Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Professors Hatfield and McCoy

What should a college do when the two members of a two-person department are locked in a feud?

Feuds can be toxic enough in larger departments, but there, a one-on-one battle can usually be subsumed under larger numbers. Department meetings may be uncomfortable, but the program can usually remain relatively unscathed.

But when the entire department is two people, drowning out the conflict just isn’t an option.

I’ve seen interfaculty feuds that boiled down to a single incident; those can sometimes be either resolved or at least made irrelevant over time. I’ve seen feuds based on philosophical positions; those tend to be irresolvable, but are often containable. Feuds based on personality are much tougher, since it’s hard to put a personality aside. But feuds that manage to combine, say, personality and philosophy are really, really hard.

Mediation can work when the issue is a single incident, but I’ve never seen it work with deep conflicts. Common projects can sometimes help, but if the two people just manage to piss each other off without even trying, they can also just add fuel to the fire.

At some level, of course, it’s possible to argue that the feud is only a problem to the two people directly involved. But over time, that’s just not the case. Students get conflicting advice; scheduling becomes a nightmare; decisions get made out of spite, rather than out of the good of the program. Even in their saner moments, if they have radically different philosophies about the program, just getting them to agree on what “the good of the program” actually is can be impossible.

In a perfect world, deans and managers would be able to wave the managerial wand and make everybody play nice. But this is not a perfect world. And with tenure, the option of just getting rid of one of them is off the table.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a situation like this handled well? Is there a trick to it?