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Mission Matters #63 – Collegiality: A Prized Virtue Then & Now 

2018 Faculty-Staff Institute at UIndy

By Michael G. Cartwright, Vice President for University Mission 

This year we are exploring marks of excellence that can be discerned in the past and present of our institution. Virtues are displayed in the context of practices and social relationships, they reflect moral traditions, they are embodied by exemplars, and they are sustained by institutions such as universities.

Anyone who has participated in one of the university seminars offered by the Office of University Mission can tell you that I encourage faculty and staff to be very intentional about embodying collegiality in the way they go about their work as university employees. The seminars (offered second semester) begin by calling attention to exemplars of institutional thinking, and the theme of collegiality crops up throughout the semester in assigned readings as well as other activities. I talk about these activities as “sharing the work,” and we spend time talking about what it means to receive a particular set of responsibilities, to exercise stewardship during the time that one holds that position, and then to pass on the work to the person(s) who accepts that responsibility when you move on to other positions and/or retire from UIndy.

You may have noticed that conversations about collegiality are occurring in other precincts. One of those places where the topic has come up is in the United Kingdom, where faculty and staff have been dealing with budget cuts and/or struggles over management for more than a decade. I recently read a reflection about collegiality that I found to be very thought-provoking, so much so that I decided to pass along the substance of the piece in this month’s Mission Matters essay.

Nicholas Adams, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Birmingham, has one of those unusually incisive minds with the capacity to see the underlying patterns of argument in the discourses of everyday life. Over the past year or so, Nick (as he is known to his friends) has offered several reflections under the title of “Adventures in the Theology of Disappointment.” These reflections are uncommonly erudite for the social medium he has chosen to use.  Nick is not a “show off” and he doesn’t attempt to offer the last word on topics he addresses.  Even so, I find that he often offers an uncommonly generous and generative first word. I found that to be especially true for the reflection he posted to Facebook on July 25, 2020.  Consider the following paragraphs before I share with you some of my own reflections about how I think collegiality matters at UIndy: 

“One sign of a good institution – one that works well and serves the good – is its capaciousness, its hospitableness, its tolerance for error. Aristotle’s discussion of friendship is generative in its distinction between deep friendships and friendships whose basis is mutual interest or mutual pleasure (like those of merchants or children). But it lacks a strong account of something akin to friendship, namely collegiality: the kinds of friendship of people who are gathered in an institution (a school, a doctor’s practice, a team), where ‘interest’ and ‘pleasure’ are not quite the right guiding categories. Truly to belong to an institution is to embrace its collegiality – for good or ill.

(Even good institutions can contain bad collegialities, such as the . . . old boys’ networks in legal firms; and bad institutions typically produce bad collegialities. Good collegialities are, naturally, as frustrating as good institutions because they are made up of people. To love an institution is also to be perpetually frustrated by it.)

It is noteworthy that many institutions – legal, medical, educational – were formed in the wake of bloody wars, with wide political support and with a determination to mend the lives of persons and communities. Sudden destruction can focus minds and generate cooperative energy.

To be formed in the virtue of collegiality, a human virtue arguably relevant to institutions is to be formed in habits of capaciousness, hospitableness, and tolerance for error. Anyone who manages people quickly learns the practice of tolerance for error. Anyone who chairs meetings quickly learns the habit of capaciousness for others’ contributions. (One should avoid a rosy view. Practices of capaciousness and tolerance are possible because they have limits: under certain conditions, often learned the hard way, one has to take action to correct error or get discussion and decision-making back on track.) 

Institutions take generations to solidify and can be liquified by a single disaster. They are also deeply annoying. Anyone who has worked or lived in an institution, of any kind, knows how frustrating they can be: onerous rules that obstruct genuinely good ideas; onerous people whose petty psychodramas squander precious time and energy; onerous hierarchies that protect a narrow range of interests that often work against the institutions themselves. Let us not speak of the documents that manage to oppress while remaining largely unread. It is tempting to imagine how easy life would be if only they could be…reformed…”

Adams spends the rest of his well-argued piece exploring the temptation that faculty and staff face when they decide to act on this reformist instinct, which he describes as a threat that bears a striking resemblance to a tendency toward moral purity well-known in the early church.

