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What You Need to Know When Communicating Change to Faculty

Posted by Dean Asher on May 20, 2015 5:00:00 AM
Topics: Higher Ed

It's hard to make financial choices that can affect your staff's workload or resources. Sometimes, it can be even harder to talk to them about it. Kellie Woodhouse at Inside Higher Ed offers some key tips to make that transition easier. We've included a short excerpt below, but you can read the whole thing here.

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As colleges across the country attempt to navigate tough economic times and respond to calls to change their business models, conflicts abound. They are about not only the substance of various strategies, but about the ways administrators and faculty communicate during an era of sweeping change in how the business side of universities operate.

Both large and small, colleges around the country are working to adapt to a changing financial landscape.

Whether that's streamlining operations and asking fewer people to do more work, cutting benefits or slowing salary hikes, or determining how to grapple with declining enrollment and growing discount rates, the result is colleges everywhere are looking for ways to shrink their recurring costs.

Faculty members often bristle at the ways colleges attempt to cut those costs, either because they feel the logic is not sound -- such as when a group of Harvard University professors protested benefit changes last year, saying the cuts wouldn’t save as much money as administrators claimed -- or because they believe the proposed changes don't align with the mission of a college.

As more and more faculty resolutions against strategic plans and administrative actions surface, nearly all of them have a common thread: concern over not only the proposed changes, but how those changes are communicated.

Often faculty members decry a lack of transparency or consultation. Sometimes their concerns are as simple as the vocabulary administrators use.

 

Transparency

The debates over communication or the lack thereof come as many college administrators and politicians believe it's time for new funding models and new approaches to higher education.

“The season that we’re in, and have been in for a while, is putting even greater pressure on various constituencies to be really clear in their communications. This is a moment where greater clarity and transparency is absolutely essential,” said Ron Mahurin, vice president for strategy and planning at Stamats, a higher education consulting firm. “Everyone at many levels understands what is at stake here -- the fact that there is such scrutiny on higher education right now around cost, affordability and sustainability.”

Richard Kneedler, president emeritus of Franklin & Marshall College, said that administrators are acutely aware of faculty resistance to changes in how universities operate.

“The fundamental question is whether one is so concerned about tension that one tries to avoid having the conversation until all relevant decisions have been made and the whole package can be announced,” he said. “The choice is either to have these conversations as a regular part of campus life, or to be confronted episodically with unwelcome announcements of various sorts that make people feel excluded from a decision process.”

 

Language of Change

The 50-member faculty council at Creighton University, a Jesuit college in Omaha, Neb., last month unanimously passed a resolution of no confidence in the college's sweeping strategic plan. Thomas Coffey, secretary of the faculty council and a professor of modern languages at Creighton, believes that more than the substance of the plan, many faculty members are unhappy with the way the plan was communicated, shaped and delivered to university's stakeholders.

At first, Coffey says, the tagline behind the plan was “No Margin, No Mission,” a mantra some faculty members found difficult to get behind. “It puts it down to the money first, rather than, ‘Here’s the mission, now we have to go manage the resources well.’ It's too flippant.”

Coffey said faculty often feel that the “corporate vocabulary” administrators sometimes use is “at odds with the mission.”

"There are a lot of buzzwords you hear, and when I hear them I see people rolling their eyes,” he said.

Before entering academia, Wheaton came from a business background, spending the first part of his career as a banker and then transitioning into nonprofits with a job at the United Way. When he began working at universities, he learned over time not to use the same terms he used with fellow financial offers with faculty members. For example, he would not call students “customers” — a practice most financial officers have moved away from — when presenting the budget to the faculty.

There are a lot of buzzwords you hear, and when I hear them I see people rolling their eyes. —Tom Coffey, professor of modern languages at Creighton University

Kneedler, the former president of Franklin & Marshall, said that while administrators have a responsibility to “speak in a clear fashion” and not use “an arcane sort of administrative speak,” faculty members also must be willing to learn about the budget and recognize the financial constraints many universities are experiencing.

“It’s important that faculty have a willingness to learn some terminology with which they might not be familiar, because the institution where they find themselves very likely needs to have skills in a variety of areas where they might not have been necessary 15 or 20 years ago, but they are absolutely vital today,” Kneedler said. “To try to insulate oneself from the forces of change, to say, ‘Oh these are buzzwords,’ seems to me to be unproductive.”

About Dean Asher

Dean Asher is a former copywriter with MBS. Though he no longer writes for us, he is still proud of having helped this blog continue to evolve as an industry-leading resource of news and original content.

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