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Taming Conflict: Bringing Main Campus and Continuing Education Closer Together

Taming Conflict: Bringing Main Campus and Continuing Education Closer Together
Codifying conflict between main campus and continuing education in the pursuit of collaboration between them is one way to ensure the relationship between these two often-disparate parties remains collegial.
Higher education prides itself on adherence to the values associated with the concept of collegiality. Collaboration is certainly among those values, if not at the top of the list, and a collaborative culture is often viewed as a key element in a higher education institution’s success.

While this may be true, conflict can also be a positive, and even essential, driver of the most authentic and effective forms of collaboration and innovation.

My institution has formalized one area of intra-institutional conflict in its latest strategic plan in order to promote collaboration in the form of an exchange of innovation between traditional residential programs and non-traditional continuing education (CE) programs. We are entering the third year of the plan and have what we call a liaison committee for this purpose. Membership includes, from the traditional programs,  the dean of faculty, two faculty members and an administrator, and from CE, the dean, two faculty members and one administrator.

Conflict erupted between the CE unit and the main campus over the long but steady elevation of the School of Professional Studies to its current, self-governing status in carrying out its charge to serve working adult learners. This occurred over a period 15 years. The strategic plan gave the School its name and formalized its autonomy but also called for the establishment of the liaison committee through which these conflicts could be transparently managed and could produce meaningful forms of collaboration (such as the exchange of innovation) to the benefit of the entire institution.

Like any organization, the life of a college or university includes various interest groups; it also includes scarce resources (including not only financial resources but intangibles such as status, prestige and rank). It’s quite common for interest groups to conflict over how these resources are allocated, maintained and advanced. Provision of a structural home for this legitimate type of conflict is just the first step to its effective management. A culture of respect and civility needs to be nurtured to animate the structure, rhetoric needs to be pruned back and the good intentions of all involved need to be presumed. Frankly, establishing this enabling culture is the hard part. And it is a delicate thing.  Elizabethtown College has made great progress in this area.

So what has the liaison committee achieved so far? It has brought faculties together in social venues to promote understanding between them (with the presumption that familiarity breeds understanding). It has exchanged lists of questions and answers from each program. Lead facilitators (the School’s equivalent of department chairs) have met with their traditional campus counterparts. The main campus has investigated the School’s affiliated faculty development program. (The affiliated faculty model is an innovative hybrid model composed of faculty with part-time employment status but who take part in the School’s governance system, both academic and administrative.) The School will soon make available to the main campus its course learning modules. An institution-wide forum is scheduled for this fall to facilitate communication between the programs’ faculty, staff and administration. These may seem like small steps, but they are nevertheless important ones along the road to collaboration and innovation exchange.

Conflict in organizations is commonplace. Sometimes fear of organizational conflict is the proper emotion; not all conflict can be turned to the good. But often it can be tamed and, with the right structures and supportive culture, it can drive the most authentic and effective of collaborations. Don’t be afraid of it.

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