Faculty and Administration Work to Solve Tough Issues on Campus

By Steve Rusakiewicz, News Writer 

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Photo Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/missourisandt/4458331706

Whenever a complex organization is formed to provide valuable goods and/or services, the inevitability of internal conflict is one which must be preemptively addressed, lest the organization fall apart at the first disagreement between participating members.  Typically, such potential conflicts are addressed with a very specific set of guidelines often termed “Collective Rules and Regulations” (CRR), “Compliance Policies,” or another such related synonym.  The need for standardized conflict resolution procedures is obvious to anyone who has ever been involved in a personal dispute.  Scale up the complexities of a personal dispute to the level of a University, and the need becomes even more apparent.  Sometimes, however, when the stakes at the center of a dispute are high enough, and when both sides are comprised of highly-intelligent, extremely passionate people who invest themselves very personally in their work, the standard procedure for conflict resolution can give the appearance of exacerbating a situation even when it is being pursued in good faith and best intent.  The internal memo from the faculty senate officers to the Chancellor and Provost, provided anonymously to the Miner at the end of January, serves as an example of this phenomenon.

As will become apparent over this article, communication skills are absolutely critical to ensuring the smooth operation of any organization.  What is sometimes lost in application of those skills is the need for active listening.  Almost anyone understands “communication skill” relates directly to the ability of a person or group to deliver a clear message, but many people fail to realize that active listening is an equally important skill and, as a result, conflicts may take more time and effort to resolve.  An important consideration to keep in mind as one observes a conflict is these sorts of complexities can (and often do) manifest despite the purest of intentions on the part of all sides.

Some primary examples seen within the memo highlighting the critical importance of total communication skill sets include the second, third and fifth items listed under the “Key Concerns Cited” heading.  Item two states: “Management is carried out in a fashion that neglects best practices and does not incorporate shared governance.”  For those readers not current in the latest management lingo, “best practices” is defined as those commercial or professional procedures that are accepted or prescribed as being correct or most effective, while “shared governance” is defined as a professional practice model founded upon the principles of partnership, equity, accountability and ownership forming a culturally sensitive and empowering framework to enable sustainable and accountability-based decisions.  Interestingly, shared governance first gained popularity within the nursing trades 30 years ago, and were eventually seen as applicable to any organization placing priority on stakeholder input with respect to policy-making.  Item three reads: “Communication with faculty on key issues remains poor,” while item five leads with the statement: “faculty members do not feel respected or appreciated…”  Three of five key concerns center at effective, COMPLETE communication skill sets.

The first concern cited on the memo echoes the most recent Student Council (StuCo) resolution passed at the beginning of this semester.  It states: “Student enrollment is allowed to grow at a rate that is disproportionate with the resources provided to academic units.”  In layperson’s terms, this means the senate officers feel that the S&T campus is not currently optimized to best accommodate the current level of student enrollment.  Specific concerns within the StuCo resolution give support to this assertion, such as 2015 student enrollment totals topping the projections for 2020, and how the newer facilities on campus (excluding Bertelsmeyer Hall) were only designed to accommodate a student body of 5,000.  2015 enrollment was counted at 8,889 students.  Additionally, faculty census information found on ira.mst.edu/dsr/factbook shows a reduction in professional faculty at S&T from 1,357 in 2010 to 1,087 in 2014, a reduction of approximately 19 percent.  In the same period, student enrollment on campus increased from 6,415 to 7,576 (approx. +18 percent), while the executive/administrative/managerial staff also increased from 131 to 164 (approx. +25 percent).  The number of overall employees at S&T was shown to shrink by about 38 percent as well, from 3,356 to 2,063.  .

The memo cites specific examples of their key concerns as well.  Rejection of four interim dean candidates who received unanimous nomination from the College of Engineering and Computing (CEC) department chairs.  The CEC consists of eight engineering departments as well as the computer science department.  More information on this college may be found at cec.mst.edu.

Policy II-26 is another very sensitive issue being addressed in the memo.  This policy mandates all faculty engaged in research to request funding for tuition and fees in addition to standard stipends/assistantships for graduate student assistants at S&T.  Interviews with the faculty senate officers on this point reveal the two main problems they have with the policy are “a lack of shared governance,” and the fact that many research grants do not allow requests for tuition to be included in the proposal.  This means that faculty interested in such grants cannot apply for them without being in violation of Ii-26.  Additionally, the senate officers say many of the faculty feel S&T must be willing to adopt full tuition waivers for graduate assistants in order to be competitive in the academic research market.  Finally, the senate officers are working to establish the legitimacy of the policy itself, saying the policy was not passed through the appropriate administrative units overseeing research on campus.

