What is “collegiality,” and what do universities need to do to establish it? Radical academics and administrators in higher education are now using “lack of collegiality” as a pretext to abrogate academic freedom or fire professors, regardless of tenure. The latest examples include Matthew Garrett at Bakersfield College, Scott Gerber at Ohio Northern University, Stephen Porter at North Carolina State University, and Amy Wax at the University of Pennsylvania.
National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood writes that, in each of these four cases, “the university tried (sometimes successfully) to rid itself of a faculty member not for any academic shortcoming or for violating any law, but for espousing opinions that the administration disagreed with. […] All four cases had to do with a university’s determination to bulldoze faculty and students into compliance with a particular view of race, and how higher education should handle racial disparities.”
Collegiality should not be used simply as a pretext by the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) regime to abrogate academic freedom. But to say that brings up further questions—what precisely is collegiality, if not just an excuse to fire? How has it come to be that a seemingly harmless academic standard is susceptible to such abuse? Finally, what does collegiality really call for from an institution of higher education?
How has it come to be that a seemingly harmless academic standard is susceptible to such abuse?Collegiality originally referred to “the sharing of authority among colleagues.” The archetypal reference is to the structure of the Catholic Church, built upon elements such as the College of Cardinals. Collegial structure was extended early to university governance, since universities began as outposts of the Church; hence a university possessed colleges which shared the governance of the university as a whole. Collegiality referred simply to the spirit by which different members of a university community interacted with one another as they shared responsibility for self-governance.
Indeed, collegiality, properly defined, underlies the entire university departmental structure. This structure registers a collegial distribution of responsibility among professors. As each discipline is responsible for a subdivision of knowledge that addresses a distinctive subject, so each department is responsible for conveying the knowledge of that discipline to students. The entire departmental and disciplinary structure of the university articulates the shared responsibility of collegial self-governance.
Yet all aspects of truly collegial self-governance are in deep decay in the modern university. University administrators notoriously have taken over the governance of the university from the faculty. Administrative bloat is the obvious consequence, but so too is the reduction of the faculty from self-governing colleagues to mere employees. The emergence of faculty unions, by which employees demand better wages from their administrative employers, is a dramatic register of the plain fact that the professors have ceased to be true colleagues.
So too is the emergence of “interdisciplinary” programs such as gender studies or African-American studies. These are, in any case, academic pseudodisciplines, devoted to activism rather than the search for truth and demanding assent to intellectually narrow “theories” that are actually catechisms. But it is their vaunted “interdisciplinarity” that violates proper disciplinary collegiality. Such interdisciplinarity is a form of disciplinary colonialism, which restricts each intellectual discipline to the approaches and subject matters authorized by the program’s animating catechism.
Then too, these pseudodisciplines generally subscribe to some variant of “Critical Theory,” which presumes that the group identity of the scholar has some bearing on the nature of the scholar’s argument or discovery. Disciplines from archaeology to economics to zoology take as their basic presumption that the truth value of a finding is independent of the group identity of the scholar. Any program or pseudodiscipline animated by Critical Theory thus subordinates and violates these different disciplines’ intellectual autonomies. The Critical Theory that animates most “interdisciplinary” programs is itself thoroughly uncollegial.
Yet most professors and administrators use concepts of collegiality that endorse the collapse of shared administrative and departmental responsibility for self-governance. The current lists of definitions now emphasize vague emotionality, advising, for example, that “collegiality refers to opportunities for faculty members to feel that they belong to a mutually respected community of scholars who value each faculty member’s contributions to the institution and feel concern for their colleagues’ well-being.”
All aspects of truly collegial self-governance are in deep decay in the modern university.This weaponized version of collegiality derives from an emotive reading of the concept. Obviously, if Scholar A says openly that Scholar B has a job only because of race or sex quotas, Scholar B will feel bad, even—especially—if it is true. Even alluding abstractly to the deleterious effects of quotas, or any aspect of the DEI regime that exists to repress opposition to such quotas, will produce that feel-bad effect.
If collegiality is nothing more than ensuring that faculty members feel they belong to a mutually respected community of scholars—even when they do not deserve such respect—then you cannot speak the truth about your colleagues’ incompetence, or the discriminatory system that guarantees such incompetence, without being uncollegial and getting booted from the university.
The other currently emphasized definition of collegiality encourages voluntary, unpaid service by faculty employees to enhance the convenience of their university employers. “My definition of a good colleague,” Michael S. Weisbach writes, “is someone who adds value to an organization in ways that go beyond the specified requirements of their job. […] Being collegial means cooperating and helping out in informal ways.”
English historian E. P. Thompson would recognize both “collegiality” and Wokeism as the Methodisms of the modern university: ecstatic beliefs that increase work-discipline in the labor force. “Methodism,” Thompson wrote, “was the desolate inner landscape of Utilitarianism in an era of transition to the work-discipline of industrial capitalism. As the ‘working paroxysms’ of the hand-worker are methodized and his unworkful impulses are brought under control, so his emotional and spiritual paroxysms increase.”
True collegiality, in any meaningful sense, requires thoroughgoing reform of the university to restore an intellectually and administratively collegial form of shared self-governance. Collegiality also requires eliminating the DEI functionaries who use the pretext of (artificial) collegiality to abrogate academic freedom and fire dissenters. Real collegiality requires restoring the faculty to shared self-governance and firing the host of administrators who have turned them into wage-slaves whose inner work-discipline is provided by Wokeism and ersatz collegiality. It requires restoring the departmental and disciplinary structure of the university and eliminating all “interdisciplinary” programs and all devotees of Critical Theory.
If “collegiality” simply means the hollow courtesies of impotent courtiers in a latter-day academic Versailles—well, let us be under no illusions that such collegiality is the attribute of an institute of learning. Instead, such collegiality is yet another euphemism for discipline and punishment—the grasping of a so-called university that has abandoned the search for truth in favor of the search for power.
David Randall is the research director of the National Association of Scholars.