AustLII Home | Databases | WorldLII | Search | Feedback

Legal Education Digest

Legal Education Digest
You are here:  AustLII >> Databases >> Legal Education Digest >> 2005 >> [2005] LegEdDig 61

Database Search | Name Search | Recent Articles | Noteup | LawCite | Author Info | Download | Help

Seigel, M L --- "On Collegiality" [2005] LegEdDig 61; (2005) 14(2) Legal Education Digest 19

On Collegiality

M L Seigel

[2005] LegEdDig 61; (2005) 14(2) Legal Education Digest 19

54 J Legal Educ 3, 2004, pp 406–441

This article seeks to fill some of the void. The first part attempts to define the term collegiality. It turns out that there is a wide disparity between formal definitions and common usages of the word. The literature on collegiality provides only moderate assistance in fashioning a definition. Collegiality has been variously defined as the ability to ’get along,’ ‘fit in’, or ‘work well with colleagues’ or to ‘demonstrate good academic citizenship’ or ‘contribute to a collegial atmosphere’.

Statements on good practices and professional ethics for university and law teachers provide additional, but limited, aid in defining collegiality. Interestingly, these statements shy away from explicit use of the term, though they include some exhortations that most observers would consider as falling under a collegiality umbrella.

Similarly, the Association of American Law Schools’ (AALS) Statement of Good Practices by Law Professors in the Discharge of their Ethical and Professional Responsibilities contains a section devoted to ‘Responsibilities to Colleagues.’ Baseline collegiality requires that one conduct all disagreements with civility and through means solely designed, as the AALS admonishes, to persuade on the merits. It certainly does not mean that a faculty member needs to ‘fit in’ with his colleagues in any fashion whatsoever. Moreover, collegiality does not necessarily require ‘showing due respect for the opinion of others.’ There is nothing uncollegial, in its baseline sense, in refraining from unnecessary interaction with colleagues or the administration. Thus a collegial person might be an introvert or loner; these are simply a personality trait and lifestyle, respectively, not problems.

The best colleagues are more than passively collegial; they are actively so. Affirmatively collegial faculty typically go beyond the call of duty in some aspects of their job, depending upon their interests and talents. They might take on additional teaching assignments, perhaps to relieve an overburdened peer, or to ensure that their colleagues can take sabbaticals when eligible, or simply out of dedication to students. Just as society cannot successfully legislate morality, neither can the academic profession require affirmative collegiality. Nor should it. In furtherance of the fundamental search for knowledge, academia must have room for productive people who may be too consumed by their teaching, research or external service to devote much energy to their institution or peers. Indeed, academia should also be accepting of brilliant teachers and scholars who may be narcissists or social misfits.

Unfortunately, the conduct of some law teachers is counterproductive. These individuals move from the neutral territory of passive collegiality to the hostile terrain of affirmative uncollegiality. Lack of collegiality should not be confused with good faith criticism and pressure for change. Some understanding of the causes of uncollegiality in academia can form a constructive backdrop to a discussion of what can and should be done to combat it.

Academics view the ability to voice opinions without restraint, safe from review or retribution, as the essence of academic freedom. In the free-for-all atmosphere of academia, collegiality requires distinguishing disagreement with or even disdain for a person’s ideas from disdain for the person. It also requires drawing distinctions between areas of intellectual debate, where conciliation and compromise are inappropriate, and other areas of disagreement, for instance regrading matters of institutional governance, where these behaviours are essential.

Not only do faculty exert a great deal of authority over institutional policy, most do so with the protection of tenure, that is, with a lifetime appointment. Although designed primarily to protect academics against retribution for extreme or unpopular intellectual positions, tenure also means that a teacher is free to take positions contrary to those of colleagues and university administrators on matters of institutional governance. Depending upon the particular field, the academic enterprise tends to be individualistic: faculty pursue their intellectual interests and develop their expertise as essentially autonomous actors. Human nature tempts individual faculty to place a higher value on their own output than that of others. Given the nature of the academic enterprise, lapses in collegiality are bound to occur.

If uncollegiality is defined as behaviour negatively affecting colleagues’ ability to accomplish their tasks, one of the obvious and most important benefits of collegiality is the maintenance of an atmosphere in which individual faculty can maximise personal productivity. Legal academics have yet another critical reason to be collegial: they are the primary role models for future lawyers. Incivility and unethical behaviour in the practice of law have become a serious concern and a number of commentators have traced the root of the problem, at least in part, to law schools. A third reason for maintaining a collegial atmosphere is to attract and retain quality faculty. Given the choice, no one wants to work in an institution characterised by unpleasantness and a lack of collegiality.

Policies aimed at maintaining collegiality in academia are controversial. The fundamental reason for this is the perceived tension between the enforcement of a norm of collegiality and academic freedom. Many academics view tolerance of uncollegiality by peers as the necessary cost of their own protection against institutional interference with their intellectual autonomy. Similarly, uncollegial behaviour receives no protection from the complex doctrine that has developed around the legal concept of academic freedom. In the context of private colleges and universities, academic freedom protects faculty from administrative action only to the extent it is embodied in a faculty member’s employment contract.

None of this is to say that tension between enforcement of collegiality and academic freedom does not exist. The real problem is not actual conflict between the two values but the risk that enforcement of collegiality will be abused, that the autonomy of individual faculty will be unduly circumscribed under the guise of achieving collegiality. Abuse of a collegiality requirement can easily result in someone’s being punished for expressing unpopular views. Collegiality concerns can also be a subterfuge for illegal discrimination.

Overall, the right answer appears to be that a faculty should work to strike a balance; it should enforce an expectation of baseline collegiality, while guarding vigilantly against its use to silence or impede the unusual, unpopular, or unorthodox. If a norm of collegiality is to be enforced, the first enforcers ought to be the faculty. Peer pressure can go a long way toward achieving an atmosphere of institutional collegiality and given its informal nature is the least likely to impinge upon anyone’s academic freedom. If the faculty fails in policing one of its own, of course, administrative action may be warranted.

Assuming that a faculty has adopted a collegiality requirement, and further assuming everyone’s best intentions, occasional lapses in baseline collegiality will nevertheless occur. Although overreaction must be avoided, lapses in the community’s minimum expectations should be systematically addressed. In many cases, the best method of enforcing norms will be some form of simple peer pressure. Colleagues should in the first instance police themselves and each other, avoiding administrative intervention to the extent possible, thereby minimising the potential for conflict with academic freedom. If all methods of peer pressure fail, or if the offensive conduct is such that it could bring liability to the university if not formally addressed, administrative action may be unavoidable. For most academics, uncollegial conduct is the aberration. If appropriate care is taken, academic freedom may flourish at the same time that a norm of basic collegiality is enforced. Failure to maintain collegiality is potentially costly to the morale and productivity of an institution.

AustLII: Copyright Policy | Disclaimers | Privacy Policy | Feedback