Of course, administration is not exactly stagnant in responding to the concerns being raised in this memo.  Chancellor Schrader said she sees the current situation as an important opportunity for improvement at S&T.  While the tone of the memo suggests the Chancellor’s administration might be seen in an unfavorable light, the details of the matter show that there are indeed some faculty members who feel quite content with the current state of affairs and confident in the administration in general.  Schrader says, “I receive positive feedback daily.”  This statement is supported by the senate officers who reported “the College of Arts, Sciences and Business (CASB) faculty are basically content.”  Additionally, the Chancellor says her administration has recognized the need for clearer communication, and has launched several initiatives in an attempt to provide multiple avenues of input for any faculty wishing to be heard.

“It is important to realize that not everyone is comfortable communicating in the same way,” Schrader said, “some people prefer formal surveys and meetings, others an informal setting or even anonymity.”  Anonymity is already served by the Faculty Senate officers, who can take informal actions on concerns submitted anonymously.  The Chancellor is attempting to provide informal settings in the form of once-monthly “first Friday” brunch in which members of the faculty and administration are free to mingle, share news and discuss matters of import without being “on the record.”  She is also planning to conduct more formalized focus and research groups relating to campus issues in 2016.  One such formalized survey, the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) survey is already underway and will conclude in April, and is accompanied by the annual administrative review conducted at all UM campuses.  Like any formal survey, the immediate effectiveness is directly linked to the level of participation.  The more faculty who participate, the more compelling and actionable the findings become.  Now we know why our professors always hassle us about taking our surveys each semester.

The effectiveness of the measures being adopted by the administration to date are being met with close scrutiny by the senate officers and many faculty members.  While many say that “time will tell” if these measures prove ultimately effective, there are others who are both satisfied and pessimistic with respect to the administration’s recent expansion of communications with faculty.  This, again, is typical within an organization experiencing the process of grievance resolution.

Emotions can and do run high in these situations.  As mentioned before, there are many hundreds of very passionate, intelligent and personally invested people on all sides of the issue.  When methods of a well-intentioned person are called into question, it can sometimes be difficult to separate constructive, professional criticism from idle personal criticism. It is here, perhaps more than any other aspect of conflict resolution, that active listening plays an essential role.  Without proper context, a valid grievance or policy change may present as a personal insult, in which case everyone involved usually ends up worse-off for the exchange as it deteriorates into angry outbursts or non-productive conversation and argument.  Active listening provides such context in real time, whereas investigation and research provide it on delayed-time.  This is another aspect of communications too-often overlooked by well-intentioned people, as it is much more convenient to simply accept the first bits of supported information presented than to actively research or investigate deeper into an issue, especially when those bits happen to align with your own preconceived viewpoint.

According to the background of the memo, “A significant portion of the faculty perceive the campus climate as poor…” and, “Some departments have given serious consideration to a vote of no-confidence in the Chancellor.”  In interviews with Drs. Sedighsarvestani, Bruening and Schuman, the fact was disclosed that many faculty members in fall of 2015 had directly stated their perceptions that communication with the S&T administration on the aforementioned issues had reached an impasse.  Additionally, there were discussions taking place suggesting votes of no-confidence in the Chancellor be held, along with escalation to the UM System and/or media.  This memo was the result of the senate officers fulfilling their obligation to Chancellor Schrader and Provost Marley to “ensure matters causing discontent among the faculty come to their attention in a timely fashion.”  Given the dire nature of the discussions in fall, the officers felt urgent investigation of the claims being made was a priority.  In order to remain within their authority to “maintain open communications with faculty, administration and students,” the officers immediately began an informal inquiry to assess the level of discontent throughout faculty members.

Unfortunately, in their haste, the senate officers termed the inquiry a “survey,” giving an implication of statistical validity within the collected data, despite the fact that such accuracy was never intended by the action.  This is another example of how even the smallest details of communication are extremely important.  So severe was the effect of this seemingly innocuous wording that some faculty members felt as though the senate had overstepped their authority by carrying out a formalized action in their names, without first having a vote.  According to the officers, neither the inquiry or the memo are meant to serve as formal actions, but rather as an attempt to advise and de-escalate tension between faculty and administration.

