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April 27, 2010 3:50 am

Mediator hired for Northwest College

Written by Tribune Staff

After a month-long search, the Northwest College Board of Trustees has hired a facilitator to help resolve conflicts between administrators, faculty, staff and students at the college.

During a short meeting on Friday, the board agreed to hire Pam Fisher of Bozeman, Mont., to serve as a facilitator and mediator.

The board approved spending $10,000 to pay for six full days of mediation services by Fisher at Northwest College. Her first visit will take place May 11-12, followed by more visits this fall.

According to information in a campus-wide e-mail from NWC President Paul Prestwich, Fisher served as the chancellor of Yosemite Community College District in California for 12 years. She is a community college alumna, and her 30-year history as an educator includes service as faculty leader and in leadership positions in state and national organizations.

Her academic background is in psychology and counseling, the information said.

During Fisher's visit here next month, she will meet with constituent groups, the President's Advisory Council and a task force that will include representatives from each constituent group.

Prestwich said he has visited with people who have experienced Fisher's skills and training.

“They felt her interpersonal skills were a good match,” he said.

Prestwich noted that the mediation process likely will stir up unpleasant emotions behind historical issues and recent conflicts.

Recent triggers include the firing of activities director Mike Taylor in December and a recruiting letter sent by Prestwich to high school seniors who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But some say tensions between administrators and faculty originated years — perhaps even decades — ago and span several administrations.

“One thing a good facilitator does is allow for broad input ... and it can be painful,” Prestwich said. “Sometimes it does mean different feelings or experiences that were less than ideal come to the surface.

“Ultimately, it's about, how do we get to a better place? ... How do we work though those to create a better place to work? And I think that's possible.”

Fisher now is an independent consult who also provides facilitation services for the national Association of Community College Trustees. Her focus is on leadership development at all levels, and her audiences include faculty and staff, mid-level and senior administrators, chief executive officers and elected and appointed governing boards of community colleges, the e-mail said.

“She has done facilitations similar to what we are looking for,” Prestwich said after the meeting. “She is very conversant on the types of issues we're facing.”

But even the process of selecting Fisher as a mediator proved fractious.

Board President Jim Vogt assigned the President's Advisory Council to act as the ad hoc committee to find and recommend a facilitator. He cited the fact that all constituent groups — faculty, students, administrators, classified staff and professional staff — were represented on the council.

Trustee Gloria Hedderman of Powell said Friday she fully supported Vogt in his decision and his rationale.

But some faculty members disagreed, saying a special ad hoc committee should have been formed for the purpose of selecting a facilitator.

“I wish it was not PAC that chose the mediator,” Elise Kimble, president of the NWC Faculty Organization, said Monday. “But I would trust that a professional mediator would be professional, no matter who they chose.”

But Kimble said the information Prestwich sent out indicated Fisher's experience was more in the line of leadership training.

“I don't really see that she has done mediation,” she said. “She has been a retreat facilitator, she's done leadership training, communication and team building, and it says crisis intervention. But I was expecting to see someone with a depth of conflict resolution.”

The dates Fisher will visit next month also are problematic, Kimble said, as May 12 is the first day of finals.
Prestwich said May 11 and 12 were the earliest dates logistics would allow.

It is unfortunate, Kimble added, that continued meetings over the summer are not practical.

“She will have a couple of follow-up visits in the fall, and it will be a rather disjointed process. Who knows what kind of gossip will occur during the summer?”

Kimble, who will retire at the end of the school year, said much of the mediation outcome could depend on how the task force is formed and on the skills Fisher demonstrates.

“I think it is very much wait and see,” Kimble said. “We will talk with her; she's been chosen. We will try to make the best use of her we can ... If things could calm, that would be good. Our meetings in May seem to hold promise.”