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Maureen Mancuso is provost
and vice-president, academic,
at the University of Guelph
and a 3M National Teaching
Fellow. Her column appears
in every second issue.
A plea for collegiality
Gov(ernance) in the
time of choler
by Maureen Mancuso
40 / www.universityaffairs.ca / April 2013
a political scientist, I have a nat-
ural weakness for drawing parallels
between my field of study and my
administrative responsibilities. But I
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 discus-
sion 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 uni-
versity 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.