Policy changes stir faculty debate at NWC

Posted 12/12/19

Revisions to employee policies at Northwest College brought objections from a few faculty members during the public forum portion of the board of trustees’ Monday meeting.

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Policy changes stir faculty debate at NWC


Revisions to employee policies at Northwest College brought objections from a few faculty members during the public forum portion of the board of trustees’ Monday meeting.

The primary objections to the revisions involved termination processes and salaries.

The revisions to NWC’s salary policies had no immediate impact on dollar figures, but in the course of making the changes, college adminstrators were unwilling to commit to future promotions; that prompted the faculty senate to vote against supporting the changes in those areas.

Other changes were supported.


Salaries and promises

Jason Horton, assistant professor of agribusiness, was among those who expressed concerns on Monday.

Horton told the trustees he was speaking as a citizen and not a faculty member, because an NWC policy forbids faculty members from speaking to the board about issues affecting the college. This policy, he said, impedes open communication between decision makers and people with knowledge and insight on the impacts of decisions.

“This is a policy I find troublesome,” he said.

Speaking after the meeting NWC President Stefani Hicswa explained that the Higher Learning Commission, which is the college’s accrediting body, requires NWC’s board to hire a president that will act as a liasion between the college and its governing board.

“It is the president’s responsibility to be that bridge between the two so that the board can focus on the big picture and the president can marshal college employees towards accomplishing the board’s goals,” Hicswa said.

Horton said he accepted a faculty position in May of 2010 based on what the college policies outlined for future salary increases.

“Based on that information, I gave up my business, my wife quit her job, we sold our house, [and] we moved our family across the country to become part of the Northwest College family,” he explained.

These promises were not honored for six of the last eight years, including the last four years in a row, Horton said.

These restrictions on salary increases have lowered the faculty’s morale, Horton said, and impacted the college’s ability to recruit.

Rachel Hanan, associate professor of English, also spoke during the public forum. She’s been teaching at NWC since August 2011. Hanan said she was excited for the opportunity at the college due to its high teaching standards and commitment to educating its students.

However, due to restrictions on salary promotions, her current salary is 10 percent below what she expected to be making at this point, based on what she believed were guarantees of promotion steps.

“I bought a house and a mortgage with the understanding that the salary steps were non-negotiable,” she said.

Hanan said she was on a committee that negotiated in good faith on changes to the salary structure. Those were voted down by faculty senate, she said, because the college couldn’t commit to funding salary steps in the future if they were financially “unpalatable.”

Hanan said she’s a “realist” and understands with declining revenues that adjustments would need to be made, but she warned the steep decline in enrollment could continue if the college doesn’t have quality faculty for its students. This would also impact support for a new student center, which would likely require a Park County-wide 1 percent specific purpose sales tax.

To illustrate the impacts of the salaries on recruitment and retention, Hanan pointed out a recent offer made to a prospective faculty member, who turned it down due to salary considerations. In the last year, NWC has lost 12 faculty members, four of which Hanan said left over salary problems, administrative changes and lack of programmatic support.

Hicswa later agreed that the college’s salary situation is having a detrimental impact on the school.

The objections “speak to the issues we’ve been talking about with compensation on our campus,” Hicswa told trustees, “which is why it’s so important that we emphasize to our Legislature the situation ... because all our employee salaries — not just faculty — are being eroded.”

She also said that NWC administrators can’t commit to future raises, because the board of trustees makes budgetary decisions, saying it wasn’t appropriate for the administration to make such commitments.

“We did have some really good discussions, and hearing the testimony today, I think I see where some of those gaps are,” Hicswa said.

Addressing the problem, however, would likely require more state support for community colleges, she said.


Due process

Bob Becker, assistant professor of speech communication and chairperson for agriculture business, told the trustees that proposed changes to NWC’s termination policies would leave “no opportunity for due process.”

He also raised objections over language in the new policy that could potentially make termination a certain consequence for a number of poorly defined infractions.

Becker also expressed concern about the elimination of early retirement. Few faculty members are currently eligible, but Becker pointed out it was used in the recent past, which absolved the college of having to force people into retirement or eliminate their positions.

The policy changes were developed by the Faculty Employment Policies Review Committee (FEPRC) and then reviewed by the Faculty Senate as part of the whole policy revision process.

There were six blocks of proposed changes to the college’s employment policies and not all were controversial: The Senate recommended the board of trustees not approve those related to salary, termination and faculty appointment.

The board found itself in a difficult position in considering how to vote in light of the objections that were raised. The process by which policies are updated does not permit the board to amend the language; any revisions to the policies would need to go through the whole process over again.

Likewise, because the proposed changes were interrelated, it wasn’t feasible for the board to approve some blocks of changes and not others.

“They’re kind of a group that need to go together,” Trustee Mark Wurzel explained.

Wurzel said the arguments the faculty made during the public forum were “compelling,” but the objections based on salary amounts weren’t related to the proposed policy changes.

“The policies don’t have dollar amounts,” he said.

Instead, the proposed changes replaced previous salary tiers with four faculty ranks of instructor, assistant professors, associate professor and professor. What salaries correspond with those ranks were not included in the policy changes.

Speaking after the meeting, NWC Communications and Marketing Director Carey Miller explained that salary figures are set during the annual budgeting process. They can change year to year, depending on resources that include enrollment revenue, mill levy (property tax) numbers and state aid.

Wurzel also disputed that the language in the proposed changes would make dismissal a definite result from disciplinary actions resulting from a list of infractions or eliminate due process for faculty who are being terminated.

“The wording actually says the procedure will be initiated, not that you will be dismissed,” he said.


Split vote

Members of the board of trustees and Hicswa said they were grateful for the feedback they received during the public forum.

“I was pleased with the way in which the faculty presented their concerns to the board,” Hicswa said. “They were impressively respectful and articulate in presenting their views on the various policies.”

The board prepared to pass the proposed changes with a few minor changes, which would need to go back through the entire process, involving FEPRC and the Faculty Senate, before being added to the final draft of the school’s policy.

However, Trustee John Housel urged the board to wait on approving the changes in light of the objections raised during the public forum.

The board considered passing it on a first reading to come up for a second reading next month, but since the whole review process was necessary to make changes, they’d just be reviewing the same proposal on second reading.

A motion was made to table the entire issue to be reconsidered at a later date, but that vote resulted in a 3-3 tie. Board President Dusty Spomer broke the tie by voting against tabling the changes, which brought the board back to the original motion of passing the proposed policy changes with minor revisions.

The board ulitimately voted in favor of that motion, with Housel and Trustee Bob Newsome voting against. The changes endorsed by the board will need to go through the whole review process and come back before trustees at a later date.