Paula Krebs

Executive Director at Modern Language Association

Resolving Disputes Between Faculty

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Image: boxing gloves, by Airman 1st Class Kerelin Molina

What happens when people on campus disagree, and the dispute ends up in the dean's office?

These fights can be between students and faculty members (usually over grades), between faculty members, between staffers, or even between staff and faculty. Without courses in conflict resolution, without employing expert arbitrators, how does a midlevel administrator keep from becoming collateral damage or making things worse?

It seems to me that it comes down to the question of interests. Deans must consider a lot of different interests, and often it's pretty straightforward to identify them: For example, we support our faculty members, and we support our departments. Those two interests aren’t always congruent. A faculty member’s priorities aren't always in sync with those of that collective entity, the department.

Deans support great teaching, of course, especially at teaching-intensive institutions. And the path to supporting a great teacher is usually pretty clear — except that great teaching without scholarship doesn't remain great teaching forever. So supporting excellent, student-centered teaching sometimes means that we need to push great teachers to focus a bit less on the current classroom for the sake of the classroom a few years down the road — to stay current with scholarship in the discipline, or contribute to it, so they won't be teaching from the same notes in 10 years.

That's the kind of conflict between interests that has to be weighed in relation to the gold standard of higher ed: What is in the best interests of students? If only that were easy to determine.

Sometimes we as administrators are confronted with what looks like a choice between the interests of the students and the interests of faculty members. If anyone asks, we report that we put the interests of the students first. But it isn't always that clear-cut, and sometimes we have to trade the short-term interests of the students in favor of the long-term interests of the faculty.

That faculty member who is dynamite in the classroom today but isn't keeping up with scholarship? Maybe you need to ask him to stop taking students on so many field trips and start thinking about a conference paper — maybe one on the scholarship of teaching and learning. The result: Fewer field trips for this year's classes, but maybe richer content in next year's.

How about the interests involved when adjudicating one student’s complaint about a particular faculty member?

The deans I know try to approach that situation under the assumption that the faculty member is a professional who follows the rules and makes good, consistent judgements. We have to listen to the student with an open mind, and we almost never make a decision on the spot. It only takes one hasty judgment to learn the lesson that, no matter how bad it sounds when you hear it from the student, there is always information missing from that version of the story. I have also made the mistake of thinking there were two sides to a story. Later, I find that the third or fourth side of the story was where I could have found some key information that would've helped me reach a much better decision.

I got my deanship without having been an associate dean first, but my associate dean schooled me right away on not rushing to judgment on student complaints about faculty. You'd think years of department chairing would have taught me that lesson. Perhaps the difference was that when I was department chair I knew the faculty in my department very well and found it easy to weigh student complaints against what I knew of the professor. When I moved to a new institution to become dean, I wasn't working from any knowledge of the faculty at all. And those poor students seemed so convincing . . .

Then there's the terrible situation of disputes between faculty members. These are tough, because genuine villains are rare. The combatants all have some legitimate point on their side. It's easy to start by making decisions based on the good of one of the faculty members — the one who initially appears to be less powerful, say, or who seems to have been damaged. But if you find yourself sympathizing strongly with one party, you risk missing that the other party is operating from a moral vantage point, too.

And trying to do what's best for both professors at once — well, if you have two children, or even two quarreling parents who put you in the middle, you know how well that usually works out.

Stepping back a bit to return to first principles is often the best way forward in faculty disputes, too: Ask around about the effect of this faculty dispute on students. Has either of the combatants’ disgruntlement seeped into the classroom? Is the disagreement or the uncomfortable climate making a difference in the major? (I find that such disputes are usually internecine.) Does the tension between these faculty get in the way of curriculum? Do students end up in the middle?

For a dean, that's the first way into a faculty dispute. If you can't find a student angle, then the best thing to do is whatever causes the least harm. All decisions in faculty-faculty disputes will harm one faculty member's interests. I generally try to make the smallest amount of mess in any given situation.

I guess that make-the-smallest-mess rule is a pretty good one in dispute resolution anyway. There's a lot of hubris in thinking that you can solve problems, but it takes a lot of hubris to become an administrator. You wouldn't do it if you didn't think you could make things better. So it's sometimes hard to realize that you're not always going to make things better — not on the first try, at least. Your first instincts aren't always trustworthy, you'll always need more information, and things are always going to be messier than you'd like. That's being a middle manager, I guess. But, when you think about it, that isn't a whole lot different from being a faculty member.

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