Blogs > Cliopatria > IHE and Collegiality

Jun 30, 2005 11:04 am

IHE and Collegiality

As someone with a painful first-hand experience with the criterion, I oppose the use of collegiality in personnel matters. In theory, of course, it's better to have a department peopled with professors who work well together. But in practice, I don't see any way to structure a system that can ensure that the criterion won't be abused.

A couple of recent articles in Inside Higher Ed illustrate the point. The first, by Mary McKinney, a clinical psychologist who advises academics, proposes 15 pro-collegiality"rules" an untenured person should follow. McKinney's piece, it should be noted, doesn't take a position one way or the other on whether collegiality should be used; rather, it's a"how-to guide" for untenured faculty working within an institution that uses the collegiality criterion, either formally or informally.

A lot of McKinney's rules (i.e.--don't whine, look for a mentor, be a good listener) are common sense. Others strike me as more off-putting:"the rules of collegiality are similar to the rules of dating";"sometimes, make your concrete, focused compliments in front of a third party (such as right before a faculty meeting begins)";"if there are 10 people at the meeting, make sure that you speak less than 10 percent of the time";"avoid campus when you’ve got to write and reserve tasks that require less focus for your office."

McKinney sounds like she's quite good at what she does, and I have no doubt that someone who followed all 15 of her rules would be likely to get tenure. That said, McKinney's rules also offer insight on why the use of collegiality is such a dangerous criterion.

First, several of her rules amount to advice to suck up to figures in power and show deference, whether appropriate or not, to those in authority. Obviously, no one, junior or senior, should go out of their way to attack people. But the principle of academic freedom depends on the argument that faculty self-governance is the best way for the academy to function. Will someone who has spent six or seven years of his or her life as an untenured professor following McKinney's collegiality rules suddenly be likely, upon receiving tenure, to function as an autonomous unit within a self-governing structure? Or is it more likely that this professor, having received tenure by engaging in self-censorship, deference, and not challenging those in power, will continue to do so upon receiving tenure?

Second, McKinney's rules illustrate the subtle but pervasive bias against research inherent in the use of collegiality as a criterion. She advises untenured professors not to come to the office to do writing or scholarly-based activities, since senior colleagues like to stop by and chat. But for many untenured faculty, especially those with families, the office is a refuge from distractions and a good place to write. Moreover, as she herself concedes, we all know of people who have followed the"pro-collegiality" path to compensate for mediocre or worse research records. That's not exactly something the academy as a whole should encourage.

A second recent story in IHE, on the personnel difficulties of William Bradford, offers further insight on the anti-research bias inherent in the" collegiality" criterion. Bradford is the IU law professor who received only a 10-5 vote for his third-year reappointment--a sign of long-term trouble--even though his performance was rated as"excellent" in teaching, scholarship, and service. His problem? Several senior members deemed him"uncollegial," on grounds that seem transparently political.

But Bradford seems to have done something else very uncollegial--he's outperformed some of his senior colleagues in publishing. One of Bradford's leading critics is a law professor named Mary Harter Mitchell, whose website discretely declines to provide a link to her publications. This 1978 graduate of Cornell Law School, who has been on the IU faculty since 1980, has published one book, Legal Reference for Older Hoosiers, put out by a press called"The Foundation" in 1982; a search of Lexis-Nexis reveals no law review articles published by Mitchell in the last decade. Bradford, on the other hand, has a forthcoming book, The Laws of Conflict in the Age of Armed Terror, and has published four book chapters and 20 law review articles in the last six years.

Is there any way to ensure that Prof. Mitchell's judgment of Prof. Bradford's"uncollegiality" doesn't consistitute anything but professional jealousy? And shouldn't that fact alone suggest that universities might want to dispense with the criterion?

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Mary McKinney - 7/31/2005

I'm glad to find this discussion - albeit quite late. I was most interested to read Johnson's personal, and outrageously unfair, experience of academic politics and jealousies. Wow.

I agree with him that my tips are obvious.
Good social skills and politeness are important in almost any job. Hopefully though, not more important than competence, talent, industry, productivity etc.,.

I don't believe that people should "suck up" to figures in charge -- for one reason, apple polishing is usually recognized and backfires.

