Grappling with Collegiality and Academic Freedom

A change in the use of “collegiality” in determinations of promotion and tenure at the University of Wisconsin–Stout provides an example for other institutions wishing to reexamine their policies.
By Timothy Shiell

Widespread concerns about decreased collegiality along with perceptions of increased incivility and bullying have led many institutions of higher education to consider how to balance the legitimate enforcement of respectful and productive workplace conditions with adequate protections for academic freedom and individual rights to expression. Some legal analysts put this issue at the forefront of policy discussion in higher education and note that collegiality is increasingly a factor in important employment decisions. I came to appreciate the problem as one of the faculty involved in a 2013–14 process at the University of Wisconsin–Stout attempting to determine what, if any, collegiality policy should apply to faculty. Although this article describes our process, it is primarily a discussion of how we analyzed the issue, the arguments we considered, which arguments won, and what problems remain. The result was the inclusion of the AAUP’s 1999 statement On Collegiality as a Criterion for Faculty Evaluation in our faculty handbook, but it remains to be seen whether that general statement will provide sufficient protections for academic freedom as disputes over collegiality focus on more specific behaviors.  

Context

UW–Stout does not have a faculty union or collective bargaining unit. We do have a form of shared governance and a faculty handbook. Neither explicitly addresses collegiality. Over a period of years and with increasing frequency, I became involved in or learned about a series of cases in which individual faculty members were threatened with official sanction or were officially disciplined due to allegations of noncollegiality, incivility, or bullying (I hereafter refer to all such cases as matters of collegiality). Most of these were “under the radar” cases, and only a few people were aware of them, at least in part because personnel decisions are usually confidential. Most of the accused were junior faculty who feared retaliation and thus declined to file a grievance or complaint. In the absence of public scrutiny of their actions and an explicit policy limiting their reach, some administrators and faculty serving on department personnel committees made dubious decisions and imposed unwarranted penalties. In spring 2013, as the incoming chair of our Faculty Senate Personnel Policies Committee (PPC), I conferred with the faculty senate chair about the possibility of developing a collegiality policy for faculty that would restrict the reach of noncollegiality claims and protect against unjustified sanctions and threats of sanctions. As a result of that discussion, the faculty senate chair charged the PPC in fall 2013 with investigating the possibility of developing a faculty collegiality policy and bringing its recommendation to the senate by the end of the academic year.

Following its usual procedure, the PPC selected and charged a three-member subcommittee to develop a proposal for the full committee to consider. I served as chair of the PPC subcommittee along with two other male tenured full professors (one was a mathematician and former faculty senate chair and the other an engineer specializing in risk control). Throughout the information-gathering stage of our process, the three subcommittee members consulted with colleagues at UW–Stout as well as colleagues at other UW and non-UW institutions, our human resources director, the academic provost, university chancellor, and UW system legal counsel. We read legal analyses of collegiality, relevant case law, and numerous scholarly and popular commentaries. Of particular value were law review articles such as Leonard Pertnoy’s “The ‘C’ Word: Collegiality Real or Imagined, and Should It Matter in a Tenure Process?” (2004) and “Collegiality in Higher Education” by coauthors Mary Ann Connell, Kerry Brian Melear, and Frederick G. Savage (2011).

As we investigated collegiality, we quickly learned four important facts:

1. The perceived decline in collegiality is widespread. Our search showed that concerns about collegiality extend beyond the United States, higher education, and faculty actions.

2. Colleges and universities, as well as subdivisions within them, have adopted a wide range of policies (see Connell, Melear, and Savage for twenty-five examples).

3. Every source noted that collegiality is routinely upheld by courts as a relevant basis for faculty employment decisions whether or not collegiality is indicated in university policy or contracts.

4. Collegiality as a fourth criterion for evaluating faculty performance, in addition to teaching, service, and research, is gaining support despite AAUP opposition.

The Three Major Questions

After considerable study and discussion, we decided there were three main questions for us to address in a logical sequence:

1. Should we propose an explicit policy or should we recommend that faculty continue to work without any explicit policy, allowing the undefined, implicit assumptions of administrators and faculty to operate as policy?

