Experts outline a collegial way to resolve conflicts

Georgia Law School mediation technique is to be showcased in Edinburgh. Tariq Tahir reports

February 28, 2008

Giiven academics' reputation for forthright self-expression and independence of mind, disputes are inevitable. When conflicts relate to the workplace, they frequently become protracted and bitter, with settlements reached via employment tribunals likely to leave reputations tarnished and at least one side out of pocket.

However, another way of settling conflict is growing in popularity in the higher education sector.

Mediation offers a means for staff and students to resolve disputes in a neutral, non-confrontational environment. It has also been credited with restoring a sense of collegiality.

Leading the way in developing mediation for higher education is the Consortium on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution (CNCR) at Georgia State University's Law School in the US.

Next month two academics from the CNCR will visit Edinburgh to share their expertise at an event organised by the University and College Union Scotland.

Doug Yarn, CNCR executive director, and Lin Inlow, the consortium's director of conflict resolution, will discuss ways of resolving disputes in higher education and share the latest thinking.

Professor Yarn is already working on an English conflict-resolution project with backing from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

He told Times Higher Education: "Conflict is inherent in human social organisations, particularly complex ones such as higher education institutions. However, we can reduce the costs of handling conflict through better methods. In Georgia, we are handling conflicts more fairly, more efficiently and economically, and with more constructive outcomes.

"We are addressing the root causes of our conflicts, thereby reducing recurring problems. Litigation and grievance procedures are adversarial and divisive, undermining the collegiality and collaboration necessary to manage an effective institution."

David Bleiman, assistant general secretary of the UCU, helped to organise the event, which will be held 11-12 March. "Scottish universities are increasingly turning to mediation to resolve intractable disputes with employees and others," he said.

"However, the development of new ways of resolving such disputes needs to be carefully thought through, and staff, students and managers will need to understand all their options before deciding whether to try mediation."

Gill Evans, a history professor at the University of Oxford, was engaged in a long dispute with the University of Cambridge and is now involved with Hefce's Improving Dispute Resolution project.

She said that modern management's more formalised structure leaves less room for academics to settle disputes among themselves.

"There's been a major shift of mindset in recent years, which means that criticising the management is getting to be dangerous.

"They can put academics' jobs on the line through disciplinary procedures. It is not uncommon for that to happen as a response to a public interest disclosure or a grievance or complaint. Then it's an adversarial battle, costing a fortune in legal fees and sometimes going on for years, with the whole department upset."

Professor Evans said mediation "is almost like getting back to the old days where academics used to be able to have a good argument with everyone wearing the same size boxing gloves."

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