Did the stress of working on campus drive a woman to shoot herself, or was she a suicide waiting to happen?
Donna McDaniel sat at the computer in her West Davis townhouse, contemplating her life.
“I don’t feel I have anything to offer now,” she typed shortly after midnight. “I’m too bitter and too cynical to be a positive influence to anyone. Every effort I’ve made in my lifetime has been a short-term attempt to change my life. I simply don’t want to keep trying to keep up a good face. I just can’t.”
Earlier in the day, March 15 of this year, an appointment with a bankruptcy attorney confirmed what she already knew: A 60-year-old divorced woman making $31,000 a year as an administrative assistant at the University of California at Davis was going to have a hard time paying off a $30,000 credit card debt, on top of payments on the house she so loved.
“I’m exhausted from working so terribly hard to make a living, and I’m at the end of my career with no hopeful retirement future,” McDaniel wrote to her daughter, Sacramento area resident Dorothy Landry. “I attempted to file bankruptcy, but didn’t have the $900 needed to pay the attorney. (Yes, you would have given the money to me, but what for? It would have been only another fix.)”
To help understand the pain and pressure she felt, McDaniel advised her daughter to talk to Susan Dickerson, the Davis counselor who McDaniel had been seeing for more than a year as she tried to emerge from a clinical depression that had deepened with workplace stressors.
McDaniel sat at her computer for a couple hours, writing clear, lucid prose; making lists of people and possessions; creating files with titles that included “Friends and Contacts,” “My Stuff” and “These People Can Assist You.”
When she finished, McDaniel transferred the files to a computer diskette, placed it in an envelope and stepped outside into the frigid winter air.
She walked next door to her friend Lori Whedbee’s house and placed the envelope on her front door, along with a note reading, “Lori, give this to Dorothy, not the police.” Then she went home to make the sign.
McDaniel again most certainly contemplated her life. She must have thought about her financial problems, her failed marriages, her depression, her doubts that anybody else would hire an overweight, older woman. How should she label her act? How had she gotten to this point of no return? What message did she want to send?
Finally, on the cardboard box, she wrote, “UC DAVIS BURNOUT, DONNA MCDANIEL,” and then walked outside into her front yard, sign in one hand, a .38 special in the other.
McDaniel had traveled a long and rocky road from her roots as a Southern belle, born in Arkansas and raised with traditional values. Appearances were everything, so she dressed sharply and masked her problems with an engaging smile. Everyone who knew her would get little handwritten notes, thanking them for this or that, or just saying hello.
McDaniel married a math professor at Texas Christian University in 1960, then moved to California a few years later when he got a job at UC Davis. She was social and gregarious; he was quiet and reserved. They had two children and set out to fashion a traditional family life.
Yet McDaniel always felt the restless tug of the independent woman. She took a secretarial job at UC Davis, enjoying the academic environment and the feeling of being in public service. She wanted to break free of the traditional expectations of the dutiful wife. As the women’s movement blossomed in the early ’70s, her marriage wilted.
She divorced in 1972, changing her surname back to McDaniel and returned to Texas. She took a job in the University of Texas system and set out as an early prototype of the single mom, that modern Superwoman capable of bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan.
Landry said the theme of feminine power and independence guided her upbringing: “My mom was ‘Donna’ to all my friends, in a place where everyone was Mrs. Richardson or Mrs. Baxton,” Landry said. “She was the favorite mom.”
McDaniel seemed fun and light-hearted yet, on rare occasions, Landry would get peeks behind the veneer, seeing a woman trying hard to keep it together: wrestling with mild depressions, see-sawing weight problems, social stigmas attached to single parenthood and what would become perpetual financial difficulties.
“I felt for her as a divorcee in the early ’70s. I had friends whose parents would not let them come play at my house because my parents were divorced, and we lived in an apartment, so that was two strikes against us,” Landry said.