2. If we propose an explicit policy, should we recommend consideration of collegiality only as an aspect teaching, research, and service, or should we endorse collegiality as an independent, fourth, consideration.

3. If we propose an explicit policy, what should it be? 

Explicit Policy vs. Implicit Policy

We discussed three main objections to explicit policies. First, some object to an explicit collegiality policy because it would have to define collegiality, which they consider impossible to define, and therefore impossible to enforce fairly. Collegiality, they claim, is too subjective, too contested. For example, Professor X may think it is noncollegial to refuse to serve on a department or university committee while Professor Y may think that has nothing to do with collegiality. Given such disagreements about what is or is not collegial, it follows that allegations of noncollegiality would depend not on any clear and legitimate policy but on the particular biases of the individuals authorized to enforce it.

Second, even if collegiality could be adequately defined and fairly enforced, it would be wrong to do so as a matter of university policy because collegiality is supererogatory, beyond what is required. Collegiality should be an aspirational, not mandatory, goal. For example, it would be collegial to attend all department social gatherings, assist coworkers with personal problems, and so on, but these are neither contractual obligations nor requirements of the job, and failing to do such things does not detract from performing one’s job very well. Collegiality goes beyond the call of duty.

Third, some maintain that establishing an explicit collegiality policy would lead to an increase in the number of illegitimate complaints of noncollegiality, enabling heavy-handed administrators and faculty personnel committees to punish or threaten faculty they otherwise might have left alone. For example, a policy that explicitly defines noncollegiality (in whole or in part) as disrespectful behavior could result in penalties for faculty who publicly criticize or disagree with another department member or administrator.

On the other side, we found three main arguments supporting explicit policies. First, some argue that explicit policies would be more effective than undefined, implicit policies at sorting out legitimate versus illegitimate accusations of noncollegiality. An implicit policy provides no official guidance as to what counts as collegial or noncollegial behavior, thereby leaving the matter to the whims of the individual or group enforcing it. An explicit policy provides at least some language distinguishing collegial and noncollegial behavior, and thereby provides at least some guidance and limitations on those enforcing the policy.

Second, some argue that explicit policies would be more effective than implicit policies in supporting respect and a healthier and more productive and transparent workplace. An explicit policy provides a public and commonly shared reference point, a basis for resolving problems when they arise and for publicly debated revisions to the policy when necessary.

Finally, some argue that an explicit policy created and enforced by faculty is preferable to an undefined implicit policy because it puts faculty—rather than administrators—in control of the definitions of and procedures and sanctions for addressing alleged faculty noncollegiality.

Both the PPC subcommittee and the PPC found the arguments supporting an explicit policy stronger than the arguments for continuing with an undefined, implicit policy. This judgment was driven in large measure by the fact that PPC members had become aware of abuses occurring under the implicit policy approach and believed an explicit policy would provide at least some clear protections in such cases for faculty academic freedom and freedom of expression. Moreover, the committee strongly preferred that faculty—rather than administrators—take the initiative to define and enforce a faculty collegiality policy.   

Fourth-Criterion Approach vs. Limited Approach

Given the decision to recommend an explicit policy, we next struggled with whether the policy should limit collegiality to its impacts on teaching, service, and research or make collegiality an independent, fourth criterion for faculty evaluation. This issue carried increased urgency due to the fact that at least one academic department and one college were already, independently of the faculty senate’s charge to the PPC, in the preliminary stages of considering adoption of a fourth-criterion approach as policy for its faculty.

We considered four main arguments supporting collegiality as an independent fourth criterion. Robert Cipriano is one of the best-known proponents of this position, which he advanced in Facilitating a Collegial Department in Higher Education: Strategies for Success (2011). One argument for the fourth-criterion option maintains it is needed to combat the current increase in faculty noncollegiality. The idea here is that there are more and more instances of noncollegial behavior that require attention or correction, many of which do not fit neatly into teaching, service, or research: for example, being rude or verbally abusive to administrative staff or frequently interrupting or objecting to others in hallway conversations or at guest speaker events.

