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Interpersonal Interactions in the University

A couple of years ago, the ombuds for faculty reported statistical counts of complaints of interpersonal conduct problems that were larger than expected. I wrote about the issue in a post on bullying.

There were various manifestations of this behavior. Some of it seemed to arise from colleagues who failed to treat anyone with respect. That is, there was consistent, universal rude behavior by a given individual. Another set seemed to reflect lack of respect shown toward those in subordinate roles. All of them seemed antithetical to the aspirational culture of Georgetown.

It seems that the social structures of universities complicate our interpersonal relations. As social scientists note, there is a multidimensional stratification within the university community.

The educational mission uses groups with different rights. Full professors, associate professors, assistant professors, adjunct professors have different privileges. Nontenure line faculty have different roles than tenure line faculty. The roles may be different, but each role is necessary for the university to achieve its mission. Building a culture where there is mutual respect, understanding, mutual care across these roles is critical for a healthy university.

The research environment has similar groupings that vary in their influence. Research teams sometimes combine tenure-line, research faculty, postdoctoral fellows, predoctoral fellows, and undergraduate research assistants. The members vary on their level of knowledge of the research area and hence of responsibility for the final product of the research group. Healthy research teams breed a culture where the most senior members treat the full staff with respect, simultaneously mentoring those more junior. In short, mutual respect and status differences are not incompatible

In addition to engaging in education and research, universities support many of the functions of a small city. Administrative staff directly support faculty and students. They provide and oversee housing facilities. They deliver food services to the population. They plan, build, and maintain buildings. They provide physical and mental health services to the population. They run child care facilities. They run utility plants, sewage systems, and internal road networks. They provide transportation and parking services for the population.

These “operations” functions of a university constitute large portions of the personnel and are often organized as they would be in nonacademic environments, with clearer hierarchies and performance criteria than is true in the academic culture. Consistent attention is needed in such hierarchies to nurture appropriate respect across the levels of the hierarchies.

In short, status differences in university education, research, and operations, sometimes are related to lack of respect shown across roles. It is unhealthy for the university to tolerate such disrespect.

Recently, Georgetown created a Professional Conduct Working Group, with members throughout the university. This group works under the leadership of Tony Kinslow, the Vice President and Chief Human Resources Office of the University, and Elliott Crooke, Senior Associate Dean of Faculty and Academic Affairs and a GUMC professor. It seeks first to gather information about the nature of interpersonal work behaviors, with attention to inappropriate and bullying actions. A set of group dialogues are planned. From this first step, we all may learn of the nature of the good and bad features of how we treat one another. Such knowledge could inform any needed interventions.

We are living through times of great stress induced by a global pandemic, the uncertainties in how best to conduct the mission of the university, almost daily incidents of racial injustice in the country, and reduced in-person interaction among us. This is a time during which the success of the university greatly needs mutual respect and understanding across all groups. The Jesuit notion of the presupposition that all are acting in good will has never been more valuable. Each of us has a responsibility to nurture a culture of mutual respect and care. The new Working Group can guide us in this effort.

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