University Staff Under Strain, Says Climate Survey

Oct 9, 2017

Credit Adam Procter / Flickr

The University of Missouri conducted a campus climate survey about a year after the resignations of former MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and former UM System President Tim Wolfe. Faculty, staff and students at the Columbia campus were asked questions about their experiences with discrimination, support from campus administration and overall work and study environment. Nearly ten thousand people responded. The results suggested a lack of institutional support for students and employees, especially hourly staff.

At a town hall held in mid-September to discuss the survey, MU Chancellor Alexander Cartwright said that the sub-par findings were not unexpected.

  

“You know that the past two years have been some of the most difficult and challenging in Mizzou’s 178-year history,” he said. “And going into this survey, we knew that we might be getting feedback that would be difficult to hear. But our leadership felt it was important to collect your input.”

Many of the survey findings from faculty, graduate students and undergraduates mirrored grievances that were voiced during protests in the 2015 fall semester about the University’s response to incidents of racism and sudden cuts to graduate student health insurance.

But perhaps some of the most surprising results came from hourly staff. The university employs about four thousand hourly staff, and about one-third of them filled out the survey.

Staff cited a number of reasons for lower morale. They reported an increased workload without a corresponding raise and cuts to benefits and support services. Some said they felt like cheap labor, with one person saying they were treated like they were “a dime a dozen.”

Nearly two-thirds of staff felt like the workplace hierarchy prevented different voices from being heard equally. About four out of every ten staff members did not believe that faculty and administrators value staff feedback and bout half did not feel like there were clear paths for career advancement, according to the survey results.

At the town hall meeting, Dr. Emil Cunningham, a researcher brought in from Rankin & Associates to conduct the survey and analyze the results, said that university staff are often overlooked across higher education, including academic research on campus climate.

“It’s also challenging to know that staff have practically no literature in the higher education field,” he said. “We’ve tried to put articles in. And we were told quite frankly that it’s outside the scope of the journal, because oftentimes staff are forgotten about.”

Hourly staff can be found across campus, from admissions to MU Health Care. They work with faculty, senior administrators and students. Cunningham said staff morale makes a big difference to a student’s campus experience.

“So what happens when that student comes into contact with a staff member for the first time, and that’s the experience that they’re having? It’s not going to be positive, it’s not going to be something they want to do, and that’s going to stay with them because as we always say, first impressions are lasting,” Cunningham said.

The survey was conducted in October of last year – several months before budget cuts were announced in June. With those budget cuts came a number of layoffs at all levels. Staff positions account for the highest number of layoffs - over 170 positions were slated to be cut at Mizzou. Long-term reorganization through fiscal year 2020 may result in further staff reductions to a workforce already under strain.

University spokeswoman Liz McCune said in an email that there are currently no plans to bring back positions that were cut, but that employees who were laid off will receive priority consideration for jobs that open up in the future.

Looking forward, Chancellor Cartwright announced last week that working groups will be formed for faculty, students and staff in response to issues presented in the climate survey. The groups will be tasked with identifying specific goals that could be accomplished within a year.

President Mun Choi cautioned during the town hall that change will take time.

“This is not going to be an endeavor that will take us to a finish line. We’ll always have to keep improving, because there is no finish line. We need to make sure in that process that we’re making progress each and every day,” he said.