The demand for civility effectively outlaws a range of intellectual, literary, and political forms; satire is not civil, caricature is not civil, hyperbole and aesthetic mockery are not civil nor is polemic. Ultimately, the call for civility is a demand that you not express anger; and if it was enforced it would suggest that there is nothing to be angry about in the world.” –Michael Meranze
Finding parking near Chico State is a pain in the ass. I finally find a ten-hour spot, drop some quarters in the meter and head toward campus on a Thursday afternoon. It’s a hot day in this walking town and I arrive on campus, walk past the bike racks near the Bell Memorial Union and toward the path that will take me to Colusa Hall. Not too many students are around except a scattering seated on a circle of benches in the shade of a tree in front of Trinity Hall.
I am back at my alma mater for an Academic Senate forum. The campus is in an uproar—the first week of school, the campus President announced his retirement at a time of widespread dissent over his stewardship from staff and faculty. Signs of a toxic workplace culture are common at Chico State in recent semesters. There is high employee turnover, rumors of favoritism, abuses of power, and retaliation by administrators. The week before the forum things had seemingly come to a head. Following his retirement announcement, the President announced a promotion (and raise) for a crony Provost to permanent status before she quickly withdrew herself in the context of widespread dissent from faculty and staff. That same week, a “campus climate survey” was released that illustrated campus wide dissatisfaction with the administration and leadership (or lack thereof). In other words, things are roiling at Chico State and a special Academic Senate forum was called to calm the waters. It was so bad that even the Chancellor’s office sent representatives from system headquarters in southern California. How would they do it? How would the Senate forum restore “Chico nice?”
I haven’t been on campus in a while, I am alumni but I also worked here, taught sociology as an adjunct lecturer for a couple of years, and have personal experience with Chico State’s hostile work environment. I arrive at the hall, people are in line almost to the door waiting to sign in and I slip past, my ball cap dipped down. I find a chair, move it to a corner near the food table and try my best to look like I belong. I’m dressed like a student, jean shorts, black t-shirt, outdoorsy sandals, and ball cap; I don’t work here anymore so I left my old faculty uniform at home. The uniform is here though, dress shirts and ties (it is a senate meeting) and nice blouses and other work clothes. There are tables and chairs set up facing each other in small squares all throughout the room and more chairs circle the outer ring of tables. There are several screens around the room for the coming PowerPoint and survey presentations.
People are social as they file in, friendly hellos and lots of meeting and greeting. After all, this is Chico State, known not only as a party school, but also as a place where people socialize easily. The room fills up quick and soon enough, its standing room only (except at the front table) and a woman laughs with a co-worker standing beside her who says, “You’re supposed to be saving me a seat.”
I don’t think this many people were expected to show up.
There is a lot of activity at the food table. My fondest memories of faculty gatherings include standing around with colleagues and snacking on an array of cheese cubes, cookies, pastry-like items, and all the self-serve coffee, tea, and water we could handle. In hard budget times, serving food is somewhat of a bribe but a good one, professionals are more cooperative with snacks; we are like grade school children that way.
The meeting begins with the academic senate chair welcoming all the attendees and saying, “Give yourselves a hand.” That is familiar; so I jot a note, “how many more clapping sessions will there be?” Next, the chair briefly discusses the agenda and says, “We have a task, which is, that we are demonstrating ourselves to be the type of campus a new president will want to come to.” There is a few claps and then scattered applause before everyone jumps on board with clapping. There is more of the expected clapping as different segments of campus are recognized for being here, from the sound of the clapping, most of the audience are staff members.
A week before at the fall convocation (for the uninitiated, it’s a kind of welcome back to school event), Chico State president Paul Zingg announced that he would be retiring at the end of the school year. I predicted this, but that prediction was only a head note, something I filed away when I started reading about the problems at Chico State. My thinking when I heard the announcement was that he was being forced out, a ritual of change in higher education where a new president is like a fresh start for a campus with problems. But the problem isn’t one person; it’s a matter of culture.
Chico State has a trust problem. Its faculty does not trust administrators neither do the staff and it was clear that the CSU board of trustees had sent representatives to the senate forum to quell dissent. Reports about bullying and harassment of employees had been in the news for over a year. And the phrase “toxic environment” was repeated in social media and quoted in online media. As the meeting began, the senate chair read two quotes about positive change and growth and said “I want you to consider that as we move forward today in a positive atmosphere.” Followed by: “We are going to conduct a very civil forum here” …Uh-oh.