McDaniel remarried in 1981 and again in 1990, each marriage failing after a couple of years, neither failure seeming to affect McDaniel too deeply, at least on the surface.
“She was a very charming person. She could just charm anybody,” Landry said. “But privately, I think she got down. It was hard raising kids by herself.”
Landry grew up with McDaniel as more of a friend than parent, then moved away, got married, started her own family and settled in the Sacramento area. And in 1992, McDaniel decided that Texas was too far from her daughter and two grandchildren—Colby and Drake—so she returned to Davis.
“I was worried about her at that point,” Landry recalls. “I was afraid for her to move out here, away from all her friends, and just rely on me, because I didn’t know that I had the capacity to be her social entertainment. But she got a job back at UC Davis right away and met people at the university.”
After McDaniel took a secretarial job in the UC Davis Physics Department, Landry said her mom seemed happy and content, pouring herself into her newfound role as the “world’s greatest grandmother” and nurturing the kids in a way Landry never knew while growing up.
Yet California in 1992 was a state mired in a severe economic recession, and its multi-billion-dollar state budget deficits were just beginning to be felt strongly at taxpayer-supported institutions like UC Davis.
To cope with state funding that had been slashed by nearly one-third, the university instituted a plan to cut staffing costs with early retirement packages and layoffs. The staff got smaller, but the workload didn’t.
McDaniel dodged the layoff bullet, using her experience at the University of Texas in special events and fundraising to transfer to an administrative assistant job in the Davis Chancellor’s Club.
Part of the Development Office fundraising function of the university, the Davis Chancellor’s Club was an advisory body made up of those individuals who donated at least $5,000 a year to the university. McDaniel became part of the team that would help the university fulfill its educational mission on reduced public funds.
“For me, it was the job of my dreams, and I think Donna felt that way too,” said Jackie Rogers, a writer in the Development Office who worked with McDaniel on newsletters and other correspondence, but who has since left the university.
Yet, as some dreams do, this one changed into a nightmare. Rogers’ friendship with McDaniel began one afternoon when Rogers found her crying in her office, distraught over a daunting workload and demanding bosses. Rogers had cried over the same thing and had seen others in the office do the same: “The struggles we were facing really, really brought us together.”
A group of Development Office employees who felt abused by the working environment even took to calling themselves the “Walking Wounded.”
“They all considered themselves to be targets of this,” Landry said, “and they would go out and drink margaritas and talk about their survival in the system.”
Rogers, McDaniel and several others who worked in the Development Office, describe it as a high-pressure environment, where too few employees were expected to meet increased demands for cash from fundraising. The turnover rate was high, leaving McDaniel and others to pick up the slack when someone left.
“It starts with managers not having the resources to successfully complete their goals, so they push the staff hard,” Rogers said.
Office receptionist Tawny Yambrovich also saw the strain. She too saw employees crying at work. She watched them eating lunch at their desks. She felt the pressure from bosses who wanted something and wanted it now. She saw McDaniel and others still hard at work everyday when she left at 5 o’clock.
“It was definitely a high-pressure work environment with high expectations and there was an unwritten expectation that you would work more than eight hours if the job needed it,” Yambrovich said. “A lot of that was the attitude at the top. It was like workaholic trickle-down.”
Yet the woman at the top, Associate Vice Chancellor of University Relations Virginia Kelsch (who recently resigned from UC Davis, reportedly to spend more time with her family), denies that it was a high-pressure workplace.
“Donna was not pressured to work extra hours, not ever,” Kelsch said during a brief telephone interview, also adding, “The Chancellor’s Club isn’t and never has been a high-pressure environment, not compared to some other departments.”
Nonetheless, the Chancellor’s Club saw four different directors during McDaniel’s five-year tenure, as well as periods in which she had no direct boss and would report directly to Executive Director of Development Sue Francis.
Francis, who also recently left UC Davis to work for the Methodist Hospital Foundation in Arcadia, said the workload in the Development Office was sometimes heavy and that the environment could be stressful, but that it wasn’t any worse than many others in an era of increased demands on worker productivity in America.
