University suspends proposed administrative support network in light of faculty dissatisfaction

The University will suspend an administrative support network project – which would group administrative support staff among several similar departments – in response to faculty dissatisfaction, Rector Richard Locke P’18 announced in an email to the corps on Monday. faculty that has been reviewed by The Herald.

The proposal would have combined administrative staff for “the seven departments of modern languages, literatures and cultures,” according to the announcement. Currently, each Brown University department has its own administrative support network.

During the initial publication of the proposal, faculty members from several departments expressed concern that the consolidated administrative support network would result in insufficient personalized departmental support as it currently exists.

In response to the proposal, more than 135 faculty members signed a letter of concern expressing their displeasure, said associate professor of German studies Kristina Mendicino, who served as a “resource person” in organizing the faculty response to the proposal.

“We have carefully studied the plan, discussed it at length with many colleagues on campus, as well as with colleagues from peer institutions,” said the letter, which was reviewed by The Herald. “There was broad consensus that this plan does not represent a desirable way forward – neither for the particular departments involved, nor for Brown as a whole.”

Faculty dissatisfaction also stemmed in part from a perceived lack of transparency on the part of the University. The first recommendations for the networks were made by the University Shared Services Task Force in February 2021, but faculty members in the language department were not made aware of the plans until November 1, 2021.

“Faculty, staff and students in humanities departments who would be directly affected by the ‘Academic Support Network’ pilot project were not consulted until the decision to go ahead was made.” , explained the letter from the faculty. This contradicts “Brown’s long established principle of shared governance and (fails) to maintain a semblance of democratic procedure.”

The network was reportedly set up in January 2022, a timeline that professors said did not give them enough time to “provide the feedback we needed to provide,” according to Mendicino.

Locke acknowledged the miscommunication following the suspension. “We haven’t done a good job communicating our plans with faculty and staff,” he wrote in an email to the Herald. “We need to take the time and involve faculty and staff in these discussions well before we roll them out, make sure there is buy-in, clarify any misunderstandings that there may be. This is what we hope to do in the near future.

In the meantime, Locke wrote in Monday’s email that the university will work with faculty and staff to discuss an alternative network of administrative support.

History of the proposed network

The network was first proposed by the Academic Shared Services Working Group in February 2021. The proposal cited a 2016 Staff Climate Survey which found that only 51.9% of academic staff believed that they were treated with respect by the faculty, according to a presentation given at a Nov. 18 Meeting of Presidents and Directors of Humanities reviewed by The Herald.

The working group suggested formalizing “informal support networks based on administrative tasks” and “creating opportunities for specialization and professional advancement”, as well as providing “stronger support to teaching staff in roles. leadership (of the department) ”, according to the presentation. .

This proposal aligned with the final report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Promoting Financial Health and Sustainability, which recommended the formation of “centers of excellence” in which “departments engage a pool of shared staff who are qualified for a specific transaction, ”rather than maintaining roles with overlapping responsibilities, according to the report.

University finances were not the motivation for the infrastructure change, Locke wrote in an email to the Herald. “We were launching this initiative not to reduce costs or headcount… but rather to create job enrichment and career opportunities for staff,” Locke wrote. “As we moved from recommendations to implementation, we realized that in fact there would be no cost savings associated with this initiative as we were modernizing jobs that paid higher wages. “

The task force suggested creating a pilot program in which a professional staff member would oversee two or more comparable disciplines, according to the task force report. As a result, the University has chosen to join the departments of German, French, Hispanic, Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, Slavic Studies, Italian Studies and Comparative Literature under the Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures group.

According to the November 18 presentation, four new administrative positions would oversee the cluster: an events and communications manager, a graduate student affairs manager, an undergraduate student affairs manager, and a finance and administration manager.

The implementation of the program would have coincided with a number of retirements, according to the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Promoting Financial Health and Sustainability. Eighteen staff members are expected to retire by the end of 2021, whose vacant positions are not going to be filled; those who remained would have been integrated into the new structure.

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In view of the suspension of the program, the University “will also fill any soon-to-be vacant department head positions to ensure that there is no disruption in administrative support,” Locke wrote in his letter to teachers.

Faculty dissatisfaction

The faculty took issue with the idea that the proposed network “is not part of an effort to consolidate the seven departments into one academic unit,” as stated in the presentation.

“It seems to me that the division of labor described in the rest of the document establishes the operational and material conditions for such an umbrella ‘unit’, even if the individual departments would remain named,” Mendicino wrote in an email to The Herald. .

According to the presentation, the network “is not a reduction in staff support: in fact, it improves administrative support to departments”. But professors expressed concern that the administrative responsibilities of seven departments, if held by four people, would lead to burnout and poor performance.

“These administrators are going to be overworked to serve seven departments at once,” Mendicino said. “At the same time, it’s very possible that things will slip through the cracks. “

The presentation noted that the networks would not “centralize staff support which would depersonalize faculty-staff relations,” but rather allow “collaboration between a larger group of faculty and staff in a circumscribed structure embedded in the schools. departments ”.

Nonetheless, professors have expressed concern about the potential for depersonalized counseling services, especially for undergraduates.

The draft job description “for the undergraduate student affairs manager… explicitly says that the… manager would help us provide advice and direction to the undergraduate concentrators,” Mendicino said. “Some of the advice… would involve an administrator who could be located in another building, serving seven different departments and without the organic institutional memory of the mergers.”

Current staff “see our students every day, so if a student has a question about something, (our staff) know those students,” Mendicino said. “With this network, I don’t even know if it would be possible for an administrator to know all the hubs spread over seven departments. … Students would be negatively affected by this.

Faculty also expressed concern that the dispersed locations of staff in these new administrative positions would create communication barriers.

In this system, “the undergraduate student manager may be located in another building on campus,” Mendocino said.

Look ahead

Going forward, Mendicino said she hopes the University will be more receptive to faculty feedback.

“What I took away from (Locke’s) email is that there will be follow-up conversations with the professors,” Mendicino said.

“I still hope we don’t end up with a new organization that looks like support networks because the structure… is something that I don’t think would work for small modern language departments,” Mendicino added. . “But it’s something that will have to come back in future conversations and be addressed in detail.”

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