A second argument claims the fourth-criterion approach is no more or less objectionable than the three-criterion approach because judging collegiality as a fourth criterion is no more or less subjective or measurable than the standards used to evaluate teaching, research, and service. For example, most academic departments at UW–Stout do not have clear, specific standards distinguishing teaching (or research or service) that is above or below expectations versus teaching that merely meets expectations. If we accept that kind of subjectivity for the three traditional areas of faculty evaluation, why object to it as a potential problem with considering collegiality as a fourth criterion for faculty evaluation?

A third argument claims that collegiality, understood as maintaining a basic level of civility and cooperation in the workplace, applies to nearly every occupation as an independent performance criterion and thus should apply to faculty as well. Finally, supporters argue that collegiality as an independent criterion does not require faculty to give in to peer pressure to conform; it merely requires them to maintain a basic level of civility and respect in their disagreements and disputes.

On the other side, we considered two main arguments against collegiality as an independent fourth criterion. First, some argue it would threaten diversity:  collegiality may be used as a basis to weed out those who “don’t fit,” and those who “don’t fit” tend to be women and members of ethnic, religious, racial, and other minorities. Second, some argue collegiality as an independent fourth criterion would threaten academic freedom, discouraging dissent against popular ideas and the ideas of those in power.

After considerable discussion, both the subcommittee and the full PPC endorsed an explicit policy limiting collegiality to its impact on teaching, service, and research. The main reason, again, was the fear of overreach by administrators and department personnel committees, especially in their evaluation of outspoken female and minority faculty or faculty engaging in controversial teaching, service, or research.

Content of the Policy

After considerable debate, the PPC proposed a three-tiered approach for the faculty senate to consider. Tier 1 would provide only a general policy statement. Tier 2 would provide the tier 1 general policy statement plus more specific language distinguishing collegial and noncollegial behavior. Tier 3 would provide tiers 1 and 2 plus mechanisms or procedures for administering and enforcing the policy. Although the PPC ultimately endorsed all three tiers, the committee feared that if all three tiers were presented as a single package for the faculty senate to vote on, then the result might be no explicit policy at all instead of at least tier 1 or tier 2. We were convinced that any level of explicit policy would be an improvement over the existing lack of explicit policy. Thus, the PPC proposed debating and voting on the tiers sequentially. A negative vote on tier 1 would preclude consideration of tiers 2 or 3. Passing tier 1 would allow for a debate and vote on tier 2. Voting against tier 2 would establish tier 1 alone as policy and eliminate tier 3 from consideration. Passing tier 2 would lead to a debate and vote on tier 3. 

Tier 1—the “minimal” level providing a general policy statement—proposed adding the 1999 AAUP statement On Collegiality as a Criterion for Faculty Evaluation to our faculty handbook. This would accomplish at least two important goals. First, the AAUP statement makes clear that collegiality may be considered only as it affects teaching, service, and research. This was important because we had past and current cases in which faculty were being sanctioned or threatened with sanctions for alleged noncollegiality outside of their teaching, service, and research. Second, the tone of the AAUP statement indicates that allegations of noncollegiality should concern significant behaviors, as opposed to perceived attitudes or insignificant behaviors. This was important because we had past and current cases in which faculty were being sanctioned or threatened with sanctions for perceived attitudes or insignificant behaviors.

Tier 2—the level providing clarification of what collegiality and noncollegiality are—proposed adding more specific language to the general policy statement. Examples provided to the faculty senate to consider included the following:

1. Noncollegiality is identified by actions, not personality traits.

2. Dissent and disagreement are not in themselves noncollegial behavior.

3. Punitive sanctions should be employed only when the noncollegial behavior violates someone else’s rights or legitimate expectations arising from approved university policies. Lesser behaviors, such as failing to greet colleagues in hallway or attend department parties, do not warrant university action.

4. Punitive sanctions should be employed only after legitimate complaints have been filed, verified, and upheld.

5. Collegiality includes the right to work in a place where people are respected in terms of race, sexual orientation, country of origin, political beliefs, sex, and so on.

6. Collegiality includes the right to work in a nonthreatening workplace. Egregious or persistent abusive, threatening, or bullying behavior can be the basis for disciplinary action.

