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UB Event Wrap-up

Campus Climate Summit: Getting from Contention to Consensus
University Business, June 2018

At the Hyatt Regency Cambridge, along the scenic Charles River overlooking Boston, a few dozen college presidents and provosts gathered in early May for a day focused on achieving campus harmony. Called the Campus Climate Summit: Getting from Contention to Consensus, the event was sponsored by Thoughtexchange, a provider of stakeholder engagement solutions for leaders of colleges and other organizations.

Brian Jersky, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at California State University, Long Beach, kicked off the day of presentations and discussion with a look at current campus issues—from free speech debate to the overall national mood. For Jersky, recent campus unrest has come from a change in commencement location, a suggested change in the institution’s name and pending changes to the general education curriculum. Even something that appears to be simple—such as that the commencement space had been outgrown—can cause tremendous issues. “From the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s a lot of passion on our campus,” he said.

Among the efforts Jersky has made to strengthen communication on campus is to ensure all faculty have the opportunity to meet with him at least once. This takes the form of lunches for about 20 faculty each. Not only have they gotten to know him, but they’ve had the chance to mingle with faculty outside of their academic areas.

He has also used Thoughtexchange forums to ensure all faculty as well as students—even indirect communicators who tend not to raise their voices in public forums—could have their voices heard.

Costs of contention

In a session on the costs of contention, James Martin and James Samels, the authors of Consolidating Colleges and Merging Universities: New Strategies for Higher Education, discussed the implications of contention on an institution’s reputation, enrollment efforts, staff recruitment, faculty morale and other areas. Martin noted that low campus morale “can eat away at the life of a campus and the life of faculty and the energy of a provost and president.”

Not to mention, all can be going well until suddenly it isn’t. “Did Penn State see it coming? Did Michigan State? Apparently not,” Samels said.

Continuous benchmarking is important to developing a culture of consensus, they said. “It’s not about reacting to the bad news story. It’s about getting ahead with positive news stories,” Martin said, adding that the plans for dealing with negative publicity must be formed before the day of bad news arrives.

Understanding where campus unrest lies is key to developing such plans, said Samels and Martin.

The search for common ground

In another session, two provosts discussed various issues on their own campuses and lessons learned. Nancy Targett, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of New Hampshire, noted the need to right-size programs and the resulting contention with faculty, and how she’s reaching out to manage that hot-button issue. James Dumond, provost and vice president of academic affairs at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, shared how he has used worked with faculty leaders from various academic colleges to help get faculty to embrace change.

Targett and Dumond agreed that email is a tricky form of communication because it’s so easy for the tone to be misread. “You may think you’re being a direct communicator, laying out the facts, but some can still call you a dictator,” Dumond said.

Summit attendees spent the remaining few hours in small groups, learning about and role playing various communication styles and then experiencing the Thoughtexchange process. It involves people confidentially sharing their thoughts, rating others’ thoughts, and ultimately understanding and appreciating other points of view. Analysis and visualization tools then provide leaders with insights needed to take action with confidence that perspectives of many were considered.

As the day wrapped up, Thoughtexchange CEO and Founder Dave MacLeod had attendees form a circle to share something they are taking away from or hope others take away from the Summit—taking a contention-intense conversation and ending it on a note of consensus about the value of new insights, strategies and ideas worth taking back to campus.