“It’s a phenomenon these days that the workplace is a pretty darn busy place,” Francis said, “and I don’t know that UC Davis is different than anyplace else.”
McDaniel began complaining to supervisors about working conditions, and demanding to be recognized for her hard work. Consistently good job evaluations had taken McDaniel to the top of her pay scale, and she felt that her increasing responsibilities should have warranted the reclassification of her job to a higher level.
But budgets were still tight and the money just wasn’t there for reclassifications, even if McDaniel deserved one. (The confidentiality of personnel records prevents university officials from commenting on McDaniel’s tenure or performance.) McDaniel’s frustrations seemed to focus on Francis, as she would later write in a letter to Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef.
“When Sue Francis became my ‘official’ supervisor, her mean-spirited and conflicting ‘style’ of management bordered on harassment. Sue gave me no credit for the work I did outside my job description or for the overtime I volunteered to keep up with the workload,” McDaniel wrote.
Today, Francis is limited in what she can say about an employee, but did say, “My relationship with Donna was a professional one … I didn’t single anybody out for anything, and dealt with everyone on a professional basis.”
Coalition of University Employees (CUE) union representative LeAnn Herigstad supported McDaniel, saying “She was treated very poorly by the administration. She worked very hard and cared a lot about her work.”
The two women met in 1998. Herigstad, who works in the library, was assigned to help McDaniel formally protest a job performance evaluation that McDaniel considered unfair. The evaluation was among the last official acts of her supervisor Kevin Duggan, who resigned from the job after less than nine months (Duggan, who is now back with the university, did not return calls seeking comment).
“Donna saw that evaluation and just cried,” said a former Development Office employee close to McDaniel, who requested anonymity for fear of administration reprisals.
While praising her overall professionalism and competency—including acknowledging that some systems she set up were the best in the Development Office—Duggan peppered the evaluation with somewhat vague criticisms such as “I would like to see you be more proactive in your thinking and your actions.”
McDaniel told co-workers, friends and family that she believed Francis was behind the evaluation, and considered it to be the first official effort to build a case for firing her: “I don’t like the feeling that I’m being railroaded because I express my opinions and stand up for myself,” McDaniel wrote to Herigstad. “Furthermore, I believe Kevin was ‘coached’ to write the evaluation he did.”
An Aug. 6, 1998 meeting to discuss the evaluation was attended by McDaniel, Herigstad, Francis and university labor relations representative Pat Gray (who refused to comment for this article). Herigstad said Francis was “very hostile” during the meeting.
“She made statements blatantly implying that there was no place for Donna there,” said Herigstad, who followed up that meeting with a letter to Francis warning that the union would formally oppose any changes in the terms and conditions of McDaniel’s employment.
Yet the problems and stress that McDaniel felt at work only continued to build from there as she unsuccessfully sought to transfer to another department.
McDaniel had hoped that the work environment might improve under her next supervisor, Shelly Doggett, a friendly and personable woman with whom McDaniel initially got along. Yet McDaniel told friends that Doggett began to nit-pick at her performance—for typos in letters, for arriving 10 minutes late—and, again, in her mind she thought Francis was behind it. (Doggett no longer works at the university and could not be reached for comment.)
Finally, the situation exploded one afternoon in January of 1999. After a confrontation with Doggett, McDaniel stormed out of the office and went straight to the office of Dr. Maggie Che, who prescribed Zoloft for the depression and placed her on medical leave for the work-related stress.
“Her doctor just said, ‘You’re not going back there,’ ” Landry recalls her mother telling her. “And the words she used were, ‘This job is killing you.’ ”
That same week, McDaniel began seeing Davis counselor Susan Dickerson. And although she didn’t tell anyone, not even her new therapist initially, she also went to a gun store near Landry’s house and bought a .38 special.
