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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

August 23, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

News

IC staff members express lingering working condition concerns

In December 2015, the Ithaca College staff became the last constituency on campus to hold a vote of no confidence in President Tom Rochon. The results, released in January 2016, showed 48 percent of staff had no confidence in Rochon while 33 percent had confidence and 19 percent abstained from the vote.

Almost a year after that vote, The Ithacan spoke with 11 staff members about their perception of the atmosphere for staff on campus. While many of them said they enjoy working at the college, problems persist with morale, communication and a fear of speaking out.

Workforce Analysis and Morale

In December 2015, the results of a Staff Council survey revealed that 56 percent of staff had low or semilow morale, with just 15 percent responding that their morale was high or semihigh and 21 percent saying their morale was average. The remaining 7 percent had no opinion or no answer.

Don Austin, assistant director of community service and leadership development in the Office of Student Engagement and Multicultural Affairs, said the college’s Strategic Workforce Analysis initiative has played a huge role in how staff members feel at the college.  

During the 2014–15 fiscal year, 39 vacant and eight occupied staff positions were cut as part of the workforce analysis, which was aimed at keeping the cost of tuition down by eliminating staff positions the administration thought were expendable. The initiative was put on hold during the Fall 2015 semester so the administration could focus on attempting to address concerns over racism and inclusivity raised during student-led demonstrations.

However, Austin said that while workforce analysis was taking place, the initiative took its toll on staff.

“It’s huge,” Austin said of workforce analysis’ role on staff morale. “It’s something I would love to say it’s just a part of life and it is what it is and come up with ways to dismiss it. That’s not the life of a staff member.”

Rochon said the college has always been transparent about the process, information that would be considered and the decision-making regarding staff cuts.

“These are always difficult decisions, and decisions you’d rather not have to make.” Rochon said. “We’ve been completely transparent about that process, and now, we’ve been completely transparent that now, at this point, we are not contemplating any further layoffs in the staff.”

Though staffing has been reduced by about 70 positions, Rochon said “relatively few” were layoffs. He said the college will continue to evaluate whether certain open positions will be cut or filled.

“It’s only prudent to always look at our workforce and understanding our needs versus our supply,” Jannette Williams, interim vice president in the Department of Finance and Administration, said. “It’s just something that every institution needs to do.”

However, Tati Herold, administrative assistant in the School of Health Sciences and Human Performance, said because positions were eliminated through workforce analysis, staff members have become bogged down with extra responsibilities.

“People got a ton of work that made them feel more stressed and unable to engage in campus like they should,” Herold said.

In addition, Tracy — an administrative assistant at the college who asked to be identified by her first name only due to the sensitivity of the topic — said the workforce analysis has created an atmosphere of fear, also dragging down morale. She said any announcement of job cuts, however few positions targeted, leaves many staff members fearing for their jobs.

“[They] could tell you they’re cutting one person, and people will freak out because they think ‘I’m that one,’” she said. “’I’m that one who’s going to lose my job.’”

Thomas Pfaff, who holds both staff and faculty positions as outgoing director of the college’s Honors Program and as a professor in the Department of Mathematics, said even though staff position cuts have been put on hold, there has been a carryover effect.

“Broadly speaking … I would say morale is low,” he said. “And that’s basically due to a lot of the downsizing of staff that happened over the past couple of years. So when you go through that, even when you say you’re done, there is still a lot of nervousness that maybe they’re not done.”

Many staff at the college ignored repeated attempts to contact them for an interview. Others who responded said they didn’t feel comfortable being interviewed.

Few staff members seemed surprised that so many of their fellow employees didn’t want to be interviewed.

Herold said overall, the college is not a bad place to work. However, during the student-led demonstrations in Fall 2015, she said staff felt like the least protected group on campus because they don’t have the protection paying tuition offers students or the security many faculty members get from tenure.

