One of the most revered terms – and principles – in higher education is “collegiality.” It is at the heart of the educational enterprise, regardless of discipline.
Specifically defined, collegiality is the quality in a group of peers that works together for a commonly held objective. It is more than an exchange of ideas. It is more than a synonym for the academy.
But how does collegiality actually work in Christian institutions? Does the nature of the Gospel, or accountability to a church or denomination, automatically militate against collegiality? Is lateral authority of a group of professionals a threat to ecclesial prerogatives? Sometimes in juxtaposition to collegiality are administrative agendas, governance issues and fears of faculty temerity.
In Canadian schools where unionization of university faculties is commonplace, there are in collective agreements built-in codes guaranteeing faculty participation and peer-review processes. Such codes are frequently disdained in theological schools that lie outside the mainstream.
American private and public institutions have a long commitment to collegiality derived from the German tradition, but often Christian schools lag far behind in understanding and practicing its ideals. Instances among prominent Baptist institutions have come to light of administrations that use hierarchical schemes and hiring/promotion/tenure processes to interfere with routine collegial responsibilities.
In actuality, collegiality has roots deep in the Christian tradition. From usage common in ancient Rome, a collegium was an association of people in a common venture. Imitative of earlier Greek schools, Roman learning guilds and, to a lesser but significant degree, Jewish rabbinical models, early Christian communities experimented with centers devoted to scholarship, teaching students and exchange of ideas among teachers and church leaders.
Two prominent centers were at Alexandria and Rome well before the third century. In the writings of Eusebius, Epiphanius and Origen, one sees the clear outlines of a collegial principle. Those who taught constituted a cooperative, integrated community, and there was a high level of interaction in the broader communities.
With the rise of the medieval and early modern universities within the church, the collection of faculties devoted to disciplines and to each other is a well-told story. North American institutions followed patterns of the collegia: Canada’s colleges and universities to a one were formed within the best traditions of the churches, and the majority of American colleges were of a denominational character in the first generations.
In both American and Canadian educational cultures, high value is placed on the deliberative processes whereby a colleague’s status is achieved in the collegium. Adequate preparation, usually through the attainment of a terminal degree, personal and scholarly formation in accredited or recognized institutions, and peer evaluation are essential elements in creating a foundation for collegiality. There are definite gateways into the collegium.
Well-developed collegiality is more than a theory of management or a tradition. Collegiality is fostered as a part of professional character formation. Three places are especially important: among faculty themselves; by administrators; and in codes of conduct like faculty handbooks and governance manuals.
Administrators who grow out of the educational community understand the faculty perspective. Those who come from other valued communities need to learn the culture of faculty identity and well-being. Administrators who come from within the faculty tend to value faculty collegiality and are not intimidated by it. Likewise, younger faculty colleagues need role models who evince toleration, mutual respect and civility. In this regard, collegiality is an environmentally learned trait. Finally, the codes that faculty live by should uphold, encourage and protect collegiality; it needs to be encoded beyond the grasp of institutional turnovers and “change-agents.”
In faculty relationships, collegiality depends on several assumptions: trust, openness and the biblical principle of “edifying one another” (1 Corinthians 13:5-6; 1 Thessalonians 5:11). Faculty must be willing to accept the authority of each other to work in respective fields and areas. This is earned through educational and experiential achievements and recognition. It is recognized in evaluation and tenure/promotion processes. Faculty members may disagree with interpretations of the same data, but respect and civility are exercised because of one’s respect for other colleagues in their respective fields.
The need to establish theological trustworthiness in seminaries may stand as a challenging obstacle to collegiality. Rigid conformity to doctrinal statements can outweigh the value of free exchange of ideas and freedom of expression. Imposition of such doctrinal statements from “above” or “without” can destroy collegiality and set faculty colleagues in adversarial relationships.
Historically, Baptists have been wary of such statements unless they are achieved through due process.
The collegium principle works quite effectively where faculty members collaborate on projects and interact publicly for the benefit of students and the learning community. This is possible only where trust exists in knowing that one will be treated with civility, there is openness in expressing ideas without fear of reprisal, and each colleague maintains a healthy degree of self-confidence.
Collegiality is a foundational principle of Christian higher education.
William H. Brackney is the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Acadia University and Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia.