Summary of "Work and Peace in Academe: Leveraging Time, Money, and Intellectual Energy Through Managing Conflict"

Summary of

Work and Peace in Academe: Leveraging Time, Money, and Intellectual Energy Through Managing Conflict

 by James R. Coffman

Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: James R. Coffman, Work and Peace in Academe: Leveraging Time, Money, and Intellectual Energy Through Managing Conflict (Bolton MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc., 2005)

The university environment is ripe for potential conflict. While some conflict is constructive, others are not. Laws and regulations on employment, education, and intellectual property can be a confusing web, as they come from state and federal governments, and university-specific rules and regulations. Academic freedom can also be a source of conflict. For example, untenured faculty may feel less able to voice their views. In addition, the faculty relationship with the administration can be marred by a lack of communication and divergent goals. The goal of the book is to identify potential problems and provide a number of strategies to prevent and resolve unproductive conflict in academia. Throughout the book, Coffman employs fictionalized examples to nicely illustrate conflict situations and ways in which they might be productively addressed as well as extended examples on evaluation, intractable conflict, gender bias, and racial discrimination in appendices.

Giving specific prescriptions can be challenging because no two institutions are alike. Institutional and departmental cultures vary (and may clash). The quality of leadership is variable and depends in part on how those leaders are selected. For example, where a department chair is elected from amongst the faculty, leadership is much more hit-or-miss. What is more, leadership style and culture must match. Despite this, Coffman identifies some best practices. It is important that faculty and staff have trust in the leadership. This is accomplished in part by open communication and the clear articulation of rules and policies. Leadership also should solicit input from faculty and staff to make them feel part of the process. The key is engaging the problem.

Universities and colleges often have a wide range of resolution options available from informal discussion to negotiation and mediation to more formal mechanisms like appeals and grievances processes to appeals to outside agencies or the court system. Generally, the more formal the channel taken, the more likely the conflict will be unproductive.

Coffman reviews the 'players' in the system and points out areas of potential conflict and how they can best minimize unproductive conflict. The governing board, for example, should avoid becoming involved in disputes involving individuals. It is better suited to dealing with state governments, in the case of public institutions, and things such as budgetary issues. The president or chancellor is important in that she creates an environment and selects those who actually create and implement dispute resolution mechanisms. The provost plays a crucial role in terms of conflict in that she ensures good policies and procedures are in place, widely promulgated, and followed. The dean is often at the forefront in dealing with conflict, particularly when there is a rotating chair system. The dean's job is a challenging one, especially if the head of a diverse college such as Arts and Sciences where a variety of cultures exist within the many departments making up the college.

Other positions within the administration are more expressly designed to manage conflict. An ombudsperson helps individuals find their available options and identify potential solutions. An ombudsperson's responsibilities with respect to faculty, staff, and administration conflicts need to be kept distinct from student issues. Loose lips and accumulated baggage can make them less effective. Making them part-time or temporary appointments can address this issue, but raises concerns about their independence. Mediators are also sometimes employed by institutions of higher learning, but Coffman advocates hiring from the outside as needs require because it is essential they have no authority over any disputant and is a more effective use of resources. Affirmative Action offices have the challenge of being both an advocate and an adjudicator. Multicultural Affairs offices are in a similar position and may provide some 'early warning' of problems. The institution's legal department must balance acting in good faith and protecting the institution's interests. They need to be aware of alternative dispute mechanisms as well as appropriate legal remedies. For both, it is important that they understand available procedures, for those who come to them often will not. All must work in concert, however, in order for an institution to effectively manage productive conflict. In addition, more informal roles such as trusted intermediary, counselor, or coach can play a valuable role. Finally, the importance of a strong staff should also not be underestimated.

Overall, Coffman suggests that an effective dispute resolution system should:

  • Be clear and accessible.
  • State the institution's core values.
  • Be complete (see discussion above).
  • Be made up of individuals who know each other, share trust, and know everyone's roles.
  • Have multiple entry and exit points.
  • Have one individual responsible for implementation.
  • Be sustained through ongoing training and professional development.

Amongst the most common types of polices needed are related to:

  • Promotion and tenure.
  • Annual reviews.
  • Discrimination/harassment complaints.
  • Appeal and grievance procedures.
  • Standards for administrator, staff and faculty reappointment.
  • Academic integrity.
  • Dismissal of tenured faculty.
  • Provision of an ombudsperson or mediation services.
  • Consulting policy.
  • Intellectual property ownership.

Coffman concludes with some best practices:

  • Fact-Finding and basic fairness as a precondition.
  • Practice interest-based negotiation.
  • Apply the Reasonable Person Test.
  • Build trust.
  • Develop interpersonal skills and cooling-down techniques.
  • Timing.
  • Use all appropriate resources.
  • Use a team approach.
  • Mentoring and early negative tenure decisions.