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Ellen Harshman on Faculty Empathy

October 2014

By Roger Stackpoole

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Ellen Harshman, interim vice president for academic affairs and associate professor of management, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Mo., knows what it takes to rebuild trust. Her role in helping to restore mutual respect among faculty and administration follows a turbulent period of a no-confidence vote against SLU’s former longtime president. In this interview, Harshman shares lessons learned about getting all stakeholders talking for the good of students and the health and viability of the institution and its mission.

With all that is changing across higher education relative to culture; eco-nomic climate; and the roles of presidents, senior administrators, and faculty, how can leadership best support change in a way that maintains strong and healthy relationships among all stakeholder groups?

Change can produce energy and excitement, but much of the time change also engenders anxiety. I don’t think we as leaders always do a great job of helping people think about change in a positive light, with opportunities for new experiences and perspectives. Instead, we tend to focus on what we will all have to do differently, or on the cost implications, such as bigger class sizes or smaller lab spaces—the perceived negative aspects of change. 

In addition to highlighting the opportunities associated with change, we need to do a better job of preparing leaders to engage in difficult conversations, recognizing this is not without risk when you are talking about issues like reducing the cost of instruction and essentially asking faculty to help identify solutions when they themselves may feel threatened. Here is where those individuals potentially affected can offer creative suggestions and out-of-the-box thinking if they feel their perspectives are valued and can have impact on decisions.

Your institution has weathered a challenging period in faculty-administration relationships. What can you share about what your leadership learned from this?

Reflecting on the turmoil that began on our campus in the fall of 2012, it has been important for us to reassess the communication process during that time. We realize now that one major difficulty was a lack of trust in leadership and frustration because of a perceived lack of effective channels through which to communicate. 

One takeaway for our leadership team was to try to get out in front of the issues that were causing anxiety and to demonstrate transparency in our communications. That has been a slow process, but it is vitally important for people to know they are being heard and that their concerns are being addressed. This is a lesson in patience for everyone. It takes time, consistent messaging, and concerted action to rebuild trust.

Another important lesson was recognizing the need to acknowledge mistakes. Sometimes we get ourselves too wound up trying to defend a position, and we forget that it takes a lot of courage to admit something didn’t work so well and to ask others to help get things back on track.

What has helped rebuild communication and trust for your institution? 

As one example, during that first year when things were evolving, our CFO went to faculty groups to answer questions about whatever faculty members wanted to know about financial matters. His offer was met with some skepticism by some faculty members, but he addressed their questions and then invited faculty to meet with him one-on-one. That really began to turn the corner on our trust issues, because it allowed faculty members to test what our CFO said publicly with what he showed them in detail one-on-one. 

What they soon realized was that his messages were in sync. Because our CFO and others on his staff took the time to explain what was behind the financial reports and projections, this set the stage for ongoing conversations with faculty about how to collaborate in maintaining a healthy fiscal condition at the university. 

What can senior administration do routinely so that conversations between administrators and faculty start from a position of mutual trust and respect? 

Foremost is to listen. We’ve all sat through meetings where the approach of the presenter was to tell rather than listen, and where data were used to convince people rather than allowing others to ask questions and express concerns. We need more conversations that aren’t based on PowerPoint presentations. This is a stylistic thing, but it can make a huge difference in the kind of conversation you encourage when you allow others to say what’s on their minds. In fact, the more we listen, the clearer picture we gain of the real issues and concerns of others. 

When your institution is moving through an unexpected or difficult transition, it’s critical to keep the important things on the agenda so that no one is blindsided by them, and so that people who have a stake in those issues are included in the process. The best way to do that is to stay in constant communication with all stakeholders at the institution. At the end of the day, everyone really wants the same thing—for the university to be successful.  

How do we help faculty understand that we gen-uinely need and want their involvement in developing long-term strategies and goals to remain on a sustainable path—financially and programmatically—so that we are not constantly faced with an urgent matter? 

First, we have to acknowledge that the primary roles of faculty are teaching, scholarship, and service. We need to assure faculty that we are not asking them to do our jobs as administrators, and we must invite them into the conversation in a way that feels authentic and reasonable in light of their other responsibilities. That said, faculty are essential in shaping the future of the institution. Effective shared governance requires mutual respect and a commitment to focus on core values and goals and to sit at the same table and make the tough choices together.

How can chief business officers strengthen this kind of collaboration with faculty? 

Ironically, as organizations built around a shared-governance approach, we often don’t do the best job of teaching our people how to make it work. We know that building strong relationships is at the heart of shared governance. Probably the best way to advance collaboration is for all parties to have an appreciation of the various roles involved in making the university successful. It is important for administrators to understand the interests and needs of the faculty and for faculty members to feel welcomed into partnership with members of the administration. 

What misconceptions of each other do chief business officers and faculty often hold, and how can we move past these to develop mutual understanding and commitment to work together for the good of the institution?

It’s no surprise that I would say the biggest misconception many faculty hold of senior administrators—and I’m speaking here of those in the business areas—is that they are focused purely on the bottom line. On the flip side, there is often a misconception on the part of some administrators that the faculty don’t understand what it takes to move the university forward. 

I truly believe faculty really want their institutions to be successful and want students to have the best experience possible, and they likewise struggle with how to make this happen. Some faculty members will seek active participation in the university’s decision-making processes. Others prefer to be less involved. However, it is important to keep communication channels open for all so that no one is surprised when decisions are made.

Can you expand on that?

It’s important to help faculty members feel comfortable with the decision-making processes and the necessity often to work at a pretty rapid pace. This can run counter to the ways that faculty members are comfortable working. As faculty members, we love to study and research problems. That process is important, and we would like to be sure we have all the data and have tested our hypotheses. This can create a tension between the need to move forward with decisions and the need to know all that can be known to make the most informed decision. 

At some point, someone has to say, we don’t have perfect information, but we have enough information, and we must move forward. So, a first step is to get faculty comfortable with imperfect data and with the need to move on and to make the best decision possible at this moment. That’s where effective and consistent communication and transparency are critical.

As a sector, and as individual institutions, we seem to be facing a growing number of complex issues that require shorter timelines for decision making. How can we foster a shared sense of urgency as a call to action for our institutions? 

The clock is ticking faster, but if we don’t have the campus culture or the campus infrastructure that allows us to have these important discussions, we will remain mired in drawn-out decision making. Foremost, we need a shared understanding of our environment and climate. We need trust and confidence that our leaders can make good decisions. And, we need mechanisms in place to pull stakeholders together to have tough conversations. Only when those key elements are in place can you move forward. So, a necessary first step may be stepping back to make sure you have the right architecture in place for mutual understanding and decision making.  

ROGER STACKPOOLE is vice president for finance and administration, and treasurer, Le Moyne College, Syracuse, N.Y.

It’s important to help faculty members feel comfortable with the decision-making processes and the necessity often to work at a pretty rapid pace.