“This is the attempt to purify institutions so that only ‘the right people’ with the ‘right views’ and the ‘right practices’ govern them and, in time, populate them. It is the attempt to limit capaciousness so that awkward people do not disturb the successes of the bold five-year plans of senior managers. It is the attempt to curtail practices of hospitality in order to promote greater productivity. It is the attempt to restrict tolerance of error so that instead of the laborious and time-consuming repair of mistakes one can, in the blink of an eye, (or so the blinker imagines) remove their cause (i.e. persons together with their livelihoods).”

Adams provides readers with a brief tutorial about the Donatists, a group of Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries who used violent means to achieve their vision of moral purity. For our purposes on this occasion, I will leave that aside, except for his concluding summary of this temptation: there can be no surrender and no compromise.”  

This pattern is prevalent in the universities of the UK in the year 2020, Adams argues:

“Neo-Donatism is at work in many institutions whose flourishing depends on capaciousness, hospitableness, and tolerance for error. It is marked by violent bids for moral purity, which has strong attractions for moral narcissists. Its rhetoric is marked by refusals to surrender or compromise. Its metaphysics, if that is not too grand a word, is an ontology of violence, of scarce resources, of competition. Its signs are a willingness to amplify polarised debates, to relish placing others in the wrong, and to cling to certainties that distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’. (This is one reason why such certainties cannot be dislodged by facts.)

By itself, Neo-Donatism is an irritation. But combined with funding crises and takeover attempts (whether by foreign powers or ambitious ‘managers’) it is deadly. …Funding crises and external takeover attempts are the more familiar threats to institutions…Neo-Donatism furnishes a threat that we are less prepared for. Perhaps we don’t want to be prepared for it: there is for some people something comforting, or thrilling, about ‘no compromise, no surrender.’ Capaciousness, hospitality, and tolerance for error are, after all, tiresome on occasion and often frustrating.

What to do? The most urgent battles are to restore funding and to resist takeover attempts. But it is unwise to neglect resistance to [such unrelenting pursuit of moral purity]. We all need encouragement to stick with institutions, annoying and flawed as they are, ravaged by funding crises, constantly damaged by vainglorious takeover attempts. We need help seeing the benefits of compromise…We need to be shown how to lower the temperature, mitigate the polarizations, refuse the narcissistic rush that accompanies the triumphs of moral purity.”

Adams concedes: “It’s a hard sell” to focus on strengthening collegiality. “But the alternative is liquification.” There is something apt about the juxtaposition of the words “solidify” and “liquify” here. Collegiality provides the glue that helps hold things together. Where it is absent, due to warring factions, it becomes less and less viable for universities to fulfill their missions. 

Someday, Nick Adams and his colleagues at the University of Birmingham may look back on this season in their academic careers and realize this period was a time when they developed new habits of solidarity because contingent faculty and tenured faculty (like Adams) encountered one another in picket lines and engaged in common acts of resistance against unjust working conditions. Adams et al. display remarkable perseverance and a strong disposition not to give up hope in the midst of discouraging circumstances. I was especially intrigued by the words “We need help seeing…” and “We need to be shown…” Collegiality is shaped by moral imagination. One of the reasons I read Nick Adams’ posts is because he helps me to think in focused ways about the struggles we face in American higher education. We all need help seeing.

I will leave it to others to assess the long-term prospects for higher education. (As the old saying goes, “I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet!”)  I am content to focus on collegiality, particularly as it has developed here at UIndy. We have a peculiar history, and we are living in circumstances that are strange to all of us. We need to pay attention to both the past and the present. We need to take the time to remind one another what collegiality looks like, which I would contend entails taking seriously who we are to one another – as “Greyhounds.”

