John P. Frazee, Director of Faculty Relations, University of Colorado-Boulder
Adapted from "When Private Animosities Distort Professional Judgment" Chronicle of Higher Education, October 31, 2007 Link here
For more than two decades, my academic career followed a traditional path as I moved through the faculty ranks and then into administration, where I was a department chairman, then a dean, and, eventually, an academic vice president.
This year, however, my career took a very nontraditional turn when I became the University of Colorado at Boulder's first director of faculty relations. In my new role, unusual if not unique in higher education, I work with faculty members, department heads, and deans to resolve issues of conflict and conduct in their work lives.
Conflict is not, in itself, a bad thing. Intellectual conflict is the engine that drives the research. But some kinds of conflict are unproductive and even harmful. When the give-and-take of vigorous debate morphs into something personal, when private animosities distort professional judgment, and when disagreements are expressed in rude, disrespectful, or even unprofessional behavior, everyone in the department suffers, along with the department's reputation and possibly the university's.
As director of faculty relations, my responsibility is to develop an institutional response to that kind of conflict and its fallout. My new position is the result of the serendipitous convergence of the university's evolving understanding of the importance of workplace issues and my own evolving understanding of how I wanted to spend the remainder of my career.
Once I first became a department chairman, I quickly discovered that resolving unproductive conflicts had become my responsibility, presumably falling under that catchall heading, "other duties as assigned."
When two of my colleagues could barely sit in the same room to discuss the fall schedule, it was up to me to "fix" the problem. I had no training in conflict resolution -- and, at least at first, no interest. I considered their interpersonal drama a disagreeable distraction from my real duties. If those two would just behave like grown-ups and professionals, I grumbled to myself, I could get on with the real work of revising curricula, hiring new faculty members, and securing more money for my department. Ah, if only the chair's role were so simple.
Over the next 17 years, I gained administrative experience and, with it, a deeper understanding of how universities work. I came to appreciate the magnitude of the harm done by unproductive conflict, not only to those involved but also to the college as a whole. Resolving conflicts and dealing effectively with unprofessional behavior became more central to my understanding of my role as an administrator.
At the same time, I began to realize that I was not always in the best position to help. Time was an issue. Many conflicts and cases of unprofessional behavior didn't lend themselves to a single air-clearing meeting, and the many other demands on my time as an administrator made it hard to deal adequately with the more complicated incidents of misconduct and conflict that occurred.
I recognized, too, that my supervisory role was a barrier in dealing with those issues. I could hardly be seen as a disinterested facilitator when, sooner or later, I would be evaluating the performance of those who brought their concerns to me.
I wondered how many disputes didn't reach my desk because one or both parties saw my administrative role as fatally compromising my ability to deal fairly with them.
As administrators often do, I muddled through. But I had a nagging sense that there had to be a better way.
Last year, when I began to consider how I would like to spend the remainder of my career, my thoughts turned to the conduct and conflict issues that had been a recurring frustration. I began to talk with others about what a job dealing directly with those issues might look like.
The outline of the position gradually became clear. First, it would be a full-time responsibility, not something shoehorned in between meetings on other matters. Second, the person hired would not only provide direct services (e.g., mediation, conflict assessment, investigation, training) but also serve as an advocate for policy changes to reduce the potential for conflict and to manage it more effectively when it occurred. Third, the person in the position would need to have access to top administrators while exercising considerable independence, so that he or she would be seen as both influential and impartial.
Self-serving as it may sound, I also believed that the position, as I imagined it, would require someone with a background similar to my own. I knew that faculty members would be very skeptical of anyone who hadn't come through the ranks and seen the institution from the perspective of a faculty member. At the same time, I knew that department heads and deans would be unlikely to seek or accept the advice of anyone who hadn't had significant experience in similar roles. Having been both a successful faculty member and a successful administrator would be crucial.
For its part, the University of Colorado at Boulder was moving toward similar conclusions. Both the faculty leadership and the administration recognized that there was a gap in services for ensuring the integrity and civility of the academic side of the university.
The university already had staff members and procedures in place to handle serious forms of misconduct like sexual harassment, race discrimination, and research misconduct. It also had created a faculty ombudsman program that offered conflict-resolution services.
But many conflicts didn't lend themselves to the confidential, strictly voluntary mediation services of the ombudsman's office. For example, Professor Smith may not see -- or may refuse to acknowledge -- that a conflict even exists with Professor Wesson. ("There's no conflict: Wesson just needs to stop disagreeing with everything I say.")
Or the conflict between Professor Smith and Professor Wesson may have endured or escalated to the point that Wesson sees himself not as a party to a conflict but as the victim of Smith's bad behavior. In those situations, Smith wants justice, not mediation. Sometimes, Smith and Wesson may both see themselves as the injured party.
For such conflicts, voluntary mediation isn't the best option. What's required instead is someone who can reach out to all the parties involved, develop a full understanding of the circumstances, paint a picture of what the future holds if the conflict goes unresolved, build trust, and broker the conditions in which mediation could proceed and be successful.
Sometimes, too, one of the parties to a conflict is, in fact, the victim of unprofessional behavior, such as bullying, intimidation, or other disruptive acts. Those situations call for disciplinary action, not mediation.
It became clear that the university needed someone who could address conflicts between faculty members in all their variety and complexity. The person in that role would need to be able to apply one or more of a range of options, from informal coaching and mediation to formal assessment of conflicts and investigation of misconduct, as the circumstances required.
After months of study and discussion, the university decided to create the position of director of faculty relations to meet that need. The job was structured very much in the way I had imagined it should be, and the university sought candidates whose qualifications closely matched my own.
When I was eventually offered the job, I accepted with a strong sense that this is the logical, if unconventional, capstone to my career. How many of us have an opportunity at any point in our careers to create something new, something that holds the promise of making the university a better place for all its employees?
That my new position is at my undergraduate alma mater makes this convergence of interests -- and my commitment to my new line of work -- all the more gratifying.