Navigating Academic Departments

Nina W. Brown, EdD, LPC, NCC,   


This is the first in a set of six essays about academic departments using the framework of many group therapy concepts to describe some of the aspects of an academic department.  These essays grew out of my experiences at a university where a few years ago, my department was going through some rough times, and it was during that time that I thought about writing a book on academic warfare which would still be relevant today. I decided that it might be more prudent to wait until I retired before trying to publish it as some of the examples could be easily identified as current faculty and administrators.  However, the experiences in that particular department paved the way for a better understanding of academic departments in general which has been supported and expanded with my experiences with the faculty senate at my institution, discussions with faculty attending professional organizations’ conferences and workshops, serving as a faculty mediator for more than six years, and now leading the formation of a faculty ombuds program at the university. 

     The intended group therapy and group facilitation concepts include perceiving departments as open groups, observing and applying group as a whole concept, observing process as the here and now interactions among faculty and with the department chair, application of some therapeutic factors, the department chair as group leader, how some group characteristics such as establishing trust and safety apply to the academic department and other group dynamics and concepts.  Using these concepts will aid faculty in expanding their knowledge and understanding of their experiences in their departments and may even provide some tips and suggestions for how best to navigate these.  The discussion will move between individual experiencing and the department (group) experiencing and will be presented from the faculty’s perspective.

This first essay is an overview of group concepts and how they can be used to understand an academic department.  The second essay will present the descriptors for an ideal department climate and a toxic department climate along with some suggested personal reflections about how faculty may be making contributions to the climate.  The third essay tries to describe the types of department chairs and the perceptual shifts needed for becoming a chair and how the failure to make these shifts can cause difficulties.  The fourth essay will present descriptions for faculty types and perceptual shifts that could be helpful for them to make as well as information about working with self-absorbed chairs and colleagues.  The fifth essay is around academic conflicts such as faculty to faculty, faculty and chairs, and faculty and staff.  The sixth and final essay will be about identifying and managing interactions with the difficult behaviors that can be exhibited by colleagues and chairs that are similar to those encountered in therapy groups such as monopolizing, microaggressions, and so on.

An Academic Department

Reflection: As you think about your department as a group, what images emerge?  Just let an image come to mind without evaluating or analyzing it. 

     Using an image for your department can allow you to perceive how you are reacting to the events and people involved in a nonverbal and non-evaluative way.  The image that you visualized can then be associated with descriptors, feelings, and thoughts about how you experience the department as a whole and not focus on any particular event(s) or people.  I used this reflection activity when presenting to the department chairs at my university and they responded with images of a ghost town, a poker game, an explosion, islands in an ocean and other such images that could then be associated with the overall perception of the department. 

     To apply other group concepts, let’s begin with conceptualizing an academic department as an open group.  Brown (2014) defines open groups characteristic as being organized around a common theme or purpose, the time parameters and duration may not be specified in advance, new members may be added at any time, members may terminate at different times, inconsistent attendance, screening and/or orientation may not be possible, and members may be voluntary or mandated.  There are many similarities for departments and open groups, especially when considering department meetings. Other similarities can be that trust and safety are more difficult to establish, the department goals and individual faculty goals may not be collaboratively determined, it can be more difficult to foster the emergence of group therapeutic factors, and there is considerable ambiguity and uncertainty.  Open groups can be very unsettling for both the group leader and members because of unexpected transitions, changes, and shifts.  There can also be suspicion among faculty that there is lack of transparency, there are secrets that could affect their professional life, a lack of understanding of what appears to be strange alliances, and so on.  In addition to these concerns, in the academic world faculty also have to be aware of what is happening, or being proposed, at the college and university levels as these will affect the department and the individual. 

     Associating some group therapeutic factors (Yalom & Lecszc, 2021) with your department can provide some valuable information.  Reflect on each of the following group therapeutic factors as you experience them for your department.

Universality – what are the shared commonalities among the faculty?  Are differences emphasized rather than similarities?  Are differences recognized and appreciated?  

Cohesion – Is there general tolerance for differing perspectives?  Is there respect and trust shown between and for faculty?  Have there been efforts to reduce ambiguity and uncertainty?

Dissemination of information – Is there an organized effort to ensure that faculty receive accurate and current information that is related to their productivity and professional lives, or do faculty have to rely on gossip, innuendo, speculation, and last-minute notices?   

Hope – Do faculty have hope that they will be supported and encouraged in their professional development expectations and efforts?  Are they coached in how to apply for tenure and/or promotion?  What assistance do they receive in understanding what activities are most worthy of their time and effort?  Does the department chair provide faculty with written assignments and expectations for the academic year, such as classes scheduled for each semester,  publications, presentations, and committee work? Recapitulation of family of origin issues and concerns can unconsciously appear and will differ for each individual faculty member. 

Examples of these can be how the department chair is perceived and related to, the emergence of sibling rivalry, what constitutes acceptable expression of feelings, and other matters that could have their origins in the person’s family.  It can be helpful to reflect on the possibility of these issues and concerns affecting the perceptions, attitudes and behaviors of faculty that may be contributing to the department climate.

     Additional group leadership concepts that can be associated with the department are how conflicts and some difficult behaviors are managed and group level resistance.  As you read these, reflect on your behavior, other faculty behaviors and the department chair’s behavior and the effectiveness of the management style.

     General conflict management strategies include withdrawal, ignoring, attacking, soothing, confronting, compromising, avoiding, indifference, and distracting.  While each of these can be appropriate for the conflict and the relationship, most everyone has a characteristic way of behaving in conflict situations and some of these are more effective than others.  What are the goals for the behaviors in conflicts?  These usually fall into the following categories: attention seeking, admiration hungry, power and control, revenge for real or imaginary wounding, and fears of failure or inadequacy or of rejection.  Very important can be how the department chair manages conflicts between faculty and between the chair and faculty. While both sides contribute to the conflict, it is important that the chair manage conflict in a fair and unbiased way just as would be expected for the group leader.  Reflect on how effective and satisfied you are with your characteristic way of managing conflict, and with that of the department chair.

     How does the department chair manage some difficult behaviors that are similar to those experienced in some therapy groups?  Many of these behaviors seem to occur in meetings and can affect outside the meeting relationships.  Examples of some difficult behaviors are monopolizing, story-telling, silence/withdrawal, yes-but, interrupting when others are speaking, attention seeking, hostility, and so on.  Managing these behaviors for the benefit of the group while not alienating the member and maybe others is a delicate balancing act and it can be important for the department/group that the leader intervene so as to block the undesirable behavior while still maintaining a positive relationship with that person.

     The final concept will be about group level resistance that can also appear in a department.  How can this resistance be recognized since each person exhibits it differently and there was no collusion among them to resist?  Some identifiers of group level resistance can be unexplained absences to department meetings or frequent tardiness, reluctance, or refusal to volunteer input for discussions or tasks, forgetting important assignments, side conversations and socializing during department meetings, and defensive responses.  Group level responses can signal that the group leader/chair has failed to recognize something important taking place in the group that has not been verbalized and is negatively affecting the relationships in the group. 

     All of these factors and concepts will be woven into the future essays and this first essay is the attempt to focus the perceptions and thoughts about an academic department to be associated with some group factors, and some group leadership facilitation tasks.  The next essay will have an emphasis and focus on the department climate.


Brown, N. (2014). Facilitating Challenging Groups. New York: Routledge.

Yalom, I. & M. Lesczc (2021). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. New York:

     Basic Books.

Dr. Brown is a Fellow Member of the American Psychological Association, Distinguished Fellow American Group Psychotherapy Association.  She is a professor and eminent scholar at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA 23529.