Faculty demand ‘meaningful communication’ with administration and Board of Regents

Ysabella Gonzalez, Reporter

Trust between faculty and administration has been under strain, as mentioned in previous Echo articles about the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College & University report, the President and Provost forum and the faculty handbook. Trust stands as one of the largest problems pointed out by the WASC dating back to 2015. The Faculty Senate believes that administration has been repeatedly “undermining” their trust by overturning decisions, excluding their faculty representative from important issues, taking away contributions from their retirement, being dismissive and lacking action from administration.

At a recent faculty senate meeting, the faculty senate raised many concerns about trust, such as wanting more communication with administration about what is happening on campus. Additionally, attendees said that they want administrators to “actually listen” to faculty. 

“Undermining our trust that you are really listening in the sense of trying to understand, it seems all performative communication,” one member of the Faculty Senate said during the meeting on March 27.

In response to the performative aspect raised by faculty members, faculty said that there have been times when the Faculty Representative was denied chances to speak to the Board of Regents on important issues. Faculty present said that, as a result of this exclusion, there were many times when the administration’s perspective was the only one being expressed at the Board of Regents meetings.

“One of the things that we’ve seen is that faculty aren’t allowed to talk to the board unless it is the representative, and the idea of shutting down communication is never a trust-building thing… You only shut down communication if you’re afraid of what they are going to say,” one member of the Faculty Senate said during the meeting.

Faculty also expressed concerns about the importance of having a policy that “actually protects employment.” They said that they need to be able to trust the institutional system that is put into place, not just on a personal level. As part of this, faculty expressed that there needs to be better timing for decisions to be made and clearer steps in this process. 

Faculty had cited the issues around the changes in the Faculty Handbook, most of which were done by administrators without addressing faculty feedback. They said the changes were made through delayed times in voting and over the summer without faculty’s input. 

“One way to gain the trust of the faculty is to try to see if some of that can be reversed,” professor of physics Sebastian Carron Montero said after the Faculty Senate meeting. “Another way is to have some meaningful communication between the faculty and the Board of Regents because that’s one of the parts that the system might be breaking down. The faculty doesn’t have as much voice with the regents anymore as before.”

Faculty also said during the meeting that the Board of Regents needs to stop ignoring important decisions made by faculty and that the board needs to not only respect their perspective but also look out for the faculty’s best interest.

“When you lose trust in anybody, it’s very hard because it comes down to honesty and your heart, and I don’t see heart here,” Montero said.

Faculty attendees also said this when mentioning that administration suspended retirement contributions made by the university for months during the pandemic.

Another thing that faculty said frustrated them, especially in terms of trying to build up the aforementioned trust, was how defensive and dismissive President Lori Varlotta and the board appeared to be. This, in turn, leads to staff and faculty leaving, as they feel there is no trust between them and administration.

“I have, unfortunately, no trust in a single individual, CEO and senior administration that is going to help us solve this problem because the skill set needed to see this and an interpersonal level to rebuild trust is absolutely not there. There’s no evidence of it,” one member of the Faculty Senate said during the meeting.

Varlotta, during the meeting, said that out of 100 employees leaving the school, only two mentioned trust as an issue, and the most consistent reasons for members of staff leaving were salary and an inability to advance at California Lutheran University.

A member of faculty said, countering this statement, that the others who had a problem with trust could have already left. They also asked if trust was directly asked about in exit interviews, to which the administration didn’t have a response. 

Varlotta then focused on the progress made so far by the university, such as how the university has managed to cut its vacancy rate, the number of positions vacant, from 7% in the 2021 calendar year to 4% in the 2022 calendar year. 

She also highlighted the removal of the notice of concern WSCUC had given the school in December 2020 and the introduction of the Climate Survey that will begin in 2023. Varlotta continued by also going over the approval of the Diversity Equity Inclusion and Justice Strategic Plan. Moving forward, administration wants to continue to meet with the Faculty Senate, Staff Senate and student government to build more trust across campus. 

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Leanne Neilson said that administration also wants to focus on the upcoming progress report, which they have to finish by June 1, 2023, per WSCUC’s requirements. Neilson said that the administration is hoping to turn their attention to updating trust across campus and completing the faculty handbook as well as the next big things on the agenda for the school, which is WSCUC’s offsite review in fall 2024 and WSCUC’s accreditation visit in 2025.

Faculty members present said that Varlotta’s change of subject seemed dismissive. 

“It’s kind of like your husband beat you for 20 years and then goes, ‘gee whiz, I’m sorry. Can we start over?’ No, you can’t,” one member of the Faculty Senate said during the meeting.

Varlotta left the meeting early due to other obligations, leaving the faculty’s concerns following the departure unheard by the president.

“I think that people really got into it, especially after our president left, but I think people would like to have her come and hear all of this,” Faculty Representative Julie Kuehnel said in an interview after the meeting. “Frankly, I’m not sure she ever will. I don’t think she likes hearing negative things, but I mean, none of us do like it, but, you know, sometimes it’s a fact of life. I think it would do her some good to come and really listen openly.”

Despite the many points brought up, one faculty member said to administration that they still care for the university and its students and want to see everyone succeed. Other faculty members agreed with this statement. 

“At the core of these concerns that we’re bringing forward is a sincere, I think, care that we have for students and the institution. And so that might not always be apparent in the discussion, but that is the underguarding sort of value that’s there,” Chair of the Faculty Senate Michael Hart said after the meeting.

Neilson repeated that she heard the comments and feelings of the faculty, but for some faculty, words are not reassuring and this was not necessarily reflected in actions.

“Words are cheap,” Kuehnel said. “Show me the action, show me the behavior. And I think that the other thing that I kept underlining because Mike brought it up and a couple people brought it up, is really a lot has gone under the bridge. You need to undo some things, show some good faith by undoing some of these things that you’ve rammed through.”

Since the administration’s PowerPoint was not finished during the meeting due to the discussion about trust using a majority of the allotted time, everyone present at the meeting agreed to continue their conversation and presentation at their next meeting on April 10 from 3:30-5 p.m., despite faculty appearing disheartened by the progress being made in the administration’s efforts. 

“The one thing I can trust is that this process will continue, which is a process that’s not trusted, as you continue to try to implement these solutions,” one member of the Faculty Senate said during the meeting.

This article was updated on April 7 to clarify that the sources named were interviewed after the Faculty Senate meeting.