Is Congeniality Overrated?

July 30, 2002

A leading researcher at Ohio University attended a faculty meeting one day only to learn that a committee of his peers had voted to eliminate his program without advance warning or his input.

He was appalled. In essence, the faculty panel had streamlined courses of study and cut his out in the process. Nobody had consulted with him until the matter came up for a vote. A tenured professor known for his even temper, he lost it temporarily, raising objections along with his voice.

His colleagues sympathized congenially, noting that a scholar of his caliber surely would make an impact in another area of study and expressing concern about his perception of things. "I'm sorry that you feel you were left out of the process," one said.

His feelings had nothing to do with it. He was left out of the process.

Professors in his situation often respond angrily, only to be accused of being uncollegial. After all, in the case of my colleague -- whose identity I am concealing because he has taken another position as a result of this incident -- didn't a committee agree on a proposal, advancing it to the entire faculty for a vote? Isn't that shared governance? Shouldn't this professor simply have accepted his fate congenially and then gone on to new pursuits in keeping with his department's priorities?

Or was his indignation justified because his colleagues were less than collegial?

I have weighed in on dozens of such cases as a former adviser on ethics to the president at Ohio University and in my current role as associate director of the university's journalism school and as a member of the tenure and promotion committee of our Faculty Senate.

In the above case, committee members made their decision without consulting those affected by their proposal. That violates the spirit of inclusive shared governance, which entails more than votes in an official proceeding. It requires advance notice, feedback opportunities, and communication and listening skills. The committee had done too little of that with this particular researcher. As a result, he felt ambushed in the faculty meeting by a committee that, while congenial, had not been particularly collegial.

I've discerned four basic cultures that characterize faculty relations on any particular campus. The ideal is supposed to be the culture that is both collegial (shared governance is mindful and inclusive) and congenial (faculty members are friendly and agreeable, acknowledging the contributions of their peers across academic ranks.) Then there's the culture that is collegial, but uncongenial (faculty members are known to dislike each other, challenging each other's contributions and viewpoints according to clique, pedagogy, research specialty, or personal agenda). The third culture is one that is congenial, but uncollegial (governance is arbitrary and exclusive, but faculty members seem friendly and agreeable.) Finally, there are the poisonous cultures that are both uncollegial and uncongenial. People are guarded and untrustful, and the atmosphere is unpleasant and unproductive.

I used to believe that the collegial, congenial environment was the one colleges should aim toward. I have doubts now about the value of congeniality, which Webster's unabridged dictionary defines as "agreeable or pleasing in nature or character." How do you legislate that via faculty handbook or generate that via departmental picnic? What pleases the extrovert often displeases the introvert and vice versa. What is agreeable in nature or character to a person of one heritage or lifestyle often is disagreeable to a person of another heritage or lifestyle. Congeniality, in a word, is relative.

Maybe there exists a pleasing, agreeable department that is multicultural, interdisciplinary, politically balanced, and otherwise diverse. But I have seen too many collegial, congenial departments whose members are generally of one sex, one race, one pedagogy or research protocol, and otherwise homogenous. For instance, this might be the clubby milieu of a male-dominated department in the hard sciences whose members share the same demographics, psychographics, and lifestyle. Another such unit in the social or political sciences might include members uniformly liberal (public institution) or conservative (church-affiliated institution).

You get the idea.

These are gross generalities, of course, as I am trying to be congenial and not name names. Nonetheless, though touted by administrators as "model" departments, the cultures of these ideal departments typically showcase an untested or a pompous self-assuredness. Likewise their research productivity usually maintains the status quo. In any case, many collegial, congenial units are at risk as soon as they heed calls for diversity and interdisciplinary collaboration or must deal with trailing partners and other appointments whose politics have gone unscreened.

I have come to respect the benefits of the collegial, uncongenial model -- perhaps the most common in academe -- often misunderstood by the public and state legislatures (not to mention administrators). True, the working environment might be unpleasant at times and challenging; but the culture of steadfast shared governance -- mindful of contrary viewpoints -- sharpens both teaching and research, because professors have something to prove, if not to themselves, then to rivals. Moreover, such units usually are as multicultural, interdisciplinary, and politically diverse as the viewpoints of faculty from dissimilar demographics, psychographics, and lifestyles. That, in fact, is often the fuel that fires the uncongenial but collegial atmosphere.

