October 31, 2017 | Academic Affairs

By Philip Pecorino

While as academics, we all value the principle of Academic Freedom and open discourse: core principles upon which the academic enterprise is based, and the foundation for some of the best discoveries of scholarship. Academic freedom does not entitle faculty to be uncivil or non-collegial. Neither, however, is a lack of civility or collegiality a sufficient reason to deny faculty appointments, reappointments, tenure, or promotion. The use of “collegiality,” and increasingly, linked references to “civility,” as an additional yardsticks for assessing faculty in the academy poses a dangerous threat to the academic enterprise.

It is far better to use the more traditional standard of “service” as one of the basic three areas for assessment of faculty than to add a fourth. This is so because “collegiality” can too often be construed as congeniality or as civility or as being agreeable. With “service” the willingness of faculty to work with their colleagues should suffice to assess how a member of the collegium is contributing to the whole. Imposing ‘collegiality’ as another criterion makes willingness to work with colleagues turn into agreeing with colleagues. This endangers communities of inquiry.  Dissent and disagreement sharpens thought and prods the development of more secure positions. Aggressive attempts to falsify hypotheses and disprove claims leads to more secure conclusions that can be held with greater confidence by critical inquirers in all fields of thought in the academy.

A faculty with no dissenters is not a desideratum for higher educational institutions or for any academic discipline. A robust faculty is going to have plenty of dissenters and curmudgeons and eccentrics and their participation in genuine debate and exchanges makes for a more robust collegium.

As a criterion for appraising faculty performance in consideration of reappointment or tenure or even for removal from the faculty “collegiality” should be excluded and for good reason. It is not used to credit a faculty member but appears to be invoked only in a negative action.  No faculty are reappointed or promoted because they have even demonstrably large amounts of “collegiality.” There are no recognition awards for “collegiality” as there are for scholarship and teaching and even for service to the community and institution.

“Collegiality” appears to be invoked when someone has exhibited behavior displeasing to others. And this make its use all the more dangerous at this time. The nation is more divided than many can ever recall and there are heated voices expressing many points of views and in strong reaction to other voices.  In such a time behaviors found to be offensive have increased in number. But when we use terms like “harassment” or “bullying” and “non-collegial” all too liberally to characterize unpleasant behavior, we endanger the freedom of speech and expression of academic judgments in the academy by transforming opinions and self-expression—the lifeblood of the academy—into actions meriting discipline. What was previously “unpleasant” is now harassment or bullying—what was once legitimate disagreement becomes “incivility” or an absence of “collegiality.”

Collegiality and Performance Metrics

In 1999 the AAUP condemned the use of “collegiality” as a criterion for faculty evaluation and updated its position in 2016. The AAUP report held that “Certainly an absence of collegiality ought never, by itself, to constitute a basis for nonreappointment, denial of tenure, or dismissal for cause.” Further there was the note that “even when collegiality is not employed as a separate criterion in conducting faculty evaluations, if the term is improperly used to denote civility or congeniality, it should play no role in evaluating a faculty member’s performance.”

Despite warnings from those wanting to safeguard the basic tenets upon which the academy rests, more and more administrators are employing the problematic terms of “collegiality,” “civility,” and “congeniality” in descriptions of faculty behavior, and encouraging their use as criteria. The University of Arkansas system is even considering changes in its tenure policy. The proposed revision would cite a “pattern of disruptive conduct or unwillingness to work productively with colleagues” as a basis for denying tenure.

Two higher-education consultants, Jeffrey L. Buller, Dean of the honors college at Florida Atlantic University, and Robert E. Cipriano, a professor emeritus of recreation and leisure studies at Southern Connecticut State University, have, meanwhile, developed instruments to assess “collegiality”: the Collegiality Assessment Matric and the Self-Assessment Matrix. These instruments support and encourage the use of “collegiality” as a distinct criterion for use with personnel review in consideration of reappointment, tenure and promotion decisions.

CUNY and Collegiality

Where are we in CUNY?  The CUNY Chancellery had been developing a proposal for the adoption as policy by the Board of Trustees on Freedom of Expression and Expressive Conduct. As of this writing, it has been held in abeyance. Yet in the nation and the city more and more faculty are coming under greater scrutiny for their positions on matters of controversy rather than for their teaching abilities or scholarship.  Some have even faced disciplinary actions that have taken them from the classroom. The rise of such an environment argues that such a policy is needed now, more than ever.

In the last of the drafts for that policy there is this expression that “Although members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however disagreeable or offensive they may be to some members of the University community.”  Neither should such concerns form the basis for assessment of faculty. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch has taken the position that suppressing disagreement in the name of civility is wrong.  And suppressing disagreement by removing disagreeable members of the faculty is a version of that wrong.

Disciplining or removing faculty who are disagreeable under the guise of lack of civility or collegiality is offensive to the principles of the academy. The academy should take a stand to protect itself from this threat to the security of its foundation stones.

Philip Pecorino is a professor of Philosophy at Queensborough Community College, where he chairs the Faculty Executive Committee.  He also serves on the UFS Executive Committee.

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