Academia, it seems to me, is uniqiue in that, once tenured, you can, if you wish, *stop* being collegial.
In the business world, for example, you need to keep being collegial until you're the boss (and then it still helps.) Perhaps that's why my obvious rules were printed by IHE and evoked comments.

william c. bradford - 7/2/2005

What's ironic is that if you define collegiality as getting along well even with people with whom one disagrees about public policy issues, then I think most of the people in my department would rate me as highly collegial. The reality is that I'm not properly "performing" the role the far-left white folks expected me to play--e.g., the Ward Churchill persona. Sad. They've got such a stereotypical vision of what it means to be an Indian academic, and such little tolerance for true diversity of opinion. In my view it's really the contemporary form of racism--the colonization of the mind, rather than the body.

But hey, what do I know, I'm just an uncollegial guy.

John H. Lederer - 7/2/2005

Just an observation. If I tally in my mind those who excelled as intlellectuals in the past -- aren't they disproportionately non-collegial?

So could one conclude that what is desired most by one's colleagues is a pleasant mediocrity? <grin, duck, and run>.

william c. bradford - 7/1/2005

Hopefully this will shed some light on what's going on at IU Indy School of Law:

Chris Bray - 7/1/2005

I know nothing at all about the substance of William Bradford's scholarship and do not mean to comment on it here, but I'm just struck by an assumption contained in K.C. Johnson's argument: "Bradford, on the other hand, has a forthcoming book, The Laws of Conflict in the Age of Armed Terror, and has published four book chapters and 20 law review articles in the last six years."

It's interesting to watch academics place other academics on the scale -- is a professor who publishes 20 law review articles in six years a better scholar than a colleague who publishes three exceptionally insightful and complex law review articles in six years?

The focus on quantity suggests that a smart young professor would churn out as much barely publishable crap as possible, rather than laboring carefully on a few exceptional pieces of scholarship. Someone who wrote one magnificent book every fifteen years would be, by the prevailing metric, a dud.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/1/2005

Michael --
I agree with you -- this is open to abuse. But the system will never be perfect to the point where people cannot simply disparage what they see -- a "clearly better research presentation" can mean lots of things to lots of people, most of whom in any given room are not the best qualified people to judge the actual quality of the research. My assumption was that when you get down to the level of finalists, you are pretty confident that you are looking for the best fit, because the odds are that any of the finalists is someone you would hire.
Interestingly, some schools have decided that the on campus interview might not even be necessary and that reading an applicant's file plus a phone interview should be sufficient. I have no particular qualms with this approach, though I still do not think that it is unfair for a department to want to like a future colleague if that colleague also comes with the right credentials.
In other words, bad apples might be ruining a process that most never considered was fraught with antagonism, which would be a shame, because it has always seemed to me that being nice and being likable and being personable and having the ability to talk about something other than one's work ought to be seen as a plus.


Oscar Chamberlain - 7/1/2005

You are right Michael, that was wrong, precsely because all was not equal. One of them showed better teaching skills.

In fact this makes an interesting comparison with KC's original comment. KC was concerned the McKinney's rules, and an empahsis on collegiality in general, diminished the importance of scholarship. Your example shows collegiality diminishing the importance of teaching.

Taken together they remind us just how divided different departments and universities are on the relative importance of scholarhship and teaching. It suggests that where the two are not closely balanced, collegiality will become more important than the less valued of the two.

Dennis R. Nolan - 7/1/2005

I'm not at all impressed by what I read about Bradford's critics, but just to keep the record accurate:

(1) Foundation Press is a standard publisher of law school casebooks and other teaching materials. It's a subsidiary of Thomson/West, the giant in the field. That said, her book is 23 years old and doesn't, from its title, sound very impressive.

(2) A WestLaw articles search shows four listings for her. One is a "how-to" piece in the Journal of Legal Education, one is a tribute to a coleague, and the other two appear to be standard law review articles, one in the Boston University Law Review and one in the Minnesota Law Review, both of which are dated 1987.

All in all, Mitchell doesn't have the scholarly chops to criticize Bradford's work, which is probably why she's using "collegiality" as her weapon of choice. I haven't noticed any specifics in the press coverage about his alleged lack of collegiality. Has anyone else heard just what he is supposed to have done?

