The problem of collegiality
Fostering dissent, diversity and academic freedom.
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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