Guest post: WMU’s Communication Problems and a Culture of Fear

by Cathryn Bailey, Ph.D.
Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies
and former Associate Dean, WMU College of Arts and Sciences

Cross-posted at FliptheW.

In the years leading up to, and in the wake of, the faculty’s no-confidence vote in the provost, there’s been a lot of talk about a communication problem on campus. It’s a label I’ll accept if we can agree that this isn’t merely a cosmetic flaw to be remedied, say, by town hall meetings where those in charge pretend to listen. I’m more inclined to say we’ve got a fear problem, one that correlates pretty neatly with the institution’s reliance on a rusty, traditional power model, one that’s hierarchical, unidirectional, and has clearly defined rules of engagement. One expression of this is the expectation of managerial compliance the provost openly referred to in his message to CAS faculty and staff a few weeks ago.

According to this model’s dictates, when I’m with a higher up – and we should always be clear about who’s who on the food chain – my role is passive. I am to be talked at, explained to, given advice and schooled. I can ask questions of clarification, but not substantive or fundamental ones, and I must accept whatever is doled out to me in the guise of a response, whether or not it’s relevant, ethical or even makes sense. My primary function is to nod in agreement, thereby providing reassurance to the guy in charge that he is, in fact, in charge. The pervasiveness of this rickety power model helps explain why some of our leaders look so puzzled, irritated, or even visibly angry, when confronted with real questions about such issues as the academic program review, the university’s football program, budget and finance decisions, or gender equity. They seem to see such questioning as at best impertinence and at worst a violation of WMU’s social order.

I know I am not the only one who has noticed that when questions and concerns are presented to some of our leaders, or when they address groups of us, their tone frequently ranges, and can shift instantly, from jocular uncle to disappointed dad to pissed-off coach to irate general. It isn’t just one or two leaders, but, increasingly, this communication style seems to have become part of the WMU administrative ethos. It’s become pretty standard for some of them to bark out talking points and manage questions or concerns rather than actually listen to them and thoughtfully and spontaneously respond. If you haven’t experienced this first hand recently, get yourself invited to a Wednesday afternoon administrative Academic Forum, often a virtual parade of such didactic performances.

Too many of our campus leaders seem to have taken on the terrible burden of believing it’s their job is to know everything and to then fling that knowledge at those below. Their omniscient pretense is further reinforced by vague, dangled secrets and obfuscating references to complicated reports that staff and faculty couldn’t possibly be trusted with or expected to understand. That more of us haven’t been asking tough questions all along has, of course, been vital to maintaining this dynamic. It’s especially demoralizing to look around the room and see an audience nodding in drowsy approval. As if they were part of an actual dialogue.

It’s partly because I think there’s a gendered dynamic associated with this communication style that I find the handling of gender equity – with respect to both faculty and staff – to be so troubling. From where I sit, it looks like the women and men who care about gender equity are, in pretty standard fashion, being intimidated, ignored and shamed into silence. The very dynamic that created the problem they’re taking issue with in the first place – an objectively demonstrable social and material power imbalance – is being relied upon to keep them in line. Here, the woman’s expected role is one of passive acquiescence and polite helpmeet. That so many women have internalized these lessons – yes, we often are afraid and do doubt our own worth – makes this a predictably effective and especially offensive strategy.

What I think is most important about what’s happening now across campus, most visibly in the College of Arts and Sciences but across other colleges as well, is that some individuals and groups are challenging this dynamic. There is increasing recognition that we must insist on being treated like respected collaborators if we are to meet our responsibilities to each other and to the university. And the campus leaders who seek more from us than passive acquiescence – and I hope there still are such leaders at WMU – deserve our honest, robustly engaged partnership, in dialogue and in action.

That I have recently watched my immediate boss lose his job for speaking up suggests that I am not exaggerating WMU’s authoritarian dynamic. That I am contacted daily by individuals from across campus who whisper both their support and their terror speaks painful and embarrassing but also hopeful volumes. Those of us who speak up already know that there may be consequences. We may be vilified as disloyal, or dismissed as impertinent and naive. Women who speak up may also be dismissed as bitchy or hysterical. Certainly, it’s not much of a challenge to construct rationalizations for why we need not listen to those whose views we’ve already decided we care nothing about.

But despite the fear, we must continue to demand and expect more in terms of collaborative dialogue and shared governance. Our commitment and loyalty to higher education, to WMU, to our students, and to one another requires such vigorously engaged participation. Exceptional work is being done all around us by staff, faculty, students and administrative colleagues whose expertise and wisdom are necessary to make this place better. What if WMU colleagues across all levels acknowledged our shared vulnerability and felt empowered to communicate authentically about the real problems that urgently need our attention? What if we were not afraid?

WMU-AAUP Remarks at Board of Trustees Meeting

Remarks by WMU-AAUP President Lisa Minnick
December 5, 2013

The university’s financial report dated June 30, 2013, is bursting with good news: It announces that the University’s financial position is strong, with assets of $946.8 million and liabilities of $549.5 million. It projects a net revenue increase of three million dollars for 2013-14. And it shows that the university continues to generate positive operating margins and comfortable cash flow, despite sustaining a 24% decline in state support since 2008. WMU also continues to enjoy an A1 bond rating.

And yet despite this encouraging news, the faculty, staff, and students have seen funding for our colleges and our departments decimated. Faculty hiring has come to a near stand-still. Increasing reliance on underpaid part-time faculty colleagues and short-term hires has become the new normal. At the same time, we see unprecedented investment in athletics, especially football, large investments in real estate, and considerable assumption of debt on behalf of the medical school, including the nearly $70 million that WMU will take on to renovate the donated building on Portage Street, which the university will then lease to the medical school, according to the financial report.