At the time she went out on leave, McDaniel was a nervous wreck. She was depressed, lethargic, easily upset and had little self-confidence left.
“She was, at that time, not really suicidal, but very depressed, and having suicidal thoughts,” said Dickerson, who spoke to SN&R only with written permission from Landry, the executor of her mother’s estate.
Yet for all her emotional problems, Dickerson said McDaniel was perhaps her favorite patient: “She was really a delightful woman. I just loved her dearly. She was so endearing and engaging.”
After a few weeks away from UC Davis, friends saw a noticeable change in McDaniel, who regained her lost buoyancy and seemed to enjoy life again, spending much of her time either with her grandchildren or gardening in the front yard.
Landry said the transformation was amazing: “Within three or four weeks, she was the nicest Donna that I’d ever been around. She was suddenly her own person. She was less dependent on us, rather than more. She seemed very upbeat.”
But still, UC Davis lurked in the background for McDaniel. In February, she received a notice that she had accidentally been overpaid by $900 when her stress leave began in January due to an administrative error and the university wanted the money back. That saga would draw on for many months.
By April, Dickerson said the impending return to work increased McDaniel’s stress and depression, and renewed her thoughts of suicide. That was when McDaniel confessed that she had bought a gun. The depression bought McDaniel an extra couple of months worth of medical leave. She used the time to search for other jobs on campus.
But, by July, she had no options other than to return to the Development Office. And for McDaniel, the nightmare picked up right where it had left off.
“Her second day back to work, they called her in for a performance evaluation,” Landry said. “And she just said, ‘What performance are you reviewing? I haven’t been here since February.’ And they said, ‘We’ll give you six weeks,’ and then they basically put her on a performance plan at that point. So from the moment she got back, they were trying to document everything so they could fire her.” (Although other sources close to McDaniel confirm Landry’s account, university sources could not because of personnel privacy protections.)
That was the point when Landry truly began to appreciate what her mom had been going through. Before that, Landry felt a vague disbelief that things were really so bad. As a manager at Oracle, Landry had dealt with problem employees, and knew how the corporate culture and employee protections restricted managers from harassing employees, particularly older employees like McDaniel, who might file an age discrimination lawsuit.
“But then I started thinking, ‘How can you put someone on a performance plan when they’ve been off for [six] months because of stress?’ It seems uncanny to me that any HR department would let someone do that” Landry said. “And at that point, I didn’t care if she did deserve to get fired. You can’t do that.”
Yet then along came Marcia Thomson, like some kind of guardian angel. She offered McDaniel a job in the Academic Senate, a parallel move that would get her out of the Development Office, and have her working with professors on course schedules and other tasks.
“As soon as she got the new job, things got much, much better for her,” Dickerson said.
McDaniel threw a big party in her front yard garden and all the “Walking Wounded” attended, some of whom had also left the Development Office because of the stress. They toasted to their survival, and looked forward to brighter days ahead.
McDaniel told everyone how much better life was in the Academic Senate, how kind and helpful her new supervisors were, how hopeful she was about her future.
“Her mood was good and she was liking her new job,” Dickerson said. “It was still stressful, but she felt a lot better.”
Yet beneath the smiling surface, McDaniel apparently found some of the same old problems. Part of it was the job itself, which McDaniel started during the busiest time of year, with professors making all kinds of demands, often rather brusquely.
For a woman whose self-esteem had been wrecked, for whom depression inhibited concentration, the kind of multi-tasking required for her new job wasn’t easy. As Thomson said, “She had so many things on her desk and so much to do here that she needed to hit the ground running, and she wasn’t able to do that.”
In addition to all the normal pressure in her new job, she was also in charge of implementing a new online system for approving courses, which was laden with the glitches endemic to new high-tech toys. That meant working extra hours and some Saturdays.
“She was trying so hard to please me and this office and I don’t think she lived up to her own standards,” Thomson said. “She felt guilty having to ask me, her supervisor, to come in on a Saturday to help her.”
