How college leaders can bridge the growing ‘trust gap’ with their faculty and staff members

July 24, 2020   |   By Goldie Blumenstyk, The Chronicle of Higher Education

From The Chronicle of Higher Education

Harmony on campus is hard to come by even when the stakes are lower. The brutally tough decisions colleges have been or soon will be making — how to teach in the fall, where to cut as budgets tighten — are among the most challenging that institutions have faced, at least since 2008. And for the foreseeable future, it’s not going to get any easier.

But internal conflicts aren’t inevitable. I became more convinced of that after hosting a conversation last week with three presidents, as part of the Remote conference. They shared ideas like avoiding “the bunker mentality” (Mark Rosenberg of Florida International University); ensuring that the institution’s values are reflected in its actions (Lori S. White, DePauw University); and creating formal opportunities for people to voice complaints and concerns (Joseph Castro, California State University at Fresno.) Here are some of the lessons that seemed the most useful — and universal.

In stressful times, people appreciate when you invest in them. Since March, and especially over the summer, all three institutions have put time and resources into professional development for faculty members. Fresno and FIU have relied heavily on their teaching and learning centers to train hundreds of professors on remote instruction, and DePauw has created faculty “communities of practice” to focus on teaching issues that arose this spring. Fresno is even paying professors a stipend for going through the training; FIU is including its adjuncts.

Connecting with colleagues is vital — and not just for newbies. White, who was in Week 3 of her presidency when we spoke, is deliberately organizing a host of virtual meetings with her new colleagues. It’s her only way to meet them right now, and for them to get a better sense of her priorities. Even longer-serving leaders shouldn’t forget to touch base regularly.

Inclusive decision making pays off. (Yeah, more committees!) Rosenberg couldn’t imagine moving forward without input from two committees: one his provost created to guide the eventual “re-population” of the campus and another that decided how to use federal Cares Act funds. Fresno convened a group to help set protocols for the limited amount of face-to-face teaching it expects to conduct this fall. Meanwhile, the presence of unions can be a plus. Both presidents said that existing union-administration relationships facilitated communication and made it easier to resolve disagreements, like one at Fresno over who would be doing Covid-19 testing.

It’s worth making room for dissenting views. Rosenberg, the longest-serving of the presidents, was adamant on this point, noting how he’d seen people at other institutions suffer when leaders became too insulated, too reliant on their hand-picked inner circles. “I’m very worried about groupthink” he said, especially now, with so much happening so fast. “We have to be very open.” Castro uses an online feedback page to publicly air and answer questions that come to him. That openness includes paying attention to rumors. Even if they’re not completely true, White added, it’s important to identify the circumstances that got them going.

A college’s mission and values should guide its actions. Talk is easy. In the end, institutions will be judged by what they do. Especially when it comes to putting the health and safety of the campus community first, said White, “the more we demonstrate that by our actions,” the better. DePauw is trying to do that by respecting faculty members’ choices on how they want to teach in the fall. Castro has heard grumbling from local alumni who own businesses about the Cal State system’s decision in mid-May to stay mostly remote in the fall. “Some people thought we were making a decision prematurely,” he said. “I’m guided as an educator by the mission of our university.”

Are these foolproof ideas? No. But they seem like good starting points. For the whole conversation (along with dozens of other sessions), register and look around here.

Hopes — and doubts — about new attention to skills in hiring.

This month I wrote that I wasn’t sure what to make of President Trump’s executive order urging federal agencies to look beyond degrees in hiring, especially since it came as colleges face their biggest headwinds in memory. I appreciate the insights many of you shared.

Advocates for skills-based hiring tend to see it as a way to level the playing field for qualified job candidates who happen not to be college graduates. And some of you see the federal move as an opportunity for higher ed. Rovy Branon, vice provost for the University of Washington’s Continuum College, said that while degrees can signal mastery of skills, colleges need to do a better job of accurately capturing and verifying that. Now is the time, he said, “to create faster and cheaper pathways for a new market that wants and needs it.” And Shalin Jyotishi, of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, noted that “sometimes a degree isn't the only/right credential a learner needs, and that's OK.” Jyotishi, the assistant director for economic development and community engagement at APLU, also put in a plug for an op-ed he just co-wrote, arguing for embedding industry certifications into degree programs, an approach that was popular with readers of The Edge when I wrote about it in December.

Less positively, I heard from folks wondering whether the new order would create confusion — and perhaps worse. Matthew Hora, of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, worried that implementation could emphasize assessments of so-called “soft skills” like communication that are “cultural constructions” and could “open the door to even more hiring discrimination.”

A related concern for me: In recent weeks, we’ve seen a bevy of announcements from colleges, companies, and nonprofits about new programs to help people skill up, especially in the digital realm. The list includes Google’s new career certifications and scholarships, Microsoft’s “global skills initiative,” the Digital US coalition, and the new nonprofit Skill Up. As well meaning as these initiatives seem, they miss the bigger issue — that many of the 40 million newly unemployed people didn’t lose their jobs because they lacked skills. They lost them because the pandemic shut down their workplaces.

Maybe that’s the jolt that will prompt some to find better jobs, but skills alone won’t guarantee a shiny new career. Better coordination of state work-force policies, as this new effort calls for, could help. Ultimately, though, we need a much stronger, growing economy, and that is at least a few years away, if we’re lucky (and if more people would just wear masks). Without a recovery, this Huffington Post reporter’s assessment is worth remembering: “Re-skilling is sort of like playing musical chairs: People are racing to grab a job and sit down, and not everyone will get a seat.”