Staff Picnic 2019 - UIndy

University Membership Matters. We may not be able to gather in person at the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year, but make no mistake, we do share membership. A university is not simply a collection of schools; it is a community of learning, and we are likely to pay a huge price if we forget that. The virtue of forbearance, which is a close cousin to collegiality, is unlike tolerance inasmuch as bearing with one another assumes that we have shared membership in a community. 

As we gathered virtually on Thursday for Fac-Staff Institute, you might be interested to know this is the 70th year that faculty and staff have gathered for a focused conversation about the work we share. There were only about 30 people present at the gathering in 1951 at which President I. Lynd Esch talked about how the university was like the town, where everyone depended on one another. At that time, there wasn’t a great deal of differentiation. Today, we have a more diverse set of employees, and our tasks vary greatly.  (In the past five months, more of us work in virtual locations than ever before.) We are only beginning to discover all of the ramifications of COVID-19 for what it means to practice collegiality when we cannot actually gather face to face.

Staff picnic 2018

At UIndy, we do have a strong sense of “family” feeling. Indeed, we have a tradition of using this language that also comes from the early Faculty-Staff Institutes. It is part of our institutional culture. I have a small collection of such narratives – some written and some oral – that span several decades. Each story begins by casting a wistful glance backward (usually to the first part of the employee’s career): “…Back then, we worked hard. It wasn’t easy. But we pulled together. We were a family then.” There is a gesture to the fact that we have gotten larger. “…I am not so sure today. I worry that we have lost the feeling of being a family…” And a few people go on to say, “I think we were kinder to one another back in those days than we are now.” (If this culture continues it is possible that someday in the future, a UIndy employee might recall a time back in 2020 when university employees faced shared hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Amid experiences of pain, disappointment, and the occasional triumph, nostalgia does color the way we remember the past.  At the same time, the UIndy “family” is not just an illusion. You will find that many faculty and staff do reach out to one another to offer comfort, congratulations, and consolation. We would be mistaken, however, to think that it is universal. Not everyone feels the love.  Indeed, if we are honest, we know our “family” of university employees is not as inclusive as we could be. That is one of the reasons we are working with Vice President for Inclusion & Equity Dr. Amber Smith to expand the culture of “inclusive kindness.” We have work to do to realize a workplace culture where faculty and staff do not experience discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, or gender. I, for one, believe that most people are motivated to engage that set of challenges. 

Obviously, I think collegiality is a mark of excellence without which we cannot succeed in carrying out the mission of the university. But it is a virtue that is not easy to sustain. To echo the question posed by Adams, “What to do?” Like “joining” the mission of the university, practicing collegiality is not something that you suddenly start doing. It develops along with all those things that make up our everyday work-lives, but invariably it entails being intentional. 

Faculty Staff Institute 2017

Here are four things that you and I can do to help strengthen collegiality at UIndy.   