McDaniel was trying unsuccessfully to purge her Development Office demons, Dickerson said. “She put a lot of pressure on herself to prove that she really was capable of doing a good job, and that what happened in the previous job wasn’t her but the circumstances.”
Medieval studies lecturer Kevin Roddy chaired the Academic Federation at the time and got to know McDaniel. He really liked her, but felt she was fragile, so easily overwhelmed when things got busy, like a battered woman startled by shadows.
He would talk to her about what she’d been through in the Development Office. A contracted lecturer who doesn’t mince words, Roddy is extremely critical of how the university treats its employees, and he saw McDaniel as an example of the problem.
Other pressures also descended upon McDaniel. UC Davis was still trying to get its $900 back from her, using tactics that both McDaniel and Herigstad described as threatening and confrontational.
Dean Gualco, the labor relations representative in charge of settling the account, denies that he was confrontational, saying that he was actually patient and flexible, although he said that he was unable to accept McDaniel’s offer of giving up vacation time in lieu of payment because it involved public funds.
McDaniel appealed for help directly to Chancellor Vanderhoef, writing him a Nov. 12, 1999 letter asking “Can we not resolve this problem in a less confrontational way?”
McDaniel had introduced Vanderhoef during a speech to the Davis Sunrise Rotary Club and reminded him of that meeting, as well as her efforts to recruit donors that send $12,000 annually to the Chancellor’s Club. And she wrote about her problems at the Development Office.
That letter got no response (Vanderhoef and his representatives would not comment on the letter). Landry and others say McDaniel felt wounded, and frustrated that her appeals for help were being ignored. Eventually, she just paid a negotiated amount of about $700 by drawing off her credit card.
At the same time, McDaniel felt increasingly consumed by her credit card debt, which Landry said had reached $30,000 during her medical leave, during which she was paid 70 percent of her normal salary.
Even McDaniel’s relationship with her daughter began to deteriorate. McDaniel became concerned about her daughter’s relationships with men, and with a job that kept Landry traveling and away from the kids for long stretches. The two had a big argument on New Year’s Eve.
“I said, ‘You don’t get to wake up one day and suddenly decide you want to be nurturing, because that wasn’t her thing,’ ” Landry said. “She was more like, ‘Stand on your own two feet, be independent. I was.’ ”
Later, Landry came to see the independent streak her mother always had as a bit of a façade: “I always thought of my mom as the career woman, something to aspire to. This is what you do, you go out and get a job and you work. But it didn’t occur to me until later that she did all those things because she had to.”
By March, McDaniel was just tired of trying to bring order to her chaotic life, and depressed that even her big job change didn’t seem to help her situation: “She said, ‘Here I am, 60 years old, and I feel like I have to start over again,’ ” Thomson said.
Experts on suicide say the most dangerous time is right after a depression lifts, once that debilitating heaviness is gone, and the initiative to take action returns. That’s when someone contemplating suicide can put a plan into action.
Psychologist Debra Moore, president of the Sacramento Psychological Association, said positive changes like leaving a stressful job can sometimes do little to help a truly depressed person.
“If you change an external situation, it often doesn’t make you feel better deep down, and that contrast can be very frustrating,” Moore said.
And for McDaniel, who faced significant adversity in her chaotic life, the decision to commit suicide must have seemed almost empowering. If she couldn’t choose the terms of her life, at least she could choose the terms of her death.
“On an unconscious level, it was a way of trying to get control over her life,” Dickerson said. “There was also an element of revenge to it.”
The revenge aspect was a playing out of her lingering anger toward Francis and other bosses. McDaniel had confessed to both Dickerson and Rogers fantasies about shooting herself in the office, or as Rogers remembers her saying, “I want to blow my brains out all over Sue Francis.”
Reading from her notes, Dickerson said McDaniel “has a wild fantasy about shooting herself in the office at UCD, and that it would be a way of making her supervisors realize how destructive their ways were.”
