Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Christopher N. Poulos Speaks Out On UNCG

Dear Chancellor Brady and Provost Dunn,
When I first read the stories in the News & Record, I found them quite jarring. This is not how we treat one another here, I found myself thinking.
You see, something has always struck me about UNCG. It is truly a remarkable place, a place I find great joy in coming to every day. It’s not difficult to identify why that is true. I’ve thought about it nearly every day since arriving on campus in August of 2001. Clearly, it is the people who find their work here—and, of course, the bright, engaged, and eager students we serve—that really make this campus such a wonderful place to be. We have as talented and dedicated and earnest a group of employees as I’ve seen anywhere, in all the corporate and academic jobs I’ve held over the last 32 years. The people of UNCG are smart, creative, and passionate. We work hard, and we love our work. Most of the time, we work in an atmosphere of collaboration and mutual respect. We are excellent colleagues who generally bring out the best in each other. Best of all, we are ethical people—people who treat each other with care, concern, respect, and compassion.
So it is out of great dismay that I find myself compelled to add my voice to those expressing the deepest concern about recent events on campus. In my view, as both a former leader/manager in corporate organizations, and now as a leader/ Department Head at this university, the role of any leader is to facilitate the thriving of the people in her or his care. Without the people, an organization or institution is a dead structure. It is only through the care, concern, intelligence, dedication, passion, and compassion of the people that any human-made institutional structure can thrive.
So it all boils down to this: How you, as a leader, treat the people who are in your care—in this case, the faculty, staff, and students who make this place what it is (and who are the ones who can make it the best it possibly can be)—is really the most important matter at hand. All the other stuff—bureaucratic regimes, policies, budgets, the daily matters of managing the operation—pales in comparison to the importance of this facilitative role of leaders. Our primary calling is, quite simply, to work to bring out the best in the people who work for and with us every day.
I am not speculating here. I speak from over 22 years of direct experience “supervising” (I prefer the term “leading”) various employees, from front line service staff to high-level leaders and innovators. In my experience, open communication, deep listening, mutual supportiveness, and creative problem solving through collaboration are the best ways to cultivate a positive, healthy, productive work environment. Even when there are coaching challenges, the role and the goal of a good leader remains exactly what it always was: To facilitate the thriving of colleagues. It may occasionally take a different focus for a brief time, if the need arises to “right the ship” so that any particular employee might get back on track. But it is rarely necessary for it to take on a punitive approach.
So the events in University Relations, leading to the firings and arrests of three dedicated professionals from our community, are deeply disturbing to us all. This is a wound to our community that will take a long time to heal. The subsequent patterns of behavior of some of UNCG's leadership—including the apparently toxic work environment in University Relations since Mr. Mason arrived, the current wall of silence about the details of the case (the “no comment” mentality), and the insistence that this matter rises to the level of felony charges, without any explanation other than “we’re right about this”—is deeply disturbing. Hiding behind legalistic excuses does not enhance credibility.
It is also not clear that the policies of this university are either well known or clear. The recent email from Alan Boyette was the first time most of us on the faculty had ever heard of the policy or the “intent” form, and most of us are still uncertain what the policy actually is. Surely, clear policies are necessary precursors to disciplinary action in any workplace. Assuming these employees knowingly did something wrong (a big assumption), coaching is surely the first order of business. Assuming unwillingness on the part of employees to change unacceptable behavior, firing for good cause may, in rare cases, be called for. But felony charges? This is serious business. Given reports of the alleged infractions, felony charges were clearly overkill in this case, even if the “letter of the law” says they are not.  This situation did not have to unfold this way.  Simply put, this is a very dark road to go down, one that has broad repercussions for this community. We are talking about ruining people’s lives here. Pressing charges isn’t always the best choice, or even a good one in some cases. It may well be that the “letter of the law” spells felony counts, but that is not the spirit of UNCG. And, in fact, everyone knows that judgment and discretion are used in legal cases every day. We all know that District Attorneys drop charges every day. It is time for this university to stand up and call for that to occur in this case.
When the university chooses to single out particular people for the harshest possible treatment available, it sends a chilling signal that our leadership is more than willing to treat everyone this way. If trust in our upper administration was thin before this series of events, I think it is safe to say that it is significantly eroded, if not completely gone.
I still find myself thinking: This is not how we treat one another here—at least not until now. Much damage has been done in this debacle of mistreatment. And that changes everything, unless we take action. Now is the time for some serious soul-searching on this campus. Now is the time for genuine dialogue. Now is the time to change the climate of this university before it becomes even more toxic.
I still believe that this is not how we treat one another here. I still believe that we are a community of good people dedicated to building a beautiful university. But that will only happen if we learn from this situation, and set ourselves right. That will only happen if we regain our ethical compass and respond to the call of the call of conscience that invigorates us all and makes us human. We simply must begin treating each other, once again, with the mutual respect, care, concern, and compassion we all deserve. That will only happen if our leaders re-learn and recommit to the primary lesson of good leadership: How we treat one another matters most of all.
— Chris
Christopher N. Poulos, Ph.D. 
Associate Professor and Department Head
Department of Communication Studies