  1. Learn enough about the life and work of a colleague to be able to introduce him, her, or them. You may be interested to learn that I have faculty and staff participants prepare introductions of one another in the mission stewardship seminars I offer at UIndy. This assignment is obviously quite modest, but it has the salutary effect of calling attention to the kinds of skills we need to practice in order to recognize “good work” that is oriented by the mission of the university. In the process, the persons doing the introductions take the time to interview one another and learn about other colleagues in the university who serve as models of collegiality and missional focus. There is nothing magic about this. Indeed, I think it is a very minimal exercise, but it is essential that we come to know one another as persons who we value in order to succeed as stewards of the university’s mission. The better we know one another as colleagues, the more likely we will be able to identify what it looks like to display excellence in carrying out UIndy’s mission.This is important for several reasons, but not the least of which is that from time to time you and I exchange jobs with other folks, some of which are new to the university. Collegiality is sustained by friendships that seek the good for one another in the context of our mutual stewardship of the university’s mission.
  2. Identify exemplars of the past and the present. We do this in several different ways from year to year.  I always look forward to attending those Thursday luncheons at which faculty and staff are recognized. Often the people who receive recognitions are persons I don’t know well. In some instances, I have never met them. But they are (potentially) my colleagues nonetheless. And I find great joy in standing up to applaud those being recognized as he/she/they go collect the plaque or other form of recognition. In some cases, I know the persons well enough to have some sense of how much it may mean to them to be recognized. And I also find it encouraging to see UIndy’s leaders display practical wisdom in recognizing what good work looks like. (I will miss being able to share a meal with colleagues this year, but I look forward to a future occasion when we can gather again. In the meantime, I will continue to draw encouragement from hearing about the many ways in which faculty, staff, and administrators carry out the work of the university in the midst of trying circumstances.)As you may recall, this past year, the Office of University Mission instituted the Roberts Circle Recognition for Mission Stewardship.  We look back on the first decade (1902-1911) of our institution’s history with respectful awe for the versatility and persistence displayed by these pioneering leaders who made Indiana Central possible. Their dedicated efforts, deliberate follow through on plans, and determination to keep working together amid unforeseen obstacles are clearly visible. They refused to be defeated. J. T. Roberts and his colleagues dared to imagine a time “when hundreds and thousands of students would stream forth” from the campus year by year. They did not see the fruits of their labor during the season when they were stewards of the mission of Indiana Central University. But neither did they lose hope! That may have had something to do with the fact that there were student initiatives that carried forward into the future. Indeed, one of the most salient achievements of the Roberts Circle was the persistent efforts of young alumni who shouldered the burdens of leadership in the years after the Roberts administration came to an end.We look back at the missional collaborations that comprised the Roberts Circle, and we find inspiration for the work we do today, and at times we may even anticipate the possibility that someday others will take up our tasks to carry forward the mission of the University of Indianapolis. As Hugh Heclo reminds us, in order “to think and act institutionally,” we must learn to see the present in relation to the stretched horizons of the past and the future. Institutional memory is sustained in a context of robust collegiality. Without the community of traditioned improvisers who work together in the present, the memory of the convocation of our predecessors would be distorted. Collegiality is part of what keeps our memory in good order.
  3. Pay attention to the good work your UIndy colleagues are doing. The Inaugural Roberts Circle Award for Mission Stewardship, which was presented to the Department of Art & Design in January 2020, recognized the work of a group of UIndy employees who have made a sustained contribution over a specific period of time. Here are the first few sentences of that description: “The department provides high-quality programs that make it possible for students to experience and appreciate the arts. They do so without encouraging conformity but rather, they foster human diversity in the arts in the best senses. The leadership of the department believes that the best way to tell the story is to involve people in the story. Not surprisingly, the culture [of the department] is highly participatory…”If you would like to learn more about the “participatory culture” of the Department of Art & Design and their contributions to the mission of the university, you should read about the work nine faculty and staff did between 2014 and 2019 [see pages 6-7]. 
  4. Finally, I invite you to join the process of discernment about when and where and by whom good work is being done. Where do you see collegiality shining and mission stewardship thriving on our campus? As you read about the collective achievements of our colleagues in the Department of Art & Design, you may find yourself thinking about other groups on campus – offices, departments, or collaborating employees — who have made significant contributions over a significant amount of time. If you are interested in helping to identify the group of persons to be recognized in January 2021, please talk with your coworkers about their own observations about those sectors of our university where collegiality shines and stewardship thrives. Then share your input via email ( before October 1, 2020. The next group to be recognized with the Roberts Circle Award will be announced in January 2021.

In the meantime, thanks for taking the time to read my reflections. Remember, UIndy’s mission matters!

Next month’s focus will be on the virtue of prudence, a mark of excellence with which our university’s founders struggled a great deal. As you might guess, there are a few good stories to be told. I look forward to sharing some of them with you in Mission Matters #64.