7. Collegiality includes compliance with established, approved university policies.

These examples were not intended to be a final recommendation but rather to provide suggestions for developing a final recommendation if the faculty senate endorsed the idea of adding clarifying language to tier 1. Our intent in proposing these examples was to show how more specific language could provide greater protections for faculty through restrictive guidelines to faculty evaluators than the general policy language in the AAUP statement on collegiality.

Tier 3—the level providing administrative mechanisms or procedures for collegiality concerns—proposed adding to tiers 1 and 2 the following example for discussion:

1. An initial “informal” step. This might involve an ombudsperson or faculty committee equivalent whose task is to (a) determine the facts, (b) assess the merit of the complaint, and (c) attempt to resolve the complaint by mutual consent.

2. If the case has merit and no informal resolution is achieved, it is referred to the normal procedures for formal complaints (such as a grievance committee or positive action committee).

Making an informal step explicit in the policy was strongly supported by our UW system legal advisers and our university administration, especially given the reluctance of faculty to use our formal grievance and complaint processes. The informal process offered hope of early intervention and resolution when issues of collegiality arise as opposed to letting the situation escalate before it reaches the point of no return and filing of a formal complaint.

Conclusions

With surprisingly little debate, the faculty senate voted overwhelmingly for tier 1 and against tier 2. Since tier 2 was not supported, tier 3 was not even considered. The consensus of those who spoke in the senate meeting was that tier 1 provided the basic protections faculty needed and that adding further language distinguishing collegiality and noncollegiality would prove to be too difficult and might well end up threatening academic freedom and freedom of expression rather than protecting them.  

The university chancellor at the time quickly approved the policy change, and it has had an immediate impact. Here is just one example. A department personnel committee and department chair had been using allegations of noncollegiality (alternatively described as incivility and poor department citizenship) as a fourth criterion to evaluate one of its tenure-track faculty members. As a result of the new policy, the department then had either to drop those allegations or reformulate them in terms of the faculty member’s teaching, service, and research. They took the latter route and on that basis voted to not renew the faculty member’s contract. The faculty member appealed the nonrenewal recommendation and won the appeal after the Termination of Employment Committee hearing the case unanimously ruled the alleged behaviors either were not proven with sufficient evidence, were protected by academic freedom, or failed to affect teaching, service, and research in any meaningful way. The chancellor upheld the Termination of Employment Committee’s decision.

Time will tell how well the new collegiality policy protects faculty academic freedom on my campus. The PPC had concerns that cases like the one just described will continue to arise (although they need not) given the lack of clarifying language in the new policy. And even if faculty who are wrongly accused of noncollegiality continue to win appeals when threatened with nonrenewal, we have no such appeal process for a host of other potential sanctions administrators and department personnel committees can employ (such as “within” or “below” job performance ratings). Moreover, unnecessarily putting faculty through the grueling, time-consuming, and emotionally draining appeal process is a steep price to pay to avoid or overturn improper sanctions. If such cases continue to arise, the PPC and the faculty senate may well need to reconsider adopting tiers 2 and 3. At this point, there seem to be more questions than answers. In effect, my campus took a minimal step because it was all we were prepared to accept at this time. Institutions of higher education will continue to grapple with finding the right balance between collegiality and academic freedom, and many will look to the AAUP for help. To what extent and in what ways does the answer depend on the way an institution is organized or administrated? To what extent and in what ways does campus or department culture impact the right balance? In fact, are explicit policies more effective than implicit policies at deterring or reducing threats to academic freedom? Are policies with clarifying language more effective than policies lacking clarifying language at deterring or reducing threats to academic freedom? Does an emphasis on academic freedom increase incidents of noncollegiality that warrant sanctions? Should we be guided by the legalistic principle that it is better to let a guilty few go free than to punish innocents wrongfully? One hopes further research and debate will provide better answers.

Timothy Shiell is professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–Stout and a member of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee for the Defense of the Professional Rights of Philosophers. He is a scholar of and advocate for academic freedom and the author of Campus Hate Speech on Trial.

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