Skip to content Skip to navigation

Healing Time: Peacemaking in Two Troubled Departments

Tomorrow's Academy

Message Number: 

The Widget Department resembled Beirut of the early 1980s, a city in anarchy, where armed militias roamed, took hostages, made demands, and terrorized the civilian population. Cease-fires were declared and broken with regularity. Snipers operated on both sides of the green line. Using Beirut as metaphor, I developed an agenda for the Widget Department based on a sequence of tasks: stop the shooting, disarm the militias; free the hostages; comfort survivors; neutralize snipers; locate booby-traps and mine fields; develop common projects for the two units; cope with outside threats; find indigenous leadership; ratify a formal peace treaty; and create a new structure.


In this postings, Robert Sommer, distinguished professor of psychology emeritus at the University of California, Davis., describes his efforts to resolve major department conflicts. He has had plenty of experience. In his time at Davis he chaired four departments, three of them as an outside chair specifically brought in to resolve conflicts. Reprinted from an unpublished article with permission of the author who can be reached at: [].


Rick Reis UP NEXT: Building the Administrative Portfolio

Tomorrow's Academia

--------------------------------------------2,136 words-----------------------------------------------


Bob Sommer

After teaching on the same campus for over 30 years, I was ready for a new challenge. When offered the opportunity to become outside chair of a department in turmoil, I eagerly accepted. Trained as a social psychologist, I had a professional and a personal interest in conflict resolution. This would be an opportunity to try out some of the theories that I had taught in my classes and to give something back to the university.

The Widget Department had been established in 1983 to house two programs in the applied arts, each of which had separated from a different department. At the time of my arrival, the two programs were in open conflict, far beyond the moderate amount that some organizational theorists view as necessary for optimal job performance. I was appointed outside chair by the college dean with the assent of faculty in the two programs following several years of fruitless mediation and negotiation. There had been more than 30 meetings between faculty representing the two programs during the previous year. Each group felt that the other was unwilling to negotiate. The French describe this as le dialogue des sourds, a dialogue of the deaf, in which each speaks but neither hears what is said. The conflict was overt, with threats of lawsuits, resignations, and transfers. If I had been brought in at an earlier stage, it would have been logical to bring people together to negotiate. In a state of open warfare, this approach did not seem practicable or fruitful.

In approaching novel situations, I often use metaphor. Metaphors serve as fresh sources of insight for analysis and solutions. If the metaphor proves deceptive, superficial, or incomplete, it is easily modified or discarded. Taking the problem into a different conceptual realm also provides oft-needed detachment.

The Widget Department resembled Beirut of the early 1980s, a city in anarchy, where armed militias roamed, took hostages, made demands, and terrorized the civilian population. Cease-fires were declared and broken with regularity. Snipers operated on both sides of the green line. Using Beirut as metaphor, I developed an agenda for the Widget Department based on a sequence of tasks: stop the shooting, disarm the militias; free the hostages; comfort survivors; neutralize snipers; locate booby-traps and mine fields; develop common projects for the two units; cope with outside threats; find indigenous leadership; ratify a formal peace treaty; and create a new structure.

These measures proved successful in reducing the conflict. New leadership was found from among those who had not been directly involved in the conflict and a structure created that would minimize the occurrence of future conflict. Each program was given its own budget, space, and personnel procedures. The shared features of the two programs would continue, in terms of a joint administrative center, computer laboratory, shop, and a few other designated facilities that would benefit from economies of scale. There would be no department chair as such. Each program head would possess the authority of a chair in dealing with outside authorities and report to a different associate dean. The deans strongly supported the new arrangement since it retained economies associated with a combined department while separating the two programs in those areas previously associated with conflict. One year later, comments regarding the administrative structure from department members continued to be positive, and the dean's office expressed sufficient confidence in the new structure to allow each program to recruit for new faculty members. No new hiring had been done during my three-year term, reflecting the administration's earlier lack of confidence in the unit.

Creating conditions necessary for stability required three years of intense effort. The experience exacted a heavy psychological cost. I frequently had difficulty getting to sleep, tossed and turned throughout the night, and awoke not feeling rested. My emotional life was drained and anhedonic; my libido disappeared. This allowed me to focus attention on department matters. There was no deterioration in my ability to pull together information, ignore distractions, answer correspondence, or write reports. I found myself able to give more to the Widget Department than to my family or hobbies.

As my assignment in the Widget Department drew to a close, I sent feelers to several deans seeking a new challenge. There were a number of equally troubled departments on campus lacking competent leadership. I expressly hoped for an assignment in an unfamiliar field. I believe that the skills required of a department chair, like those of deans, college presidents, and clerical staff, are generic rather than specific to a field or discipline. Becoming chair of Chemistry or Nematology, as examples, would provide an opportunity for me to test the concept of generic chairship.

Within two weeks of my leaving the Widget Department, a dean asked me to chair the DE Department housing two programs, one in humanities and the other in social science. Based on the duality in the department name, I supposed that this was another Lebanon with warring militias. As I spent more time in DE, I dropped the metaphor of Beirut. I found interpersonal hostility, nepotism, inertia, and rampant self-interest. I began to think of DE as a superfund site which EPA had sent me to clean up. The contamination was widespread, had seeped into cracks and crevices, and was working its way down into the groundwater where it might contaminate other localities. The office staff and the undergraduates, perhaps like the cockroaches who can survive radioactive contamination, seemed protected by their lack of power and involvement.

