Managing Conflict in Higher Education


workplace meeting

When engaging in conflict resolution, two important principles should be upheld (Gmelch and Carroll, 1991, p. 119):

  • People: Separate people from the problem prioritizes the quality of relationships by focusing on problems at hand using active listening and empathy for others’ needs so that interests and perceptions of all parties are heard while refraining from ego-based defensiveness and personal attacks.
  • Interests: Focus on interests, not positions supports efforts to get to the root of what drives a party’s position by identifying their underlying needs of a particular issue (e.g., security, well-being, power, recognition) and satisfying the need to achieve conflict resolution.


Effective conflict-resolution requires procedures guided by additional principles and values (Waters & Wendy, 2003, pp. 11-12).

  • Respect confidentiality and clarify the conditions when it will not be honored. Transparent discussion of each party’s expectations about the extent to which confidentiality will be honored is necessary before any information is shared. For example, information about imminent harm and regulations or laws specific to reporting requirements should be explained.
  • Refrain from doing harm. No action should be taken by conflict management practitioners that may harm others.
  • Provide alternative options. All potential conflict management interventions should be offered to parties for them to choose the best option based on their needs.
  • Manage bias. Practitioners need to remain unbiased, impartial, and free from any potential conflict of interest in order to participate effectively. Any potential conflicts of interest or personal relationships that may give the appearance of bias on the part of the practitioner should be disclosed.
  • Ensure independence. In order to maintain independence in their decision-making, conflict management practitioners should avoid the power influence of senior administrators directing their process.


There are a variety of options for all parties to choose from when approaching a conflict scenario (Warters & Wendy, 2003, pp. 15-18). Some examples of options follow.

  • Informed discussion is used with parties who have a potential for conflict about an issue. The practitioner engages parties in information and perception sharing about issues, gauges perceptions, and assists the parties to potentially sidestep obstacles to resolving conflict if they decide to engage in an agreement-building process.
  • Conciliation is an informal process that relies on a neutral third party to meet separately with all parties to assist them in communicating information with each other so they may come together to engage in negotiation, make decisions, and reach agreements.
  • Facilitation offers an efficient and structured approach where the facilitator impartially leads parties to an agreement by monitoring discussions for psychological safety, maintaining the group’s focus on the issue, ensuring all voices are heard, and maintaining a fair process while the parties work toward resolution.
  • Mediation is a process using a third-party with no power to make binding resolutions, to impartially engage parties in dispute resolution, planning transactions, or relationship improvement.
  • Partnering is a formal method used among interdependent groups with shared interests who create a non-binding agreement to develop a cooperative relationship to share risks as they work toward mutual goals.
  • Third party decision-making options below put the decision-making power in the hands of the third party with regard to the outcome of a resolution. 
    • Arbitration may be ordered by a court or be voluntary, as in the case when all parties make an agreement to use an arbitrator who has limited jurisdiction to ensure agreed upon rules of evidence and procedure are followed to determine a binding or advisory agreement.
    • Adjudication involves a court judge or formally appointed body as the decision-maker who provides a final, legally binding, and enforceable outcome decision that all parties must adhere to.
    • Student Judicial Boards and Grievance Hearings provide administrative forums where student disciplinary matters are resolved and faculty and staff complaints are heard in the context of fairness through the use of procedural guidelines.
  • Ombudsperson is a neutral party assigned by the University to give confidential help (e.g., information, referrals, conflict resolution) to faculty, staff, and administrators for the purpose of promoting fairness by considering the rights of all parties involved in matters of dispute.
  • Shared decision-making uses multi-party facilitators to bring members of multiple groups (stakeholders) together alongside authorized decision-makers for the purpose of reaching consensus and influencing the decision-maker to enact a resolution supporting the interests of all parties.
  • Community or group conferencing is a meeting where community members impacted by conflict come together in a confidential, psychologically safe environment to openly express and reflect upon concerning member-to-member interactions and systemic processes in need of change.
  • Public dialogue is a facilitated conversation among people who hold diverse and opposing views about contentious public issues. The goal is to build relationships and mutual understanding through respectful dialogue across differences.
  • Restorative justice is an approach that seeks to provide reparations (restitution) to victims and affected communities who have experienced injury and/or harm from identified offenders’ behaviors (e.g., harassment).


