Writers Series Part III: Dr. Martha E. Simmons & Dr. Shelley Kierstead on Academia in Canada

This is the third article in Mediators Beyond Borders’ five-part series answering, “What would your company/industry/field, and region, look like if adversarial decision-making systems were replaced by collaborative ones?” 

As law school professors, it is an interesting endeavor to examine conflict and collaboration on our home turf. Universities are prime breeding grounds for conflict because of their hierarchies and other structural elements, including funding and redress policies. Conflicts can occur on both a horizontal level (i.e. amongst peers and colleagues) and a vertical one (i.e. between students and faculty). Students, faculty and staff can be pitted against each other to compete for resources and status—while at the same time being encouraged to collaborate [1].

Adversarial decision-making and conflict in the Academic Setting

Academic settings are, by nature, adversarial. Barsky conducted a study of conflict in university settings and found that: competition, hierarchy, a stressful work environment and bureaucratic limitations were the most prevalent sources of conflict [2]. Morgan also explains that competition for status, resources and career- advancement fuel conflict in an academic setting [3]. The conflict is problematic, and can negatively impact mental health.

More recently, however, the solitary learning model, where students work mainly alone, and the competitive fight for resources, which fueled adversarial tendencies, has have been modified to encourage teamwork and collaboration. These examples offer a window to examine what an academic institution could look like if adversarial processes were replaced with collaborative ones.

Student Experience

Law schools have traditionally been known as places of extreme competition. Stories of pages being torn out of books so that others could not find them in the library are told like folklore through the hallowed halls. Now, however, students are increasingly asked to work in tandem rather than competition. In the first year curriculum, for example, students are placed in groups and asked to perform various skills and solve problems as if they were a team of lawyers. In upper years, the vast array of clinical and experiential program offerings give students the ability to work with colleagues in a less adversarial environment— and the opportunity to reflect on those experiences. Through collaboration, the aim is to decrease adversarialism in a competitive environment.

Collaborative Research Grants

Faculty also  experience adversarial processes in the academic setting as the fight for limited research funds amongst their members has presented a ripe field for competitive behavior.. When pitted against each other for funding opportunities, the motivation to collaborate decreases considerably. In order to combat this tendency and encourage faculty members to work together –sharing knowledge and research– Osgoode Hall Law School has created a variety of collaborative research grants which require faculty to collaborate (both inside and outside the law school) to receive funds. Increased collaboration will hopefully also beget other benefits including more interdisciplinary research, larger research projects, and a more collegial environment.

Grade Appeals and Petitions

Elements of adversarial decision-making also exist within the student appeals and petitions processes, through which  students may seek relief from the consequences of academic failure or appeal from grades with which they are dissatisfied. In both circumstances, academic institutions become decision-makers whose members must adopt structured procedures while responding to unique situations that often involve private and highly emotionally-charged student information. Further, in some cases, students appear before a panel and are required to explain  heart-wrenching, stories about why they could not meet the expectations of a particular course of study.

This process can add tension to an already stressful situation. Current efforts are being made to examine what this process could look like if restorative justice and therapeutic jurisprudence models were instead utilized.  One example is adopting a trauma informed approach[4] to hearings in an effort to avoid re-traumatizing students within the petition process.


This post has outlined some efforts being made to increase collaborative decision-making in the university setting. The competitive atmosphere would indeed benefit from increased endeavors in which collaboration supersedes competition. 

End Notes

[1] G. Morgan, Images of Organization (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publishing, 2006).
[2] A.E. Barsky, “Structural Sources of Conflict in a University Context” (2002) 20(2) Conflict Resolution Quarterly 160.
[3] Morgan, supra note 1.
[4] See Melanie Randall & Lori Haskell, “Trauma-Informed Approaches to Law: Why Restorative Justice Must Understand Trauma and Psychological Coping” (2013) 36 Dalhousie LJ 501.

Dr. Martha E. Simmons is the Winkler Professor of Dispute Resolution and the Director of the Mediation Clinic and Intensive Program at Osgoode Hall Law School and Dr. Shelley Kierstead is an Assistant Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School.