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Communication in Chaos

Preface: Respect, disregard, and unnecessary ill will

Imagine that you have been a member of the faculty of NCC for 25 years. You retire with the title of Professor Emeritus and you wish to remain actively involved with the life of the campus. You attend events, you participate in online discussions, and you share information with former colleagues. Email makes it easy for you to continue to participate meaningfully in the life of our college. Or it used to, until you received one saying that because the college was switching to a new email system you were being cut off, for no clear reason other than that it is easier to leave you behind when the switch is made.

This appears to you to come out of nowhere, but actually the Academic Senate and the NCCFT had become aware of the college’s intent several weeks earlier, and had explained how damaging and how unnecessary this was. The NCCFT in particular, after conversations with both Richard Lawless (NCC’s new Chief Information Officer) and President Astrab, believed that the decision had been reversed and that Professors Emeritus would be included in the transition.

Then you receive your email, indicating that on April 20 you will lose access entirely.

This is becoming representative of the state of things at NCC: Lack of respect, unnecessary ill will, and apparent disregard for the faculty are becoming commonplace. Much of this seems attributable to poor communication or to lack of communication.

When I was in the Navy I learned that there was a big difference between “Yes, Sir” and “Aye-Aye, Sir”. “Yes, Sir” signified an affirmative response, as in answering yes to a yes or no question. “Aye-Aye, Sir” meant “I understand and will comply.” Nuances in communication are important. For an organization or a unit to run effectively everybody needs to be able to speak a common language. In the 25 years that I have been on this campus I do not recall a moment where there has been so much miscommunication resulting in so much anxiety, distrust, and chaos. And while I don’t hold an advanced degree in communication, I do acknowledge that there is a significant difference between “no communication,” “ineffective communication,” “differences in communication style,” and “communication we don’t like or understand.” Right now I would say we are experiencing a terrible blend of all four of those circumstances.

Problem #1: Who says what to whom?

Some time ago the Administration published an organizational chart. When the chart was presented to the faculty Dr. Astrab indicated that it should serve as a chain of command for communication. Many of us had questions about the degree of authority that would be backing up these communications. For example, what happens when different Deans express different messages to different departments? How does the faculty clearly sort out which messages are accurate and authoritative? And as if this is not confusing enough, it has happened that any given Dean may express different messages to a single department at different times. To complicate matters further, various Associate Vice Presidents might have yet a different message.

Why is this happening? We agree that the Board of Trustees, Dr. Astrab, and the Administration as a unit are trying to salvage the College from an externally imposed budget nightmare. This is not as much a budget crisis as a lack of political will to do what is right for the middle class. It is also an abuse of the public trust to use the word “crisis” to promote an outright attack on public employees. However, that is the situation in which the college finds itself, and the numbers that Dr. Astrab has been dealing with are real. He has repeatedly said that all non-contractual items are on the table for discussion. Fine! So, after these administrative discussions occur, they must be effectively communicated to the rest of the college community. This seems, more often than not, to happen in a way that resembles a game of “Telephone.” On the one hand, ideas may be discussed when they are at exploratory stages, and these are then passed along as innocent or mean spirited rumor, or just to test the water. These strategies results in chaos and distrust. On the other hand, if various AVPs are given a uniform and precise message to deliver, one would expect the message to be the same everywhere. This is clearly not occurring. In the case of communication about cutbacks, retrenchment and the status of Temporary lines the messages are far from uniform and clear.

Problem #2: Inclusion is not the same as representation

These problems are amplified when the shared governance system is not appropriately included. An administrator having a conversation with a small group of chairpersons is not the same thing as an administrator having a meeting with the Chairs’ Executive Committee, or the full Chairpersons Committee. We encourage the Administration to work through official representative bodies like the Senate and the Union to communicate to the faculty. Communicating through unofficial groups of faculty is shadow governance, not shared governance. (For an excellent explanation of the difference, see this AAUP column from 2001: “State of the Profession: Shadow Governance”)

I believe that the administration perceives the shared governance system of this institution to be cumbersome, slow and resistant to change. It is true that longstanding systems often are slow to change. Given the crisis conditions facing the college, this must feel intolerable. Faced with this conflict, the administration might choose those who they perceive to be the most knowledgeable faculty members to include in specific discussions, and they tell themselves that this means they are working collaboratively within the shared governance system. However, faculty selected by administrators to participate in discussions are not representing the faculty, rather they are collaborating as individuals, and they are likely to act accordingly. Faculty are only representing shared governance bodies when their selection is made by those they represent.

This is an important distinction. It would take only a phone call to the Academic Senate or to the NCCFT to request representatives. Either body would respond immediately and I imagine in most circumstances we would be open to discussing the selection so that the best person is chosen and so that the appropriate bodies are represented. In this circumstance, open and representative dialogue occurs. When the administration simply chooses with whom to speak, the faculty are marginalized and distrust grows.

If you or a fellow NCCFT member is asked by a member of the Administration to participate in an ad hoc advisory capacity, explain to the Administrator who extends the invitation that there is a shared governance process that should not be bypassed, and then notify the Senate and the NCCFT (and if relevant, your department chair), so we all know what is taking place. This is not to suggest that we are creating a showdown, but rather to suggest we are facing a great need to work collaboratively together in a way that provides for the full representation of the faculty and that instills trust in the governing of the institution.

One of the most dangerous communication traps we can find ourselves in is thinking we have the capacity to make some private deal that protects our agenda. We are all in this together. If we all scatter and attempt to made private deals, then the anxiety, distrust, and chaos will only get worse.

Problem #3: Clarity and Qualification

Another communication problem arises when, despite the need for clear information, we get statements full of qualifiers. Do phrases like “maybe,” “perhaps,” “for now,” signify indecision, trial initiatives, hedging? When you hear something like this, ask. The point is not to embarrass anybody, but so that everybody is clear on what is really going on.

There is no doubt that change is here. Let us stay focused, organized and unified. We must attempt to use this change as an opportunity to become a better institution. In order to do this we must insist that the changes are made in consultation with the faculty, and that we all fully participate in the shared governance system that guides the institution.

We need to take a deep breath and step back for a moment so we don’t get caught up in the politics of fear. I would call on the Academic Senate to continue to be specific and consistent in their communications with the Administration, Senate Committees, and Senators. I would ask the Chairs to continue to communicate with each other and with their leadership, and in open and honest discussions with the Administration. Finally, I would ask the membership to continue to communicate with each other. These are trying times and we need to support one another.

Communicate with each other honestly and openly. Stay strong and do not succumb to fear. Let us see whether or not this Administration understands our willingness to be partners. The sooner we begin, the sooner we will know.

Authored by Frank Frisenda, Vice-President, Classroom Faculty
Edited by Elizabeth Wood, Treasurer

And now for a little Monday Morning Music. Our best advice? Keep your eye on what’s right, insist on clarity, and don’t be taken over by the fear: