Tuesday, June 17, 2014

We Used to Have a Sense of Community

by Deborah Knuth Klenck
Professor of English

June 16, 2014

When I returned from a scholarly conference last night, I went through four days’ worth of mail and found my notification about proving the eligibility of my husband to remain on my health-insurance policy. I anticipated the tone of the document from having read posts on the Colgate AAUP website, and the letter met the standards I expected: the word “MUST” in all-caps; the inclusion of a non-negotiable deadline (in my case, a deadline that gives me precisely fourteen business days to comply—though it’s not clear whether the documents must be delivered to The Bonadio Group by that date or if a postmark within the allotted window will suffice); and the overall sense of a veiled—or rather not-veiled—threat.

When I first read about the new “program” to verify that we employees were not committing fraud, I was somewhat surprised—especially because, as far as the policy extends to dependent children, collecting the data seems completely unnecessary. Everyone’s children’s birthdates are already on record because of our having filled out paperwork necessary to qualify for Colgate’s tuition benefit. How hard is it to import data from one drawer of a filing cabinet to another? Must Colgate really employ an independent entity (at what cost, one wonders?) to collect such duplicate information—if indeed it needs to be collected in the first place?

Previous posters have called attention to the rushing through of this new policy when the Benefits Committee has had inadequate time to discuss it, much less bring it to the floor of a Faculty Meeting, and when many faculty have left the area or even the country for the summer—quite possibly without having taken along their children’s birth certificates and their own marriage licenses and tax returns.

Of course, the more important objection to this hasty change in policy is not practical, but philosophical. This is not Purdue; this is a small place. We know each other—or we used to.  We used to have a sense of community, rather than a sense of mistrust and fear.

I have long marveled at the relative failure of Colgate’s administration to make small gestures that could improve employee morale. When I read in Human Resources’ “Open Gate” about a colleague’s milestone of 25 or 40 years of service, I wonder why there is no further celebration. Other professional milestones go similarly unnoted.  The sorts of recognition I imagine would cost the University little or nothing, and the rewards to the community in terms of simple good will could be significant.

Now I’m noticing not just errors of such omission, but actively offensive gestures. The tone and content of the early-retirement-incentive letter received by almost a third of the faculty earlier this year were a rather jarring example. The “one-time” “lump-sum” offer with its inflexible deadline (not only a date but a time as well, leading me to wonder why it would matter if the document agreeing to the offer were signed at 5:05 PM on the given date instead of at 4:55) had all the subtlety of a late-night commercial for a set of revolutionary new cookware. The inappropriate language was not mitigated by any expressions of gratitude for faculty service or any allusion to how hard it might be for the University ever to replace us and our efforts for the institution.  There was simply a sense that some of us needed reminding that we were somehow, by continuing to work at the advanced age of 61, overstaying our welcome. In case we hadn’t realized where the exit was, we were helpfully offered a not-particularly-friendly (nor tempting, actually, the “lump-sum” offer notwithstanding) push out the door.

Over recent years, I have ascribed some of these errors in “people skills” to a collective tin ear on the part of the authors—and, one must add, of the signers--of such documents. (It’s not the fault of the folks at Human Resources: they [alone] send congratulatory notes to employees who have reached milestones in years of service and get-well cards during illnesses.)

But lately it feels as if these gaffes cannot be inadvertent: could they be designed deliberately to discourage and depress us? I have never gone to business school, but it would seem to me that a savvy choice on the part of an administration would be to adopt a relatively positive tone towards its employees—but perhaps I’m naïve on that point.

At any rate, the increasing contrast between the communications, or absence thereof, between the administration and me and the many letters, e-mails, and social-media postings I receive from alumni, both recent students and those who graduated as many as thirty years ago, is somewhat bewildering.

I’ll xerox my mortgage bill and my marriage certificate later today, I suppose, and mail them in, certifying that I haven’t falsified any information, per the necessary form, but I still won’t understand how or why life at Colgate has so drastically changed.


theoldguywhoisboredwithpasswordsandprofiles.... said...

An excellent commentary -- many thanks. I don't know what has happened to the notion of a community built on mutual trust, and one in which we are valued individuals rather than cost entries in some spreadsheet, but I do know that our administrators have no comprehension of just how much the loss of those values damages the university...

Unknown said...

WRT your comment, Deborah, on business school/management practices, I thought this blog-entry from the Harvard Business Review summarizing research on manager behaviors was relevant.

For those not familiar with "Cortisol," it's one of the things that the body produces (especially when under stress) that has the most negative effects on us (causes weight-gain, makes it harder to get a good night's sleep, etc, in addition to what's described in this blog-post).

Perhaps if Colgate's management were more up-to-date on prevailing research trends in management practices (like the one summarized here), it would reconsider the approaches that you not seem almost designed deliberately to discourage and depress us.

Lynn Staley said...

I'd like to commend Deborah on such an astute and elegant post. It took both courage and skill to write. Her focus upon the sense of community here at Colgate is particularly sharp. It reminds me that we can as faculty maintain and create a community despite what is an increasingly impersonal corporate structure.

Anonymous said...

My university also struggles with its treatment of faculty staff..and students!!!