Mediation efforts begin at NWC

Posted 8/17/10

Fisher, under contract with the college to help resolve differences between administrators, faculty, staff and students at the college, will make her first visit to the campus during an all-campus meeting prior to the fall semester kickoff this …

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Mediation efforts begin at NWC


Facilitator to visit campus this weekEfforts to resolve conflicts at Northwest College are under way, with mediator Pam Fisher making her first visit to the campus on Wednesday and Thursday. Fisher held a teleconference with a mediation task force on May 27, and contacts, interaction and preparation have continued since then, said NWC President Paul Prestwich.

Fisher, under contract with the college to help resolve differences between administrators, faculty, staff and students at the college, will make her first visit to the campus during an all-campus meeting prior to the fall semester kickoff this weekend.

“She'll have a chance to meet with various constituent groups on campus, as well as the task force and President's Advisory Council. That will really kick off that part of the facilitation process,” Prestwich said.

In addition, “everyone will have an opportunity to have feedback to Dr. Fisher,” he said. “The task force is working on a way to kick off that process, to communicate to the campus that they have an opportunity for individual feedback … The process is designed to be as inclusive as possible so that everyone has a chance to put their 2 cents in. I promised from the beginning that people would have the chance to do that.”

Building trust

Duane Fish, professor of speech communication and chairman of the NWC Communication Division, said he is impressed both with Fisher and with the task force, named the TRUST team — short for True Respect and Understanding Support Team.

“I think that those people are very dedicated and willing to work through the issues and try to come up with something that will improve the climate at Northwest,” he said. “I think the constituent groups and students have excellent representatives, and from what I've seen, Dr. Fisher is extremely competent and the procedure is very positive.”

But it is hard to say what the outcome will be, he said.

“A mediation is very different from an arbitration or anything like that,” he said. “Dr. Fisher is just gathering information and will suggest some things, I'm sure, but none of it is binding. It only works ... if whatever her recommendations for fixing the problems are taken to heart and made a part of the culture on campus.”

Conflict insights

Fish reflected on his perceptions of the conflict.

“I really think part of the difficulty is that we have traditionally had at Northwest a climate of collaboration and buy-in and working as a group,” he said. “I believe that we have switched from that model to a business model that we aren't used to, and so that has created tensions.

“I'm not necessarily against a business model,” Fish continued, “but we need to pick a successful business, and right now, I don't think we're doing that.”

Fish said the tension on campus didn't build up overnight, but “has been happening for five or six years.”

The NWC Board of Trustees during a recent retreat puzzled over the reason for reports that some faculty and staff members have expressed fear of losing their jobs.

“Some of them are afraid,” said Trustee Carolyn Danko.

“And they shouldn't be,” added Board President Jim Vogt. “Somebody's conveying that feeling to them.”

Dana Young, former vice president of student affairs, reflected before she left Northwest College last month on the ongoing tensions and their causes and what was needed to ensure efforts to heal the rift were successful.

Young said she believes there has been a shifting of the culture at the college, and a perceived shifting of power.

“Any time people perceive that they are losing ground in power, they don't feel as secure as they once did,” she said.

“Whenever people say, I'm afraid of losing my job, I ask, ‘Why? What has occurred to make you feel that way?”

The answers she generally got were, “‘I don't know,' or, ‘If someone who has been around for so long can lose their job, then none of us are safe from losing our jobs,'” Young said.

“There's an overarching theme, but people cannot tell me why they feel that way.”

Fish said he knows of a couple of situations where people were told they had bad attitudes and they needed to re-examine their attitudes.

“I also have many faculty who tell me they won't serve on committees that are controversial, particularly if they (the faculty) are not tenured. They don't want to put their career in jeopardy.

“The perception is that if they speak up, they could be written up. I don't know that has occurred, but the perception is there ... Once you create that culture of fear, it doesn't matter if it's real or not.”

Put it on the table

“People never talk to their fears,” Fish said. “They don't tell their supervisor why they're afraid; they talk to somebody else, and that creates this misunderstanding and misperception ... It's how people make sense out of their world.

“We've got to learn to put all of this stuff out on the table... It makes it difficult to focus on what we're supposed to be doing.”

Contrary to what some say, Fish said he knows of no one who has used students to forward their own agendas.

“I think the students are involved because they care about what goes on,” he said. “For a lot of our students, they come to Northwest and the college is their second home. Just like brothers and sisters fighting, they're upset when we're fighting amongst ourselves.

“I tried to keep mine out of the loop for as long as I could. We can't, nor should we, use the students; but we also can't cover for what's going on.”

Young said she believes most employees at the college are not afraid of losing their jobs. They like their jobs, and they love working with the students.

Elements of success

For the mediation to be successful, Young said, “First and foremost, everyone needs to be at the table and to be honest about what's on their minds — what's really on their minds,” she said. “It will be incumbent upon upon representatives that sit at that table with the task force to truly communicate with the bodies they represent.

Otherwise, people still won't feel people are listening and that they're being heard.”

Prestwich said it is important for everyone to be heard, including people who tend to be quieter and more hesitant to express their concerns or opinions.

Fish said the key to success through mediation is to find compromises on common ground “where there are no winners and no losers, but everyone is a winner.

“I think the common ground is the student,” he said. “I don't think there's anyone who's at the college who isn't interested in doing what's best for students. I think that's where we need to focus.”

Prestwich said it will be difficult to get 100 percent agreement between all parties affected by the mediation.

“But what I do hope is there will be recommendations that do have a strong buy-in from across the campus —recommendations for how we can improve as a campus and a general agreement of principles and courses of action as a campus.

“I'm optimistic that we can get there,” he said. “It will take a lot of hard work, with participation from across the college. My hope is that we'll come out of this a better, stronger institution than we were when we went into the process.”