‘Collegiality’ has become an empty word


As we in the northern hemisphere inch past the winter solstice, the lure of the cosy log fire grows ever greater. Of course, such extravagances are rare indeed in your average academic office, but those bereft of nature’s elemental comfort could do worse than cuddle up around the glow of academia’s cosiest word.

“Collegiality” conjures up the bygone image of a gentler, more benign era. But when academics bemoan the “loss” of collegiality, is it anything other than a longing for a golden age that never actually existed?

In 1988, James Bess of New York University identified three distinct kinds of collegiality in his book Collegiality and Bureaucracy in the Modern University: The Influence of Information and Power on Decision-Making Structures. The first is what he called “structural collegiality”: the academic self-governance that has its historical roots in Oxbridge colleges. This has been in retreat across the world in recent decades as universities have been steadily corporatised. Even in its post-war heyday, though, it was never a very inclusive ideal by today’s standards, amounting to rule by a small elite of almost exclusively white, male, senior professors. It was certainly never about democracy.

“Collegiality” can also be understood as a sense of shared values. This is what Bess called “cultural collegiality”, and it depends on groups of academics having a lot in common. Yet academia was never a real “profession” and is now increasingly divided on the basis of teaching and research contracts. (In the UK and Australia, for example, only about 50 per cent of academics are still on “all-round” contracts that include both teaching and research.) This unbundling process has its roots in the 1970s and 1980s, when universities reinvented themselves as research-based institutions. I say “reinvented” because, back then, only a tiny proportion of academics – even in so-called elite institutions – had a PhD or much interest in research. The upside of this situation was that they had considerably more time and space to teach, control their research agenda (if they had one) and support one another without the constant pressures to bring in money and produce certain kinds of research.

Furthermore, the model of the corporate university means that a deep divide has opened up between managers and academics. So forget cultural collegiality across institutions. We live in a divided academy.

My own university still identifies collegiality as one of its four core principles, but defines it in different terms again. For the University of Southampton, collegiality means “one team working, planning and delivering together, toward our shared vision”. This is an example of what Bess called “behavioural collegiality”. It is about supportive relationships between academics as colleagues.

Although this idea sounds attractive, it too is in retreat as the language of audits, targets and performance reviews becomes ever more pervasive. Who is prepared to review papers any more? Who will second-mark an assignment? Who will write a book review? How much time do we really spend mentoring junior colleagues, as opposed to reporting on and claiming credit for our academic citizenship? Behavioural collegiality and collaboration are genuinely encouraged only when they bring benefits to the bottom line: more publications, more research grants and so on. This is collegiality-as-performativity – or competition in disguise.

Of course, the word “collegiality” survives as part of the sacred language of higher education, to which we all feel required to pledge our commitment. And it may still be a bit more than a fantasy, because academic friendship and cooperation will always exist. But its essence has been hollowed out. Our private behaviour belies our public platitudes; the real order of the day is to get on with our next paper or grant application.

Universities, in reality, were never very collegial, but they are even less so now. Those seeking midwinter cheer will have to gather around the departmental Christmas tree instead.

Author Bio: Bruce Macfarlane is professor of higher education at the University of Southampton.