Collegiality in Higher Education Employment Decisions…
Monday, September 5, 2011 at 5:04PM
Kerry Brian Melear

Defining collegiality in the workplace inevitably ends with a nebulous rendering of the concept.  After all, unless you live in Valhalla, we’ve all encountered the ghastly, the curmudgeonly, the selfish, or the just plain mean.  People who make students cry, for example, and seem to think that is acceptable or even laudable.

But haven’t we all dabbled in behavior on which we look back with a certain amount of regret?  Of course we have (if you haven’t, you’re a better person than I am, but that is hardly a stretch).

However, I refer here to those employees who are consistently problematic in the work environment, those who despite their recurring positive evaluations are actually poisonous to your institution, students, and community.

So what is to be done with them? 

Embrace the collegiality standard that has been regularly upheld by courts across the country.

I recently co-authored an article on this subject with Mary Ann Connell, former university attorney at the University of Mississippi and currently of counsel with Mayo Mallette in Oxford, MS, and Derek Savage, general counsel at Johns Hopkins University.  They co-authored an article on this score a decade ago in the Journal of College and University Law, and we recently updated the study, focusing on collegiality cases filed during the past ten years.  The article was published in the summer 2011 edition of the Journal (volume 37, number 3).

There were some interesting changes in how collegiality is approached by courts and by institutions over the last ten years.  For example, tenure and promotion decisions are no longer the exclusive province of collegiality discussions.  Our review yielded numerous cases in which collegiality has been used a criterion in faculty employment decisions outside of the tenure process. 

For example, cantankerous adjunct faculty applicants for tenure track positions have been successfully denied by using collegiality as one basis for the denial.  The idea is that the full-time faculty noted that they found a particular adjunct unpleasant to work with on a part-time basis and didn’t want to extend an opportunity for a lifetime appointment. 

Courts have roundly upheld the use of collegiality, as long as it is not employed as a veil for unlawful discrimination, and the number of institutions including collegiality statements in faculty or employee handbooks has increased.  To be collegial is not the same as to be congenial, and courts have regularly endorsed that position.   A person needn’t necessarily be nice to be a team player.

I encourage those who are responsible for evaluating faculty employees to do so honestly and with vigor.  If you have hired someone who refuses to abide by the rules of polite society, then make that clear in evaluations.  This saves valuable time and precious resources by stemming the tide of litigation that results when those who exhibit poor collegiality are allowed to reach point at which they stand for tenure or promotion (or other concerns) and are denied for various reasons.

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