From President Kennedy: Employee survey results available

The ModernThink Higher Education Insight Survey 2016 conducted at the University of North Dakota during the spring of this year provides a call to action. The survey, available here, was initiated by Staff Senate and planned by representatives from Staff Senate, University Senate, Institutional Research and Human Resources. Clearly, the survey being conducted in the middle of budget cuts and a presidential search colors the results. Still, it is clear that as an institution, we have work to do. 

Since even before I started on July 1, I began listening, and I continue to listen. I have visited with faculty, staff, students, community members, alumni, legislators – more than 13,000 people in large groups, small groups, and one-on-one conversations. Often, they have been frank conversations. But overall, I have sensed a positive spirit; a desire throughout the campus to move forward. And that is what we intend to do: move forward to shape our future, rather than continue to look back and dwell in the past.

Please allow me to address several areas of concern raised by the survey.

Senior Leadership. It is worth noting that the president and two vice presidents have changed since the survey. Several of the verbatim comments expressed a desire to define a strategic plan with clear metrics. I could not agree more. Clear leadership begins with reaching consensus on where we are heading. That is why I launched a broad-based planning effort last month. I am also working with the University Senate’s ad hoc subcommittee addressing the evaluation of senior administrators and deans to define a process for incorporating campus input into regular evaluations. 

Shared Governance. From the beginning, I have been committed to listening to the input of the shared governance bodies of the University prior to making decisions. Evidence of my commitment to shared governance are my appointing the Chair of the University Senate, Dana Harsell, as Co-Chair of the Strategic Planning Committee, working closely with the Intercollegiate Athletic Committee on the future of our athletic programs, and working with the University Senate ad hoc subcommittee on administrative evaluations.

Collaboration. Several of the verbatim comments mentioned silos. There is no doubt that to achieve UND’s potential it will take more than just increased collaboration among administrators, faculty and staff. We must also lower the barriers between divisions, colleges, departments and centers. Great care must also be taken to prevent the loudest voices from further dividing us by sidestepping the avenues for shared governance. Melding together as One UND holds great promise for a brighter future.

The Strategic Planning Committee identified collaboration as one of the core values UND should consider adopting. My hope is that future work by the committee will identify barriers to collaboration and paths to overcome them. The effort to centralize classroom scheduling and implement a common learning management system (Blackboard) are examples of the constructive steps that can be taken toward increased collaboration.

Another important step toward increased collaboration is the recently launched project to upgrade our website to make it more mobile-friendly, including all units of the university being required to adopt a common content management system and global navigation for their website. In tandem, we will seek to more consistently apply branding standards. To ensure that everyone has a say in the formulation of these common approaches, we recently announced the formation of a Marketing Council representing senior marketing staff from across the University, including colleges and centers.

Communication. As the survey indicates, there are clearly opportunities for improved communication throughout the University. I am personally committed to frequent, open, and timely communication with the University community as a whole to improve transparency. My outreach through channels like “Grilling and Chilling” gatherings with faculty and staff will continue. I will be a frequent attendee at gatherings of the University, Staff and Student Senates.

To ensure that the UND community is better informed as to the many positive things that are happening on campus, the rationale behind campus decisions, the positive impacts enabled by support from the State of North Dakota and donors, and the fine scholarship of our faculty, we will be launching a bi-weekly digital publication called UND Today.

Teaching Environment. The survey also indicates concern that excellence in teaching is not being adequately recognized. Ensuring such recognition requires being clear and consistent in our definitions of individual faculty expectations and ensuring performance evaluations are done on a timely and consistent basis so all parties find the process to fairly reflect the quality of faculty teaching, research and service. Together with the Provost, I will continue to explore opportunities to better achieve these ends, working with the academic Deans and the Committee on Faculty Tenure, Promotion and Evaluation.

The Strategic Planning Committee also identified advancing best practices in teaching as an important objective. My hope is that further deliberations will chart a path to ensure faculty have the resources to support teaching excellence. As an example, a working group has been charged with developing a center for innovations and excellence in teaching.  This center will focus on research-based pedagogical practices, learning design, emerging technologies, digital tools, as well as data-driven assessment, evaluation, and learning analytics, all designed to promote student success and retention.

Since the above efforts will better define the evaluation process for administrators and faculty, I have suggested to the leaders of the Staff Senate that they also launch a review together with our Human Resources department on opportunities to enhance our process for evaluating and providing feedback to staff.

Resources. While the resources available to a University are always finite, this is particularly the case during the recent economic downturn in the state. Blaming administrative excess is a constant in even the best-run universities, but is rarely grounded in a full spectrum view of the complexity of achieving excellent outcomes for today’s students and complying with regulatory demands. I will keep a keen eye to ensure that all units are being responsible stewards. My experience is that each unit addressing its own efficiencies achieves the best results.

The new budget model (MIRA) is being run in tandem with the previous model this year, and is continuing to evolve. As each unit benefits from the revenue they generate under this model, those feeling constrained by growth should experience relief. Those experiencing reduced student interest in their offerings will face challenges. The goal of this budget revision is to be student centric.

Marketing to Maximize Resources. It will be in each department’s interest to be attuned to the marketing of its program. To enhance the resources for all departments toward achieving our targeted student enrollment, more resources must be devoted to marketing. UND trails leading universities in adapting platform-aware websites (adjusting screen content depending on whether accessed by a computer, tablet or smartphone), digital advertising, and sticky online landing pages designed to entice prospective students to complete their applications. That is why we are launching a much-needed upgrade of our website. Rapidly progressing toward developing these important capabilities is essential for UND in that students today are more likely to research universities, apply and enroll on their smartphones: and these students value schools that exhibit the currency of their services by making it easy to do so.

Several comments spoke of a lack of legislative support. I believe it is incumbent on us to make a better case for that support. Clearly, a strong liberal arts offering as part of our undergraduate Essential Studies curriculum is vital. I am confident legislators understand this. Beyond that, we must make clear how UND is the chief opportunity engine for North Dakota and North Dakotans. Legislators have a responsibility to their constituents to demand this of UND. Each unit has a responsibility to demonstrate how they deliver opportunities beneficial to the state and its residents. My hope is that the strategic planning process can help us enunciate this more clearly.

Our plate is clearly full. In addition to the above, I will also work with the UND team to explore concerns raised about our orientation program for new faculty and staff, the need to renovate older buildings, and the need for more diversity.

It is clear from the survey that status quo is not acceptable. The required changes will need to begin at the top, but will demand each and every one of us to require excellence of ourselves. My favorite comment was the individual concerned that the new president would be looking for a “cozy parking spot before they retire.” Don’t expect that from me. I certainly won’t be expecting that of you. If we all remain open to the changes this survey demands of each of us, we can truly be the premier flagship university in the Northern Plains.

Mark Kennedy