I am a new assistant professor in my department. While all faculty members have been welcoming so far to me, I find there are two or three distinct groups or coteries within the department. The coteries are distinct and comprise set of people who wouldn't mingle with people from another coterie. It is a bit awkward for me because there are even senior professors in different sets, and I want to be affable with everyone in my department.

How do I handle this sense of discomfort? Should I talk with the Chair? But the sectoring is pretty well-known and prevalent for a long time and there is little the Chair can do about it (or so I think!)

How do academic departments handle this situation of clash of egos usually? I am sure mine is not the only place where this clash is seen.

  • 6
    This sounds like every single department I know. – Suresh Mar 19 '13 at 4:38
  • @Suresh - Maybe the OP would like to know how you deal with it - the way Pedro suggested? – TCSGrad Mar 19 '13 at 15:39
  • Pedro's answer is very complete. I don't have much more to add. – Suresh Mar 20 '13 at 2:34

The best advice anyone can give you, in my opinion, is: Don't get involved.

You're entering a new environment and it's in your best interests to just get along with everybody, as you already suggest you are trying.

If the issue pops up in any discussions, just avoid it. The last thing you want to do is get caught-up in a territorial dispute of which you probably don't want to know the origins, and that serves no purpose to anybody, least of all to you.

I would only advise discussing things with the Chair if these divisions start negatively affecting your work, and only discuss it in terms of how it affects your work. As you've pointed out yourself, chances are he/she can't do anything about it, or worse, he/she may be involved.

Things like this can happen even in the best departments, and the best thing that can happen in such a case is that new staff bridge whatever divide may be there by ignoring it completely.

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  • Thanks Pedro, but however hard I may try, I am cornered into a situation where I have to choose one over another. I fear getting alienated by both groups, thus seriously scuppering all chances of my tenure. – Assistant_Professor Mar 18 '13 at 23:18
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    Can you be more specific about the situation where you have to make your choice (while of course protecting the identities of everyone involved) in your question? – Irwin Mar 18 '13 at 23:29
  • @Irwin: It's pretty much ubiquitous: right from department talks to seminars to invited lectures - if one group does all the organising, the other fails to turn up and vice-versa. And the divide extends ad infinitum. – Assistant_Professor Mar 18 '13 at 23:47
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    @Assistant_Professor: In such a specific case, I'd show up at the seminars and lectures of both. If they have timing conflicts, then you could try asking both sides to move them, emphasizing that you really want to be able attend both seminars/lectures. This is, of course, assuming you're interested in both. Just pretend you never noticed there was a division. No matter how awkward it feels, it will be less awkward, or dangerous, than having to take sides. – Pedro Mar 19 '13 at 0:12

With respect to coteries there is no difference between a university department and any workplace, corporate board, political party, sporting team, primary school playground, etc...

Coteries are just a fact of life everywhere one goes...

At some point in time you will start collaborating with people in your department on research in which you have a shared interest. Hence, by default you will eventually drift into one of the coteries, otherwise you'll be a loner in the department...

So, you'll have to eventually choose one of them, and to be a successful academic the correct choice should be based on shared research interests.

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  • I would prefer to be loner than involving in some sort of war. – seteropere Mar 21 '13 at 22:54
  • 4
    that's a false dichotomy. – Suresh Mar 21 '13 at 23:23

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