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The problem of collegiality

Fostering dissent, diversity and academic freedom.

by Timothy J. Haney

collegiality_210

In what might be seen as a controversial argument, I believe that universities should cease discussing collegiality as a sought-after trait.

Many Canadian universities currently task themselves with deciding who among their colleagues is collegial and who is not. In fact, evaluative documents generated by university departments and faculties frequently mention collegiality, either as an assessment criterion or as a collective goal. For example, when assessing junior faculty for tenure and promotion, York University’s department of social science rates such candidates as “excellent” if they demonstrate “fairness, effectiveness, judgment, collegiality, respectfulness and other attributes of strong collegial spirit.” In another example, the Brock University Faculty Association demands in their collective agreement that faculty “shall deal fairly, ethically and respectfully with their colleagues.”

So, what’s wrong with collegiality?

First, the evaluation of our colleagues should be based entirely on job performance. Collegiality, however, has little to do with job performance. Can a colleague be curt, touchy or argumentative and still be an excellent teacher or researcher? Absolutely. Can one fulfill service obligations effectively without being particularly friendly? Of course. Therefore, collegiality (as many envision it) tells us nothing about the actual quality of one’s job performance.

Second, there is confusion over how to define collegiality.  According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers, “Collegiality does not mean congeniality or civility.” Yet, the CAUT statement makes little progress in defining what collegiality actually is, instead relying on a statement about what it does not include. Preferring instead a bland description involving faculty members taking on “their share of the service workload,” the statement leaves substantial ambiguity. Though collegiality can involve concrete actions, such as agreeing to guest-lecture in a colleague's class while she’s away at a conference, nonetheless it is often understood as one’s interactional style, word choice, or how well someone schmoozes at a wine-and-cheese reception. All of these characteristics are quite disconnected from one’s actual job performance.

Another obvious problem with collegiality is its potential to silence dissent and generate uniformity. There is an inherent tension between collegiality and academic freedom. CAUT maintains a statement on academic freedom, which makes it very clear that faculty members should not be sanctioned in any way because of what they say. Yet, collegiality revolves around what we say to one another. Because academic freedom includes the “freedom to express one’s opinion about the institution, its administration and the system in which one works,” it is fundamentally at odds with notions of collegiality.

Academic freedom is meant to promote discussion and disagreement, because both occur for the betterment of the institution and of society. However, when universities evaluate collegiality, they run the risk of evaluating a dissenting individual – who exercises her or his right of academic freedom – as somehow “uncollegial.” A collegial environment may indeed be one where all colleagues interact positively with one another in a mutually supportive environment. Or, just as commonly, a collegial environment may be one where many of the faculty members are intimidated and silenced.

Finally, collegiality may have the unintended (or perhaps intended) consequence of erasing the very diversity that Canadian universities say they wish to foster. Previous research (including my own) finds that faculty members from working-class and poverty-class backgrounds are more direct in their speech, less nuanced, less afraid to challenge authority and more confrontational. If collegiality is under-stood as a middle-class notion of congeniality, as an aggregation of hallway comments, positions on issues in meetings, and other interpersonal interactions, then those who are labeled as uncollegial may disproportionately come from backgrounds marked by modest socioeconomic means, thereby eliminating one form of diversity.

Because of confusion over the meaning of collegiality, Canadian universities should eliminate use of the word. Even where it is not used in hiring decisions or evaluating candidates for promotion, the assumption remains that departments, faculties and universities should work harder to become collegial places. Such a notion ignores the problematic aspects of collegiality. Instead, universities should actively encourage critique, dissent and disagreement – several of the qualities that are often viewed as uncollegial.

Timothy J. Haney is an assistant professor of sociology at Mount Royal University.

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Comments on this Article

Thanks to everyone for their comments. The intent of the article was to generate a discussion about this slippery concept, and I'm glad to see that it has done so. University Affairs had to cut some of the length, and I think some of the nuance of the argument was lost. That said, the point was that when we evaluate collegiality, we run the risk of silencing dissent. (Dissenters are often afraid that sticking firm to a minority position will be read by colleagues as divisive or uncollegial). That's ultimately what I'm worried about. Similarly, the comments posted to the article miss the point (I believe), which is supported in the literature, that there are particular groups of people in the academy (non-white folks, working-class folks, women, and so forth) who do not interact or debate in the same way as the white, middle-class culture of the academy would expect them to (again, there's a literature suggesting that academics argue in a way that's stripped of emotion, deferent to authority, and that's obfuscatory, rather than concrete). So, when we call colleagues uncollegial, I worry that it may be those who already belong to marginalized groups who disproportionately assume this label.