My own hackles were raised by the idea of a “very civil forum.” I was an adjunct Academic Senator for four years at the other college I worked at, Butte College, and I recognized the tone in the chair’s message (somewhat scolding) . Apparently, the employees in the audience needed to get the underlying message that they had better behave and that maybe they hadn’t behaved in the past. I watched the faces around me as the chair spoke, co-workers shared knowing looks and eyebrow raises, and another elbowed her neighbor and rolled her eyes.
Campus wide, over 50% of Chico State’s employees do not believe “Communications throughout the university are open and carried out in good faith and in an atmosphere of trust” (Campus Climate Survey p. 31). Given this, the next phase of the meeting was telling. This part was presented a la PowerPoint by a statewide CSU senator who began by saying, “What I’m going to do is walk you through some things you already know that speaks about the conduct in the affairs of the university” and proceeded to go over the basics of shared governance. It was clear there was a purpose and it revealed itself when the speaker got to the topic of collegiality.
The speaker stands in front of us and says, “Note that nowhere does it say, ‘and always smile at each other and say good morning.’ Collegiality doesn’t mean smiling and saying ‘hi,’ it means finding ways to work together even if you don’t like somebody very much.” Hmm, I think to myself. That might be true but that wasn’t much of a “positive” statement and it felt weird. A friendly, connected workplace is a happy workplace; polite actions are part of creating a satisfying work culture and there is plenty of research that states that fact. So why was the presenter pooh-poohing generalized friendliness without explanation? It’s true that academe is notorious for ego politics and small stakes wars but if you want to promote civility wouldn’t you want to promote pro-social behavior, ya know, communication and stepping out of the silos?
The senate forum was beginning to feel like same old b.s. I thought our time was being wasted, if the audience knows what shared governance is, why in the hell go over it again? This is an all too common tactic for managing dissent through institutional processes and symbolic gatherings, fill much of the time with senseless presentations and leave all interaction and discussion to the end of the meeting, people are more tired and many will have left for other obligations.
It made sense then that the next part of the presentation was about the “Campus Climate Survey.” It was interesting and well explained (and in great detail) but again, seemed to be another instance where employees who were there to feel heard, were being talked at and explained to. As if they were being told, “you have shared governance, we did a survey and you have a voice…so shut up.” Indeed, Birnbaum (1989) says that the senate is largely a symbol where “an institution could suggest the existence of faculty authority even when it did not exist” (p. 428).
The next portion of the presentation was a timed period of group work that had volunteer moderators (collected together at the last-minute) at each table to “keep the conversation civil” and to collect notes “as a record of the activity.” The change of pace was obviously welcomed because the subdued room got loud and there were bursts of laughter while employees arranged their selves at the tables. Still, one employee made a point to question the validity of the group activity and said, “I wonder if you could say more about the purpose of this activity? We’ve done a lot of this…possibility conversations, senate retreat, what are your goals?” The senate chair took the mic back and went into a lengthy, bureaucratic explanation about process that sounded like good old-fashioned C.Y.A. (Google that acronym if you need to).
What is the purpose of an academic senate forum? A forum is a place of public expression but what I observed had more to do with social control and managing dissent. Several official entities used the phrase “move forward” more than a dozen times and I heard the word “positive” throughout the meeting and in the context of employee behavior, e.g., “I would hate for you to only spend time on the negative.”
Does avoiding the negative improve working conditions? Will positive thinking lighten workloads or result in staff promotions and recognition? Will it make bullying go away? The employees came to the senate forum to be heard but I don’t think they felt heard, I think they felt controlled. Civility is valuable but you don’t create a culture of civility by avoiding conflict. The high turnover, rumors of favoritism, reports of mistrust, abuse of power, and retaliation; they are the signs of a toxic workplace culture. The representative attending from the Chancellor’s office said, “We are all collectively responsible,” which is another way people at the top shirk actual responsibility by spreading it around to those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy.
I don’t think they bought it and I hope they stay angry.
Resources for further reading (in addition to highlighted links above)