Thank you to the many staff who listened in to the public testimony and governance report this morning. I hope you continue to listen in to the meeting, via live streaming (http://www.alaska.edu/oit/services/video-conferencing/streaming-conferences/) or video conference, as the discussions and decisions made at these meetings are vital to the future of the university.
It was difficult to write and deliver testimony today. I tried to balance honest feedback with our sincere desire to be a part of positive change at the university. I felt it was taken pretty well and laid a foundation for truly working with administration and the Regents as we move forward.
Below is a copy of the testimony that I gave today (more or less). One of the best things that came out of todays discussion (post remarks) was an honest request for ideas from staff on what and how we can improve processes. Please, as much as possible, share those ideas in the comments or directly to me or your staff representative.
Staff Alliance Chair BOR Testimony Sept. 18, 2014
Good morning madame chair, President Gamble and members of the Board. My name is Monique Musick, Staff Alliance Chair.
This is not the first time I’ve testified before you, but it is probably the most significant to date. As Chair I’ve been elected to speak on behalf of the nearly 3,000 staff of the University of Alaska. And we truly want to be part of the conversation.
To begin, one goal Staff Alliance identified this summer is to better represent the great work being done by staff throughout the system—to highlight our successes. We are our only champions and yet rarely take the time to speak up for ourselves. Let me say it now—we have incredible staff working for this university.
In future testimonials I hope to bring more of those successes before you. I’ll start today sharing from an e-mail I received from Stephanie Ahern an 8-year fiscal staff employee at UAA. Three years ago, faculty of the School of Engineering told her they wanted better fiscal tracking and reporting so they could improve how they manage resources. She created a new accounting structure and was able to implement it by FY14. It was a major improvement that could better allocate and capture revenue and expenditures for the growing school; now the College of Engineering. In UAA’s prioritization report, the Dean’s office quality function used this new org structure as an example of excellence. Ahern wrote “while I was not acknowledged in the report I am proud that it was used as an example because I know that my work for the two years as manager was appreciated and made a difference and will be the fiscal foundation to continued customer service within the college.” That is one great example of staff taking initiative to improve processes and create efficiencies.
Second, I want to recognize the hard work throughout the system in response to the Office of Civil Rights Title IX Compliance review. Not only was the team able to compile and submit a tremendous amount of information in a very short time, they’ve trained thousands of employees and students, expanded awareness campaigns, are entering into a new agreement with the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, and expanded agreements with law enforcement throughout the state. When OCR comes for their site visits in October we will be ready to showcase the great work being led by the Title IX coordinators on each campus—Marva Watson, UAA; Mae Marsh, UAF; and Kirk McCallister, UAS—and all of the staff working with them to address, and work toward prevention of, sexual harassment and violence on our campuses. We shall all benefit from their dedication.
Those are just a couple examples of staff excellence, and more are created every day, but that is not the only reason I am here today. I mean to as accurately as possible convey what is happening with staff at UA, and to keep us in the conversation regarding our system at all levels. Part of being in the conversation means coming to your table and bringing some hard truths.
No. 1 Current events have damaged UA’s reputation and lowered morale at a critical time when we most need to elevate it. Our hearts fell as valued donors rescinded their support on the pages of the ADN and alumni berated UA in letters to the editor throughout the state. It is demoralizing and it comes at a time when national, state and local realities are already painting a bleak picture.
Even worse, that misstep unfolded at the same time the university faces a budget shortfall and people are losing their jobs. Sure, $320,000 is not a lot compared to the millions needed to offset the current budget shortfall, and not all were opposed, but to most of us that is an enormous amount of money at a time it is sorely needed in many arenas.
Of the 8,600 total employees in the system nearly 3,000 are barely making Alaska poverty wages: $37,000 a year or less. Most of us earn less than our counterparts in state or private industry. We receive regular job offers from outside entities, with corresponding increases in compensation, but choose to stay at UA. We choose meaningful work over salary: the opportunity to support the next generation of Alaska leaders and problem solvers.