Virgilio Pinto, interlibrary loan lending coordinator and corresponding secretary of the Staff Council, acknowledged some staff members are afraid. While he said he does not want to discount the fear of some of his colleagues, he said sometimes that fear may not be warranted.

“It’s easy to sit and observe and sort of make assumptions and come up with your theories of what’s going on,” Pinto said. “It’s harder, it takes courage, it takes risk, it takes willingness to … make a mistake to step up and to find out.”

However, Rosane Mordt, enterprise applications developer in the Department of Engagement and Implementation and chairperson of the Staff Council, said there are examples of the fear staff feel in action. She said some staff members told her they feared to going certain meetings because they felt they would become a target for retaliation just by being in attendance. Mordt emphasized that while the majority of staff members likely don’t feel that way, it is significant that some employees of the college experience fear on that level.

“The very fact that there is fear, regardless, is a problem,” she said. “Especially in an institution of higher learning.”

Kristin Morse, administrative assistant for the Department of Strategic Communication, said morale has been better since staff position cuts were put on hold. However, she said there are other problems with morale.

“Unfortunately, many staff feel belittled by faculty members and upper administration, which makes many feel that they are lacking, unworthy or, on the other side, angry,” Morse, who is the Staff Council representative for the Roy H. Park School of Communications and the School of Business, stated in an email.

Additionally, Bonnie Prunty, director of the Office of Residential Life and Judicial Affairs and assistant dean for First-Year Experiences, said while she feels like the college is a great place to work, many long-time employees have recently left the institution.

“One of the things that has been sad to watch is that a number of those folks have moved on recently … so I certainly think some of the staff who have been here for an extended period of time feel the loss of those individuals not being on campus anymore,” Prunty said.  

Even given all these challenges, Mordt said it is important to understand that staff morale varies throughout the college. She said that although there are problems, there are also wonderful aspects of working at the college and that staff in some parts of the college are happy with their jobs.

“Then there are areas that I’ve heard that the morale is low, quite low,” Mordt said.

A few staff members mentioned the Office of Facilities as a department with low morale. Multiple attempts to contact staff members in the Office of Facilities were ignored.

Lack of shared governance and communication

Some staff members have taken issue with what they perceive to be top-down administrative leadership, lack of shared governance and poor communication between higher-ups and staff.

In the December 2015 Staff Council survey, just under 70 percent of staff felt there was a lack of accountability for actions and decisions that were made, and 55 percent said the lack of accountability was primarily within the upper administration. The Staff Council summary of a “Solution Session” held on accountability in February listed some of the reasons for this as individuals’ not fulfilling their job duties, poor decisions from supervisors with no ramifications, no opportunity for feedback from employees on supervisors and little consideration of suggestions from staff.

Herold said the staff often seems to be informed at the last minute about various administrative decisions. One example of this was the workforce analysis. Herold, recording secretary of the Staff Council, said the college hired an outside company to examine staff positions and that staff did not feel involved in the process.

But the problem is not that staff members haven’t been involved at all in decisionmaking, Herold said. She said for every task force, the administration makes an effort to include representatives from the different governing bodies on campus. Instead, she said the problem is staff are usually not told about plans ahead of time.

“Before even creating the initiative, it would be nice to have people involved at that point as opposed to already having an initiative in mind and then asking people to work off of that,” she said. “I think it would be more helpful to have people’s opinions in the beginning.”

Prunty said she is in the rare position of having regular contact with members of the senior leadership of the college. She said levels of communication between the administration and staff members are mixed. Some staff members seem to feel like there is trust and transparency about plans and initiatives, Prunty said, but not all.

“I think that’s a shift,” she said. “It seems to me there are more people in the past year who are expressing those kinds of concerns than I’ve heard in my time here up to this point.”

Shared governance is being “pursued quite vigorously,” according to a statement from the college, which mentioned the release of the draft of the proposed Charter of Shared Governance at Ithaca College.

“The Task Force looks forward to hearing feedback on the draft from all segments of the campus community — staff, students, faculty, and administrators — as all have a stake in this significant change to the current governance structure,” the college said.

