A study of conflict and methods of handling conflict at small liberal arts colleges
Stackman, William Bradford
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An examination of the literature revealed that conflict is prevalent throughout American colleges and universities-especially within divisions of student affairs-and that senior student affairs officers are expected to assume an important role campus-wide in the management of conflict. Trends suggest a significant increase in their involvement with conflict over the next twenty years. This study sought to identify the nature of conflict and the conflict resolution process at small liberal arts colleges and to examine differences among senior student affairs officers in the methods they use to resolve conflicts, the theories they report as underlying these methods, and the sources of these espoused theories of conflict resolution. Interviews on these matters were held with 15 senior student affairs officers in such colleges in the American mid-west. The following are among the most important findings: 1) the deans have a firm understanding of how to handle conflict (contrary to many prior research findings); 2) the deans have a strong dislike for conflict; 3) one-third of the deans report that they avoid conflict whenever possible; 4) the deans see it as their responsibility to handle any conflict involving students and they have the potential to be directly and indirectly involved in almost any such situation, even outside their divisions; 5) handling conflict is reported to take up three-fourths of their time; 6) half of the deans attempt to mediate (minor) violations of policy while others deem it inappropriate; 7) factors which most frequently contribute to conflict include communication, and diversity-the interplay among people from different cultures and backgrounds; 8) the deans view issues of diversity as being the most difficult to handle because of their emotional intensity; and 9) the deans reported a predominantly trial-and-error preparation for dealing with conflict rather than through formal education. The findings suggest that further research is needed to address such questions as these: 1) What is the relationship between espoused theories of handling conflict and theories-in-use? 2) How does having a strong dislike for conflict affect one's ability to manage it? 3) How does institutional culture affect the handling of conflict? 4) What are the consequences of conflict avoidance? 5) How do institutions support deans in handling conflicts involving diversity issues? (6) What consequences typically ensue from trying to mediate policy violations? The findings also suggest the need for practical programs and policies such as the following: 1) improving relevant pre-professional programs; 2) improving in-service programs for those having responsibility for managing and resolving conflict; 3) changing the recruitment, hiring, and evaluation process for the dean of students position; 4) transforming college cultures in ways that better support conflict management and resolution; 5) institutionalizing the process of the effective management of conflict; 6) addressing the issue of avoidance to ensure that conflict is being addressed in a timely manner; 7) developing an ombudsman position to centralize and formalize the process of assisting faculty, staff, and students to resolve conflicts; and 8) creating a Center for Conflict Management to provide faculty, staff, and students with resource materials, training workshops, and assistance with mediating and managing conflict.
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