Big din on campus
Chico State faculty, staff shares strong words for administration at protest rally
Pat Gantt, president of the California State University Employees Union (CSUEU), stood before a sizeable crowd at Chico State’s Trinity Commons midday last Friday (Feb. 13). Aided with a megaphone, Gantt’s words surely reached the students eating lunch on the patio outside of Bell Memorial Union—and many more passersby.
“We want fair policies; we want transparency,” said Gantt’s amplified voice. “We want to stop the bullshit!”
Gantt was speaking most directly to a couple hundred protesters made up of Chico State staff and faculty members. Many wore blue T-shirts that read “Take a Stand” and held signs bearing slogans such as “No More Secrets” and “Fair Salaries Now.” He led the protesters in chants of “When we fight, we win!” and then in a march through the campus core that swept past Kendall Hall, the stately and historic red-brick building that houses the university’s administration.
The message was clear: Many workers at Chico State aren’t happy with their employers.
The protesters’ objections are many. The rally itself lumped together a broad range of issues, including salary inequity; bullying and intimidation on the part of university officials; a lack of transparency from administration; and even trouble finding parking spots on campus.
Speakers touched on those points throughout a 15-minute presentation as petitions demanding support from Chico State President Paul Zingg and the CSU Office of the Chancellor circulated through the crowd.
“We can stop all of this,” said Teresa Cotner, vice president of the California Faculty Association’s (CFA) local chapter. “We can all work together to raise awareness and understand what to do if we see it, if we’re aware of it, if we have suspicions that something really rotten is going on. We should all take a stand.”
It became public knowledge late last year that employee dissatisfaction at Chico State is widespread. The unexpected resignation of former Provost Bell Wei prompted the Academic Senate to produce a resolution decrying in part the high turnover rate among university officials. (Wei’s predecessor, Sandra Flake, had also stepped down after a short stint as the university’s second-in-command.)
The resolution described “campus-wide deterioration of trust” due to closed-door decision-making processes, such as the replacement of campus leaders. On Sept. 25, the Academic Senate approved a nonbinding request for California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White to appoint an independent consultant to evaluate problems on campus and offer solutions. (White’s response was to direct the university to handle the issues internally, Zingg said in a recent email.)
Shortly thereafter, a sense of general dysfunction was revealed by a campus climate survey, conducted in May, which repeatedly turned up key terms like “oppressive,” “abusive,” “isolation,” “overbearing,” “greedy,” “favoritism,” “unethical,” “detached” and “dictatorship.”
Salary inequity is an underlying factor. For years, university administrators received bumps in salary while staff and faculty wages remained stagnant. That changed in November, when the CSU Board of Trustees ratified a three-year contract with the CFA, which immediately increased all faculty salaries by 1.6 percent and provided a 3 percent boost to long-term employees. However, staff members remain undercompensated, argued Robin McCrea, an administrative analyst for the College of Agriculture and a speaker at the protest rally.
“We’re happy that faculty members are finally getting raises for their hard work,” she said. “But who stands behind faculty? Who stands behind this campus? The staff.”
Sharyn Abernatha, assistant vice president for human resources, said that in the past two years her department has received more requests for in-range progressions—increases to an employee’s base salary within a specified range—than ever before. That’s partially because the CFA has been active in telling employees to apply for them, Abernatha said.
“We do try to make sure everyone is paid fairly, everyone is treated the same,” she said. “But we can’t just grant every one … Some people just get told, ‘No—you don’t meet the criteria, or it just doesn’t seem appropriate.’”
As for bullying, student newspaper The Orion is generally credited with exposing that specific issue in an April 2014 article in which employees of the Facilities Management and Services Department claimed they’d been threatened, harassed and intimidated by their supervisors.
Abernatha acknowledged that a number of employees in that department filed complaints of bullying, but says the university responded appropriately.
“We did do a thorough investigation,” she said, “but the actions we took are confidential. We recommended additional training for some people, and a couple other people have left. We really think that department is turning around; things are much better now. But we do a thorough investigation every time there is a complaint.”
Others argue the campus-wide air of intimidation has yet to be addressed. At the rally, McCrea lamented “how many who were afraid to come out today” due to potential retaliation. And speaker Neil Jacklin, president of the CSUEU at Stanislaus State—a campus he says faces similar issues with administration—was critical of the university’s bullying policy, which does not specify a timeline for investigations, provide protection for victims during that process, or outline penalties for bullying.
“Repeat offenders should be terminated,” he said. “A university campus is no place for bullying; there should be a no-tolerance policy.”
Abernatha, on the other hand, offered a reminder that university administrators are error-prone humans.
“We try to do the right thing by all people,” she said. “If a manager is not saying appropriate things, we correct that manager, but they’re entitled to due process, an opportunity to be trained and to do better—just as we would for any employee who makes a mistake.”
Chico State ostensibly is taking steps to address the issues raised by employees, although progress is slow. Top university officials, including President Zingg, Vice President for Student Affairs Drew Calandrella and Interim Provost Susan Elrod, among others, have formed a committee focused on responding to the Academic Senate’s resolution. The group is considering establishing a conflict-resolution office and developing further campus-climate surveys, Zingg said.
Since last fall, the committee has met twice, said Senate Chair Paula Selvester during the body’s regular meeting on Thursday (Feb. 12). The committee is currently reviewing transparency and communication issues.
Meanwhile, more protest rallies at Chico State may be forthcoming, said Tom Dimitre, a labor representative for the CSUEU. During the rally, he told the crowd he hopes for twice as many protesters next time around.
“We’ve been working with administration to deal with these issues, and they haven’t dealt with them,” he said. “But they notice us. We’re on the radar.”