But McDaniel chose instead to stay home. Police say it was around 3 a.m. on March 16, 2000, when McDaniel stood in the garden of her gated front yard, leaned the “UC Davis Burnout” sign against a tree, placed the .38 to her right temple, and ended her life.
In making the sign and in using a gun to kill herself (few women who commit suicide use a gun), Dickerson and others say it seems clear that McDaniel wanted to use her death to make a statement.
“It was a statement. It was her final statement,” Landry said. “With that sign, she definitely wanted to make a statement, and I think that’s what makes people who knew her so angry. It’s like, God, she tried to do this and it didn’t go anywhere. They just stuffed it right back down.”
If what McDaniel encountered on the job at UC Davis was unusual, if this was an otherwise healthy and nurturing working environment, then perhaps this suicide could easily be dismissed as solely the product of depression, as many have tried to do.
But in recent years, battles between labor and management at UC Davis have been fierce and emotional, while understaffing and sometimes unreasonable workloads on campus are now universally acknowledged as serious problems.
In June, the entire University of California system was blasted during a special hearing before the Assembly Committee on Higher Education as an authoritarian employer that treats its employees badly.
“I believe you’re the worst public employer in the state of California,” Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, D-Berkeley, reportedly said during the hearing, with many of her colleagues offering equally bleak assessments.
Union activists at UC Davis say the situation is even worse here than at most other UC campuses, where employee unions have been longer established and don’t encounter the kind of resistance they have faced at Davis.
It was in this climate that word of McDaniel’s suicide and the message on the sign she left rolled through the ranks of beleaguered UC Davis employees like a tidal wave, circulated in e-mails and by word of mouth.
To some, McDaniel’s final words resonated deeply, making her a martyr for the cause of employees who felt harassed, overworked, bullied and otherwise ill-treated by the university. They saw “UC Davis Burnout” as their sign, too.
“She made a great sacrifice to leave this message,” Rogers said. “I believe she died to make this point.”
Yet others dismissed the suicide as a desperate act by a deeply troubled woman, an impression strongly reinforced by a brief account of the suicide in the Davis Enterprise, headlined “Woman found dead at home.”
“A 61-year-old woman apparently despondent over financial difficulties and with a history of depression ended her life Thursday outside her West Davis home, according to Davis police reports,” read the first of four paragraphs. The article didn’t mention her name (a policy followed by many newspapers), her employer, what her sign said, or the role that workplace stressors played in her despondence.
Roddy was shocked to hear that the woman he got to know in the Academic Senate had killed herself, and angry that McDaniel’s main stated reason for her suicide would be ignored by both campus officials and the Enterprise, a paper that he believes goes too easy on the university, particularly in the area of labor relations.
“This was a severe public relations problem for the university, and the Enterprise chose not to wallow into it,” said Roddy, who responded to the article by writing a letter to the newspaper editors, criticizing them for misrepresenting the suicide and urging them to tell the whole story.
“That the woman was distraught is evident; the causes of that anguish, however, were not simply and apparently personal, but related to much broader issues that need to be examined” he wrote. “In the interest of a whole, not partial or comfortable, truth, I urge that you do so.” Neither his letter nor any follow-up articles were ever published. Enterprise editors did not return a call seeking comment.
Roddy and others tried to spark discussions of the suicide issue on campus. During a homily Roddy delivered at the UC Davis Newman Center on the Sunday after McDaniel’s suicide, he evoked her memory in commemorating the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. “She was not treated as Joseph would have treated her, with kindness and honor. She was not recognized for her talents and capabilities; her experience did not transfigure her,” Roddy said.
The next day, a memorial service for McDaniel was attended by more than 200 people. About two dozen UC Davis employees who showed up wore purple ribbons in solidarity with the “Walking Wounded” and other UC Davis burnout victims. Among those who showed up at the service was Sue Francis.
