When trust is absent, Part II: Why management needs PR people at the table — especially here!

Last week I told you how the absence of trust has me leery of the folks who run my university. So I’ve decided to write about this case a bit more, and to focus on the PR lessons it presents.

To recap, I was suspicious last week of an offer from the KSU administration to extend the faculty contract for one year. In exchange for the postponement, we get a 3% raise, a freeze in healthcare costs and the long-waited “domestic partner benefits” provision. Despite early skepticism, I went to my AAUP Council meeting Friday ready to endorse the offer. While I don’t trust the source, the offer seems reasonable to me.

My colleagues on the union council weren’t so willing. In fact, most have become so distrustful of our boss and his lieutenants that the contract extension never got much of a hearing. We did vote to send the proposal to a membership vote, but only with a strong recommendation that members reject it.

I listened as the debate played out, and came to understand the widespread enmity for the current administration. It’s a textbook case of management’s failure to tend to the relationships that matter most in an organization — the relationships with employees. We teach that in PR 101.

Some other things I heard in the meeting:

Four times I heard colleagues cite the “rich get richer” argument. Executive salaries at Kent State are up significantly. Since 2000, according to an AAUP handout, the worker bees have been losing ground. Our bosses have not.

After factoring for inflation, the president’s salary is up 47% in seven years, up 43% for the provost, up 42% for the VP of Business… You get the idea. On the faculty side, associate professors lost 7% since 2000 (factoring inflation) and full professors lost 4%. Download the Bargaining Bulletin here if you care to see more (pdf): salarygaps.

Three times I heard colleagues mention Ed Mahon’s $88,000 doctoral degree, an unprecedented perk for an executive at any level of this or any other state-supported university.

Twice I caught mention of the president’s $40,000 European excursion last summer. And twice I heard the name Yank Heisler, a $150,000-a-year “special assistant” to the president, added to the payroll last fall. I’m sure Yank does an important job, but no one in the rank and file has any idea what that job is.

In the end, the contract-extension vote won’t hinge on economics but on the erosion of trust. That’s what happens when management stops listening. That’s what happens when management sends “mixed messages.” That’s what happens when management excludes PR from high-level policymaking.

But since you’re reading this blog, chances are you know all that. Maybe today’s lesson can provide a little reinforcement, and a lesson to the next generation of PR professionals — a lesson rooted in that all-important skilled called listening.

Despite all this doom and gloom, I plan to vote for contract extension. But I’ll lay 3-to-1 odds that it loses big. Trust me on that one!


6 Responses to When trust is absent, Part II: Why management needs PR people at the table — especially here!

  1. Brittany Thoma says:

    This is unfortunate all around. The contract extension sounds like a good deal but if you can’t trust the mangement offering it, what’s the point?

    Like you said Bill, I’m sure all the big wigs have really important jobs. But if you have unhappy faculty, you ultimately have unhappy students. Sounds like Kent State needs a lessson on internal communication. What happened to the phrase “share the wealth?”

  2. Rob Jewell says:

    These situations always involve trust — and credibility. Both of us have written on the situation at Kent State previously. No need for a rehash from me. But I really believe that Dr. Lefton made a huge mistake by not dealing with the Mahon tuition issue — through both management action and honest communication with the Kent State community. Instead he adopted the Ostrich Strategy with head buried in the sand. That doesn’t work. Most issues like these don’t just disappear.

    And at least we know Yank Heisler is doing something for his $150K. He wrote the pathetically inept and ill-advised e-mail to Beth Rankin essentially telling her that the president had bigger fish to fry than meeting and talking to her. And working to retain students is a top priority here?


  3. sean as Rush says:

    Bill — as Devil’s Advocate –:

    This sounds like your a little envious!

    One major fact of life is that executive pay has increased at a higher rate than in other classifications. Also, salary compression keeps all pay lower and is corrected when someone is hired new. So, Carol C’s pay and benefits probably were lower than your new big cheese’s…

    People with the skills and ability to run organizations effectively pretty much give their all to the cause. Yet, anyone who wants to invest the time and effort can rise to leadership positions. For me, I don’t want to make those kinds of decisions – I like being a PR guy!

    Why has professor pay remained stubbornly flat? Is it a vast, right-wing conspiracy to take revenge on leftist profs? A conspiracy of the wealthy to feather their own nests by stealing from the middle classes? Too many prospective profs chasing too few jobs?

    How much flexibility is in the union contract to permit reductions in pay if business conditions warrant? How effective is pay for performance under the contract, and how is that performance measured?

    I’ll never be an administrator in the university — it’s the same work as in corporate life, without the upside.

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    I’m not the least bit envious, Sean. I wouldn’t trade places with the bossman for his salary and more. But as an internal communications expert, you also know the importance in building accord within the organization. My immediate boss has done this exceedingly well in his niche of KSU, and so has his boss — the dean of the college.

    I know it gets tougher as you go up the line, but those in the C-suites must make the effort. This group has yet to lend an ear to its internal constituents. As such, they reap what they sow:

    But please don’t read “envy” into my tone. I plan to vote FOR the contract extension, as I understand the limitations our administration is facing in a $2-billion state deficit year. I’m also well aware of the compression that has been devaluing us “labor” types for the past two decades. Damn, Sean. You have me sounding like some kind of commie, here!

    By the way, our top PR guy is retiring next week. You sure you don’t want to give it a shot? They need you bad!

  5. I suspect that social media, such as your blog, is the tool to that will get employers to elevate their internal comms. Absent of that, I suspect management will likely pull the ostrich maneuver as Rob points out. A strong management effort on communications with employees, with its resultant trust and credibility, will make for happy staff who will blog from the hymn sheet, maybe even repeating management’s key messages?!?!?

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    We’ll see, Steve. Every one of us crazies can publish now, so it’ll either have an impact or we’ll all be lost in the din.

    Wanted to add this note to Sean’s comment, as it didn’t occur to me earlier. It is true that we make a good bit less doing the professor thing than we could in the real world, and most of us accept that. The lifestyle is very cool, we have summers off and we perform a public service of sorts.

    I don’t begrudge the administrators more money. They work 11 months a year, and they do all sorts of work that is no fun at all. But in the end, Kent State remains a state institution, and that means the taxpayers expect us to spend responsibly. That should rule out $1,800 hotel suites and $88,000 doctoral degrees. If you want that, you gotta go the the real world.

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