Brian Dozoretz, manager of recording services in the School of Music, said in his experience, he feels like the administration has always been open to communicating and hearing complaints.

“My direct supervisor in the administration over here has been extremely supportive,” he said. “Across campus, they’ve reached out to us as a department and as individuals, especially during all of the announcements and during the surveys. Voices were heard.”

However, Tracy said she feels transparency and communication at the college has been poor. She said the administration could be hard at work on an initiative and she would have no idea what it is doing.  

Nancy Pringle, senior vice president for the Division of Human and Legal Resources and general counsel, and Brian Dickens, vice president for the Department of Human Resources, did not reply to requests to comment.

The administration has worked closely with the current and past Staff Council Executive Committees in discussing issues surrounding workforce analysis, morale, and communication between staff and the administration,” the college’s statement said. “These issues were also discussed at the January 2016 All-College meeting.”

The college will continue to “solicit and listen to questions and comments from our community members.”

“We encourage individuals with concerns to contact their representative body, supervisor, human resources professional and/or relevant vice president to share their concerns, suggestions, and insights,” the college stated in the statement.  

But Morse said the relationship and communication between the president and staff members is nonexistent.

“What relationship?” she asked. “President Rochon is focused on faculty, not staff.”

What’s changed in the last year?

The staff members interviewed had mixed reactions to how the administration has done in addressing the concerns raised by staff over the past year.

Austin said he believes senior leadership at the college has taken steps to address some of the problems staff members have identified at the institution.  

“On one side I feel like, yes, there are some critical things to say about the way staff have been included in decisionmaking and things like that at Ithaca College, but at the same time, I feel like the response from leadership has been good,” Austin said.  

Specifically, Austin said he feels there has been a change in the way the leadership has factored staff into its decisionmaking.

“I feel like I have seen the college try to make decisions that have been conscious of how those decisions will impact staff more in the recent past than several years ago,” he said.

Other staff members had a different perspective, though. For her part, Morse said she doesn’t feel as if the administration has addressed any of the concerns that staff have expressed.

Mordt struck a middle ground. She said the administration has begun working on some of the issues raised. One way they have done so, she said, is through holding meetings between staff and the Office of Human Resources to determine how the workforce analysis has impacted staff members. However, she said some haven’t been satisfied with those sessions.

“I’ve heard mixed responses about that from staff,” she said. “They say, ‘Yes, we had a followup meeting, but instead of it being a fact-finding session it was a dictated session.’”

Mordt added that other staff thought these sessions were open and honest and featured good communication.

Tracy said while she does not think the administration has made staff morale worse, she hasn’t seen much in the way of improvement either.

“I cannot say ‘Our administration is so strong they’re helping build my morale,’ I have not seen that. Not yet,” she said. “Are they making it worse right now? No. I think we’re kind of at a level ground.”

Where to go from here?

With the search for a new president well underway, some of the staff members expressed their view on what the next president and their administration can do to improve the staff experience at the college.

The most common answer was that the next president should be more present around the college. Many staff said whoever is hired should get out of the administrative offices in the Peggy Ryan Williams Center and meet staff where they work.

Prunty said the next president should embrace the concept of shared governance so that the administration, faculty, students and staff all feel that their voices are being heard when decisions are made.

Herold said she has seen the impacts of Rochon’s lack of interaction. During a meeting, Herold said those attending were asked to raise their hand if Peggy Williams, the president before Rochon, knew them by name. She said most people raised their hand. When asked whether Rochon knew their name, much fewer hands went up. Herold said the new president should make sure to have a stronger presence on campus and get to know the people working there.

Mordt agreed that it’s important for the next president to interact with the community and with staff members specifically. She said outreach on the part of those in power could make all the difference.

“Be with the people,” Mordt said. “I think it’s extremely important to be physically in the workplace. But not as a presence of power, not dictating, but just be present. Be visible.”  

Evan Popp can be reached at epopp@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @evanpopp22