Faculty and Staff Sound Off at Forums

November 1, 1997

University Publications staff

It was billed as a series of public forums to facilitate community-wide discussion about strategic planning at Tulane. What emerged from the 18 two-hour sessions held during two weeks last month was a kind of polyphonic chorus--a sometimes harmonious, other times discordant dialogue that gave voice to the ideals and disenchantment, the hopes and fears, the wishes and worries of the approximately 300 Uptown faculty and staff members who turned out.

"Our goal was to create a buzz on campus," said Martha Gilliland, provost and leader of the planning group, largely composed of deans and vice presidents, which sponsored the forums. "The goal was not to get everybody to agree but to initiate the conversation."

The forums were structured around themes, core values and a strategic intent statement developed by the planning group, and each forum seemed to develop its own particular conversation. Groups ranging in size from six to 22 faculty and staff members pursued a variety of topics, including the erosion of morale and resources, academic mission, the culture of the Tulane community, the integration of teaching and research, the relevance of core values, the language used by the planning group and the very process of planning for the future.

In the first session, held at 9 a.m. on Oct. 7, forum leader Teresa Soufas, acting dean of the Faculty of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, said her own participation in the process stemmed from a conviction that Tulane and its constituencies have "the potential to get beyond what we often see as potholes." It was a familiar theme echoed by other forum leaders, all of whom were members of the planning committee.

"The process begins one person at a time," said Ron Mason, senior vice president and general counsel, during another session. "That's why I'm here, because it's an effort worth making."

Participants, however, were not so uniformly inclined to embrace the process. While one 20-year member of the Tulane faculty said she "wanted to thank the administration for this process because I have sensed an erosion of our community," another member of the faculty said, "We've seen grand plans before and nothing has ever come from them." Sometimes the comments cut both ways, as in the one made by an assistant director who said, "I am happy to see anybody say what Tulane is. We've tried to be everything to everybody."

Some participants poked fun at the core values. One group member lightheartedly said the only thing missing in the proposed core values was "Mom and apple pie." In another session, a faculty member more soberly intoned that the core values--community, excellence, academic freedom, integrity, mutual respect and social responsibility--"did not exist" at the university. Another faculty member in the same group, however, said that these core values must exist.

"Having taught for 45 years," he said, "I still remain in awe of the concept of the university. It is a privilege to be at a university." Some of the most derisive comments occurred when participants challenged the language used by the planning group in describing the core values and themes. "I'm trying to penetrate the obscurity of it all," a 33-year faculty veteran said. "What does it all mean? Does it mean anything?"

Conversations often turned constructive when participants focused on specific issues. Teaching was an obvious concern not only for faculty, but also staff. Faculty members in one group emphasized that education be valued over training. They wished to see more emphasis on a "culture of discovery" in the core values. One faculty member suggested that Tulane be "more open to risk taking" and the cultivation of "intellectual curiosity."

The group went so far as to offer its own strategic intent statement: "Critique the given and imagine an alternative." Another group took on the planning group's strategic intent statement--"Tulane University is a model for transforming higher education..."--and pondered its relevance to teaching.

One LAS faculty member questioned the use of the word "transforming" and wondered to whom or what it is directed. That led a longtime staff member to suggest that perhaps the university is transforming from a teaching environment, whereby the university tells students what they should be learning, to a learning environment, whereby students play a greater role in determining their education.

Another group discussed the relationship of teaching and research. "I am disturbed by the opposition on campus between research and teaching," said one LAS faculty member. "Tulane is a learning community and research does a lot of good for that community. I hope Tulane does not consider teaching and research contradictory."

An administrative director in the same group said that he viewed Tulane as primarily a teaching institution and considered research to be an endeavor to support teaching. The strategic theme of interdisciplinary activity spoke to a number of participants' interests and concerns. A humanities faculty member suggested taking "innovative approaches" to foster interdisciplinary studies at Tulane.