Michael Burger - 7/1/2005

I think that D.C. Catsam is correct, in theory, that one may as well use being pleasant to be around as a criterion in hiring when all other things are equal. But this is open to abuse in hriing as much as in tenure decisions, even leaving out the political considerations that concern K.C. Johnson. I was on a search that came down to two candidates. They were equal in terms of scholarship, so far as we could judge. But A had tremendous social skills; everyone loved him. B, however, gave a clearly better interview and a better teaching presentation, as even one of B's supporters acknowledged. Yet the committee voted to recommend A, explicitly because "he's someone one would like to have coffee with." I should note that B was no social slouch, as I discovered after the committee's recommendation was overridden. But he lacked A's considerable charm. At least the committee's vote was close.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/1/2005

Professor Burke --
I tend to agree with this. I also want to emphasize the "all things being equal" factor, especially on the front end, when it comes to hiring. When a department gets down to its final two or three candidates, I have absolutely no issue with collegiality becoming an issue. In other words, once merit has gotten people to the table, why not consider who might be the most enjoyable to be around? Why not take into account how well they might fit in socially? Again -- this is only after the merit has been established.
But furthermore, most people who go up for tenure are genuinely nervous about how it will turn out, and for good reason. It is, from all I have seen, a nervewracking process that makes even the most self-assured question their merit. That said, I bet most of us would like to think that our friends in the department support us in borderline cases because they want us around and realize that the tenure process is as much alchemy as science. So perhaps it is possible for collegiality to play an affirmative role, but it should never play a negative role? I don't know the answer -- I'd just hate to see the human element get entirely tossed out in what we all know is not a perfect process. Just as collegiality can taketh away, I wonder if we also forget that it can giveth too.


Timothy James Burke - 7/1/2005

I find the state of the general conversation about collegiality to be a frustrating one. Because on one hand, KC's clearly right: it's a much-misused criteria for tenure, and it can't be easily reformed precisely because it's so subjective. Even if it's not used as a way to enforce ideological unanimity, it can be used for the kind of thing McKinney is talking about--basically enforcing a kind of hail-fellow-well-met collective avuncularity. McKinney's suggestions for me call to mind more some of the brutal (and funny) satirists of academia like David Lodge or Randall Jarrett.

That's one side of the issue. The problem on the other side is that a person who is genuinely uncollegial in the legitimate sense of the word--someone who does the service component of their job poorly, who "makes work" for others through pointless obstreperousness, who tells students unprofessional things about colleagues, etcetera, is a real problem. In most other workplaces that I can think of, there would be a legitimate way to talk about such behavior and a legitimate way to suggest that it ought to eventually lead to the termination of employment--unless the person behaving in this manner was a top executive or a senior partner, and perhaps even then. E.g., in the rest of the work world, bad behavior requires special kinds of hierarchical protections to survive, a high place on the vertical ladder. In academia, it's more generic and horizontal: if you get tenure, you're free to behave very poorly and cost your institution time and money, more or less without any fear of reprisal.

Given that this is the case, I do feel that somehow it *ought* to be possible to talk at tenure time about whether someone is a good employee, about whether they do good work for and within the institution that employs them. I don't feel that an academic who is a bad employee but a great researcher ought to be easily tenured, if at all. But the problem really is that the common practice of academic life makes it impossible to talk about such issues in a relatively unbiased and commonsensical way--among other reasons, because some of the people in charge of making such judgements are themselves profoundly uncollegial.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/30/2005

And, actually, the Churchill thing is a different phenomenon. Tenured faculty in one or more departments resisted the determination of administrators at CU to find a place for Churchill. Only after he was rejected by tenured faculty in one or two departments was Churchill placed in Ethnic Studies by CU administrators. Tenured faculty in older, established departments could and did resist the administration. In fact, it would be interesting to know when Ethnic Studies was first established compared to when Churchill first got a faculty appointment at CU.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/30/2005

Well, of course. My mistake in life was in thinking that I was hired because my senior department colleagues wanted new input from someone new to the department. Not hardly.

John H. Lederer - 6/30/2005

Ahh, but that is the point. One should not be punished for disagreeing, only for doing so in an inappropiate fashion.

Of course, that is "should". The reality seems to be that the key is to agree, but to make the agreement so extreme and vehement as to distinguish oneself. Not merely a "yes, sir" but a "yes, sir, yes, sir three bags full", so to speak.

The result does not commend itself to people outside the university, cf. Ward Churchill.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/30/2005

Mr. Lederer, I don't think that quite works. Collegiality, as often understood by many departments, means "go along to get along" and that means that untenured faculty members are expected to find reasons to support whatever prior agreements have been reached by power centers among tenured faculty. Because of that, courteous disagreement with tenured faculty is not understood as collegiality.

John H. Lederer - 6/30/2005

Perhaps one could capture the good of "collegiality" and avoid the bad by using an old fashioned concept? Instead of "collegial" perhaps the criteria should be "courteous".