Department heads and directors who run such units (a brave lot, those!) quickly learn to serve the constituents below rather than the deaneries above them, protecting shared governance because, if they don't, the faculty may opt to replace them. Because professors teach unconventionally or produce cutting-edge research in such a culture, students are the main beneficiaries, exposed to myriad ideas, methodologies, and mentors -- a key factor, incidentally, in attracting and retaining a diverse student population and professoriate.

I have seen this milieu in departments in every college on every campus, including my own. But the insight was driven home at a recent faculty meeting to discuss the criteria for tenure. Dennis Irwin, dean of our College of Engineering, was speaking in favor of maintaining strong tenure standards. To alter such standards, even when individual situations seem to justify doing so, he said, is contrary to time-honored tenets of inclusive shared governance. He spoke of the discord in his own school. "We may dislike each other intensely," he mused, "but they are damned good professors." Even those who speak against or challenge each other realize that about their colleagues, Irwin added.

In sum, the focus is on professional respect.

Irwin, like many chairs in such units, has his share of detractors. Every day is a balancing act, and that keeps him sharp. But his utmost concern is that the culture in his school elevates collegiality over congeniality. "A criticism I hear sometimes is that we don't do many social things," Irwin says. "But that is not what we are here for. Whether we like each other or not, we're here to discover new knowledge and to pass that to our students."

It is students who suffer in the remaining two cultures. An uncollegial but congenial culture, at the core, is not only hypocritical -- and students, especially in graduate programs, intuit that -- but also inherently superficial. Professors of diverse backgrounds or heritages typically feel like token representatives, not because they or their accomplishments go unacknowledged, for that would be unmannerly, but because their ideas seldom influence key decisions. When they object to that, they are dismissed as uncollegial or spoken to condescendingly. That undermines trust which in turn impedes productivity in the classroom or laboratory, affecting student learning.

The welfare of students is an afterthought in an uncollegial, uncongenial department. Decisions are made by clique rather than by shared governance. Votes are cast based on who has made the proposal, rather than on what was proposed. So much energy is wasted in vitriolic e-mail exchanges, memos, grievances, and complaints, that little or no productivity results. Professors are exhausted with nothing to show for their efforts, beyond gossip and innuendo. Bonds are forged not by pedagogy or protocol but by faction or guilt-association.

Such departments can become healthy again, but only if they embrace inclusive shared governance. Here are a few ways to accomplish that:

Define "collegiality." Without an inclusive designation derived from the faculty handbook, the term is defined by one's perception rather than by one's contract. My notion of collegiality is based on tenets of academic freedom and professional ethics so vital to shared governance that these concepts come first in our Faculty Handbook.

Allow professors to help set the agenda. Chairs or directors who exclusively set agendas for meetings usually are doing a dean's bidding. With inclusive governance, every faculty member, especially the untenured, should feel free to propose, shape, or amend policies. Legislation should evolve from committees whose members routinely seek input from colleagues and stakeholders. When such legislation is advanced to the faculty, professors should have ample time to read it so that they can express cogent viewpoints or present additional information. Nothing is more uncollegial than surprise proposals distributed at the start of a meeting.

Give probationary faculty members their own forum. Newer professors often are excluded from promotion and tenure meetings, usually for their own protection. A probationary faculty member who votes against the promotion of an associate professor may experience payback, for instance. Closed sessions -- however nobly conceived -- must be balanced by open forums for untenured faculty members to inspire candid discussions without fear of retribution from departmental power brokers. At my journalism school, we have begun a roundtable lunch in which junior faculty members can have frank talks about concerns with such hosts as the university's president, Robert Glidden, or the chairman of the Faculty Senate, Hubertus Bloemer.

Surely, there are other ways to encourage inclusive shared governance. All such initiatives, however, must be based on a universally acknowledged definition of collegiality derived from shared governance that elevates inclusiveness over personality, productivity over sociability, and community over congeniality.

Michael J. Bugeja is associate director of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. His latest book is Living Without Fear: Understanding Cancer and the New Therapies (Whitson Publishing, 2001).