Conflict Management Systems in Higher Education: A Look at Mediation in Public Universities

Article excerpt

Universities are workplaces where conflict is an essential part of the fabric of organizational life. Indeed,

debating and challenging ideas is the currency of higher education. The "campus community" is assumed to be a place where opposing viewpoints can coexist and disagreement is ex pected and encouraged. However, unproductive and sometimes destructive interpersonal conflict frequently runs beneath the surface in college workplaces.

Higher education institutions have increasingly turned to mediation and other methods of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) to more effectively deal with conflicts between campus employees, in particular faculty members. Do conventional dispute resolution methods work in higher education? Over the past year, we conducted a scan of conflict management systems in public universities to examine the scope and types of practices in current use. In particular, we were interested in un - der standing the role and effectiveness of mediation processes for public colleges and universities. We found that where a mediation system exists in these settings, there are some unique challenges adapting the process to the university workplace.

Are Universities Better at Conflict?

Some aspects of the structure of the university workplace may enable it to tolerate more unresolved conflict than other workplaces. Faculty members have a high degree of autonomy over their teaching and research, and may do much of their work alone. De part ments and schools within a college are "loosely coupled" with each other, and can make many decisions about their operation without affecting oth er de - partments or functions on campus. Academics who have job security and work in a department with weak in tra departmental ties can often afford to re treat behind their office doors when conflicts arise with their peers.

The university culture can also foster a tolerance for certain kinds of conflicts that do not reach a speedy conclusion. Policy conflicts are a good example. Shared governance policies at many public colleges encourage collegiality and consultation and there are often multiple forums available for raising policy issues. Another factor that can contribute to this tolerance is that university professionals often spend decades at the same institution where they have developed deep ties to their surrounding communities. This can inspire a "live and let live" philosophy. However, the features of university culture that make it possible to "agree to disagree" can also make resolving or managing acute or in tractable conflicts between peers more difficult.

The limits to higher education's tolerance of conflict became especially clear during the 1960s and 1970s, when colleges and universities across the country saw a rise in student, and sometimes faculty, protests. Disputes over equal pay, race relations, curriculum content, and anti-war pro - tests erupted on campuses across the nation. Here at Cornell University during the late 1960s, the academic year was twice cut short due to campus pro tests and faculty discord.

Colleges and universities, reacting to this rising social unrest, often turned to internal human resource professionals to help resolve tensions on campus. Faculty unions started forming at some state universities in the 1970s, adding more formalized grievance procedures for employment disputes. Additional ADR processes, such as the ombuds office, and the academic department devoted to conflict resolution, were born at many public universities in the 1980s.

More recently, economic challenges have forced many public universities to adopt unpopular measures, such as merging de partments, increasing teaching loads, or eliminating support staff. These changes have put a different kind of a strain on the campus environment, leading to or exacerbating in terpersonal conflict between peers. As one observer notes, the same attributes of the university workplace that allows it to tolerate conflict in relatively stable times, may not make it especially well equipped to handle high conflict between peers in times of belt-tightening:

The culture of higher education makes the competition-individualism mode of conflict much too prevalent. …