WMU faculty salaries among the 11 institutions the administration has identified as our “peer institutions” are the 8th highest for full professors, 9th highest for associate professors, and 10th highest for assistant professors. That is 8th, 9th, and 10th out of 11. This means that WMU faculty are significantly out-earned by our colleagues at nearly every one of these ostensible peer institutions. Median salaries for full professors at WMU are nearly $10,000 below the mean. For associate professors, it is more than $5,000. Assistant professors at WMU are below all but one peer institution, barely edging out the University of Southern Mississippi for 10th place. The annual national survey of faculty salaries, conducted by the national AAUP and released by the Chronicle of Higher Education, reports salaries at WMU as “far below” the national median year after year.

According to the university’s financial report, investments in students and faculty have at best remained flat when they are not decreasing significantly. By contrast, “institutional support,” which includes upper administration as well as athletics, is up substantially. So are unidentified “other expenditures.”

Nothing that happens on a university campus happens in a vacuum. And when we look around and don’t see the kind of shared sacrifice that we keep being called upon to give, the only logical conclusion is that what we are experiencing is not exclusively the consequence of financial exigency but rather a major shift in institutional values and priorities. For example, the faculty was recently told that salary adjustments for colleagues who have not been paid equitably throughout their careers here – and many colleagues are still in that situation, the recent adjustments notwithstanding – can only come with offsetting cuts to the budgets of their academic colleges. A system in which deans, chairs, and faculty members must choose between fair compensation and funding for the tools that make it possible for us to serve our students and the institution suggests the rise of a real crisis of values on this campus.

You may have read the MLive article this morning about the concerns of the faculty in the Department of History about the academic program review getting underway this year. Many faculty campus-wide share the concerns articulated by our colleagues in History. In an environment in which academic budgets are getting slashed to within inches of their lives, the faculty is being directed to participate in what looks to a lot of us like a zero-sum game of identifying some of our programs – and possibly some of our colleagues – for elimination if the rest of us are to survive. And in an environment in which faculty, chairs, and deans worked together in good faith to try to resolve the equity problems that plague our campus but then find their recommendations discarded in favor of unilateral, opaque decision-making from higher up, through a process that to this day has not been explained, faculty believe they have good reason for their skepticism with respect to the program review.

The WMU-AAUP was excluded from participation in any of the planning, design, or development of criteria for the review. When we have made our concerns known about this exclusion, we have been met with administrative resistance and contractual hair-splitting. In my view, this should not have even had to become a contractual question. When you want to launch a project that cannot succeed in any meaningful way without faculty buy-in, it just makes sense to work collaboratively and with transparency from the very beginning. This is not something we should be having to point out after the fact.

The university is now in the process of a lot of significant transitions, which as President Dunn rightly noted in his State of the University speech in October, will result in a significantly changed university in the coming years. It only makes sense, then, to work with the faculty to ensure the success of the many university initiatives now or soon to be underway – the medical school, the law school, the program review. Once again I will remind this body that the faculty are an integral part of the institution. We’ve committed our professional lives to its success, and we’ve invested everything we have in that endeavor. And realistically, none of these initiatives can happen without us. And none of them should.

We, the 855 members of the board-appointed faculty of Western Michigan University, have stood and continue to stand at the ready to participate actively in the governance of our university. To us, “shared governance” is more than just words. We fully intend to be actively involved in any and all endeavors that are critical to the success of this institution.

Once again, members of the Board, we invite you to join us for conversation and collaboration. In recent months, we have had lively and productive conversations with Trustees Miller and Asmonga-Knapp, and we look forward to many more of these conversations in the months to come. We hope all of you will join us in working together for a revitalized campus culture, where students, faculty, and staff can all thrive. We must continue to offer the unparalleled opportunity of an education at a Research One university to young people in Michigan and beyond who don’t come from privilege and for whom such access may be otherwise severely limited due to circumstances beyond their control. This is what we do best. This is what makes Western Michigan University stand out from the rest. This is what we should be fighting to preserve and build on.

Members of the Board, we appreciate your interest in hearing from and working with the faculty, and we look forward to continuing the work of building a more collaborative relationship between the Board and the faculty for the benefit of the university and its diverse community of stakeholders.

A colleague shares his story

A faculty colleague shares his (in)equity story, which we reprint here, with his permission:

I am certainly in favor of everyone being paid in an equitable manner, but let me tell you my experience with trying to get my salary adjusted.

I spent almost two full years trying to have my salary adjusted due to the practice of hiring people without their terminal degree (who were told they needed the degree by the time they started at WMU). Some of these individuals then start without their PhD but are paid as if they do have it. Then when they receive their degree they get a pay bump because they go from instructor to assistant professor. This can take their salaries above those of colleagues who were hired at the same time with PhD in hand.

This situation occurred when I was hired at the same time as someone else in my department. I took this to my chair, who never responded, then to the dean. We met to no avail. Then I went to the interim provost at the time, who felt that I had some merit to my request. She told me to go back to the dean. I went back to my dean, who told me if he adjusted my salary he would have to do it for everyone, so he declined, noting that I had agreed to my starting salary when I signed my contract. I then went back to the provost’s office, to the new interim provost at the time. He was sympathetic, agreed to some extent with the previous interim provost, and told me that since by then I had a new chair, I should start there and go through the process again. I went to my new chair, who would not take it forward from there. He said that an adjustment would never happen so he was not going to waste time trying.

After two years of this, I finally gave up and moved on with my life here at WMU. So as you can see I am just a little frustrated by what has currently happened in respect to salary equity. If I knew that men would be considered for adjustments, I would have requested a review, but this was only supposed to be related to gender equity so I did not pursue it this time.