As a political scientist, I have a natural weakness for drawing parallels between my field of study and my administrative responsibilities. But I have to be careful where I look for analogies, because over the past two years I’ve been teaching a course focused largely on the American presidency and U.S. executive-legislative relations, with an emphasis on the roiling and intractable conflicts around high expectations and severe challenges versus tarkly divided constituencies and interest groups. The dysfunction seems to have become as pervasive as it is irrational.
It was not always thus. For much of the last century, norms of courtesy and collegiality tended to keep a lid on seething rancour, and the “decline of comity” was a topic of much discussion even before Barack Obama gamely tried to address it in his re-inaugural address. The same sort of erosion of civility has been noticed and measured in academia, though not to the same degree. As I watched the U.S. president make his pleas, thinking upon my own formidable set of expectations, challenges and divisions in the university environment, it was hard not to worry that we academics might be headed to the same sort of sorry, disunited state we see in D.C.
There are some structural reasons to remain hopeful about the state of administrative discourse in our sector. Fundamentally, academic governance is founded on an ethos of collegiality rather than adversarial rivalry: our decision-making paradigm strives for reasoned consensus and shared responsibility rather than bare-knuckled competition. And structurally, we have no “opposition party” that is obliged by both temperament and functional role to try to foil (and replace) the “government” at every turn – well, no formally organized one, at least.
We also work in a scholarly culture that enshrines dissent as a vital and positive force in the advancement of understanding, rather than a form of betrayal or disloyalty. We welcome dissent, just as we welcome the sometimes harsh critique of peer review as a way to reinforce and evolve our positions, and even as a way to practise the essential skill of critical thinking.
And I think we maintain a strong sense of shared goals, which seems to have gone missing in politics. Obama finds himself presiding over groups of people so opposed that they use the same symbolic terms like “freedom” or “the American Dream” to refer to completely incompatible realities. Within the community of academics, we don’t just agree on abstract ideals, like the pursuit of knowledge, but also on high-level practical priorities, like our mission to help students succeed, the value of unrestrained inquiry and the need to support university research, teaching and learning as a social good. We may disagree on how to fund, structure and manage the staff and resources of the institution to meet those goals, but none of us denies their importance.
Some of these differences in governance are qualitative and some are just quantitative matters of degree. It would be naïve to claim that academic politics can never become petty or personalized. But at least we aspire to knowing better than that.
These are tough times for universities and they’ve been tough for an extended period. It’s hard to play a zero- or negative-sum game, harder still to do it with a smile when you keep coming up against the same faces. But this is why fostering and observing collegiality is so important.
Transparency is the key. Sometimes it can seem easier to make a difficult decision with limited scrutiny – certainly it can be less stressful at the time. But that only trades one problem for another. Most of us are willing to accept reasonable sacrifices for the greater good as long as that greater good is not hidden, and as long as it is clear that the decision about what to sacrifice was made fairly, rationally and according to defensible criteria. Arbitrary, capricious or – worse – biased decisions erode trust in decision-makers and evoke the kind of personal animus that undermines collegiality.
And yet, while avoiding personalization of disagreement is important in implementing and understanding tough decisions, it remains true that there is no substitute for the personal touch in preparing for them (and repairing the impact). Sometimes roles and titles get in the way of really understanding one another’s perspectives and concerns. You have to be willing to reach out, individual to individual. Not to exert undue influence but rather to make sure that you hear every word, and understand those that remain unspoken. Collegiality isn’t code for deference or compliance, or for backroom deal-making; it simply means deploying respect even when a decision cannot resolve a difference, if that’s what’s best for the institution as a whole.