Some faculty expressed concerns to administration that their responses were omitted, or that positive feedback was likewise absent from the inquiry results, but the senate officers did freely disclose all the positive feedback they received within the individual summary reports each of them prepared from their particular respondent pools.  In an email to Dean Roberts addressing these concerns, the officers’ reason for not including such feedback on the memo itself was a simple one: “(The memo’s) purpose was not to summarize all of the feedback we received, but to serve as a springboard for discussion on how to address the chief concerns of the faculty.”  The officers punctuated their intention with the analogy: “when a house is burning down, we don’t stop to admire the rooms that are not on fire; we engage the ones that are.”

This is what conflict resolution looks like, even under the best of circumstances, within a complex organization undergoing significant growth and development.  Regardless of whether grievances are addressed immediately or fall through the cracks for a while, there will always be misunderstandings, differences of opinion and outright hurt feelings to deal with.  This brings me to item number three on the “Specific Examples Cited” portion of the memo.

The statement reads: “presence of an armed guard at meetings with faculty.”

Again, context means everything.  Upon investigation, it was discovered that the armed guard in question was an armed campus police officer, as opposed to a private “man in black” bodyguard.  Why the armed guard?  Several witnesses reported a faculty member became disruptive on multiple occasions and, while no actual threats of harm were publicly made, some witnesses said they understood how the administration might feel warranted in having a campus police presence at meetings in which similar discussions to the ones held during the original outbursts were taking place.  Again, one must remember that when criticism transcends professional and becomes personal, even due to misunderstanding, people who are very passionate and invested in their work occasionally become angry.  Such situations can be frightening for some people, regardless if an actual threat is levied or not.

In my own humble opinion, this memo is the culmination of the initial steps taken to avoid drastic measures being discussed by discontent faculty members.  While the informal inquiry conducted by the senate officers suggested that lack of confidence was not uniformly shared among all faculty, the fact that such measures are being openly discussed was taken by the senate officers as a call to immediate action.  At the end of the day, neither faculty senate officers nor administration want that sort of measure to be seen as the only solution available, because such a result is ultimately a reflection of failure by degrees on both sides of the issue, since communication is, and always will be, a two way street.

More information on faculty senate and their open-to-public regular monthly meetings can be found here: facultysenate.mst.edu.

MEMO

To: Chancellor Schrader, Provost Marley From: Faculty Senate Officers

Date: 18 January 2016

Subject: Campus climate

Background:

The officers of the Missouri S&T Faculty Senate have received numerous complaints about the current campus administration and climate. A significant portion of the faculty perceive the campus climate as poor and consider faculty and staff morale to be lower than they have ever seen it. Some departments have given serious consideration to a vote of no-confidence in the Chancellor. They have reconsidered this action in hopes that our communication with you will lead to efforts towards ameliorating what has become a grave situation. In order to gain a better understanding of the specific problems perceived by the faculty, we surveyed a large group of senior faculty to identify the issues of greatest import. This document summarizes information from the 54 responses we received.

Key Concerns Cited

1. Student enrollment is allowed to grow at a rate that is disproportionate with the resources provided to academic units.

2. Management is carried out in a fashion that neglects best practices and does not incorporate shared governance.

3. Communication and engagement with faculty on key issues remains poor.

4. Administrative units hinder rather than enable the efforts of faculty, especially in activities related to research and recruitment. Lengthy delays are the norm rather than exception.

5. Faculty members do not feel respected or appreciated, do not have the resources required to excel, and do not anticipate any positive change under the current administration. This has led to a crisis in faculty retention.

Specific Examples Cited

1. Rejection of four interim dean candidates unanimously nominated by the CEC Department Chairs* .

2. Imposition of policy memorandum II-26 without significant faculty input, yet inaction on graduate tuition waivers.

3. Presence of an armed guard at meetings with faculty.

4. Disproportionate allocation of resources and authority to administrative units.

5. Use of myperformance in determining staff raises, despite explicit statements made to the contrary.

Proposed Solutions

1. A special General Faculty meeting where Chancellor Schrader discusses these complaints with the faculty.

2. Significantly greater interaction with Faculty Senate and academic departments incorporating management best practices.

3. Open discussion and investigation of the effects of recent mandates, e.g., policy II-26.

4. Presentation and support of the proposed bylaws amendment to the Board of Curators, should it be approved.

5. Public transfer of authority and resources to the deans.

*The original version of this document incorrectly mentioned the Department Chairs’ Council (DCC). The body charged with nominating the interim dean of CEC was composed of the CEC subset of the DCC – all of the CEC department chairs. This body put forth four unanimous nominations to the Provost. The error was corrected in all further communications.