I did not succeed in cleaning up the toxic contamination. My appointment was for an initial year, renewable for a second. I lasted only a single year, plus an additional month when no successor could be located. I was requested by the dean to remain longer but declined. Based on my experiences during the first year, there was no possibility of a successful clean-up. Polluters were still on-site adding to the mountain of untreated refuse. The worst offenders considered themselves immune from regulations. I could not buy out the polluters and did not possess the authority to control their activities. Mere argument proved ineffective in preventing all but the most egregious toxic dumping. Where previously this had been done in daylight, now it took place at night or surreptitiously dripped from unmarked truck beds onto public roads. My superiors showed no inclination to challenge the existing order. If I had been totally immersed in the metaphor, I would have imagined that they were paid off by the polluters. Given the realities of academe, it was more reasonable to imagine that my superiors wanted to avoid an unpleasant and probably unwinnable political and legal battle. I could have borne the burdens if there had been a long-term solution, but there was not. I began to think of myself as part of the problem. So long as I remained in DE, and could restrict the seepage of toxic materials from the site, my superiors could turn their attention to other, more critical problems.

Imagining DE as a pollution hot spot suggested three solutions--on-site treatment, dilution, and dispersal. Treatment on-site required mechanical or biological cleaning systems appropriate for the particular contaminants and the authority and resources to use them. The laissez faire regulatory climate of the campus precluded this approach since the worst polluters acted as if they had lifetime licenses for dumping. I lacked the authority to go beyond persuasion and negotiation which had probably been as successful in halting industrial pollution as they were in DE. Any attempt to apply sanctions would lack outside support and meet immediate legal challenge.

An alternative would be dilution of contaminants by bringing in benign materials. In a larger mass, the harmful effects of contaminants will be less strong. Unfortunately, budget stringencies limited importation of new materials to the site. Besides, my superiors were not willing to commit fresh resources into a toxic dump that had resisted all clean-up efforts. They believed, and I could not contradict them, that contamination of the new materials would be more likely than an overall reduction in toxicity.

The third option for dealing with the contamination was dispersal. Trucking toxic materials to other sites would accomplish several objectives. It would lower pollution levels in DE and make the problems on-site more manageable.

I spent my last month in DE attempting to export faculty. The deans and I talked with individual faculty and approached other units that might be suitable homes. With its reputation for discord, it was not unexpected that potential hosts should display a NIMBY attitude. We considered remote locations, across jurisdictional boundaries. The legal and procedural requirements of such transfers proved formidable and our barges full of toxic waste were consistently rejected by ports with strong regulatory authority. We found several smaller ports so desperate for trade that they were willing not to inspect the cargo too closely. The solution was to export everything for which a destination could be found and keep the remainder together for a transitional period, during which time additional efforts at dispersal would be made.

Comparing the two experiences as outside chair, I can identify several reasons for the different outcomes. Time is an important consideration in healing. I spent three years in the Widget Department and one year in DE. I would have stayed longer in DE, except for another difference between the two experiences. The dean had told faculty in the Widget Department that they would have to remain together as an administrative unit, that each was too small to exist independently. This allowed me to base my reform efforts on the assumption that if people had to live together, they should learn to get along. In contrast, the dean responsible for DE had given the green light to faculty transfers to other units. This removed any motivation on the part of faculty who saw greener pastures elsewhere to make accommodations with their colleagues. It was the proposed departure of almost half of the DE faculty, which had been initiated before my arrival, that led me to conclude that the DE Department had no future.

Another reason for the difference in the two outcomes was that I could locate a "center" in the Widget Department but not in DE. There were faculty in both Widget programs who had not been actively involved in the earlier conflicts. Perhaps because DE was a smaller unit, and the chair had been the direct source of many of the problems, none of the faculty in DE had escaped involvement. There was no center in DE separate from the warring factions.

Finally, personal animosities were more extreme in DE than in the Widget Department. The latter represented intergroup conflict (Program A versus Program B) while Department DE was characterized more by interpersonal hostility. As an outside chair in the Widget Department, my authority was used to separate the two programs, but in the incestuous family-like setting of DE, individuals were constantly insulting and sniping at one another. There were no clear turf lines to be drawn in this type of situation. People had offices next to one another and all shared the same small space and facilities.

This combination of factors, the increased time spent in the Widget Department (three years as compared with one), the decision of higher authority to keep the Widget Department together as compared to a green light for departures in DE, the existence of a center in the Widget Department and none in DE, and the more intense personal animosities in DE, accounted for the difference in the effectiveness of my intervention.

There were people in both departments that I liked and respected. Those in DE were no more or less productive or creative than those in the Widget Department. By coincidence each department at the beginning of my term contained two bomb throwers. The two in the Widget Department either departed or retired before my term ended. One of those in DE was slated for a transfer to another department during my term. The second desired to transfer but no department wanted this person. If I had worked at it, I probably could have located a home for the second bomb thrower. However, if the two bomb throwers were allowed to transfer, it would be difficult to deny the same option to other faculty seeking a more productive work environment. Given the small size of the unit, the exodus would have had significant implications for the future viability of the unit. Time was a positive factor in allowing for the transfer of disruptive faculty, but a negative in terms of the bleak future for a unit that had shrunk below critical size for survival. I blame myself for leaving DE before problems could be resolved, but seeing no future for the department erased any desire to remain longer.