How to Play Nicely with Colleagues on Campus

When people are exposed to research and have an opportunity to reflect on the kind of leaders they are, that’s when civil behavior occurs.

Since Dr. P. M. Forni of Johns Hopkins University MD published Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct in 2002, new interest in civility is sweeping campuses. Some faculty and staff assume it’s a student issue. Don’t grown-ups treat each other just fine?

Not always, says George Brelsford , associate VP for student affairs and dean of students at Rowan University NJ. Starting from Forni’s 25 rules, he led a session on colleague-to-colleague civility at a PaperClip Communications conference at American University DC in January.

Four words sum up the message of Forni’s book, he said: “Don’t be a jerk.” Most people are civil most of the time but it doesn’t take much to harm relationships and sully the campus atmosphere. Those who want to teach students civility must model it themselves.

“If you’re thinking about civil behavior, you start seeing uncivil behavior everywhere,” he told WIHE. Time pressure, competition and hierarchy can lead faculty and staff to interact disrespectfully.

Campus politics

“University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” Often attributed to Henry Kissinger, this quip reflects a common experience. Power and politics are part of every conversation on campus.

Forni’s Rule #2 is “Acknowledge others while Rule #5 is “Be inclusive.” Status plays a big role in who gets drawn in or shut out. Intentional or not, it’s insulting to be ignored.

Despite talk of community, an “us-them” mentality pervades higher education: faculty vs. administration, students vs. faculty, and so forth. It happens because “power over” is built into the structure. Power differences are unlikely to vanish but it’s all the more reason for leaders to treat others with respect.

Tenure sets up a class system with a deep gulf separating haves and have-nots, and tenure-track from adjunct faculty. Coming up for tenure or recontracting can feel a lot like hazing. Never are staff or faculty more vulnerable professionally. Civil colleagues remember to be gentle.

Departments compete for resources; faculty compete for promotion. Do you know two people who can’t be in the same room without an argument? Some people think they have to act like jerks to get their point across. That’s neither necessary nor excusable, he said.

Dr. Nel Noddings described a more caring and civil style of leadership in Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. While both women and men may be civil or rude, women often put more emphasis on the nurturing aspects of leadership.

Men’s leadership is stereotypically more directive, aimed at the bottom line. “Most of the leadership stuff in higher education we stole from business and we keep score the same way,” he told WIHE. Instead of sales we count students or grants or publications.

Academic schedules are a rush of deadlines and overwork. Keeping score without time for reflection is a recipe for incivility. “When people are exposed to research and have an opportunity to reflect on the kind of leaders they are, that’s when civil behavior occurs,” he said. Structuring such reflective opportunities for faculty and staff can build a more supportive work environment.

Hospitable spaces

His supervisor tells him, “Your office looks like your den.” Brelsford gives two reasons. First, he spends more time there than at home. Second, students rarely look forward to visiting the dean. Toys and a seeing-eye puppy help put them at ease. Your office is an extension of your home, a place to feel comfortable and welcome others as guests.

Similarly, it’s important to respect others’ offices as extensions of their homes. You wouldn’t walk into someone’s home without an invitation. Neither should you barge into her office, even if she reports to you. Senior level staff can model respect for others’ workspaces.

Respect others’ time as well as their space. Be on time for appointments and never bring surprise guests.

Sharing an office is like having a roommate. Though we advise students to talk with roommates to clarify expectations, too often colleagues who share workspace don’t have those conversations. We imagine that being grown-ups will prevent misunderstandings.

Instead of putting a strip of masking tape through the middle of the floor, it’s healthier to talk about what we want and what bothers us. “Those are discussions that are very awkward to have. It takes a long time for norms to develop,” he said.

Role models

Faculty and staff at Rowan often eat in the cafeteria, where students see how they eat and get along. “There’s an opportunity to model the behavior we desperately want students to replicate,” he said.

Most students are respectful of authority. They have a strong sense of justice and let you know if they feel treated unjustly. On the other hand, some lack the basics to get along in the world, like not clutching your fork in your fist. Seniors who do well in an interview may lose the job over lunch.

Civility goes far beyond Miss Manners and Emily Post. It’s about interacting with an ethic of care. Do we pass on sin-cere compliments and avoid chronic complaints? Do we admit and apologize for errors? Can we disagree without attacking? Can we stand up for ourselves without putting others down?

“The best way to elicit civil behavior is to act in a civil manner and to expect civility, and to respond appropriately when uncivil behavior occurs,” he said. When colleagues show they care about each other, campus becomes a welcoming workplace and grows in community.

Contact George Brelsford, 856.256.4257;

Send comments or questions to our editor/publisher, Mary Dee Wenniger

Back   |   Read Archive