NWC community looking for ways to resolve conflicts

Posted 3/11/10

Much of the anger on the campus and in the community continues to center on recruiting letters signed by NWC President Paul Prestwich and mailed to about 1,000 high school students who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day …

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NWC community looking for ways to resolve conflicts


With tensions at Northwest College nearing what appears to be a crescendo, the question for many faculty, staff, students and administrators now is, “Where do we go from here?”The Northwest College Board of Trustees heard complaints about events at the college, as well as pleas for peace, during its meeting in Cody on Monday.

Much of the anger on the campus and in the community continues to center on recruiting letters signed by NWC President Paul Prestwich and mailed to about 1,000 high school students who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But some say that debate is a symptom of other, deeper problems at the college.

In the past three months, one staff member (Mike Taylor) was fired and contracts for two faculty members contracts were not renewed. In addition, Prestwich investigated Duane Fish, professor of speech communication and chairman of the Communication Division at the college, of plagiarism after Fish allegedly copied and pasted sections of the NWC soccer program proposal into his own proposals for other programs.

Fish addressed the board Monday.

“Northwest College is experiencing some very troubled times,” Fish said. “The task of imparting to students the true nature of the value of education takes time, effort and above all, passion. Sometimes that passion gets the best of us.

That passion which pushes us to excel suddenly starts to impede our ability to accomplish our goals.

“We must find a way to put that passion to work for the college instead of using it to destroy a wonderful institution ... The only way to come up with a solution is to work together. Individually, we will tear this place apart.

“It is my sincere hope that we find a way to do this, and I hope that I am part of the solution; but if it needs to be done without me, so be it.”

Fish said he has had nothing to do with his students' expression of their views of events on campus.

He also apologized to his colleagues for problems they have experienced because of their support for him.

“I know you are enduring undue criticism, false accusations and intense anger directed at you, though that anger should be directed only at me,” he said. “Your support for me has been at extreme risk to your careers at Northwest.”

Student Laci Kennedy stated her objection to the LDS recruiting letters and to the startup soccer program, and she emphasized that if Fish were not at Northwest College, she would not be either.

“Students feel they're not being listened to,” she said.

Student Kasia Harvey said she was upset by the firing of activities coordinator Mike Taylor.

“I came here for activities, and that's been taken away,” she said.

Harvey said she didn't receive a response from Prestwich to inquiries about when and where an open meeting for commuter students would take place.

Jeremy Johnston, assistant professor of history at the college, said Wednesday, “I'd have to say, overall, this has been a gut-wrenching couple of months. The campus is very divisive right now, and a number of people are upset by what's going on.”

Johnston said tensions at NWC have been building for years.

“While a lot of it centers on our new president, I really think he's the unfortunate recipient of a lot of tension that's been building up. He's managed to pull some of the triggers that's brought that stress to the forefront,” he said.

“Overall, everybody has the best intentions in mind for providing a quality education for the students. Hopefully, we can come together on that belief and on these other issues.”

Clay Cummins of Billings, who serves on the NWC Foundation board and the NWC Alumni Association board, stated his continued support for the college at the board meeting.

While Cummins said he supports the administration, the faculty and the staff, he added, “The decision maker is the one at the head of the table, and he's the one we hired to do that.”

Board President Jim Vogt said the board takes all the expressed views seriously. Those issues will be addressed at the board's next regular meeting, he said.

In her report to the board, Faculty Organization President Elise Kimble said the faculty was distressed by an anonymous “Peace Movement” survey letter sent out last week, and the organization was considering filing a grievance. Some statements in that letter made allegations against all faculty, she said.

Kimble noted that Sher Hruska, NWC vice president for instruction, suggested in a campus-wide email that the college employ the services of a facilitator to resolve conflicts between the administration, faculty and staff and students. The faculty supports that proposal, she said.

“We don't want this atmosphere to continue. A mediator or outside facilitator could help to get us talking face to face.”

In an e-mail Wednesday, Kimble said, “The faculty have talked personally with administrators and will continue to do so. We have not given up.

“We strongly feel that all the campus (not just the faculty) has the right to speak freely without fear of any sort of retribution. That also means we are free to argue vigorously, but without any personal animosity.

“What can the administration do? Listen to us. We are not evil or careless of the college. After listening, follow up as promised.”

Kimble said she was encouraged Wednesday as she read e-mails “reaching out by faculty and staff and some attempts at finding a way to reconciliation.”

Prestwich said Wednesday he is considering the possible use of an outside consultant “to hopefully help us move beyond our conflict and help us move forward. We haven't yet come up with the specifics of what that might look like.

“Certainly, the goal is to break the cycle,” he said, “building that kind of an environment where, even when we disagree, we're moving forward in a productive way.

“It's complicated, but one of my goals is for people to enjoy working here. I think that, overall, people do, but there are times when we do face challenges. We need to work on a way to deal with those in a more productive way.”

While faculty members have expressed frustration with a perceived lack of shared governance at the college, Prestwich said he believes shared governance is important for any college.

“I think the principal group that has the most responsibility for the outcome for students at the college should have the biggest voice in the input,” he said, particularly in decisions regarding policies over faculty rank and tenure, promotion and academic policy.

“Faculty should have the biggest voice in that, and they do,” he said.

But, when it comes to personnel decisions, “There's a certain privacy expectation that a faculty or staff person should have,” he added. “I think it would be very unfair to that employee for us to broadly communicate the reason for a specific decision, for example, as minor as a disciplinary measure or as major as a dismissal.

“There are things we can't say, and things we shouldn't say. That results in only one side of the story being told.”

Despite the angst that sometimes creates, “I'm hopeful that we can remain focused on the bigger picture ... and continue to have a big impact on the lives of our students.”