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?

When my sister and I were younger and in our "fighting phase", my parents made us stand outside on the front porch until we resolved our issues. It was snowing. We solved that one pretty quick.

I'm sure there aren't any legal issues involved in locking two people in a room until everything is hashed out. None at all. ;)
What's worse is a three person program where two faculty are feuding and the third is pre-tenure and caught in the middle. Leaving seems the only sane option. There are no consequences for bad behavior in academia, so I have yet to come up with or see any viable solutions.
For the last 2-3 years have been embroiled in a bitter feud between two faculty members, who are part of a 5-member department. I think that this is worse, because 'innocent' people end up being sucked into an untenable situation, while it would be much easier to just write off the 2-faculty department as, "those two deserve each other".

The worst part of all is that both of the feuders each feel that they alone are the deeply-injured party, and run to an authority (Dean, VP, Prez, Union) at every opportunity. As the Dean, I am commonly the first target of the vitriol, but when I prove to have unacceptable solutions (e.g. admission that both share responsibility for the feud), they head up the ladder.

As a result, I have been the recipient of unfair labor practice, hostile workplace environment and discrimination charges, and have been told in no uncertain terms that keeping my job hangs on resolution of the feud. I have been compelled to attend conflict resolution workshops (advice to workshop facilitators: find some $%&@# real-world scenarios instead of the ridiculous role-playing scenarios you all use!) and been subjected to withering cross-examinations from our HR folks.

Any advice would be deeply appreciated, as I am approaching quitting over this one.
As a short-time administrator who will revert to tenured faculty status in 49 days, my experience is that there is no solution. About 10% of my faculty are idiots and/or a'holes. There is no working with them. Lifetime tenure emboldens them all sorts of bad behavior.
I would start laying a paper trail on both of them.

Also, to confirm -- we're assuming that one of them isn't pretty much completely in the wrong. Is this assumption valid?
Retirement or resignation--that's the only way I've ever seen feuds that deeply entrenched resolved. Dilution (as in more faculty in the department) helps, but that's usually not an option.
I have never before heard of such a thing happening. Interesting.
If this were a sitcom, you could see to it that they were stuck in an elevator together over a weekend, and let them hash out their differences (as well as inevitable unspoken sexual tension) over the two-and-a-half day entrapment.

Please check to ensure that you're in a sitcom before attempting.
Isn't this one of the reasons for proliferation/consolidation of departments?
Take a cue from federal managers, who also find it very arduous and painful to fire anyone: re-organize your way out of the conflict. Won't cure the problem, but can avoid some of the worst symptoms.

Though I guess this requires a lot of cooperation from the rest of the faculty, doesn't it?
Anonymous 7:26--

Ten percent assholes and idiots seems about right, whether it's teachers, plumbers, cops, grocery clerks, or any group of human beings, including students and college administrators.

Of course, we spend about 90% of our time dealing with these ten percenters, but that's life.

Resolving "feuds" like the one DD describes is probably not going to happen, and that's life, too.

I guess all your comments have disappeared due to Bloggerfail. Will they ever come back?
Blogger says they will return.
They are gone forever.

Sunday 8 pm EDT
Heh, or not.
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