Ivy Ken is an associate professor of sociology at GW and the president of the GW Faculty Association.
Faculty want this University to be a great place to work and learn. Because of that, we support University President Thomas LeBlanc’s efforts to gain a sense of how cultures and operations at GW can be improved through a survey distributed to faculty and staff last month. Many of us looked forward to filling out the survey and doing our part to aid LeBlanc’s goal, but the resulting product was unsatisfactory.
In the town halls and meetings we have assembled, including a full membership meeting for the Faculty Association held last week, faculty have emphasized a commitment to working with LeBlanc to prioritize the mission of the University to prepare students to be thinking and contributing members of a democratic society.
But because LeBlanc has publicly emphasized the importance of using data to guide actions and priorities, the Faculty Association membership was surprised to receive the survey instrument he distributed.
The questions were obtuse and inappropriate for a university, and this was apparent at first glance. Many questions conflated “leaders/managers/faculty” and required just a single answer, which made it impossible to respond accurately. The product seemed to have been designed without regard for even the most basic survey construction techniques, with “faculty” perhaps only tacked on to create an illusion of tailoring the questions to a university.
We presume this was not intentionally meant to obfuscate faculty’s concerns, but the results of this survey should not be considered a reliable reflection of the situation at GW.
We are sure LeBlanc would agree that good policy recommendations rarely come from bad data. Yet we heard him stand by the survey at the recent Faculty Assembly, and we read that a University spokesperson called the response to the survey “overwhelmingly positive.”
The Faculty Association has received overwhelming feedback as well, but it unanimously contradicts the spokesperson’s characterization. It is hard to overstate the frustration and anger we have heard from faculty members who received this survey. Many feel insulted and demoralized by it.
One faculty member told us she was so impressed by the thoroughness and seriousness of the roll-out that she set aside 30 minutes on her calendar so she could thoughtfully record her responses, but when she opened the survey and saw how perfunctory and generic the questions were – she realized how wrong she had been about the spirit of this survey. She was not alone in that impression.
The insult added to injury here is the top-down, fiscally questionable decision to hire the Disney Institute to construct, administer and analyze the survey. Disney is notorious for its undemocratic labor practices, and the Disney employees who designed this survey clearly have no understanding of the structure of a university.
Faculty Association members adamantly urge the University to stop its default practice of paying outside firms to do the work that we can conduct much more competently in-house, as other schools in our market basket do. In side-stepping the principle of shared governance, outsourcing reflects one of the biggest problems with the culture of work at this University.
The $300,000 paid to Disney is not a trivial expense. That amount could have been put to much better use if the administration truly wanted to improve the culture here by paying part-time faculty competitive wages, offering free access to health care for graduate student workers, creating an ombud office or better supporting faculty and student research.
Faculty Association members cannot understand why the administration has proceeded as though there is any mystery to the problems this University faces. The problems are basic and clear, and faculty members have communicated them to administration consistently: making seemingly arbitrary and top-down decisions including the move to limit faculty contracts to three-year terms, failing to retain diverse faculty, putting budgetary limits on tenure-track lines, relying on contract faculty, paying part-time faculty insufficiently and maintaining poor working conditions including rats in art studios and overheated classrooms.
These are among the most important issues the administration could immediately address to enhance the core mission of the University. Although the Disney Institute survey made many faculty feel that our in-person communications with LeBlanc are mere anecdotes in contrast to the “data” purportedly collected by this instrument, we trust that the administration really is interested in working together with us to improve student, faculty and staff experiences here.
In all of this, we seek to walk with the administration toward GW’s future as an excellent and equitable University, where our working conditions are understood to be intimately tied to students’ learning conditions.
This article appeared in the November 15, 2018 issue of the Hatchet.