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Working Together For One Lehigh

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After Ben Affleck accepted his Oscar for Argo, he got a lot of teasing for mentioning that his marriage takes work. But was he wrong? Doesn’t any productive and successful partnership require effort on both sides?

At a university, it’s important to nurture and improve working relationships between faculty and staff.  In 2011, Lehigh HR staff joined with an ad hoc group including Deputy Provost for Faculty Affairs Vincent Munley and members of the Employee Relations Advisory Committee (ERAC) to begin considering actions that could support this goal.

The *committee planned a two-day visit to campus by noted faculty/staff relations expert Susan Christy, Ph.D. Susan’s background includes academic training as a psychologist, 13 years as a tenured faculty member, and many years in staff training and development.  Having worked in the corporate world and in higher education, Susan has seen a wide range of work situations and work styles.

Registration for the workshops for staff filled quickly, and reaction to the program encouraged the committee to continue its work. 

Vince Munley, who was a faculty member in Lehigh’s Department of Economics for three decades prior to joining the Provost’s Office, thought it was especially important to bring faculty into the discussion. “The event was really successful with staff, and everyone who participated expressed enthusiasm for also getting faculty involved in this effort to work better together,” he said.

Quiet Constructive Conversation

The rest of the committee wanted to keep the momentum going, too. After a helpful discussion with the Provost’s Council, they decided to approach the deans and academic department chairs of the four colleges to encourage them to begin a constructive conversation with faculty.

“The takeaway from Susan Christy’s visit for me was that staff and faculty, while equally committed to their work and to the success of our students, have different orientations,” Vince said. “We are blessed with a staff that has a strong affinity and dedication to Lehigh as an institution.  But a faculty member’s first commitment is often to her or his academic discipline.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that faculty members don’t have a commitment to Lehigh. Rather, faculty dedication often comes through the work they do within their discipline. By producing world-class research, for example, they raise their profiles within their discipline, enhancing Lehigh’s image within the external academic community. This puts them in a position to share the excitement of engaging in cutting edge research with students in classrooms and labs across South Mountain.

Still, this difference in orientations can lead to different sets of priorities, one internal and one external.  In turn, this can result in conflict and misunderstanding.

“So how do we work together when our orientations are so different?” Vince asked, “I’m hopeful communication can bring people closer together. If staff can understand faculty’s point of view and vice versa, perhaps we can bridge that gap in our perspectives.”

The committee held a follow up meeting with the Provost’s Council this semester and learned that since the initial meetings with department chairs and others, fuller discussions have occurred. With 31 academic departments across campus, there are varying degrees to which this has taken place at this point. But it is an encouraging sign for the committee.

“To really make an impact, this won’t be a one and done,” Vince reflected. “You need continuing dialogue over time, and as time goes by you have to get people’s attention again and discuss it with new staff and faculty as well.”

Catching Up With Susan Christy

Recently, Spotlight caught up with Susan Christy and learned that Lehigh is still on her mind as well. Susan and Lehigh Associate Vice President for Human Resources, Jackie Matthews co-authored an article for other HR professionals on the topic. That collaboration led to more discussion about other efforts that could help continue the progress.

“In my work on this issue, I’ve gathered ideas and examples from hundreds of staff and faculty individuals about what makes successful staff-faculty partnerships,” Susan said. “For instance, faculty respect competence and confidence in staff members. And, staff members who understand a faculty member’s  different obligations and expectations have greater empathy and communicate more effectively.”

Susan is now working with Jackie and the committee to plan research focusing on faculty-staff pairings at Lehigh.

“I want to look at successful, collaborative, and productive partnerships between faculty and staff members in a variety of settings at Lehigh,”
she said. “We want to learn about these relationships from both staff and faculty points of view.”

Susan isn’t looking for perfect relationships or those that have been without a few bumps in the road. Instead, she wants to learn by looking at pairings where those situations result in a stronger working relationship.  “What are the elements of a successful relationship? Is it the ability to see things from the others’ perspective? Is it approaching the relationship as equals?”

Using the Appreciative Inquiry method, Susan will investigate that success and focus on what works.

“Appreciative Inquiry is an interview and research methodology that finds the themes and best practices in successful circumstances and then seeks to create more of that success in similar circumstances,” she explained. “The questions we ask affect the answers we get. By focusing on success stories instead of problems, we can expand the positive.”

Stay Tuned

In the coming months, the committee will be reaching out to find the kinds of staff-faculty work partnerships that Susan seeks to investigate. In the meantime, if you know of such a pairing, feel free to share that information with Jackie Matthews or a member of the committee.

The More You Know

*Committee members include:
Robin Armbruster, College of Engineering and Applied Science
Catherine Headman, Baker Institute
Jackie Matthews, Human Resources
Mary Jo McNulty, Human Resources
Vince Munley, Provost’s Office
Vivien Steele, English Department

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