example is a supervisor hearing second-hand that an employee is talking negatively about the supervisor or the office. Loyalty is not an explicit part of most job descriptions and personnel and grievance structures are not organized to handle such problems until the supervisor finds a way to get back at the employee--usually through performance review reports--and the employee files a grievance. Mediation is well suited to handle such conflict anomalies prior to their escalation.

Mediation can be used in a variety of ways to handle a wide range of individual and social problems and needs. Its actual application varies tremendous from one campus to the next, based in part on the organizational culture and the type of campus populations involved.

Perhaps the best gift mediation has to offer educators is a model for promoting individuals' capacities and responsibilities for making decisions about their lives; for building a sense of community; for fostering mutual respect and cooperation; and for developing the use of fairness rather than power as a basis for resolving disputes. These are skills everyone needs in addressing the complexity of our individual and collective lives.