Semester starts sour
Chico State employees decry executive decisions, survey shows chilly climate
It was the first week of school, but Chico State professors and instructors had more on their minds than handing out syllabi and learning students’ names. Much of the campus was focused instead on the uncertainty surrounding the university’s top two positions, president and provost.
Some, including Sara Trechter, a linguistics professor, are concerned the campus community won’t have input on replacing Chico State President Paul Zingg, who recently announced this year would be his last before retirement.
“We have heard that our next presidential search will be closed,” she said. “We have no voice on our campus for that search. … This clearly violates cogovernance.”
In academic speak, “cogovernance” is the principle of shared decision-making, particularly when it comes to hiring top executives on campus. In 2004, Zingg himself authored an executive memorandum to protect that principle and “ensure faculty participation in the selection and performance review of the administration positions.”
It was also a key word during a forum hosted by Chico State’s Academic Senate and attended by several hundred students, staff, faculty and administrators on Thursday (Aug. 27). The meeting was prompted in part by Zingg’s recent appointment of Susan Elrod as the permanent provost, a position she ultimately declined. For about a year, she’s served as interim provost—the chief academic officer and university’s second-in-command. Faculty and staff say they weren’t consulted in the appointment, thereby violating the executive memo on cogovernance.
And in light of Zingg’s retirement, many staff and faculty members would like to see those guidelines applied to the search for the university’s next president, as well.
Lori Lamb, vice chancellor for human resources of the CSU system and a panel speaker at the meeting, responded that “we are all collectively responsible for attracting the next best leader of Chico State.” Ultimately, she said, the president will be appointed by the CSU board of trustees after vetting by an advisory selection committee including campus representatives. But she acknowledged that candidates will remain anonymous to protect the jobs of administrators who may apply from different institutions.
Charles Turner, a professor of political science, wasn’t alone in taking issue with that hiring policy.
“A president who thinks their own anonymity is more important than shared governance might not be the kind of president we want at Chico State,” he said to applause.
The forum on Thursday in Colusa Hall was handled in typical academic fashion. Participants broke into small groups and, during a subsequent panel discussion, shared their collective thoughts with the general audience.
It wasn’t the first time the issue of cogovernance has come up. The Chico chapter of the California Faculty Association raised the alarm last year when, the union maintains, Zingg appointed Elrod as interim provost without consulting the broader campus community.
In a recent email to union members, the CFA says Zingg “violated the spirit of shared governance” again at the beginning of this semester when, on Aug. 21, he announced in a campus-wide email that Elrod had been appointed as permanent provost. Zingg’s message read: “It is simply neither healthy nor wise for an institution to be searching for a new president and a new provost at the same time.”
Then, just four days later, he sent a follow-up email announcing that Elrod had declined the permanent provost position—citing no specific reason—but would continue serving as interim through the end of the academic year. “The timing of the search for the university’s next provost will enable the next president to participate fully in the selection of this critical institutional leader,” Zingg wrote.
In an email to the CN&R, Zingg explained that “this was Susan’s decision,” adding that “it is in the best interest of the university to transition to a permanent provost through the university’s established protocols and practices—i.e., a national search.”
After the CN&R’s deadline on Wednesday (Sept. 2), the Academic Senate was expected to release a statement to the campus and the Chancellor’s Office recommending future action on cogovernance and other issues discussed during the forum on Thursday. The document “summarizes where we should go from here,” Turner said by phone.
Appointing a provost is already a touchy subject. In fact, the sudden resignation of former Provost Belle Wei in September 2014—only two years after taking the job and just as the fall semester got underway—is what prompted the Academic Senate to publicly admit dysfunction at Chico State. (Wei’s predecessor, Sandra Flake, also unexpectedly stepped down after a short stint.)
Indeed, a recently released survey underscores long-festering workplace problems expressed by many among the university’s rank-and-file—low morale, a lack of support, burdensome increases in workload, bloated bureaucracy, and mistrust of and fear of retaliation from senior administration.
The Campus Climate survey was conducted at the end of spring semester last year and drew responses from 611 administration and staff members and 422 from faculty, representing 55 percent of Chico State employees. While some of the results were positive—a majority of respondents said they were proud to work at Chico State—about one-fifth of those who participated in the survey reported believing that their supervisors don’t value their contributions. And more than half either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “Communications throughout the university are open and carried out in good faith and in an atmosphere of trust.” Of the survey’s most important findings, nonexempt staff—those who could potentially lose their jobs for speaking up because they don’t have tenure—are viewed as the most overworked and least likely to feel safe expressing their opinions.
The survey’s curators, the Campus Climate Committee, chose this respondent quote to represent the results in the general job satisfaction category:
“It is discouraging and disheartening to work in a place with such great potential and wonderful people that nevertheless suffers from a state of dysfunction, distrust and unfair practices.”