Thanks to Dr. Petrina for his insightful comments, particularly his mention of "respect" and "civility" which are also problematic concepts. I was not aware of Workplace, but have now checked it out (and read a couple of the articles), and will consider submitting there in the future.

Thanks to all for a lively debate.

Posted by T. Haney, Jul 19, 2012 2:53 PM

Dr. Haney (Timothy) raises a concern that more and more intellectuals share for various reasons, including those that he briefly outlines. His direction to universities is well placed (e.g., “universities should cease discussing… universities should eliminate use of the word” collegiality for personnel decisions). Over the past two decades, universities, as employers, have increasingly introduced policies that govern workplace language and mannerisms under somewhat innocuous signifiers such as “collegiality,” “civility,” and “respect.” Quite alarmingly, we here the mantra, which Dr. Price (Stephen) repeats on queue: “It's not about what you say, it's about how you say it.” This and the comments that follow here, with Dr. Servage (Laura) and Dr. Booth (Annie), are helpful in a fashion of debate. I want to thank Timothy for echoing this concern and direct interested readers to an extensive analysis of trends in collegiality, civility, and respect and their history, which is now preprinted in Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor http://ojs.library.ubc.ca/index.php/workplace/article/view/182503. I invite Annie, Laura, Stephen, Timothy and other readers of University Affairs to submit an article or response to the journal. Thank you.

Posted by Stephen Petrina, Jul 3, 2012 1:34 PM

I too must disagree. I have had colleagues who actually shout insults at another in public spaces, who have derailed meetings with temper tantrums (of the literal pound your fists, stamp your feet and scream variety), and so on. While no one wants to shut down honest debate and the ability to disagree, at some point some basics of decency have to prevail in how we treat each other, and does not always, sadly.

Posted by Annie Booth, Jun 15, 2012 1:05 PM

I have to agree with Stephen that separating collegiality from performance is problematic.
I really question the idea that the quality of one's own work and academic freedom ought to be privileged criteria in the mix because this perpetuates a "lone-wolf" mentality that is increasingly out of step with how good workplaces "work." For academics, as for other professionals, it's increasingly difficult to do good work alone; we need the support, goodwill and talents of our colleagues, support staff and graduate students.
Being productive and exercising academic freedom do not justify the toxic effects when a colleague is consistently rude, unkind, and/or selfish with his or her time, resources, critiques, or supports.
My folks used to just call this "being a good person" or "being a good friend."

Posted by Laura Servage, Jun 13, 2012 9:05 AM

It seems to me that Dr. Haney is missing the point and misconstruing collegiality for a kind of censorship by other means.

He states:

"There is an inherent tension between collegiality and academic freedom. CAUT maintains a statement on academic freedom, which makes it very clear that faculty members should not be sanctioned in any way because of what they say. Yet, collegiality revolves around what we say to one another."

I would argue that to understand collegiality correctly in a context of academic or governance debate, one needs to separate the message that one wishes to give from the manner in which one communicates it. It's not about what you say, it's about how you say it.

I've seen lack of collegiality bring productive discussion to a standstill and create caustic work environments. I've also seen a group of thoughtful people disagree intensely on an issue without being "curt and touchy" or uncollegial. That is not to say that disagreement and critique didn't happen, but those involved generally made an extra effort to listen to other dissenting views, present their countering arguments respectfully, and generally avoid the pitfalls of critique whose construction either through carelessness or deliberate malice is intended not only to inform the debate but also to ridicule or hurt the feelings of the colleagues with whom you are debating.

On the receiving side, there is also a collegial duty to provide space for critique and disagreement and to recognize and encourage helpful critique of your own views.

Perhaps it is this social contract's complexity and fluidity that makes it hard to define. That might make it something to avoid on performance reviews (the AAUP has a well-reasoned position on this: http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/policydocs/contents/collegiality.htm) but that shouldn't mean we abandon the word or the ideal.

Posted by Stephen Price, Jun 12, 2012 12:35 PM


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