That is why all the attention that hashtags like #bonusgate get in the press, instead of the true successes of this institution, really hurts us. So yes, the elephant may be out of the room, but the damage lingers.
No. 2 Staff are anxious about the introduction of a furlough policy and the vagaries of the as yet undeveloped regulations. Our Staff Alliance blog is full of questions, comments and valuable suggestions. I have worked to pull together a group to work with HR in drafting these regulations. The details in regulation will greatly impact staff and their families; and need to be developed BEFORE a policy is adopted.
None of it is pleasant or easy, but we understand fiscal responsibility. We don’t want to see people lose their jobs if we can avoid it. As my earlier example shows, staff will be critical to the university’s navigation of the current and any future economic crises. We are creative; we can think of ways to save money that do not decimate or demoralize the backbone of the university: our staff.
Also, we trust that the introduction of this policy does not indicate an immediate plan to implement it. Rather, let us partner with you in problem-solving, belt-tightening and fiscal leanness. A furlough to staff will severely impact morale and productivity and right now you need us to be at our best.
No. 3. Shaping Alaska’s Future. We are all trying to make this the best university possible. We want to do right by our students, their families, the industries whose workforce we train and the intentions of the state, alumni and donors who support us. We know that is the driving force behind Shaping Alaska’s Future. Like many in this room, I’ve worked hard to promote the initiative; to explain it and help transform it into its intended compass guide. But I can tell you many staff have not embraced it. Some say it cost too much, took too long, used the wrong methodology, or are simply unaware of their role in the process. It is often perceived as an expensive lexicon—a common set of catch phrases used to fit a general picture, but changing little in actual day-to-day activities.
When staff governance leaders asked directly how to be involved in the process we were directed to read articles on national higher education trends. That does not accomplish persuasion or inclusion. We know real change is needed. That is going to take real reorganization, real new thinking, not simply polished language or thematic presentations of our budget requests. And we have yet to understand when, where and how staff fit in that plan. (Though I will add some of what Gamble said in his report this morning is encouraging for the future involvement of staff, as opposed to only faculty, governance involvement.)
We fear that with the retirement of Dr. Thomas, a real champion of this effort who is both trusted and supported, and the loss of faith in leadership that resulted from the bonus controversy, that the legs are slipping out from underneath the movement. Staff is your resource pool for making authentic change happen.
Lastly, I want to try and summarize some of the many comments I received from staff in preparation for today’s meeting. Some implored you as a board to be more connected to the day-to-day reality of the university. The 90–120 day wait period to fill a new position has one effect on the bottom line and another on those who have to pick up that workload to keep the university operating. Many tell me they are working more than 40-hours, with no additional pay, because there is too much to do and not enough time or manpower.
“More needs to be done, in quick fashion, to improve the bureaucracy of the system so that it is more seamless between the MAUs and easier to navigate for the students,” wrote one staff member. We need to leverage technology to streamline tasks, not only for administrative functions, but for students as well. We must improve functionality and productivity and stop frustrating students so they stay in our system. We could use more support in this in the form of workflow process analysis, technology upgrades and reducing meaningless reporting requirements.
There are places that the university can be more efficient, and yes there may be positions that should be cut, departments needing reorganization and processes that need reviewed, but cross-the-board reductions and simplified decision making will not get us to the real goal: a valuable, efficient and innovative university.
The staff who work for the University of Alaska do it because we believe in the value of higher education. We love our university and want to do our jobs well. Please, as stewards and guides of this institution, do your job well too. The complexities of this organization are not learned in a year or two. The budget process is affected by forces beyond our control—but not beyond comprehension. We expect you as leaders to understand it. When a member suggests that money could be moved from a benefit fund to offset student fees, or when a six-figure bonus is offered in the middle of a budget reduction, it neither demonstrates an understanding of the operations of the university or the will of the public and workforce that supports it. It causes damage within and outside the university that now needs to be reconciled. We need to build relationships and truly talk and listen to each other.
We need our leadership to reflect our goals just as much as you need us to achieve yours. And we have a lot of work to do.