Entrenched Department Conflict Series 5

Nina W. Brown

Entrenched department conflict describes a situation that is deeply conflictual, has persisted for some time even for years, and is difficult or even impossible to resolve in spite of efforts, support, or good will on the part of many who are involved. I have had opportunities to observe several departments engaged in this type of conflict during my tenure as a mediator and ombuds since one of our services was to mediate meetings.  When requested, we provided mediators to facilitate potentially contentious faculty-administrator (department chairs or deans), meetings where our tasks were to ensure that there was professional behavior, all input could be respectfully heard, goals were determined in advance of the meeting, all faculty agreed to participate, and when decisions or agreements were made, that all were informed.  Some of these were in departments where there was long-term conflict.  Our task was not to solve the long-term conflict, just to facilitate the particular meeting and in the process of setting up the mediated meeting, we learned about the underlying long-term conflict and could observe its impact on faculty.

     While thinking about writing this essay I was reading some books that described warfare in some civil wars, the first world war and second world war that seemed to me to be metaphors for long term department conflict.  Concepts such as entrenchment, defenses, fortifications, knowledge of the battlefield territory, battlefield strategy and other concepts seemed applicable for some of what is encountered when there is long standing unresolved conflict in a department.  Some behaviors that signal entrenched conflict between faculty groups are described, management suggestions and why resolution is elusive. 


     Some departmental descriptors for entrenched department conflict, whether open or hidden conflict, include but are not limited to the following.

Management Suggestions

     It is much easier to suggest management strategies for department conflicts that are not entrenched than it is for faculty encountering long-term conflicts, especially those that have resisted resolution.  Here are a few suggestions that may be helpful even under those trying circumstances.  Space does not permit a fully explanation for them.

     It is not so much that these conflicts cannot be resolved is that they are resistant to resolution in the short term.  Long term solutions include numerous of the involved or precipitating faculty leaving the department and if they are tenured, that can take over 20 years.  It may be helpful for some to have some reasons or understandings of the impossibility of resolution such as the following.

    It is humbling to realize that nothing you can do will help to resolve the entrenched conflict as I have had to do as the Ombuds/Mediator.   In an academic war as with any war, the real losers are the people in the trenches. 

Nina W. Brown, EdD, LPC, NCC, DFAGPA, APA Fellow, Professor and eminent scholar, nbrown@odu.edu


American Psychiatric Association. (2022). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed., text rev.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425787

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