The art of fostering collegiality

With responsibility to encourage collegiality in their domain but limited authority to make it happen, what is a department chair to do? Kevin Dettmar shares the uses and misuses of academia’s professional bonds

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Pomona College
26 Jan 2023
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While we hold faculty members pretty strictly to account for treating their students with respect, we have few such checks on collegiality. And collegiality, of course, can be an oppressive way to impose groupthink.

What, then, is to be done? Strong institutional norms can enforce standards of professional behaviour and collegiality until the awarding of tenure (at those institutions fortunate to have it). But once that ultimate reward has been won, no one – not colleagues, not a department chair or programme director, not a dean, provost, president or chancellor – really has very much leverage.

This puts chairs in a difficult position: they have the responsibility to foster a collegial working environment in the department (or at least the expectation from their colleagues and supervisors), but they have little authority to make that happen. So what are the sources of stress and conflict among a department’s faculty? And what role can a department chair play in alleviating them?

Feeling unappreciated

In choosing the academy over other professions, faculty members often believe themselves to have chosen prestige over earnings, so that prestige becomes the coin of the realm – and there’s never quite enough to go around.

As chair, there are things you can do to address this situation, although they may not be enough. At the very least, it will help if you agree that as chair you must be a tireless cheerleader for your faculty. We’ve all come through a credentialling system that rewards individual accomplishment, so this may feel a bit counterintuitive at first – but their triumphs are yours because you’re creating the conditions that make it possible for them to thrive.

There are some simple ways to do this. I keep a box of notecards in my desk, and when an accomplishment of one of my colleagues comes to my attention, I send a short handwritten note of congratulations. It needn’t be long or overly detailed: the main message is simply: “I see you.”

But don’t let it stop there. An email to the department faculty letting everyone know that Professor Armstrong has won a prize from her national organisation or that Professor Patel has an article in the newest volume of the Journal of Smarts may irk some of your colleagues – in my experience, they’ll appreciate your tooting your colleague’s horn only slightly more than they would appreciate you tooting your own – but it will mean a great deal to those whose professional accomplishment might otherwise go unnoticed.

Alternatively, or in addition, make it a point to mention these accomplishments during department meetings. If your department has any kind of regular newsletter, make sure to notice it there, too, and ensure that your dean and/or provost and their staff are made aware, and that the communications department gets the information. Once your colleagues realise that you’ve taken this work on yourself, they’ll be incredibly grateful. I’m no psychologist, but I’m persuaded that those who annoyingly toot their own horns do so only out of fear that if they don’t do it, no one will. Be the horn tooter.

One caution: be ecumenical. You’ve got to celebrate the work both of the colleagues you admire and those you quietly dislike, and you’ve got to recognise work that you find important and work in which you have little interest. To ensure equal and fair coverage, tell your colleagues in no uncertain terms that you want them to inform you of their accomplishments: make it safe, to continue with this tired metaphor, for them to toot their horns to you privately.

Philosophical/ideological differences

There’s a famous saying attributed variously to Henry Kissinger or Wallace Stanley Sayre that “academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”. It’s not a fair characterisation unless you accept its underlying premise that ideas don’t really matter. But it’s certainly accurate when it comes to the intensity of some faculty disagreements.

In my experience, these ideological positions aren’t thrown on and off like an old T-shirt; they’re not mere postures, faddish position-taking. They are most often deeply held and connected to deep-seated belief systems and ways of understanding how the world works. This suggests that the way forward when faculty clash over these positions lies not in trying to stifle them but instead in appealing to colleagues’ commitment to larger frameworks that all faculty members embrace: to supporting our students in their learning and to the free enquiry that is a pillar of academic freedom and that the tenure system is meant to guarantee.

To be sure, an appeal to the welfare of your students can backfire: colleagues can argue that certain ideologies are dangerous or that the contest of ideas within a department or curriculum presents a distraction to students. And it is sometimes the case that students are used as symbolic shields to fend off positions we find objectionable. But unless yours is a narrowly focused curriculum that all department faculty have agreed to support, your job is chair is to make sure that a vibrant ideological/philosophical/theoretical diversity flourishes in the work of your faculty and finds appropriate expression in your curricula and course offerings.

Changing chair styles

This might sound like a bit out of a novel – actually, it is a bit out of a novel. I moved 500 miles to a new university to take up my first chair’s job. I didn’t know a lot about the department’s history. It perhaps comes as no surprise that departments with a fractious past do their best to cover up that history when recruiting a new faculty member, never mind a new chair. In the process of moving, I sustained an injury for which I required minor surgery and a friend sent me a care package containing, among other items, a copy of Richard Russo’s academic satire, Straight Man.

My friend meant well. It’s a ripping good yarn, and I was thoroughly enjoying it – until I gradually realised that the school that was being satirised was the school I had just moved to. The novel’s protagonist, a department chair – a charming, albeit tough-talking old-school rainmaker – was the guy whose resignation had created the opening I had filled.

What was upsetting was to learn, in the pages of a novel, about the Mafia-style management techniques of my predecessor – someone who had enjoyed a good deal of success during his long tenure and whose methods I think many of my new colleagues expected me to adopt. Thus, much of the criticism that I got from my new colleagues during our early days together was based (probably subconsciously) on the kind of pattern my predecessor had established.

Perhaps nothing but the passing of time will help in such a situation. As your tenure as chair expands and your faculty colleagues see that you’re committed to the department’s and their own well-being, and that there’s more than one way to lead a department, you’ll become the model by which they subconsciously measure the success of your successor.

Communication: how is information disseminated?

One-on-one communication is invaluable but unreliable. When you’re the chair and you’re hearing the perspective of just one colleague, you’re vulnerable to being influenced by what the colleague is saying. Just as bad, when other colleagues learn that you’ve been communicating this way in one-on-one meetings, they’ll quickly become suspicious that some members of the department have more direct access to the chair’s authority than others.

For these and other reasons, in-person and one-on-one communications must be balanced by regular, inclusive, written communications about information that’s important to all members of the department and by regular meetings of the department faculty. If you’re using email to convey information to the entire department, pay attention to all the normal guidelines for formal business communication: keep your emails as brief (and as infrequent) as possible, craft informative subject lines, read and reread and reread your text before hitting send, and be careful about the cc’s and bcc’s. And make sure that if your message alludes to an attachment, you remember to attach it!

When you are a department chair, there is a chance that some people will read your social media accounts differently. Even though you may think of these channels as personal, any professional connections who are in your network may read your posts and pics as coming ex cathedra. In addition, your posts may come in for criticism directed at the institution. Some faculty members create separate personal accounts and restrict their personal postings to them. When a junior colleague was coming up for tenure, they wrote me to say that they were going to unfriend me, their chair, on Facebook, not because we’d stopped being friendly but because the confusion of the personal and professional had started to seem too risky. It seemed like a sensible move to me.

Adapted from How to Chair a Department, by Kevin Dettmar. Copyright 2022. Published with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kevin Dettmar is the W. M. Keck professor of English and director of the Humanities Studio at Pomona College.

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