Some common ways of handling conflict in universities include the following (Berryman-Fink, 1998):

  • Informal facilitation involves facilitators using interpersonal communication skills including patience and active listening to paraphrase statements made by parties for the purpose of clarifying points made to understand the issues.

    Facilitators use tactful, direct questioning in an assertive yet sensitive manner while seeking to express empathy for all parties involved. Encouraging all views, perspectives, and emotions to be expressed promotes parties feeling understood and contributes to conflict resolution.
  • Negotiation is a process where parties interact as civil adversaries as they propose various resolution ideas until they reach a settlement on a mutually agreed upon solution plan.
  • Mediation is a type of negotiation involving facilitation by a neutral third party who holds no authority or power to make a decision involving the parties experiencing the dispute. Berryman-Fink, 1998) suggests this person be trained in the specialty of mediation.
  • Ombuds program provides parties in conflict with an independent person from the upper levels of an institution who practices a combination of informal facilitation, negotiation, and mediation in response to complaints made to their office. The Ombudsperson makes recommendations to resolve conflict situations after collecting facts and making inquiries of all involved parties as to the nature of the situation.
  • Arbitration is a formal but non-court (i.e. non-litigious) intervention used when a neutral third party (typically a paid attorney), is brought in to decide on the outcome of a dispute. The process may be binding (legally enforced by the court) or non-binding (advisory). While not typically used in higher education, this strategy may achieve positive outcomes when other efforts to reach agreement have failed.
  • Grievance policies outline the steps complainants may have to formally express their dispute to the institution and seek resolution.

The following strategies have been suggested for use by department chairs to respond to conflict situations with faculty (Gmelch and Carroll, 1991, p. 118):

  • Trusting collaboration is used when a department chair encourages openness to ensure a win-win solution to assure theirs and faculty goals are met while supporting the chair-faculty relationship.
  • Open subordination is a yield-win strategy where the chair puts faculty goals before their own goals to prioritize a positive relationship between the department chair and faculty.
  • Firm competing results in a win-lose scenario where the chair uses their power over the faculty to decide an outcome after concluding that the fundamental interest at issue is more important than the quality of the chair-faculty relationship.
  • Active avoidance is used by a department chair to achieve withdrawal from an issue when the quality of the chair-faculty relationship, coupled with the outcome, are of no interest to the department chair.


References for cited works along with other conflict management resources follow:



Berryman-Fink, C. (1998). Can we agree to disagree? Faculty-faculty conflict. In Holton, S.A. (Ed.), Mending the Cracks in the Ivory Tower: Strategies for Conflict Management in Higher Education (pp. 141-163). Anker Publishing Company, Inc.

Gelfand, M.J., Leslie, L.M., Keller. K., & de Dreu, C. (2012). Conflict cultures in organizations: How leaders shape conflict cultures and their organizational-level consequences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(6), 1131-1147.

Gmelch, W. H., & Carroll, J. B. (1991). The three Rs of conflict management for department chairs and faculty. Innovative Higher Education, 16(2), 107–123.

Klingel, S. & Maffie, M. (2011). Conflict management systems in higher education: A look at mediation in public universities. Dispute Resolution Journal, 66 (3), August/October, pp. 12-17.

Warters, W.C. (1995). Conflict management in higher education: A review of current approaches. New Directions for Higher Education, 92, pp. 71-78. 

Warters, W. C. (1999). The history of campus mediation systems: Research and practice. College of Law CNCR-Hewlett Foundation Seed Grant White Papers. Paper 10.

Warters, B. & Wendy, S.J. (2003). Institutional and program level guidelines for conflict management in higher education. Campus Conflict Management Guidelines Committee.

Watson, N.T., Rogers, K.S., Watson, K.L., & Liau-Hing Yep, C. (2019). Integrating social justice-based conflict resolution into higher education settings: Faculty, staff, and student professional development through mediation training. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 36(3), 251-262.