“It really upset some people,” Landry said. “But to me, it was like that was her way of saying goodbye, or if … I don’t know. Everyone has to deal with this in their own way. I don’t know that she feels guilty, and I don’t know that she should.”
Reacting to news of her former employee’s suicide, Francis said, “I felt very sad to hear about Donna’s death, and I’m very sad for her family.”
But others weren’t so gracious with the woman that they saw as someone tied to the tragedy. Rogers said she was shocked and dismayed by Francis’ decision to attend the funeral.
Distraught over her friend’s suicide, Rogers said she sent a long, bitter e-mail to Francis, appealing to her not to keep pushing employees.
“Sue, it’s too late to change the past. But I beg you to please change the future,” Rogers wrote. “Surely, you have seen for yourself the fallacies of the administration’s policies. Nobody wins. A sick system breeds sick employees. Please, let’s start healing. Speak out. When you need staff, demand it. When the work load is unreasonable, stop it.”
After the memorial, many who knew McDaniel expected that something would come from the suicide, some acknowledgement by the university that what McDaniel faced was a problem that should be addressed.
Yet McDaniel’s suicide would never be publicly addressed by the university, even today, despite several requests for comment regarding this story.
It was also a tragedy that would quickly be subsumed by other tragedies on campus. A March 27 boating accident in the Sea of Cortez killed five UC Davis researchers. And then, on April 3, UC Davis senior David Thornton died of alcohol poisoning.
Both tragedies were the subject of numerous forums and memorials on campus. The Sacramento Bee, which did not report the McDaniel suicide, did nine articles on the boating accident and seven on the drinking death.
Yambrovich, the Development Office receptionist, was shocked by the suicide, and said the university shouldn’t have ignored McDaniel’s message: “I wish they had mounted as serious a campaign about unchecked depression at that time as they did about the dangers of alcohol.”
Yambrovich said she brought up McDaniel’s suicide at one of the monthly Chancellor’s Office brown bag lunches, trying to spark a discussion of the workplace stressors that contributed to her death, “but I was told it was inappropriate to discuss.”
Today, even with Landry wanting her mother’s story to be told, Dennis Shimek— associate vice chancellor of human resources, and the person to whom all inquires about McDaniel were forwarded—said it is inappropriate for university officials to discuss McDaniel’s suicide or the issues it raises.
“There are personnel and privacy rights that need to be protected by this institution,” Shimek said, although he did talk about the issues of understaffing and employee stress in general terms.
For employees who suffer from workplace stress, Shimek said the university offers a wide array of services, from stress management seminars to one-on-one counseling through the Office of Employee Assistance. For employees who have problems with their supervisors, there are mediation services, and both formal and informal complaint procedures. “The university, like most other employers, recognizes that there are a lot of stressors on the job,” Shimek said.
Ironically, the university began to seriously address the problems raised by McDaniel in the same month she killed herself. Just two weeks earlier, the Administration Management Group advisory board presented Chancellor Vanderhoef with information showing how many forms of employee discontent stem from the issue of understaffing.
Vanderhoef responded by immediately allocating $2 million from his discretionary funds to beef up staffing in key administrative areas and within individual colleges. As Shimek said, “The Chancellor has made it a high priority to deal with the staff workload issue.”
The university’s new Staff Workload and Compensation Action Plan calls for more funding for reclassifications, salary increases and new positions; improved management and oversight of managers by deans’ offices; and more open communications with employees.
Yet most of the employees interviewed for this article say they have seen few results from the efforts, and they express skepticism that this “high priority” is anything more than lip service. CUE responded to the suicide by sponsoring a series of workshops on workplace bullying, dedicated to McDaniel’s memory.
Among the attendees at the workshop this fall was Jackie Rogers: “I just broke down and sobbed for an hour at that meeting on bullying,” she said. “I still cry, a year and some later, when I think about that time. And not just about Donna, but about what we all faced there.”