Only a handful of staff, faculty and students attended forums last week to offer feedback on University President Thomas LeBlanc’s job performance, but officials said they are continuing to solicit feedback online and in small groups to help shape the results of LeBlanc’s first of several biannual community reviews.
Roughly 60 people – about 40 staff, 10 faculty and six students – attended six in-person feedback sessions last week to voice their concerns about LeBlanc’s response to student advocacy and an apparent lack of staff appreciation. Nelson Carbonell, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, said the turnout “was less than we would have liked” but noted that officials have garnered opinions from hundreds of additional stakeholders through online forums and other group gatherings.
At one of the faculty forums last week, Carbonell said the low turnout is likely linked to an institutional culture in which faculty do not feel that their feedback would be taken to heart. He said the Board of Trustees saw similar attendance during 40 presidential search town halls that were hosted before LeBlanc was hired.
“We end up in these places where people don’t feel safe telling people what they feel, and we don’t get feedback and have 40 town hall meetings, and we get an attendance of four and five and six,” he said. “I used to sit at the edge of the stage and tell people to come sit in the front row because it was ridiculous to be in a room like this with seven people.”
A professor who attended one of the feedback sessions but did not give her name said during the session that the low turnout is likely the result of holding the events “at the worst time of day.” The feedback forums were held at the Milken Institute School of Public Health and at the Jack Morton Auditorium both in the early afternoon and evening on three weekdays.
“You can’t come, and if by chance you make it, it’s being live streamed and recorded, and everything you say will be held in evidence against you,” she said during the session. “That’s not how I feel, but that’s how it comes across.”
But Carbonell said changing the time or the venue of the forums likely would not have changed attendance numbers because administrators need to figure out why “willing participants” have not shown up to multiple town hall-style events.
“Unless we figure that out, I don’t think we’ll have the right set of data to operate on as we go forward and figure out what to do,” Carbonell said.
Carbonell said in an email that officials do not yet have any information to provide about what feedback has been received because the review is still in progress. He said Sally Mason, an outside consultant overseeing the review, has conducted more than 40 feedback interviews with student leaders, Faculty Senate members and department chairs, among other stakeholders.
Officials have also received more than 140 responses about LeBlanc’s performance through an online portal. The form will be open until April 12, he said.
“Our goal is to have Dr. Mason finish the review and communicate the results to President LeBlanc within the next few months,” Carbonell said. “This is, after all, his review and as I said during the forums, he will be receiving the feedback directly.”
Carbonell declined to say how many students, faculty and staff he expected to attend the feedback sessions. He declined to say why staff were more apt to attend the sessions than faculty and students.
He also declined to say if he plans to host any additional in-person feedback sessions.
Higher education experts said low turnout could either indicate apathy or general satisfaction with the administration – two opposite possibilities that the University’s online feedback forum will help to decipher.
Rebekah Basinger, a principal of the higher education consulting company Basinger Consulting, said that in her experience, large universities see fewer people turn out to feedback sessions than smaller schools because the sizable population gives people the false assumption that their voices will get lost in a crowd.
“You know that old saying, ‘If somebody is going to do it, then nobody does,’” she said. “I’m not really surprised by that.”
But Basinger added that the attendance could also indicate that students and faculty are content with their experiences. She said people often do not turn out unless they “are really unhappy,” and sometimes universities use incentives like food or prizes to encourage stakeholders to participate in the sessions.
“If they are feeling OK or not really upset, it’s hard to get faculty members to participate in broad institutional life kinds of issue,” she said.
Throughout his tenure, LeBlanc has tried to pin down some of the University’s institutional culture pain points. In a partnership with the Disney Institute, LeBlanc issued a survey to faculty and staff last semester to gauge widespread concerns, finding that faculty and staff felt undervalued and thought leaders were not held accountable for their behavior.
Basinger added that the University’s use of an electronic feedback form will help double-check the information provided in feedback sessions and serve as an alternate way for students and faculty to get involved in the review process.
“It’s a nice way of adding some credibility, veracity to what you thought you heard,” she said.
Michael Poliakoff, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said low turnout at in-person review sessions is “not surprising” given that many faculty, students and staff maintain busy work schedules and are happy enough with their situations to skip the town halls.
“If people are generally satisfied, then they are not likely to be showing up in robust numbers,” Poliakoff said. “It may mean nothing more than people are generally satisfied and don’t feel urgency about participating.”
Poliakoff added that while public forums contribute to a “sound” review, the feedback may be skewed because only certain groups of people have attended the sessions. He said Mason and the Board of Trustees should reach out to groups that have not turned out to the forums to ensure a fair representation of views.
“That is a danger, a possible pitfall of sampling method,” he said.
This article appeared in the April 4, 2019 issue of the Hatchet.