"The vision of interdisciplinarity is often the notion that students take a smorgasbord of classes," she said. "We need to be looking for something more significant, perhaps employing things like team teaching." An LAS professor in another group, however, proposed exploring interdisciplinary approaches that didn't resort to "fragmented team teaching."

He implied that the university has to be on guard and on the move in order not to be anachronistic. The university must strive to continue to be relevant or, it may be, he said, "The only thing we have is accreditation and degree-granting powers." There was a strong consensus in one group that the university's focus ought to be on students. One member of the group described it as a "customer-service" attitude that needs to be embraced across the board, including "front-line" staff in offices that deal directly with students, faculty teaching in classrooms and high-level administrators. Another group's discussion of students focused on the idea of student internships. A senior staff member suggested setting up internal internships for students.

"We have $63-million worth of ongoing construction on campus," he said, suggesting, for example, that mechanical engineering and architecture students could be interns on these projects in a way that would be beneficial to both the students and the university. The quality of students' life experience at Tulane surfaced as a topic in one group.

"Students don't regard this as a community," one senior faculty member said. "We overlook the student experience, which is the whole reason we're here." Two topics that seemed to go hand-in-hand in almost every session reported on were those of community and communication. "We need to open up the lines of communication and have support people believe what they hear from this university," a staff member said. Another staff member in the same group agreed that "there is a tremendous lack of communication on campus."

The problem seems to be in dissemination of information, she said. "There's a lot of information to be had, but only if you go looking for it." "I feel like my department is so isolated from everything," said a staff member in another group. "Things just trickle down. We hear that there's a grand design, but we're clueless."

A department chair in still another group ominously echoed that statement when he said, "Decisions are made somewhere--TAs are gone, departments merged, budgets cut--decisions that turn my world upside down." He later added that a lack of harmony "means a lack of faculty morale." A more civil, respectful and appreciative environment is what participants in another session seemed to desire.

One faculty member, in discussing the process of charting out a new strategic mission, suggested that, "None of this is going to work unless there is a frank acknowledgment of appreciation for what we--faculty and staff--do. We need to shift to a culture of appreciation. And this has to start from the top." At least one participant, a longtime member of the LAS faculty, acknowledged that the session she was attending was, in part, the kind of medicine the university needed: "small social interactions of 15-30 people. It is the kind of thing New Orleans does well."

One of the most interesting community-related issues to emerge out of the forums was the relationship of faculty and staff. For most, it was the first time they had had the opportunity to cooperate in a planning process and it was, at times, awkward. When, at the end of one session, a faculty member said he hoped the planning committee would take the group's suggestions and comments and "address low faculty morale, what I consider to be the core problem at Tulane," another faculty member tactfully said, "I would add staff morale to that, too." Tact was not, however, de rigueur in another group where it was suggested by one senior faculty member that the "warm and fuzzy" nature of the stated core values were "obviously perpetuated by staff" and that "staff should not be empowered at the expense of the university's identity."

Gilliland, who said that the topic of faculty and staff discord surfaced to varying degrees in most sessions, added that the planning committee would identify that as one of the major themes to come out of the forums. "Every time I have put together a task force with both faculty and staff I have a response that is really powerful from both sides," she said.

Another important theme, Gilliland said, was that of core values. "People have strong feelings about the core values," she said. "My read is that people want us to focus on core values. It is the water in which we swim." Gilliland said that the planning group will sort through the comments and suggestions made during the forums and extract other themes, as well. "There has been rich input," she said. "We will rework everything and get it back out to the community."

Editor's note: This article is based on reports from seven sessions attended during the first week of forums, Oct. 7-10. So, what do you think? Inside Tulane invites letters from faculty and staff members concerning the forums and the planning process. All letters should be signed, limited to 150 words and delivered to the Office of University Publications (at 300 Hebert Hall or by email: no later than Nov. 12. Letters will appear in the December issue. Comments should pertain to issues and avoid mentioning individuals or departments.

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