Conflict in academic settings can come in
many different forms, which makes managing it both challenging and interesting.
Consider the following examples:
n Students in a criminology class complain
because some fellow students, undercover
policemen in their day jobs, wear their
weapons to class.
n An instructor complains because a student
considers it her right to breastfeed her 30
month old son in the front row of class.
n An instructor in a conflict management
class asks for help in dealing with two of her
students with whom she was having conflict.
n A religious studies instructor asks for
clarification about the policy for a student
missing class, because the student would
be in jail for a month.
n A psychology student goes off his meds
and threatens to sue the university because
he believes the instructor hates him and is
working against him. The instructor admits
that he doesn’t like the student, who is
disruptive in class.
College and university settings differ from most
other settings in ways that affect how conflicts
arise and how they can be managed. Multiple
constituencies require a shifting of roles on a regular
basis. A department chair can serve as a faculty
advocate, a course instructor, a mediator of student
problems, a facilitator of faculty decision making, and
the person charged with discipline of staff, faculty,
or students. The multiple roles require adaptable
conflict management competencies.
Problems encountered in academia often possess
an urgency not found in other settings. When a
student is perceived as stalking another student,
when the online platform for a class goes down,
when an instructor doesn’t show up for a class or
when a class location changes without a student
knowing about it, shock waves are felt across
departments. Problems that we would expect to
be addressed by calm discussion and resolution
are treated as emergencies due to the complex
reporting structures as well as student needs. The
student in any of these cases might call the student
services line, where she would be connected to an
advisor; the advisor, who does not understand the
program or know the student, therefore notifies
the registrar that there is a problem; the registrar
contacts the Dean. Academic leaders must calm
fears while looking for the sources of problems and
people who can solve them.
A complex decentralized structure in academic
settings can make problem solving especially
challenging. It is often difficult to find the source of a
problem or find out who has the authority to resolve
the problem. A decision maker in one department
may say “no,” while a decision maker in another
department counters with “why not?”
Problems can cross administrative silos each pos-
sessing multiple veto points that can make it difficult
to decide anything. Enforcement of policies can differ
between silos. Some departments may hold firmly to
policies while others grant lots of exceptions.
The decentralized structure may also support
a culture of blaming. One department can blame
another. Faculty can blame a Dean. The Dean
can blame faculty. Students can blame anybody
who doesn’t give them what they demand. Since
authority is diffuse, identifying responsibility for
anything can be difficult.
Academic administrators, usually well-meaning
people with strong integrity and idealistic goals,
find themselves conflicted when asked to assess
program quality, improve graduation rates, live
within fiscal realities, or address the needs of a few
demanding students. Research suggests that many
department heads and their deans are not trained in
the kinds of conflicts they will encounter (and may
be appointed to those roles with little administrative
training or experience of any kind).
All this can make higher education a challenging environment for managing conflict. Traditionally,
conflict management discussions center on five different approaches: cooperation, accommodation,
compromising, avoiding, and competing. The type of
problem influences the style chosen. However, we
suggest a range of tactics that combines elements
of the first three approaches, integrating a little of
each in attempts to reduce, contain, or prevent conflict before it escalates to positioning. This range of
tactics can be used by faculty and administrators
who are involved conflict either with each other or
Managing Conflict in Academic Settings
About the Authors
is Professor and
Chair of the Department of Behavioral
and Social Sciences
at Regis University.
He has served as
an ADR practitioner
for 25 years and is
co-author of 3 books
and 15 journal
is the Dean of
the School of
Social Sciences at
Regis University in
She has over 20
years of experience
in higher education
and is a speaker
Michael Spangle, Ph.D.
and Elisa Robyn, Ph.D.